Sunday, December 12, 2010

Signs of the Messianic Age

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
December 12, 2010

Year A: The Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35:1-10
Canticle 15
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Signs of the Messianic Age

You may remember that last week we heard about John the Baptist preaching his powerful message of repentance as he baptized people in the River Jordan.

Not only did John offer his own message, he also made some bold and downright scary predictions about the messiah who was coming.

John said of this messiah, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

It seems that John the Baptist expected a messiah who was going to be judge of all – welcoming the righteous and sending the sinful into eternal punishment.

Well, people in authority always feel threatened by people like John. The religious establishment feared him because John was the real deal. He didn’t need to hide behind fancy robes and grandiose titles. The political establishment feared John because he spoke the truth to power. They feared him because who knows what he could get people to do if he put his mind to it?

So, of course, John the Baptist was arrested and his fate was sealed.

And, apparently while he was sitting in prison, he heard about what Jesus of Nazareth was up to. He heard that others were recognizing that Jesus was the messiah – the savior they had been awaiting. John heard that with Jesus the messianic age had begun.

There was just one problem. Jesus’ ministry and teaching didn’t look or sound very much like what John had predicted and expected.

There was no winnowing fork in Jesus’ hand. It didn’t seem like Jesus was clearing the threshing floor, gathering the wheat and burning the chaff.

So, John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to await for another?”

John’s asking Jesus, are you the messiah? Are we really living in the time of the messiah – the messianic age?

In reply, Jesus sums up what he’s been doing by alluding to the messianic signs predicted by the Prophet Isaiah: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them.”

Jesus doesn’t say that John’s expectations were wrong. In fact, John was describing the end of time, the final judgment that we especially anticipate during Advent. Maybe, though, John the Baptist was having trouble recognizing that he was already living in the messianic age. The messiah, Mary’s son, has already arrived and has begun to change everything.

And, maybe, we have the same problem. Maybe we have the same trouble recognizing that we are living in the time of the messiah – the messianic age.

After all, the world seems to groan on with at least as much suffering and loss as ever. So, where is this messianic age that Mary proclaims so boldly in the Magnificat? In her great song, Mary declares that in this new messianic age, God “has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.”

Just where are the signs that we are living in the messianic age that began with the birth of Mary’s son?

This past week marked the thirtieth anniversary of John Lennon’s murder in New York City. For many it’s hard to believe that three decades have passed since that senseless act – and it’s hard to believe that Lennon would be 70 years old this year.

A few weeks ago another thirtieth anniversary of a horrific and brutal act passed – but this anniversary received much less media attention.

Thirty years ago the Central American country of El Salvador was one of the hot spots of the Cold War. It was ruled by a right-wing military regime that had a close alliance with the United States government. Nearly everyone in El Salvador was desperately poor. Just about all the country’s wealth was in the hands of a few.

Back then some brave and faithful American Christians were living in El Salvador working among the poor and calling for social justice in that harsh country. Since the Roman Catholic archbishop of El Salvador had been assassinated while celebrating mass, all the missionaries knew that their lives were at risk.

On December 2, 1980 members of the El Salvadoran national guard pulled over a car containing three American nuns and one laywoman who had been working with the poor of El Salvador. The women were brought to a secluded area where they were tortured, raped and murdered.

The nuns were Ita Ford, Maura Clark and Dorothy Kazel and the laywoman was Jean Donovan.

Their murder was a horrible and vicious act in a world filled with horrible and vicious acts. When terrible things like this happen, like John the Baptist, we might well have trouble seeing the signs that we are living in the messianic age begun by Mary’s son.

There was outrage around the world and especially in the United States when the news broke of the murders. The outrage was particularly great in the United States in part because these were American women but also because the repressive El Salvadoran government was receiving so much support from the American government – and, in reality, from the American taxpayer.

The murder of these four faithful Christian women also shined an unforgiving light on the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning in Georgia. This school had been set up during the cold war to train military and police from Latin America in various tactics, ranging from traditional military strategy to techniques against rebel groups and government opponents.

A large number of the alumni of the School of the Americas went on to infamous careers as leaders of some of the most oppressive regimes in the Western Hemisphere, including El Salvador. The US government and the leaders of the school always denied that they taught or condoned torture, but training manuals used at the time tell a different story.

After the murders of the four women in El Salvador, word got out about the School of the Americas. Huge protests have been held annually at Ft. Benning by people demanding that the school be closed.

As a result of this highly publicized pressure, in 2001 the school’s name was changed to the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.” More importantly, the U.S. military admitted to some past mistakes and pledged that current students at the WHISC receive extensive training in human rights. Some people are convinced that real change has occurred – others not so much. This year the annual protest was much smaller than in the past.

A couple of weeks ago on the anniversary of the murders, the New York Times published an article with the headline, “After 30 Years, Preserving Nuns’ Legacy”.

The article mentioned a woman named Flor Lazo, who was born in El Salvador five years after the murder of the churchwomen. Ms. Lazo is now living in Brooklyn, where she is learning English at the Maura Clarke – Ita Ford Center, a social services center named for two of the nuns so brutally tortured and killed thirty years earlier.

When Ms. Lazo told her mother back in El Salvador the name of the place where she was building a new and better life for herself, her mother said, “Yes, I remember that day when they were murdered.”

Those four murdered women who gave their lives to Jesus and the poor were powerful signs that we live in the time of the messiah. And the grace that has flowed from their sacrifice is also a sign that we live in the messianic age that began two thousand years ago when Mary gave birth to her son in the humblest of circumstances.

In her great song, Mary expresses what God is doing in this messianic age: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”

And Jesus himself expressed what God is doing in this messianic age in his message to John the Baptist: “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.”

Yes, the world groans on in suffering and loss, yet, if we look, we see there are signs of the messianic age all around us.