December 12, 2010
William G. Carter
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Years ago in a Christmas pageant, I discovered once again a little-known truth about God. The shepherds stood in their tinsel halos, surrounding the Holy Family. A couple of them were fidgeting. One waved to her grandmother, another elbowed his neighbor for a better view. Yet on cue, they sang the verses of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Maybe it was the commotion of the pageant. Or perhaps the timeliness of the occasion. But I heard one of the truth about God in one of the verses of the carol: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. And God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear can hear his coming . . .” That is the truth: God gives in silence and nobody can hear it.
It was an ironic moment, because that Christmas pageant was not silent at all. I have never heard of a Christmas pageant that was ever silent. For that matter, does Christmas ever come silently? There is so much hustle, bustle, and commotion. The economy is shaken awake by shoppers. The clatter is everywhere. As Frederick Buechner once complained, “The lovely old carols (are) played and replayed ‘til their effect is like dentist’s drill or a jack hammer.” In some places, even “Silent Night” is played very loudly.
Remember the Grinch, up on his mountain above Whoville? His greatest protest about Christmas is “the noise, noise, noise, noise.” Christmas can be very noisy, especially if you’re not in the mood for it this year.
By contrast, when God comes, “how silently, how silently . . . no ear can hear his coming.”
I wonder about the silence. Specifically I wonder why God is so quiet. To hear some people talk about faith, God is not quiet at all. God blows a trumpet, smashes the cymbals, and announces the good news with seventy-six trombones. In some kinds of Christian churches, if there is any common denominator, it is the chatter. People give their testimonies as if they saw Jesus at the car wash or the grocery store. They go on Christian TV stations in Tennessee and speak of how the Holy Spirit has been instructing them to talk to other people. For a brief time, I lived near a Christian book store. You couldn’t go in there without some Christian trying to convert from the kind of Christian you were to the kind of Christian they think you ought to be. Chatter, chatter, chatter.
If I scrape away all the promotional talk, my actual experience of God is more like the Christmas carol: “how silently, how silently . . . no ear can hear his coming.” And I need to tell you that I have great sympathy for John the Baptist. He sends a message to Jesus to ask, “Are you the One who is to come? Are you the One or should we look for another?” Apparently whatever Jesus was saying and doing was much too quiet to convince John that the Messiah had come.
Now we remember John the Baptist as a noisy preacher. He was noisy. He had a loud voice. He preached fierce sermons. He screamed at the pious people who came to hear him speak. Then if they came forward, he held them under the river for a good, long time. John knew the Messiah was coming, that the Messiah would burn away sins with unquenchable fire. He knew the Messiah would singe people with his Holy Presence and straighten out their lives.
John the Baptist was a noisy preacher. It was his loud voice that got him thrown into prison. He mouthed off to King Herod, and publicly called him an adulterer. Everybody knew the king was immoral, but John the Baptist actually said it. Back then, politicians paid attention to the preachers. Herod threw him into a dungeon. According to one account, he still liked to hear John preach - as long as he was chained up and out of sight. John was known by his loud voice.
But for some reason, John grew disappointed with Jesus. Jesus isn’t busy enough, or Jesus isn’t obvious enough, or – most probably – Jesus isn’t loud enough. So he mouths off from the dungeon: “Are you the One? Are you really the Messiah? Are you the One that I’ve been telling everybody about? Or should we start looking for somebody else?”
I can understand this. My greatest difficulty with God is his hiddenness. I experience a God who is not obvious and does not make a lot of noise. A friend loses a job and I pray, “God, give him a job!” And there is no job; just a lot of silence. People that I love bury a child and I pray, “God, this isn’t right, make it better.” And we wait, and we wait, and it still hurts. A good man gets a bad diagnosis; he has lived an exemplary life and now he’s sick. I pray, “Lord, you are the Good Physician. Lord, in your goodness, make him well!” And there is silence and the cold wind begins to howl.
I wish it didn’t have to be that way. I wish God would do whatever I wanted God to do. I wish God would speak up on demand. I wish God took orders from me. And then I noticed – whenever I tell God what to do, it gets really, really quiet.
Just imagine John the Baptist, the greatest preacher of his day. John spoke up about the king, called him out as a two-timer. John was correct about that, and his good deed did not go unpunished. The first couple of weeks in prison, he probably felt pretty smug. He said to himself, “Self, I did the right thing. I spoke up for righteousness in an unrighteous world.” And if you know you did the right thing, you can (at least) take some comfort in your right-ness, especially as you wait for the Messiah to finally come and make everything right, especially when you know that the Messiah has already sneaked into town.
But as time passes, doubt creeps in. Is he really here? Is Jesus the Messiah? Is he really the Messiah? That’s what John wants to know. And I cannot fault him for that.
We would love for God to be more obvious. We want God to give us the old razzle-dazzle, to impress us with feats that are scientifically impossible. Wouldn’t it be great if God could cure the cancer, reverse the aging process, and compel our kids to call us every day? Wouldn’t it be beautiful for God to autograph every sunset, to feed every starving child, to bring balance to every chaotic mind? Can you imagine if God could wave the divine arms and suddenly every gun would stop firing, every greedy person would share, every lion would sing Christmas carols with every lamb? Wouldn’t it be great if the Messiah would come?
As somebody has said about our passage, “There is always enough misery in the world to believe the Messiah will come. There is always enough misery in the world to believe that the Messiah has not yet come.” (Fred Craddock) The point is this: if I believe he is still coming, I can imagine the Messiah to be whatever I want. What I might miss is what he actually is, and where he actually is working.
Maybe you saw the last issue of National Geographic. It featured a big story about King David. David was the greatest of Israel’s kings. He consolidated the monarchy, he built up Jerusalem, and he raised the nation of Israel to great wealth and prominence. Well, maybe. Now the archeologists aren’t so sure. According to the excavations, Israel was not so big, and David was not so tall. Some are wondering: was King David really so great, or was the truth more likely that the people wanted King David to be great? It’s hard to tell.
There is a gap between what we expect and what we receive. Expect the big Christmas gift; and when it comes, it’s not so big. Expect the Messiah to come and make everything right; and then Jesus appears, a peasant with a smudge on his cheek and splinters in his hands. Is this what we wanted? Is this what God sent us?
And he’s so quiet. Not that he has nothing to say; no, he has plenty to say. But it takes some work to understand him. Jesus speaks in parables and the points are not obvious. He sticks to the small towns when he could go to the city and make a bigger impact. He doesn’t spend a lot of time with the movers and the shakers, with the people of great influence. No, he wanders out into the fields and considers the lilies. And he never seems to be in much of a hurry. Ever notice that?
Do you suppose one of the reasons why we make so much noise at Christmas is because we don’t know what to do with the peaceful, slow silence of God? So we fill it with a lot of words. We make a lot of assurances. We sing a lot of songs. We spend a lot of money. We make ourselves busier than every other time of the year. Somehow we think we can outrun the silence, rather than allow to catch up to us and fill us.
After all, we remember what the rest of the Christmas carol says: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”
The Messiah comes, but not with a lot of noise. He speaks but you have to lean forward to hear what he is saying. Recently I found myself in a bumpy time. My prayers were full of babbling, and I mustered up the courage to pray, “Lord, where are you? What are you doing? Why aren’t you here?”
I thought I heard something, so I leaned forward and asked again. “Where are you? What are you doing? Why aren’t you here?” I heard something that sounded like a whisper. The Voice was very soft.
I said, “Lord, I really expect you to do something. Why aren’t you doing something?” And a Voice whispered, “Because it’s not your turn. I will get to you, but I work with one at a time.”
It rings true to the scriptures. There are lots of stories about Jesus, how he heals, how he cures. But he never stands in front of a crowd, waves his hands, and instantly cures everybody. No, he blesses one, and blesses another, then blesses a third. And he doesn’t start with the famous people, so that love trickles down from more important places. He doesn’t go to the obvious places to do the obvious things. No, he takes whoever he meets, one at a time. That’s why he says to John’s disciples, “Tell your preacher what you see . . .”
“The blind receive their sight…” One day as Jesus traveled, two blind people followed him, stumbling over stones, crying out for mercy. They caught up with him at a house and he said, “Do you think I can do this?” They said, “Yes, Lord.” With that, instantly they could see and he said, “Don’t tell anybody.” And they wrote it down in the Bible (9:27-31).
“The lame walk…” A Roman centurion said to Jesus, “I have a servant who is lying down paralyzed. Say the word and he will walk. And Jesus said the word, the man got up to walk (8:5-13).
“The lepers are cleansed…” Jesus came down from teaching on the mountain, and a leper came near and fell to his knees. “If you choose,” said the leper, “you can cleanse me.” Jesus stretched his hand, touched him, and said, “I choose; be clean,” and the man was clean. Jesus said, “Keep this quiet,” and Matthew wrote it down (8:1-4).
“The deaf hear…” Something had gotten into a man who could not speak. His world was silenced. His tongue was stuck, his ears were clogged, until Jesus opened him up (9:32-33).
“The dead are raised...” A synagogue ruler found Jesus to say, “My little girl has died; would you place your blessing upon her?” Jesus followed him home, chased away the mourners, and lifted her alive. (9:18-26)
“The poor have good news brought to them…” Biblically speaking, if you don’t have the means to make yourself well, you are poor. If you cannot save yourself, that is your poverty. Yet Jesus makes his way to you. He announces that you are precious, you are not lost, your cause is not forgotten. He will get to you.
Don’t look for the Messiah among the high and mighty. Don’t look for him among the satisfied and the self-sufficient. His mission field has always been the same: the blind, the lame, the leper, the deaf, the dead, and the poor. For the Messiah, they are all in a day’s work. According to Matthew and his stories, they may be wealthy or impoverished. Some are well-connected, others are disconnected. Not one of them needs to be named, yet he knows each and every one. And he stays with them quietly until they are healed.
Tell this to John the Baptist. The Messiah is among us and he stays busy. His work will not be flashy. He will not draw a lot of attention to himself, except as people see him where he really is. Without any fanfare, regardless of whether anybody actually notices, the Messiah comes to one person at a time, restoring and curing them out of the grace of God.
“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given . . .” This is the promise of Advent and Christmas. The Messiah comes, but faith pushes us to lean forward, to listen carefully, to watch and wait for him to come where he is needed most. Because the Christmas carol is true: “No ear can hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where dear souls receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”
(c) William G. Carter
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