Sunday, December 11, 2005

Third Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126 or Luke 1:47-55
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Then was our mouth filled with laughter, And our tongue with singing: Then said they among the nations, Jehovah hath done great things for them.

When we first moved into our house it was newly built and still under warranty from the builder. A representative of the company came to go over the house with us to ensure that everything was just right. We found a few small problems which were fixed immediately. When things were settled, the representative promised to return a year later to check on us. He told us that he'd be available anytime if we discovered something wrong with the home.

When we reached the end of that first year, the representative came back and asked us if there were any problems. We had a short list of issues that needed attention, a few things that needed to be fixed. We arranged a time and he promised that the repairman would come and take care of the problems. He was not the man who would do the repairs, he was the one to announce the coming of our repairman.

Last week we heard the story of John the Baptist from Mark's perspective. John was the fulfillment of the promise of Isaiah that someone would come and cry out in the wilderness proclaiming the coming of the Lord. We saw him calling for repentance and baptizing people in the Jordan. The people were coming to confess their sins and receive forgiveness from John.

Though we are in Advent awaiting the birth of Christ, it is interesting to think about John. John was the son of a priest, the firstborn son and a miraculous one at that. The expectation would have been for John to be a priest, dedicated to the temple and given in service to God. At the temple John would have received offerings of penance according to the Law of Moses. He would have offered forgiveness to the pilgrims that came to confess their sins.

However, John was called to a different life. Instead of being a finely clothed and well received member of the religious society, John lived in the wilderness wearing camel hair rags and eating locusts and honey. Instead of receiving sinners at the temple, John went to the Jordan River to hear their confession.

Tradition holds that John baptized in the Jordan near the spot where Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land. It was there that Israel began a new chapter in their story, where the people finally were set free from wandering and allowed to receive the promise of God. John, baptizing in this place also pointed toward a new beginning and set the people free from wandering though their wilderness was much different and allowed the people to receive again the promise of God.

In today's Gospel lesson we hear the story of John the Baptist again. John the Evangelizer's version is in many ways similar to Mark. Both stories quote Isaiah and tell of John being a witness sent by God. But in John's version we see John the Baptist's perspective a little more clearly. When the priests and the Levites came to the Jordan, they asked John, "Who are you?" They wanted to know what authority John had to do what he was doing in the desert. When they asked if John was the Messiah, or Elijah, or the prophet, John answered, "No."

This seems a bit odd because we know that Jesus identifies John as Elijah. Matthew, Mark and Luke all make the connection in their Gospels, and yet John does not accept the title. Elijah was expected to return. Jewish custom and practice still longs for his coming and the people leave an empty chair at their celebrations so that he will feel welcome. Yet, Elijah's return will be as one with power and authority; he would fix what was wrong. John was not the repairman; he was the herald proclaiming the coming of the One who was to bring light into the darkness.

The priests and the Levites were concerned about John's baptism because it was understood to be a ritual of purification for which they were responsible. John was doing the work of a priest outside the temple, both physically and in terms of authority. He was drawing great crowds and usurping their authority and threatening their positions. Yet John was not concerned about titles, riches or power. He was simply the voice crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way for the Lord. Someone greater was coming and was among them perhaps even standing in the crowd that day. John's actions would eventually lead to his arrest and beheading unrecognized by the crowd as being the sign they were waiting to see.

In some ways the rest of the scriptures for today do not seem to fit this season of Advent, particularly after the direction of the message last week. Mark's description of John the Baptist focuses on his call to repentance. There is no such cry in today's passages. Instead of the people confessing their sins, it is John confessing that he is unworthy. He brings a message of great hope; John came to testify to the light which is our Lord Jesus Christ. This is good news. This is the hope of Christmas.

This weeks passage focus more on the joy of the message. Isaiah says, "I will greatly rejoice in Jehovah, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with a garland, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels." These words are echoed by Mary who says, "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour." Both Isaiah and Mary talk of the good news to the oppressed the brokenhearted will be made whole and the captives will be set free. They offer hope in the midst of loss and fear.

The same joyful hope is found in the psalm for today. The psalmist recognizes that the great works of God in and through His people reveal His presence in this world. When we praise God for His goodness, the nations see His mercy and His grace. "Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the nations, Jehovah hath done great things for them." In our joy we are witnesses to the Lord.

I've never thought of John the Baptist as a particularly joyful person. As a matter of fact, I would think that living in the desert wearing camel hair and eating locusts would make me a cantankerous person. Yet, there was something about John that drew the people to his presence. He had a gift, an anointing, that made them want to listen to him and follow him to the banks of the Jordan. He must have had a joy a joy that was first seen when Mary first visited Elizabeth when she learned that she would bear the Christ child. Elizabeth was pregnant with John at the time and the child in her womb jumped for joy at his very presence in Mary's womb.

The joy of John is different than the joy we expect at Christmastime. At Christmastime we expect everyone to be happy. We are singing songs like "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas" and "Jingle Bells." At this time of gift giving and parties, it seems like we should be happy all the time. And yet, by this time of Advent the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season has worn us down. It is as often a time of depression for folk. We are exhausted, broke and there are a million things we would like to do but can't find the time or finances. Those who have lost loved ones feel the loss especially hard at this time of year. The physical darkness of winter and the nasty weather does not help. Instead of joy and hope, we all too often feel pain and despair. Instead of the fulfillment of promises, we know only disappointment.

Perhaps that's how the Thessalonians were feeling when Paul wrote today's epistle. There was trouble in Thessalonica that caused Paul to leave quickly. He wrote to encourage the church there in the midst of persecution. Though the church was started in the Jewish synagogue, many of the members were converted pagans who were facing persecution in this bustling crossroads town. They needed encouragement to stand through their loss and their fear. I think a great many people could use that message today.

Paul writes, "Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus to you-ward. Quench not the Spirit; despise not prophesyings; prove all things; hold fast that which is good; abstain from every form of evil. And the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." These words seem impossible, especially in the midst of difficulty. Yet Paul adds the word of hope, "Faithful is he that calleth you, who will also do it."

John the Baptist knew that he was unworthy of the task to which he had been called. He did not want anyone to give him credit he was not due or to give him a title which was not his to claim. I wonder how often we get lost in despair and disappointment because we have tried to be something we are not. At Christmastime it is seen in the lives of those trying to do everything and be everything to everyone. We overspend buying too many gifts for all the wrong reasons. We force ourselves to attend every event, to be involved in every project, to go overboard with our preparations. In the midst of it all, we forget the reason we are doing it all.

John said, "In the midst of you standeth one whom ye know not." How many people in our world today do not know Jesus? How many of us miss Him standing in the crowd because we are too busy trying to be something we are not? Last week the message we received from John is a call to repentance a reminder that we are nothing but grass. We will wither and die. This week we receive another message a call to joy. It is not the kind of joy we seek by going to parties and receiving presents. It is the joy that comes from knowing the presence of Christ in our difficulties. With Him we are able to rejoice even through the hard times. As we walk in the peace that comes from Christ, He will shine His light into all the world so that He will be revealed to those who are still living in the darkness. In our joy we will testify to the good news for all the world to hear. Thanks be to God.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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