Sermon for 3rd Advent -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
“Why does my one grandson have AIDS, and the other one does not?”
This was the question posed to me by Martha Symphorian when I visited her and her grandchildren in their home in northwest Tanzania some years ago. Symphorian had cared for her grandson Kenedy since his father died of AIDS and his mother left her child in a panic, fleeing to another village to start of new AIDS-free life. It is the African tradition that the extended family take in orphaned children, so, at more than 70 years of age, that is what Martha Symphorian did. She took in young Kenedy, who has AIDS, as well as the two children of her other daughter, a daughter who had also died of AIDS. Now with her dead children buried in her front yard, Martha Symphorian cared for her three grandchildren, including 15 year old Kenedy, who, because of AIDS, looked more like a child of six or seven.
“Why does my one grandson have AIDS, and the other one does not?”
I visited Martha and her grandchildren along with other AIDS orphan families that day to see the wonderful ministry provided to these families by the staff of the Northwestern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, ministry supported by our ELCA World Hunger Appeal funds. Funds we help provide allow Martha to purchase AIDS medicine for Kenedy and pay tuition so that her grandchildren can attend school. These funds also make certain that this struggling family has enough food to eat. It is help that is much appreciated and has eased young Kenedy’s suffering.
But, Martha’s question remains, “Why?”
I thought of Martha Symphorian again this week when I read today’s gospel lesson from St. John’s Gospel. Jews sent by priests and Levites from Jerusalem ask John, “Who are you?” John the Baptist answers clearly, “I am not the Messiah.”
And this also got me thinking more about John the Baptist.
In St. Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist, from prison, through his disciples, sends Jesus a similar question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” If it were 2014, John might have text-messaged his question to Jesus – “R U the 1?”
John the Baptist’s question is most interesting when you consider what came before it in John’s life. St. Luke writes that, while John was still inside of his pregnant mother, Elizabeth, John “leaped” in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, approached Elizabeth’s home. And, earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, we read that, when Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, “the heavens were opened” and the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus. “And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Thus, John should have known, John did know the answer to his question – this Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Son.
Then, why did John ask this question?
The Messiah that the Jews were expecting, that they continue to expect to this day, was not the Messiah that Jesus became. John the Baptist and other Jewish leaders expected a Messiah who would come to set things right on earth in their here and now. This Messiah would come to be an earthly King, to establish the kingdom of God on earth. The hated Roman rulers would be put down and the Jewish people would be finally be free.
That is not the Messiah that Jesus came to be. Jesus came to change people’s hearts. He came to bring good news to the poor. Jesus responds to John the Baptist’s disciples’ question – “Go and tell John what you see and hear.”
This was not the Jesus, the Messiah, that John the Baptist had hoped for, longed for. Think of the kind of Messiah Jesus was – born in a stable, not a palace; born a moral leader of an unwed mother; born among the poorest of the poor, not among the rich and powerful; born in a backwater town in a then-forgotten nation. In prison, John, facing nearly certain death, knew all of this but he still hoped that this Jesus, the Messiah, would set things right on earth. And, Jesus was not delivering on that hope in the way John had envisioned. So, John the Baptist asked, understandably, “Are you the one???”
Martha Symphorian’s and John the Baptist’s questions are related because they both speak to something we all know: Sometimes it appears that God does not answer our prayers. Or, better put, sometimes God’s answer to our prayers is not what we expect.
You know this to be true. We pray for healing for a loved one and, instead of getting better, they become more ill. Sometimes, they even die. And we feel our prayers were not answered.
Or, less dramatically but more commonly, we find that our Christian friends act in a manner that is far from “Christian.” They may lie or cheat or behave in some other way that we know is less than what they should be as Christians. And we are disappointed.
Or, even more common, we, you and I, act in a manner which is not Christ-like. We are unkind or hurtful or act in some other way we know is less than what we want to be as Christians. And we are disappointed with ourselves.
Or, thinking of this holiday season, we pray for peace within our families gathered at Christmas, and that longed-for peace does not come.
When Martha Symphorian addressed her “why” question to me, I stuttered and stumbled, not knowing exactly how to respond. Before I could give my less-than-adequate response, Martha interrupted me to ask if I would pray for her. It was as if she knew that hers was an answerable question. We prayed for strength for her fragile family, for food and schooling and access to medical care. And, above all, we prayed that no matter what happened to them, that Martha and Kenedy and her two other grandchildren would continue to know the deep, deep love that Jesus has for them. Our translator did not translate all of our prayers – that was not necessary since Martha understood that we were praying for her and her grandchildren. She flashed a weary smile.
And, our prayers for Martha and her grandchildren have been answered – with our help, the Lutheran Church in Tanzania has helped Martha provide food and schooling and medicine for her grandchildren.
And, our prayers for Martha and her grandchildren have been answered – Jesus will always, always love Martha and her grandchildren. Just as Jesus will always love you and me.
John the Baptist was disappointed. God had answered his prayers for a Messiah, a Savior, with a heavenly and not an earthly Savior, something John had not expected.
Martha Symphorian’s heart was heavy with sadness because her grandson, Kenedy, was dying of AIDS and she was helpless to save him.
And Jesus answered both of these questions with a promise – Jesus love for John the Baptist, for Martha Symphorian and Kenedy, as well as for you and me, will never die. Jesus will always love us.
And, that is the simple promise of Advent this Third Advent Sunday. No matter what happens to us in this life, God’s love for us is eternal, never-ending, and guaranteed.
Please hold onto this message, the message of our Gospel this Third Sunday in Advent, the Christian message of this holiday season and for all times: No matter what happens to us in this life, God’s love for us, in the person of the Messiah, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, God’s love for us is eternal, never-ending and guaranteed.
Thanks be to God!
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
R U the 1?
Sermon for 3rd Advent
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
December 13/14, 2014
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica