Sunday, December 16, 2007

Third Sunday of Advent

Matthew 11
2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Does anyone have a fifty-dollar bill?

No, this isn’t a last minute appeal for donations. Although it could be. There is something important I want you to see.

While you’re looking, I’ll give some background. Last month I was looking for the words to “In Flander’s Field” on Google when the Bank of Canada website came up. Of course, I remembered, part of the poem appears on the back of the ten-dollar bill. Looking over the site, I was impressed by the way each bill is presented, along with notes explaining the various images.

Near the bottom of the page are the bigger notes that the humble rarely get to see. I’ve always been impressed the $50, with a thoughtful looking Mackenzie King and a picture of the memorial to the “Famous Five,” the five women who won the Persons Case of 1929.

Then the surprise. There, on the back along with the Famous Five is a quote from part of a text written by John Humphrey: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” My head was spinning. What is this quote? Who is this John Humphrey? I have a minor in Canadian history. Among my professors were Bill Kilbourn and Jack Granatstein. My family fears me at Trivial Pursuit.

It turns out John Humphrey wrote the first draft of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt called the Declaration "the international Magna Carta of humanity." Humphrey is the only Canadian to win the UN Human Rights Prize, one of only 37 individuals to win it in the history of the prize. Other recipients include Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Alarmed and shocked, I started asking people if they knew John Humphrey. My daughter and son-in-law, both Queen’s grads in Canadian history: never heard of him. People at the pub: never heard of him. What is going on? If there was ever a nominee for “greatest Canadian” it’s John Humphrey. This is the moment when I would normally do my rant about how Canadians hate their own history, and how Americans invent and promote theirs, but I will spare you.

It is enough to say that the late John Humphrey deserves a bigger place in our collective memory. He may not surpass Tommy Douglas, but he deserves to be common knowledge. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, now nearly sixty years old, remains the best description of our highest aspirations as humans. And this may be the problem.

It may be our collective failure to live up to the declaration—which has the force of international law—that has led to our ignorance. Listen to Article 25 (1):

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Here, Humphrey is sounding like an Old Testament prophet, describing our need to protect widow, orphan and alien like some latter-day Isaiah. The words have a unique ancient-future quality to them: language that begins in a tradition and describes what is yet to be. It is ancient hope and future desire. In this sense, it is Advent.

This season of waiting is more than rehearsing the nativity and looking for signs. The season includes an abiding belief in God’s justice, a vision of the world as it ought to be, as God wishes it to be. Jesus prayed “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” There is no clearer statement of what it means to live under the promises of a just God. Listen again to the words of the psalmist:

5 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God,
7 who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free;
8 the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous.
9 The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.

It is the same God, come in Jesus, who said "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.” It is the same God, come in Jesus, who points to the new age.

There were some, John included, who wondered about the direction Jesus was taking. They were looking for “a strong hand and an outstretched arm” (Ex 6.6) to free the people, and to overthrow Caesar as God did Pharaoh. But something else was happening. Jesus was speaking in parables, and making disciples, healing the sick and preaching good news to the poor. There were no plagues and there was no blood. Jesus was liberating the human heart.

This also was God’s project. As the words "Go and tell John what you hear and see” leave his lips, we recognize what follows as quotes, words found in Isaiah 29 and Isaiah 35. These are words that point backwards to an age-old challenge: opening the eyes of the blind and unstopping the ears of those who cannot hear. This is not a physical condition, though Jesus can heal that too. This is an ailment of the soul. Perhaps the greatest single summary comes from Isaiah:

11 For you this whole vision is nothing but words sealed in a scroll. And if you give the scroll to someone who can read, and say to him, "Read this, please," he will answer, "I can't; it is sealed." 12 Or if you give the scroll to someone who cannot read, and say, "Read this, please," he will answer, "I don't know how to read." (Is 29)

How ironic that the most famous photo of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one of Eleanor Roosevelt unrolling it in the form of a scroll. And this whole vision, we know, is nothing but words sealed in a scroll. The words cannot live beyond the page unless we make them live, unless we bring them to life.

This is the hope of Advent: that we break the seal and read the words and open our eyes and tune our ears to the message God would have us receive. That we give to God our greatest hope and deepest desire that a world made new may come, that our longing may be met now and always, amen.


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