Advent 3A 2019
Rev. Doug Floyd
Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 146, James, 5:7-20, Matthew 11:2-19
Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you. – Isaiah 35:4
John the Baptist stands at the edge of our ordered world and cries out, “Behold!” Turn away from busy preoccupations and “Behold!” He cries out to the powerful and to the powerless, “Behold!” He interrupts our holiday celebrations, our certainties, our schedules with the piercing cry, “Behold!” Turn around. Open your eyes. Look. For the wonder of God stands in your midst. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
John the Baptist is still pointing to the works of Jesus Christ from prison. In today’s Gospel Jesus tells John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see (that is what you behold): the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. and blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Matthew 11:4)
Icons and paintings of John the Baptist show him pointing. He looks at us and points to Jesus. There are even images of John pointing to Jesus at the nativity and at the crucifixion. John was still a baby at the nativity, and he was already dead at the crucifixion, and yet, we picture him in those places because the church continues to remember John the Baptist as the prophet pointing to the Messiah. He cries out, “Behold!” and “Repent.” Even now he is pointing our attention to Jesus the Messiah.
In Advent, there are two Gospel readings focused on John the Baptist to remind us to watch and wait for the coming of the Lord. We are watching; we are waiting; we are beholding.
In our reading from James today, we are encouraged to “Be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” James is encouraging a community who is suffering, who is looking for the Lord to come and uphold their cause. He exhorts them to pay attention to the farmer who waits for harvest. The farmer has planted the crop but must now wait for the proper timing, which involves waiting upon the early and later rains.
James calls them to watch and wait like Job, who looks to God for recompence for his suffering.
There is a surety in this waiting. Yes, the Lord is coming, and He will come in the fullness of time. Until then, the people wait in hope. In one sense, they are waiting on the Lord to come and relieve their immediate distress, and in another sense, they are waiting on the final coming of the Lord to set the world to rights.
With this in mind, we think back to John’s call to “Behold!” It has a sense of suddenness. Look now! Open your eyes. Behold the Lord is near. Turn around. Repent. This communicates an immediate appearing. Behold! He is here! On the other hand, James exhorts us to patiently wait on the coming of the Lord.
There is a tension between this idea of a sudden, glorious beholding, and an extended watching and waiting. The Lord is here and yet, He is still coming and will come in an hour when we least expect it. Both the immediate appearing and the coming soon are often held together throughout Scripture.
Think about beholding beauty in this world. We are suddenly overwhelmed. We don’t analyze our way into beauty. Rather, it takes our breath away. It is a sudden flood of glory. When Kelly and I first saw the Redwood Forest, we immediately began to cry. We stood and beheld them in silent awe.
Music can have the same effect. There is a video online of a young child listening to Moonlight Sonata in a crowd. As he listens, the music takes hold of him, and he begins to softly cry. Not everyone listening hears the music this intensely, but he seems to have ears for beauty or ears to hear.
Then again, this reaction can happen when soldiers return home unexpectedly after a long absence. Family members rejoice and cry simultaneously. They hug, touch faces, and even fall the ground.
We cannot control when or how these times of beholding take place. If we try to recreate them, they can feel forced, manipulated, and seem to lose that surprise of beauty.
At the same time, we can also learn to discover the beauty in the world around us. There is a pattern in life of turning the eyes to see beauty. Kelly and I did not know we would react to the Redwoods in the way we did, but we did actually spend time driving there. It could be that as we traveled and anticipated this visit, our hearts were preparing to see, getting ready to behold.
This time of preparation might be likened to the call to watch and wait for His coming. Only Jesus can open our blind eyes and deaf ears to the good news of His coming, but Holy Spirit can draw us, prepare, open our hearts to his coming. As we watch and waiting, we become aware of His nearness even as we look to His coming.
The extended watching and waiting is bound up with the sudden beholding of the Lord. As we watch and wait, we are preparing to see, to hear, to behold. Think of Simeon and Anna at the Temple who spend years waiting and watching for the coming of the Lord.
We are cultivating attention in a sense. In his book, The Craftsman, Richard Sennett talks about the process of cultivating attention among craftspeople. One glassblower relates how she had to repeat an action over and over in order to master a specific move. Gradually, her hands loosened their grip and she learned to make minute adjustments that impacted the work. She lost awareness of trying to complete a task and became absorbed in a series of gentle movements. Sennett suggests that this repetition can actually develop the concentration or focus, allowing the glassblower to anticipate each movement in her hands.
By rote repetition, the body learns a skill and begins to move in a rhythm required to complete the task. This can be applied to learning an instrument. It may first seem clunky and difficult, but as the hands learn to feel the notes, the instrument can give voice to the heart of the performer. In a similar way, Hans Urs Von Balthasar suggests that we are learning to behold the beauty of the Lord in all five senses. He calls this attuning our senses. We are attuning them through small repetitions.
Attunement of our hands and eyes and ears might be called the art of cultivating the sustained gaze. For example, my friend Larry photographs flowers and sometimes frogs and other wonders of creation. As he takes some of these pictures, he may sit and watch and wait for hours. He is attuning or learning to see his object. Taking the picture is simply one part of the watching and the waiting.
Israel does something like this when remembering the works of the Lord. The people are focusing their attention or attuning their hearts to the works of the Lord. They rehearse the story of God rescuing them from slavery in thought, word and deed. They sing songs, pray prayers, raise their hands. They also eat certain foods, tell certain stories, and take trips to Jerusalem. They are re-enacting ancient memories as they learn to remember the faithfulness of God.
In this slow process of remembering that includes singing, speaking, eating, washing, and walking, they are attuning or training their bodies to wait for his faithfulness in the present moment. They are learning to open their eyes to His faithful love even now.
Some of our devotional practices may be seen as habits of attuning or training our hearts to watch for the coming of the Lord. Consider the practices of reading Scripture, daily prayers, offering thanksgiving, learning breath prayers. These small repeated acts can become small areas of attention where we learn to watch and wait for the coming of the Lord. This doesn’t mean that these practices will always yield emotional responses. We might simply learn to regular discipline of submitting our minds, our hands, our mouths in worship and service.
Sometimes we might make small adjustments in our patterns. While a regular habit of reading through the Bible can be helpful, there are times when we might reduce the amount of reading but focus on repeating, rereading the same passages. This could be the weekly lectionary readings, or a passage that speaks to us in this season. We might pause over it, pray it aloud, marinate in it, think about, wait with, and listen. This might be one way of discipling our attention, our focus on God’s address to us in Scripture.
In his novel “The Napoleon of Notting Hill,” G.K. Chesterton writes, “Now, there is a law written in the darkest of the Books of Life, and it is this: If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.”
We might suddenly wake up to glory all around us. Any small discipline could be a habit of awareness, of worship. We might pause a few minutes each morning to recount the goodness of God in our lives. During our daily activities, we might pause briefly and simply notice the beauty in the world all around us. We consider the people in our lives and offer prayers and thanks for their presence.
We are learning and relearning to see and hear. We are learning to behold the beauty of the Lord. In the middle of life, I might suddenly turn and see the beauty of the Lord shining out from my wife, from my family, even from those people who get on my nerves.
We might be reading Scripture, let’s say Isaiah 35, and suddenly see a glimpse of the ransomed of the Lord returning to Zion with singing. You might suddenly feel the everlasting joy upon their hears, upon your head, as you follow the grand procession of God’s people, walking to Zion. Even as Christ Himself is gathering you, me, and a company of people from across the ages to Himself in love.
The poet Edwin Muir allowing the prophetic passages of restoration to shape his eye in a glorious poem called, “The Transfiguration.” He looks out and see the world restored in love. As Jesus is walking by, the world is being changes. Muir writes,
We saw that day made this unreal, for all
Was in its place. The painted animals
Assembled there in a gentle congregation,
walked in peace, the wild and tame together,
As if, also for them, the day had come.
The shepherds’ hovels shone, for underneath
The soot we saw the stone clean at the heart
As on the starting-day. The refuse heaps
Were grained with that fine dust that made the world;
For he had said, ‘To the pure all things are pure.’
And when we went into town, he with us,
The lurkers under doorways, murderers,
With rags tied round their feet for silence, came
Out of themselves to us and were with us,
And those who hide within the labyrinth
Of their own loneliness and greatness came,
And those entangled in their own devices,
The silent and the garrulous liar, all
Stepped out of their dungeons and were free.
This glimpse provokes him to watch and wait for the coming of the Lord. Again Muir writes,
But he will come again, it’s said, though not
Unwanted and unsummoned; for all things
Beasts of the field, and woods, and rocks, and seas,
And all mankind from end to end of the earth
Will call him with one voice. In our own time,
Some say, or a time when time is ripe.
Then he will come, Christ the uncrucified,
Christ the discrucified, his death undone,
His agony unmade, his cross dismantled—
Glad to be so—and the tormented wood
Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree
In a green springing corner of young Eden…
Together we might truly hear and see the goodness of God in the land of the living.
Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you. – Isaiah 35:4