Sunday, December 11, 2016


Third Sunday of Advent (Year A)
Isaiah 35.1-10; Matthew 11.2-11
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

A week and half ago I had a conversation with a parishioner, who commented that there was a big difference between the Episcopal Church and the evangelical, charismatic, revivalist churches that he had grew up in. He observed that in the churches of his youth, there was always a sense of expectation that something amazing would happen in every worship service. That you would somehow be transformed by the worship experience. But the Episcopal Church, which is more staid in its liturgical style, does not always instill that sense of expectation. This got me to thinking about our worship and how we approach it, how we enter into it. Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not criticizing our more formal liturgy and our unique approach to worship. I wasn’t raised in the Episcopal Church, but it was the more formal liturgical style, among other things, that attracted me to Anglicanism. The liturgical style we enjoy spoke to my sensibilities as a planner and engineer.

But as I thought about my conversation, I began to realize that the “happy clappy” style of worship of some of our more evangelical, charismatic brothers and sisters does not, necessarily in and of itself, result in a sense of expectation. Rather, they are an expression of expectation. If anything, I think that approach to worship merely feeds off of, is fueled by, a sense of expectation that is inherent in the theological perspective of those denominations and churches. A perspective that is integral to who those churches are. To their expression of their faith. And as I then reflected on that thread, I began to realize that that same theological perspective is really ours, as well. Even if not always evident. Even if not always encouraged or drawn out. But if you look at the theological foundation of our Prayer Book worship, it is that sense of expectation that is what ultimately shaped how we worship. In fact, it traces its roots back farther than the crafting of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Even farther back than the first Anglican Prayer Book of 1549. It traces its roots to scripture. To our Gospel reading for today. And even farther back to the prophet Isaiah.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus says to the crowd, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see?” (Mt 11.7-8a). There must have been something that they went out to see or experience. Something that they expected. Otherwise they would not have traveled out into the wilderness. So what was it? It was an expectation of scripture being fulfilled, of the ancient prophecies being brought to fruition. Of the hope and promise that was at the heart of the Jewish people. Of what had kept them going, driving them on, from the time of the Exile. It was a hunger that drove the very spiritual lives of the people of Jesus’ day – that kept the promise of Isaiah alive.

We see this longing, this expectation, expressed by John the Baptist himself. He sends his disciples to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Mt 11.3). In response, Jesus speaks of the transformative power of his ministry. In doing so, he evokes Isaiah – an image that the people would have been very familiar with. But as in everything Jesus says, particularly when quoting Scripture, he is saying so much more. He is calling upon the entire image that is portrayed in Isaiah’s prophecies – not only that the “eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; [that] the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Is 35.5-6a). He is saying that the expectations of the coming of the kingdom of heaven promised by God and foretold by Isaiah will indeed occur. And not only that, but it will be fulfilled through him. Jesus’ hearers would have understood the magnitude of what he was saying, even in the truncated imagery he puts forth. Of course, they don’t know how this will be accomplished, but this side of the resurrection we know. We know because we have stood at the foot of the cross and watched him die. We know because we have been to the tomb and found it empty. Now these are truly transformative events. Events that themselves warrant our unbridled expectation. Expectation of the fulfillment that they promise and that they themselves insure.

Every time we come to worship, particularly on Sunday, we are celebrating these transformative events. For every Sunday is a “mini-Easter.” A celebration of the resurrection and its promises. Our Sunday liturgy is meant to celebrate the transformation that is foretold in Isaiah, is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and is (hopefully) occurring even now. In our reliving these events every time we worship, we are expressing our expectation of their fulfillment again in us. For why else would we come week after week? Or in the words of Jesus, “What then do you come to see?”

Every single time we come into this place, we are to bring our expectations. We are to bring the expectation that our expectations will be fulfilled. To feel that we are beloved children of God. To experience God’s love through worship – especially at the Eucharist, where we come to God’s table to be fed; through interaction with each other, our brothers and sisters in Christ; through hospitality (such as coffee hour). Yes, it is a sacrament, too. To have our lives transformed by that knowledge – that God is with us here and everywhere in our lives. And to put God’s love into action – in our lives, through mission with others. To carry the transformation that we have experienced into the world, sharing God’s love. Sharing its transformative power, so that others may also be transformed.

We are to come with joyful expectation. This is the underlying message of Jesus’ response to John the Baptist’s disciples. For he points to signs of God’s reign: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear – to the coming of the kingdom of heaven into our midst here and now. During Advent, we wait with patience for the coming of the Lord. But do we have that same expectation on all the other Sundays of the year?

As we draw ever closer to Christmas, perhaps we need to recall what Christmas meant for us as children. To recall how the children in our own lives approach the mystery. Okay, maybe children do not so much focus on the coming of the baby in the manger. But they have a sense of awe, of anticipation, nonetheless. A sense that transcends the secularized version of Christmas, making it equally applicable to how we view Christmas through the eyes of faith. For children have a joyous expectation of what will happen. Of Santa Clause coming on Christmas Eve. In their joy, putting out cookies or other treats for Santa, offering thanks for what they hope to receive. Being unable to sleep because of the anticipation of what the morning will bring – what delights they will find under the tree and in their stockings. The joyous anticipation of getting what they want and hope for. Shouldn’t this be how we feel every Sunday? As we celebrate what Christ brings? Forgiveness, salvation, new life. Gifts far greater than anything we hoped for as children.

In this Advent season and throughout the year, I pray that God would open our eyes and ears to the wonders of Christ’s advent among us. That we may leap for joy and sing in endless praise of the fulfillment of our expectations – of the fulfillment of God’s promises and the transformation they provide.

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