Are we to wait?
3 Advent – 12/11/16
St. Alban’s Annandale
The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales
“Are we to wait?”
He couldn’t help asking, as he languished in a jail cell. His people had waited so long for dawn to rise over a darkened sky. He had drawn the people to him, preaching the way of the Lord, the way of justice and truth. He had traveled in dangerous territory, comforting the oppressed and confronting the powerful.
But his preaching was too political, they said,
and so he sat in jail, with a question on his mind:
Are we to wait?
While he waited, young Martin Luther King Jr. read again the newspaper column that an ally had spirited to his cell. And with the question on his heart, he began to write, in the margins of the newspaper, the words that would one day be known as Letter From Birmingham Jail.
* * *
“Are we to wait?” another prisoner, 20 centuries before, wondered. John the Baptizer’s people had waited so long for the One who was to come, the Messiah. John had traveled dangerous paths, drawing people to himself, drawing them to God. Though his words were full of fire and axes and winnowing forks, his hope was in a new, rose-colored dawn. The One for whom they had waited was very near, the one whose sandals he was not fit to carry . . . at least the one he thought was the One.
But now John sits in jail ¾ or I imagine, he cannot sit. The wild man who once had all wilderness to wander in, paces, in a cell smaller than one of our parking spaces. He walks alone, for his captors cannot allow him to poison any other minds with talk of a kingdom that is not Herod’s, a kingdom John swears is coming.
And now, the law of Herod’s kingdom has brought him to this place,
where he wonders:
Where exactly IS God’s kingdom? And just HOW near has it come,
Because anytime now that “the one more powerful than I” wants to demonstrate his power — and set John free— would be OK with John. How long, O Lord?
Maybe John is hoping to shake that answer loose
when he sends his friends to Jesus asking:
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
* * *
“Wait” is what the white clergymen of Birmingham had advised Dr. King to do in an open letter published in the newspaper he held. The demonstrations he led were called “unwise and untimely.” Why had he come from Atlanta to confront the segregated businesses of Birmingham?
But, King scrawled in the margins, “I am here because injustice is here.”
Having been invited by other Southern leaders, he came to teach about nonviolent resistance, which includes willingness to be arrested for violating unjust laws. Because the powers in Birmingham ¾ modern-day Herods, you might say ¾ had outlawed all public demonstrations, King went to jail on Good Friday 1963 for failing to obtain a parade permit. And there, for a full week, he waited, thought and wrote.
“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ . . . This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”
Responding to a fellow pastor’s reproach that “the teachings of Christ take time to come to earth,” King wrote that time does not cure all ills. And, in words that speak to every era, he continued,
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silences of the good people. . . .
The time is always ripe to do right.”
* * *
Jesus could have been speaking of King, as much as John, when he declared him “a prophet, yes, and more than a prophet.”
For both these prophets pointed toward the One we await today,
the King who came and is still coming.
We don’t know John’s reaction when his disciples returned to Herod’s jail, reporting that “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.”
For in all that good news, Jesus did not say, “the prisoners are set free.”
John was to continue to wait, in faith that the Messiah was at work, that God was at work. He was to wait, though as we know, his waiting would end with execution. He would become a forerunner of Jesus in every way.
Yet something tells me, from what we know about John, that he heard Jesus’ words with a ring of hope. Even in his bleak circumstances, he thought not about himself but about the salvation that was breaking in. John knew his scripture, so he remembered the words of Isaiah: “Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees. Say to a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!, here is your God.”
John remembered that, as Isaiah tells us today, when the eyes of the blind are opened and ears of the deaf unstopped, when the lame walk and the lepers are cleansed, all these are signs. Not of immediate victory but of eternal hope.
* * *
And so we wait. Here on the third Sunday of Advent, we wait, not just for the birth we’ll celebrate in two weeks, but for the full inbreaking of the kingdom of justice and healing and rose-colored dawn.
We wait, but we do more than wait. For like John, like Martin, we do not wait without hope.
We wait with commitment to those who cannot afford to wait for
an end to their hunger,
their grievous losses to gun violence,
their rejection as refugees.
We wait with those who suffer imprisonment, as far too many young black men do.
We wait with those who have no homes,
no hope of a cure from cancer or Alzheimer’s,
no prospect for proper education or employment.
We wait, but we also work. That is our call this Advent.
For if we accept and sanction the way things are, the Church risks, in Martin Luther King’s words, being “dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning” for our times.
I think John the Baptist would agree. I think Jesus would agree.
In a world sorely in need of justice, truth, and love,
in need of a rose-colored dawn,
what are we waiting for?
 Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963.