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Advent III: Isaiah 35:1-10; Luke 1:47-55 (Magnificat); Matthew 11:2-11

December 11, 2022

I had a sermon ready to go on the Magnificat, but was not satisfied. John kept calling to me, in part because of a great conversation at eucharist last Wednesday, and also because of an overview of the gospel of Matthew produced by the Bible Project.[1] Then just this morning a friend in Oxford shared a bit about the homily she heard,[2] and I thought—yep, I need a last minute change.

We have these two great characters in our readings this morning. Mary, the mother of Jesus, and John the Baptist, and their outlooks could not be more different.

Mary we know quite well. The young woman—let’s not get caught up in the virginity thing—who has accepted this undertaking, this gift, this life and world changing challenge. I love Luke’s version: The angel comes to her and says that she will have a son who will holy and called the Son of God. And she replies, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” It’s important to me that we hear Mary’s agreement with and trust in this arrangement.

Again in Luke, her cousin Elizabeth, who is well past childbearing age, also conceives. When Mary visits Elizabeth and greets her, the child “leaps in her womb.” So we readers know that from the beginning, this baby, who is named John, knows that the baby Jesus is something special.

This is when Mary sings her beautiful song, the Magnificat. It is full of confidence in God’s mercy and strength. God will scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, and lift up the lowly. In fact, God has already done these things.

After the prenatal somersault, we next meet an adult John in the desert, baptizing people and calling them out for their bad behaviour, classic prophet behaviour. The descriptions of his clothing also place him firmly in the prophetic tradition. But he insists that he is not the One. Another is coming, who is so much greater. He’s very certain of this.

Jesus does come and is baptized by John. And again we have great clarity as the heavens open and the Spirit of God descend on Jesus. A voice from heaven says “This is my Son, my Beloved.”

Jesus and John go their separate ways, each with their own followers. John must be continuing his prophetic work, which is to call the account those in power. We know this because in Mark’s version of the story, John finds himself in prison. Herod (the son or grandson of the one who was in power when Jesus was born) has him arrested because John had been telling him—quite loudly and publicly, I assume—that it was wrong for him to marry his brother’s wife. Herod didn’t like to hear this, but he still respected John.

This is when our reading this morning happens. John, once so full of confidence, is uncertain. Is Jesus really the Messiah? This begs the question, what was John expecting the Messiah to be like? Was he expecting a great political leader who would finally get the Jews out from under foreign rule? Would there finally be justice for exploited people? Enough food for everyone, so that no one would go hungry? John is rotting in prison—hardly a sign that justice is come at last.

So he sends his disciples with an urgent question: Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And Jesus doesn’t give a straight answer: Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sign, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Jesus is quoting from the prophet Isaiah’s great vision hundreds of years earlier. He leaves it to John and John’s disciples to decide for themselves whether Jesus is the one.

So here we have this contrast, between Mary’s triumphant vision and John’s profound uncertainty. I wonder whether you see yourself in either one of them?

And in not giving a straight answer, Jesus challenges the people of his time and of ours, to look for the signs of hope.

The kingdom of heaven is near—it is at the tips of our fingers. Where do you see signs of hope?



[2] The Rev. Canon Dr. Judith Matlby, The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin,