The Rev. Paul D. Opsahl
3 Advent A – Matthew 11:2-11
December 15, 2019
We made it through Thanksgiving and now Christmas is just 10 days away! A good bit of both of these holidays involves the good things we can hardly wait to eat. Andy Rooney observed that the two biggest sellers in any bookstore are cookbooks and diet books. The cookbooks tell you how to prepare the food and the diet books tell you not to eat it! I also heard that someone figured out that average human beings eat 16 times their own weight in a year. A horse, on the other hand, eats only 8 times its weight. Which all seems to suggest that if you want to lose weight, you should eat like a horse!
But there’s another kind of nourishment that is, of course, asking for our attention this morning. The kind from Scripture that feeds our spirits. Our Advent theme this year poses the question, What Can’t Wait? And today’s answer: Joy!
John Lennon, a member of the famed Beatles, said:
“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. Then, when I went off to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment. And I told them they didn’t understand life.”
Years ago, I was fascinated by movies made by the Swedish filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman. Bergman, who was the son of a Swedish Lutheran pastor, had a way of touching the dark sides of the human soul and illuminating the human struggle for happiness. One of Bergman’s films was titled “Winter Light.” In northern Scandinavian countries, the chilly light experienced during a cold winter could easily make you wonder if spring would ever come again. This movie was about the kind of winter that can settle into a human heart and make you doubt that warmth and love and joy will ever be possible again. In this film, it is a minister that experiences “winter light” in his soul. His knows his job is to be a messenger of joy and hope and faith, but he comes to realize that he is just playing a role that tells the world one thing all the while his heart is shouting something else.
What Bergman called “Winter Light” Shakespeare called “the winter of our discontent.” It’s the feeling that things are not as good as they used to be and probably never will be again. So what’s the use of giving life your best shot?
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver, wrote these stunning lines:
“Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”
I think a kind of “winter light” was descending on John the Baptist as his “wild and precious life” started to crumble. Our Gospel reading from St. Matthew finds this once ever so free spirit, John, in jail. Rumors about Jesus were filtering back into John’s prison cell. Jesus was getting a reputation as an imbiber and glutton because he was not very particular about who he was found to be eating and drinking with. He was becoming known as a friend of sinners and outcasts. Worst of all, between his – John’s – preaching and the preaching of Jesus, nothing out there in the world seemed to be changing for the better. No wonder “winter light” had begun to frost over John’s disappointed heart.
“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one we’re expecting, or do we have to wait for someone else?” Sitting there alone, needing hope like never before in his stormy career, John wants to know above all: “Jesus, are you for real?” Which is perhaps the most important question any of us can ever ask, too: “Jesus, are you for real?” The truth is, you don’t have to be a prophet like John the Baptist to get a “winter light” feeling in your heart. It can happen to anybody who sees a big gap between what you dream about and long for, and the harsh reality of what’s really going on. Physical limitations – are they my reward for all the hard work I’ve put into life? A sick bed – is that the place where all my hopes and dreams are meant to wind up? What about the job I lost? Or that long-time friendship that went bad? Is life meant to end in a heap of disappointment? And for John, is this prison cell going to be the final resting place for all my preaching and all my calls for people to repent?”
In the musical, “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” there’s a catchy moment as the line is repeated again and again:
When Jesus sent back his answer to John, it was kind of like he was saying:
“Tell John what the buzz is! Tell him what’s happening!”
John, what’s happening is what the prophet Isaiah said would happen. The things that make sad people joyful – they’re happening. The things that make sick people well – are happening. The eyes of the blind are being opened. The deaf are hearing again. The dead are being raised. Poor people are having good news brought to them. The lame are able to jump up and down, and people who couldn’t even speak are singing happy songs. Yes, John, what brings joy to the human heart is still a part of my Father’s world.”
So, where do we come in? Frederick Beuchner, the theologian, compared humanity to a giant spider web. He said, “If you touch the web anywhere, what happens is that you set the whole thing trembling. The life that I touch for good will touch another life and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops.” I believe that’s what Jesus is telling us today. Because every word of encouragement, every embrace of comfort, every glance of acceptance, can set the web trembling . . . with joy. As we move around in our world with hearts that rejoice, the life that we touch for good will touch another life, and that in turn another – until who knows where the joy will stop.
True story. A six year old boy named Steven had never learned to walk without crutches. He didn’t have a mother or father to care for him, and no one could be found to give him all the special attention and expensive treatment the authorities felt he needed. In his six short years he had lived in several institutions. No one called to give him a home, until one day as a young couple looked through a catalog of children classified as ‘hard to place.’ They found Steven’s picture and applied for him. When the social worker brought him to their home to visit, Steve refused to go inside, because he feared that once again he would find rejection, and he knew all too well what that felt like. So he sat out on the front steps, laid his crutches down, and stared at the street. Six years old, and already life was too much to handle. Then the mother and father came outside, sat down beside him, and quietly began to breathe on him the breath of love and joy. Six months later, when the social worker came by for a visit, Steven came walking into the room – unsteady, but all by himself, without the aid of his crutches, with a big smile lighting up his face.. The affection and joy of a loving family had captured the fragile spirit of this little boy, and placed him on the road to happiness.
I like this saying: “Don’t follow the usual paths – rather come with me where there is no path, and together we’ll leave a trail of love and forgiveness – and joy.”
What were those words of John Lennon?
When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. Then, when I went off to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment. And I told them they didn’t understand life.
What more is there to say than this:
Joy to our world, the Lord has come! Amen.
And the peace of God, which passes all human understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus, to life everlasting. Amen.