Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brookline, MA
Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
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?
What a difference a week makes. In last Sunday’s gospel we heard such conviction from John, his voice was so clear, convinced, prophetic and visionary. His was a voice crying in the wilderness, proclaiming boldly to the powers of the day that one more powerful is coming after him; one whom he is not worthy to untie his sandals. A soaring vision of the one to come.
This week he is in prison. I’m not sure what he’s feeling or thinking - uncertainty, doubt, despair, desperation? But what does seem certain - there is an enormous gap between his vision and his present reality, a tremendous, uncomfortable, stressful gap between his vision of the Messiah coming and the reality he was experiencing. John’s vision is here and his reality is here. Massive discrepancies between vision and reality have a way of producing doubt and disappointment.
What is John to do? What are we to do when there exists a stressful, sometimes hurtful gap between our vision, our aspiration for what we believe is right, or what we desire to be, what we long for . .with the present reality of our shared communal life, or the reality of our personal life?
The stressful gap between John’s vision and reality may be as much a prison as the four walls that surround him. Are you the one? Or should I look elsewhere?
This Thursday, the Society of St John the Evangelist posted on their digital Advent Calendar, Adventword, these words about Hope:
Converted anxiety is hope. Anxiety is dreadful expectation; hope is expectant desire. They are like cousins to each other. Pray for the conversion of your fretful anxiety into promising hope. If you are anxious just now, you are almost already hopeful.
What intrigues me about this posting is that it speaks to the idea that hope exists in and around this gap between what we long for, what we need, our vision of what could be. . . and what is.
So does anxiety.
In this stressful gap is tension, tension between aspiration and reality. And this tension can be the expectant desire of hope, and it can be fretful anxiety.
John seems anxious this week.
In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr penned what is commonly referred to as his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In it he wrote about this tension that exists between vision and reality, of a just society and the present reality. He wrote, “I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
Creative tension, providing the energy to bring about the change, energizing hope, the expectant desire for growth.
Peter Senge, at MIT’s Slone School of Management writes about Creative Tension in his book The Fifth Discipline.
Senge asks the reader to imagine a rubber band, stretched between one’s vision and current reality, representing the tension that exists between vision and current reality. What does tension seek? Senge asks - release or resolution - by pulling reality toward the vision – or pulling the vision toward reality. Which occurs depends on whether we hold the vision steady.
As Martin Luther King, Jr wrote from prison - it is energy in the tension that pulls reality upward toward the vision. Maintaining, safeguarding, stewarding the tension of honest hope is uncomfortable, and we humans don’t like the uncomfortable tension. Creative change needs both vision and honest assessment of the present reality, aspiration and honesty. The creative, generative tension of hope involves perseverance and stamina in stressful context.
The expectant hope that the creative tension will pull reality closer to the vision is hard, courageous, faithful work, especially when one’s honest reality involves great sadness, loss, and pain. Too often, it seems, sadness and doubt are characterized as unfaithful, as unhopeful, but in fact, those very honest feelings may part of reality as one faithfully holds fast to a vision of a better way. Expectant hope may be, by definition, stressful.
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? Go and tell John what you hear and see: the 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.
What comfort this must have given John. Was his anxiety converted into hope?
Each week of Advent brings us closer to the the Christmas story - Mary, Joseph, and the baby - a story charged with this creative tension. Our Advent encounter with John and Jesus comes as Jesus’ adult ministry takes shape, but our first encounter, our Christmas encounter with the baby ushers in this creative tension, tension created by the gap between the aspirations of Advent - O Come Emmanuel. . .God with us. . .and the reality of his birth. Many of the ways we tell the story help us deal with the painful tension of this story: a sleeping baby, an adoring mother, loving animals looking on under a starlit sky, soothe our discomfort.
The reality for Mary and Joseph is that the world would only provide some space in a barn, essentially homeless to give birth. There is such a colossal gap between the aspirations of Emmanuel, God with us, and the utter hostility of his birth in the world. Yet the creative tension created by this vision of incarnation and the honest reality of the world Mary gave birth to Jesus in that is to be stewarded, and maintained, to create, as Martin Luther King, Jr wrote: “the kind of tension in society that will help people rise from the dark depths . . .to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. . .” The power of the Christmas story is not created only by Emmanuel , God with us, but also by the honest fact that the world was hostile and cold. And this is not about a society of some time long ago, depicted as some “biblical time”, but in this era in which we are witnessing the normalization of authoritarianism, mistruths presented as having equal value to facts; in this world today, where standing up to bigotry, lying, and attacks on vulnerable citizens here and across the earth, the Peace on Earth earth, is more important than ever.
Some twenty-five years ago, Frances and I were traveling in Europe around Christmas time, and we encountered the most beautiful nativity creche - a terra cotta scene that communicated such a sense of earthy realism, of honest love of the family, but what I remember most, was Mary. Mary, looking lovingly upon the baby, her eyes were upon Jesus in a sideways glance because she was, in fact, exhausted, She was leaning back against Joseph. It seemed as if she was using her last bit of energy to keep her head upright, her eyes open, just to see her child.
And what seared this beautiful scene into my memory was how utterly surprised I was to encounter Mary and Jesus, surprised because of the shocking dissonance of the vision before me and horror of the place. We had just entered the quiet narthex of the Mortal Agony of Christ chapel, a sacred memorial chapel on the grounds of the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. How could such beauty, a tableau of perfect love, depicting God’s vision for the word, exist in the hostile horrific reality of Dachau? The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Jesus is born into the gap between God’s vision and the reality of the world.
In our home around Christmas time, you can be sure that we’ll hear the singer/songwriter Kathy Matea sing the song “Mary, Did You Know?” The song is beautiful as it asks such a simple question of the new mother,
Mary did you know
that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you delivered will soon deliver you.
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby you kiss the face of God?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven's perfect Lamb?
The sleeping child you're holding is the great, I Am.
Mary did you know?
Somewhere, somehow, in that loving, exhausted gaze, in the shadow of Dachau's mortal agony, Mary searched her son’s face for an answer to John’s question, “are you the one?”
Mary knew only enough, was brave enough, to say yes.
Yes, to God’s invitation
Yes to the painful creative tension that would be her life and her child’s life
Yes to John’s question, are you the one?
© 2016 The Reverend Michael E Robinson