Today we are looking at the readings for the Third Sunday in Advent, Year A. December 15, 2019. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; and Matthew 11:2-11. This week’s reading from Isaiah sounds in a lot of ways like a repeat of last week, a sign of amazing hope and grace to come in the future. The imagery is different – instead of lions and lambs lying down together, here we see wilderness and dry land blossoming like crocuses. We see the glory of Lebanon returning. We see the eyes of the blind opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Waters breaking forth and streams flowing in the desert. This is amazing hope for anyone, even those of us with mental illness. As someone with depression, I can tell you that one image I sometimes use for depression is dryness. Sometimes it feels like being emotionally parched, spiritually empty and yearning, sucking for something that just isn’t there. Sometimes it feels like my own fingernails being cracked on a dry, dusty chalkboard. And the thought of this moisture, this dampness, this cleansing rain and blossoming stream, sounds quite wonderful.
Except that it’s not always that easy. It’s not always as easy as saying, “Oh, what a wonderful image of hope. I do believe in Jesus. Praise God, my depression is gone.” Oh, that it were so easy. No. So often, even seeing those images, feeling that water, we still end up like John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading – in prison. Matthew writes, “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the on who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” John knew Jesus. John baptized Jesus. John was so confident, so sure, so beautifully faithful. But now he was in prison, and he wasn’t sure anymore. He wasn’t confident anymore. And he wasn’t so faithful when put in this dry, desolate prison. John was in misery, and couldn’t see the goodness anymore. So what did Jesus answer John’s disciples? He said, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” All the things that were promised in the prophets! All the things that John himself knew the Messiah would do! That’s the last we hear about John, but I know what happened next. John’s disciples returned to him, and told him what Jesus said. And you know where John still was? In prison. Because that’s how it is.
My faith that God is good to others has never wavered, at least not much. My faith that God loves the people in my congregation, showers grace upon them, gives them all that they need, offers them meaning in their lives, that has not wavered. But what wavers, what positively trembles and crumbles sometimes, is my faith that God does so for me. I can understand John in his prison cell, hearing about all the good Jesus was doing, believing it. Believing that the Messiah really has come for those outside, but not believing that he was there for John himself. Only Matthew and Luke record this interchange. The other evangelists either didn’t know about this story, or chose not to include it. It’s hard to see your leaders lose faith. It’s hard to see your role models struggle. But they do. And some of them struggle to see God’s love as something for them. The next time we see John in Matthew’s gospel is in chapter fourteen, when Matthew tells the story of what got John thrown into prison, the story that ultimately leads to his death. Did John’s faith in Jesus return before that moment? We have no idea – neither Matthew nor Luke tell us that. That’s what it’s like sometimes to live with depression – you never know when, or how, it will lift.
Which brings me to the second reading from James. James writes: “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient.” Oh, sometimes it’s a waiting game. In Advent, we pretend that we’re waiting for Jesus to come in the manger. But that’s just a pageant. We know he’s coming, and we know precisely when. At exactly 3:30 and 6:30 pm on December 24, or whenever it is you have your Christmas Eve worship. And in Advent, we pretend that we’re waiting for Jesus to return at the end of time. But let’s be honest, we’re all mainline Christians here. We’re not really expecting that to happen in our lifetime. We may even not be sure what we believe about that, because we don’t focus on it at all. No, in Advent, what we’re really waiting for is for Jesus to come to us now. And that’s where I spend so much of my life. In my own Advent, waiting in this prison for Jesus to come and set me free. I see him out there. Others tell me what he’s doing, and quite frankly, I tell others as well. But I don’t experience it. Not all the time. Not right now. And that’s okay. Patience. Patience. It’s coming around again. Depressions don’t last forever. I’ll be back someday, when he comes around again. Sometimes in Advent, that’s the best we can do: it’s okay. And you know what? That’s okay.
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