The Rev. Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Why Again Did We Invite John?”
Matthew 11: 2-11
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016
These days leading up to Christmas are so thrilling. Given the looming excitement of this wondrous season of Advent, why in the world did we invite John the Baptist to be with us, not only this morning, but for two Sundays in a row? You do know, after all, that John is inclined to ruin gatherings such as this. He dresses in foul-smelling camel’s hair. His exotic diet of locusts and wild honey is revolting. And his oratory style leans tediously toward provocative words like “repent” and “brood of vipers” and inflammatory phrases like “those who do not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John is too sanctimonious and blunt for our uptown tastes. He reminds me of Uncle Gabriel in the movie, “Avalon.” Uncle Gabriel always arrives late at the family Thanksgiving dinner and he always expects the family to wait for him. Finally, the family has had enough and eats without him. Gabriel is furious: “You started without me? You cut the turkey without me?” He then says to his wife, “Come on. They eat without us, we go. Your own flesh and blood and you couldn’t wait? You cut the turkey? That’s it. That’s the last time we come for Thanksgiving.”
John ruins parties just like Uncle Gabriel did. Why do we keep inviting him back to church only days before we celebrate our dear Savior’s birth?
True to his reputation, when John shows up this morning, he is not even here with us but is in Herod’s hoosegow instead, waiting to have his head lopped off. Apparently, he acted mischievously with Herod, daring to insinuate that this powerful ruler acted immorally when marrying his own brother’s wife. It is never wise to speak ill of powerful people, no matter how disgusting their behavior, unless, of course, you wish to have your head on a platter along with John’s.
Why did we invite John to worship today? After all, today is “Rejoice Sunday” or, using the fancy-schmancy Latin phrase, “Gaudete Sunday.” We light a pink candle on our Advent wreath, the joy candle. We can hardly wait for the Christ Child. We place pink roses on the high altar to heighten the sense of jubilant anticipation.
When discussing the final people on today’s guest list, we were finally won over by the argument that John has staked everything on Jesus being the coming Messiah. Even before he was born, when Mary came to tell John’s mother that she was about to be the mother of God, John the Baptist leaped with joy inside Elizabeth’s womb. Given that prenatal acrobatic tour de force alone, John should be here, don’t you think?
And one other thing: like John, not all of us are head over heels in gladness this morning. You don’t have to raise your hand, but if you are down in the dumps right about now, aren’t you glad John is sitting next to you? He understands how you feel. He asks the same question you have been asking while others seem to be having so much more fun these days than you are. John’s question to Jesus, “Are you he who is to come or shall we look for another?” makes you want to say, “That’s exactly what I wanted to ask but was afraid people would think I am a heretic.”
Even with that said, why again did we invite John today? Our joy is palpable this morning as eighteen people join our congregation. Quite a few of you who have been members of Holy Trinity for thirty years or so have said, “I have never seen anything like it.” It is an astonishing Christmas present as we watch and wait for Christ’s presence here at 65th and Central Park West. This throng of new members makes us feel that our Advent prayer, “Stir up your power and come,” has been answered.
And yet…the question still hounds us, “Are you he who is to come?”
In a few moments, new members and those who are already members will confess that we believe in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Most, if not all, of us will say the words of the Apostles’ Creed at the appropriate time and yet a few of us will wonder—though be fearful to ask— “How much of this stuff do I have to believe to be a member at Holy Trinity?” What if I waver like John, “Are you he is to come?” We don’t mean to be cantankerous, we just feel compelled to be honest. What if doubts arise from time-to-time about the virgin birth or Jesus being the true son of God or whether we, too, will rise from the dead—can we still call ourselves “Christian” and say, “I do and I ask God to help and guide me” when it is time to join Holy Trinity?
Maybe John isn’t such a bad fellow to have at our side today. He puts his arms around us and urges us to bare our souls. He doesn’t flinch when we ask, “Are you he is to come?” because he has asked the exact same thing.
And yet, never forget, in the face of John’s question, Jesus says of this guy we invited to today’s party, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist.”
That’s why we invited John today. He joins us as we promise to support one another in our disappointments and anxieties, confusions and questions.
Perhaps the lasting joy of this Third Sunday in Advent is that Christ does not seem the least bit annoyed by our question, “Are you he is to come?” And so, we light the pink candle and have the pink roses because Jesus loves us, doubts and all.