A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
December 11, 2022
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
Reading: Matthew 11:2-11
“As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you. That is the great seriousness and great blessedness of the Advent message. Christ is standing at the door; he lives in the form of a human being among us.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and Lutheran theologian, said those words. He believed those words. In a time when Germany was turning neighbors against one another, rounding up Jews, Communists, atheists, Catholics, and other dissenters, Bonhoeffer lived those words. He saw Christ coming to him in his neighbor to call him, to speak to him, to make demands of him.
This Advent we are talking about Christ’s coming among us. He will come again in glory on the Last Day. That’s our great Advent hope. But until then, Christ is among us, hidden, in the Holy Eucharist, in our neighbor, and in our own hearts. Fleming Rutledge told us that last week: “Until Christ comes again, he is hidden among us,” even in this present darkness.
When Christ comes among us in the face of our neighbor, will we recognize him? Or will we choose instead to refuse to believe that Christ could come to us in someone like that, someone so unlike us. John the Baptist today sends word to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Sometimes I am like that, too, sending word to Jesus: “Lord, where are you at? Surely you wouldn’t come to me in someone like that, in that neighbor! I’ll wait for someone else.” But there he is, standing at the door.
Christ comes as one who begs. St. Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier. He was riding on his horse through present-day France when he came across a cold beggar. Martin cut off half his cloak to give the man something to cover up with. In a dream that night, Martin saw that beggar again, but the beggar was Christ. When we serve the least among us, we serve Christ himself. When Martin awoke, his cloak was whole again.
Christ comes as one who comforts. Betty had sat with her mother in the ICU for weeks. They had finally put her mother into hospice care; there was nothing else they could do. Betty was lost. She and her mother were very close. And with her mother in and out of consciousness, Betty felt alone. But that hospice nurse came in every hour. She brought blankets and pillows. She would bring a hot cup of coffee. She brought a smile, a hug, words of comfort. She said a prayer as Betty’s mother died. Betty would recall later: “That nurse–I don’t even remember her name–but that nurse was Jesus Christ to me. She helped me face my worst nightmare, and she held my hand through it.”
Christ comes as a stranger on a street corner. The monk and writer Thomas Merton once had a mystical experience in Louisville. Surrounded by strangers, he saw clearly that he was connected to all of them, and he loved them even though he didn’t know them. This is what he wrote in his journal: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Christ comes as someone we don’t like–maybe even someone who thinks and votes differently than we do. In 2016, a 79 year old Trump supporter and a 25 year old Clinton supporter got into it at a protest. The 79 year old man threw a punch. He was charged with assault, and I suppose that could have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t. When the man appeared before a judge, he saw that the other man was there. So he apologized for hitting him. The other man apologized for things he had said. The Trump supporter told the Clinton supporter: “You know, our country is a mess. We’ve got to help heal it. Maybe we can start healing as a nation if we start with ourselves.” Those two men walked out of the courthouse that day, walked across the street, and sat down for lunch. They got to know one another. They became friends. They began to love each other. They saw Christ in each other.
When Christ comes among us, hidden, will we see him? Will we honor him? Or will we ignore him, pass him by, cast him out? Will we be those shepherds that flock to the manger, or will we be that innkeeper who can’t make room for the Son of God to come in? As Bonhoeffer said, “Christ is standing at the door.” It’s our choice to open up to him.
Christ, even in our neighbor, is indeed the One we’ve been waiting for, and we don’t need to wait for another.
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