Knowing Which Advent
Text: Luke 7:18-35
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is an old logic trap that’s a favorite of those who try to prove that God doesn’t exist. It goes something like this: If God is all-powerful and perfectly good, then there cannot be any evil in the world. Because if there is evil and God can’t do anything about it, then He is not all-powerful. And if there’s evil and He does nothing about it even though He could, then He’s not good. So, they argue, because there is evil in the world—bad things happen all the time—there must not be a God, or if there is, He is not almighty or good.
At first glance it seems like it’s simple logic, but it really isn’t. There’s a lot wrong with that kind of reasoning, and I’ll be happy to talk about the specific logical problems with it if anyone wants to ask about it after the service. In truth, it’s not so much logic as it is a smug way for those who’ve already made up their minds about God’s nonexistence to have their cake and eat it too. They set some definitions, on their own terms, which they already know ahead of time will fail. It’s called circular logic and it’s an error in reasoning.
We may not come at this issue with such an ax to grind, but it’s an error that even we can make. We fall into a similar type of logic trap. If God is good or merciful or likes me, then He must do things that I think would prove that. If He doesn’t do what I’ve decided would prove it, then He must not be those things. It happens to all of us. It’s part of having a fallen human nature. It even happened to John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, the forerunner of Christ, the last of the prophets, and the greatest of any who had ever been born of women, as Jesus Himself explains. So don’t imagine that you’ve never thought that way yourself.
John the Baptizer had done things right. He did the work of preparing God’s people for the Messiah. He brought sinners to repentance and faith. He called sin what it was. And for all of his efforts, he was thrown in prison by Herod. While he was in prison, he heard about all that Jesus was accomplishing, bringing the kingdom of God into the world, healing people, making the blind see, making the lame walk, the deaf hear, even raising the dead. Surely if Jesus was bringing the kingdom of God to this world it would mean that John would be set free from prison soon.
But John’s cell door remained locked. The days stretched into months. It started to look like the Baptizer would never be released. Maybe God’s kingdom wasn’t coming to him. Maybe it wasn’t coming at all. Maybe Jesus was just one more healer, one more teacher. So John sent messengers of his, men who had been his disciples and students, to Jesus in order to ask a pointed question: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” John had thought he knew, but in the face of such struggles and hardships, it was hard to know for sure anymore.
And don’t we do this? We know about Jesus. We know He came to this world. We know about His birth in Bethlehem. We know the miracles He performed. We know He came to save us. So why are we in these struggles? We might not be in prison like John, but we all feel those doubts creeping in when our situations don’t change, even after Jesus comes into our lives. Why do I still feel depressed? Why am I still so anxious? Why is there never enough money? Why are people falling away from the Church? Why is Christianity fading in society? Why do I still feel broken, used, grief-stricken? Why isn’t God doing something about this? Why won’t He help me? Is He the One who is to come and set me free from this, or should I look for another?
So what gives? Why aren’t these things getting better in the way we would expect them to when Jesus shows up? We’re doing what we’re supposed to, holding up our end of the bargain, like John did—at least we think we have. But it never seems to feel like God is doing His part, at least not according to the terms we set on the contract. We feel stuck right alongside John. He didn’t do anything wrong, but here he was in prison. We haven’t doing anything wrong either, as far as we can see, at least not that bad, but here we are too, stuck.
When we take a step back, we can see that there are plenty of errors in that line of reasoning. Of course we’re not blameless. We have to admit that. A simple review of the Ten Commandments shows us exactly where we’ve fallen short in thought, word, and deed. Just because bad things happen, it doesn’t mean that God isn’t good or all-powerful, nor does it mean that He doesn’t like us. Some bad things happen because we get ourselves into bad situations. Other bad things happen because other people do them to us. And, of course, there are those bad things that happen because the entire world has fallen and is under attack from the evil one and the forces of hell. So any expectation of things to be the way we say they should be is on shaky ground from the start.
But there’s another reason why that kind of frustrated, and at times angry thinking is flawed. It has to do with what we think God ought to be when He arrives. Jesus sums up this problem in our reading. “To what shall I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’” Jesus tells us that we’re like children pulling strings and expecting God to dance like a puppet, on our terms, to our tune. We give Him a list of excuses in dirge-like tones and we expect Him to break down weeping and give us whatever we demand from Him. So when we expect Him to come in power and obliterate all of our problems instantly, when we want Him to ruthlessly shatter all of our enemies with a wave of His hand when He shows up, that’s when, Jesus says, we’re making that same old mistake. We’re expecting His coming to be on our terms. But that’s not why He’s come to us, at least not in this Advent.
The glorious return of Christ at the end, when all enemies are put under His feet and the last enemy, death, is destroyed—that will be His arrival in power, openly defeating all those things that have harassed and bothered us, and all creation, since the fall into sin. That advent is coming, but it’s not yet. Until then, we have a very different advent, a very different way that Jesus arrives and comes into our lives. And this advent, this arrival of Jesus that we’re celebrating now, at Christmas, and every Sunday, is—as all things are—on God’s terms.
When Jesus first arrived, He came in weakness. He lived a life of no great wealth or worldly prestige or power. He lived on the road, traveling with His disciples. He was put through a joke of a trial and afterward was crucified in a very public and humiliating death reserved only for the worst criminals. And those who followed Him were similarly weak, as the world would call it. John the Baptist was imprisoned and eventually martyred for the Truth. But what seemed like weakness was actually all done for the eternal benefit of all those involved. Jesus was raised from the dead. His crucifixion was turned into the way in which the entire world would be saved from sin and death. And even John’s imprisonment, when he sent his disciples to go and see Jesus, even that led him to be even stronger in the faith, hearing the reports about the diseases and plagues healed, evil spirits driven out and the forces of hell sent away screaming. The messengers saw and believed. They went back to John and strengthened him so that he could know that even if he died in prison, he would still have eternal life in the One he had waited for, the One he had seen and believed in.
So it goes for us. What seems like our losses, what feels and looks like our weakness, what we struggle with, they’re not simply erased in this advent of Jesus. Rather, just as He did before, He uses these things we struggle with to strengthen our faith in Him, rather than in ourselves or anything the world can offer. He uses the weak things to shame the strong, the things that aren’t wanted or enjoyed for our benefit to serve Him and us. That’s what He does in this Advent, this arrival. He comes as an infant—is there anything weaker or more vulnerable than a baby? He comes hidden in water and Word and bread and wine—nothing that the world or our fallen natures would think could conquer or transform. And yet, through these things, He does. He strengthens our faith, He heals us, He forgives us, He gives and nourishes eternal life.
Yes, sometimes He will remove those crosses from us. He did heal many right in front of John’s messengers after all. But even if those crosses aren’t erased, like John the Baptizer’s wasn’t, He will always use those crosses to point us to His own cross, where He covered our sins, where He washed away that fallen mind that thinks it would do a better job than God. John’s imprisonment, the sicknesses of those He healed, the forces of hell, the sins of the world, your own mistakes and crosses, your weaknesses and struggles and shame—He’s dealt with them all, in His own way. And thanks be to God for that. He died to save you from them. So now, as we do in Advent, as we do in all His advents, all His arrivals, we wait. We wait for His salvation, praising Him and lifting up our voices because we know it’s already drawing near. In the name of Jesus, who has come and is coming back. Amen.