Life-Giving Sustenance

Advent 3:  Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11;2-11
God is a change agent, transforming what was once barren into a blossoming, watered garden. When the people of Israel were living in exile, away from all that was familiar, they longed for a change, a return home, clinging to hope for renewal of life as they once knew it.
God is a change agent, transforming what was once burning sand into a pool of refreshing water. When John the Baptist was in prison, he wanted to know—is there any hope left? Am I here for good reason?
God is a change agent, transforming the physically disabled into ones who see and hear and dance and shout. We live in a world today where our news swirls with impeachment, cyber attacks, mass shootings and drug fueled violence.
The people of Judah and Israel, John and the followers of Jesus, you and I — facing desert conditions all around. Rocky and barren, waterless and forbidding, disabling and limiting, hope crushing.
But God is a change agent. God is the change agent. God doesn’t sit around and mourn a desolate situation. God transforms a desolate situation into a place of hope and growth and possibility. That is the entire message of Advent, my family of God. God sends to the earth a bundle of hope in the form of a babe in manger, a feeding trough for animals. It is the gift of salvation for a world of brokenness.
Our advent candle for this third week of Advent recalls the life giving water that bursts forth in the desert, a symbol of the transformation promised by God for the people of feeble hands and unsteady knees, for those with fearful hearts living without hope– God will come, and it will be like transforming a dry, desolate place into waters gushing, rushing over the rocks, babbling with life, energy and hope. If you go closer to our window with the third Advent candle, you can hear, see and even touch the water that is transformative in a rocky, dry, desolate place. It is the contrast that Isaiah wants to communicate. God is a change agent, bringing hope for a new and different future. Imagine the transformation in the lives of persons who can not see or hear or walk, suddenly being able to do so. New hope for a different future.
Jesus points to similar signs of change when he sends an answer back to John in prison. Although John was the first to recognize him as the coming Messiah, baptizing him in the river Jordan, now that John is in prison, he seems to be wondering if he got it right. You can see how that might happen. He is in a different place now, locked up, a “desert place”, removed from the community not by choice but by force. His life is in danger at the hands of a selfish, cruel, and clueless governor. That would make anyone begin to wonder… was it worth it? He was put in prison by Herod because he had spoken the truth to the governor about his infidelity with his own brother’s wife. The person in power does whatever he can to shut the truth tellers up. Seems like a perennial problem, doesn’t it? Herod put him in prison and later has his head cut off at the request of his brother’s wife, Herodias. John wanted to be sure now, so he asks: “Are you the one we were waiting for?” Jesus’ answer rings of the message of Isaiah– what evidence have you seen? Blind can see, lame can walk, lepers are cured, deaf can hear, even the dead are raised and good news is preached to the poor. The world is being transformed, one life at a time—surely I am the one you have been waiting for.
Jesus then describes John to the crowd—perhaps they were asking about him and his role in this developing story. Jesus sees John as the one who opened the way for transformation, for water in the desert, for flowers to bloom in the rocky ground, for hope to a people oppressed by the government of Rome. John is a prophet, but more than a prophet. John is the one who fulfills the words of the ancient prophet Isaiah, words that any of the crowd would have recognized and understood: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” John’s role had been to point to Jesus, to speak truth to power, to be clear about how God was expecting this world to operate. And now he is given a message that he too must become a disciple, one who sees what Jesus is doing and follows him by learning from him. He is a wonderful example for us of what it means to be a true disciple.
It makes us feel better when someone like John asks the question that is on everyone’s minds, kind of like when you are in a class and the smartest kid asks the question you were wondering about. John knew who Jesus was when he came to him for baptism. And now he is wondering, not so sure. We too can wonder and doubt—is this Jesus really God? We too can observe the ways Jesus is at work in the world to gain some understanding.
Where do you see Jesus at work, bringing life giving sustenance to a place or situation that is dry and desolate? Where do you see lives being transformed and changed? And who is the change agent? The people themselves are involved, of course, but indeed God is at work as well. God is at work in those children who can misbehave and act up at homework help or Thursday Night Alive, trying the patience of the adult volunteers. They are being exposed to adults who care. You may not see it today, but your time, your attention, your love is transforming in the life of a young child. It does make a difference. Children do watch. God does transform in ways we will never understand.
Yesterday we went to Rosemont to give some Christmas cheer in two places that can be kind of dreary most of the time. One is a small nursing home on Raynor Ave., where 17 men and 7 women live out their days. We sang carols, prayed, read scripture and shared a little goodie bag of toiletries and socks with the residents. I saw Jesus at work in the residents, the staff, and the visitors. The second place is a 12 story tall apartment building originally meant for senior citizens, but now populated by people of all ages. We used a room off the lobby area as a clothing depot, several tables for toiletries and several tables for turkey sandwiches and muffins. The event kicked off at noon with a prayer and Christmas carols, and then it operated like of like an open house. Residents came and went. We wished all a merry Christmas– I watched people get on the elevators with their arms full of goodies that brought a little extra help for the residents this winter– a child’s coat, a warm hat, a pair of shoes, shampoo. Example of our time at Maryland Baptist Aged Home/Rosemont Towers. I saw Jesus at work among the residents and the volunteers from multiple churches who served joyfully side by side.
It was like a stream in the desert, a nourishing experience in the midst of a life that is full of struggles. In the words of Alex Spivery, who wrote a poem for this week’s entry in the Advent devotional, it felt like we had the chance to offer some “support to do more than just enough”.

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