Sunday, December 11, 2011

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

He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light.

Have you ever gone visited a cave? That’s one of my favorite touristy things to do. There is something fascinating and beautiful about the formations. The stalactites and stalagmites are formed by dripping water leaving behind miniscule amounts of calcium; drop by drop the water leaves behind delicate structures like soda straws, cave bacon and even crystal in the shape of fish tails. Flowstones and cave popcorn are formed when water runs another way. Some cave sites are miles long, room after room of dripping water and beautiful ‘living’ stone.

One typical activity during a cave tour usually happens a spot where the tour group can sit for a moment. The tour guide warns the crowd that it is about to get very dark, explaining that we will understand how dangerous it was for the first discoverers. What would have happened if they lost their only source of light while exploring? Then the tour guide turns off the light. We are left in absolute darkness, so dark that we cannot even see our hands in front of our face. We can turn all the lights out in our house at night, but there is usually still some source of light. The moon and stars provide some light. The streetlights and clocks in our houses provide light. Even if we are in a room with no windows some light usually sneaks underneath the door. We do not really know what it is like to be in total darkness. It is a frightening experience to sit there in the cave, and we know we are safe. Imagine what it might have been for those first explorers, crawling through the dark, through puddles and mud.

After a few moments, perhaps just when the tour guide senses our extreme discomfort, he or she turns on the light again. Sometimes they will begin with just a flashlight, and we can see how hard it would have been for those explorers with so little light. The light of a flashlight only reaches so far, making it difficult to decide which direction to go or to see what else might be in the cave. But then they turn on the lights which have been wired and placed by the developers. We are given a full view of the cave again; we are able to see in the little nooks and crannies, able to see that there is nothing dangerous sharing the cave with us. We are able to see the way out. The tour guide is not the light, but provides access to the light.

John was not the light, but John was a witness to the light. He pointed the way. He pointed at Jesus. There were those who thought John might be the Messiah, but John never said he was. He told them from the beginning about the one who would come after him. This week’s Gospel lesson echoes what we heard last week: John was the one crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. John knew that he was not worthy to be called the Messiah. He did not even think he was worthy to serve Him. Yet, that did not stop John from doing what He was called to do: prepare the way of the Lord.

His task, besides preaching, was to baptize the people for the remittance of sin. The priests and Levites were offended by his boldness. Who was John to baptize? Did he think he was the Messiah? Or Elijah? Or a prophet? John answered that his baptism was nothing. “I baptize in water: in the midst of you standeth one whom ye know not, even he that cometh after me, the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to unloose.” The baptism to come would be far greater than anything John could do. Even now, though, John warned them that they would not even recognize the Messiah. The Messiah was in their midst. He was standing with them on that shore, and they did not know it. It was like John could only turn on the flashlight: the Light would only shine by God’s power.

Many who went to John would never recognize the Messiah because they were not looking for the Servant that God would send. 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 leaders of the Jews were looking for someone strong, someone with earthly authority, someone with military power.

The scriptures today look forward to the ministry of Christ as an adult, which may seem strange as we are preparing for the babe in the manger. We are constantly rushing toward everything, can’t we just enjoy Christmas for what it is? Why do we look ahead to Christ the man while we are waiting for Jesus the baby? Why do we have to see His rejection even before He was born?

We are waiting for a promise, and the promise is not fulfilled in the manger. The baby we celebrate at Christmas is the incarnation of the God who has fulfilled the promises that we hear in today’s Old Testament lesson. Isaiah speaks with his own voice, but also with the voice of the One to come. Isaiah spoke to the Babylonian captives, but the words speak also to those who are imprisoned by other cages. We don’t have to be trapped behind iron bars to be imprisoned. Oppression, broken heartedness, captivity can come in many forms. Isaiah looked forward to the day when the exiles would return to Jerusalem. We look forward to the day when all those who suffer will experience God’s grace.

At Christmas we are faced with the shocking image that God broke into the world: not as a white haired king to rule, but as an innocent and helpless child who lived and loved and learned about the world just like you and I. Yet that infant was different. He was not just another human born into a cruel and chaotic world. He was, and is, the Word in flesh. So, while we see the image of God in the manger at Christmas, and adore the image of the baby in His mother's arms, we are reminded that the baby also came for a purpose: to glorify God in the most shocking and horrifying manner. He lived and loved and served, but He came to die. He came knowing that He would be rejected by the very people to whom He was sent.

A few were blessed with the faith to believe. John knew Jesus the moment He was revealed. The disciples knew Jesus as He taught them about God. Mary knew Jesus from the moment she conceived, and she praised God for the promise that was to come with His birth. God chose to redeem the world by taking on the very shape of the creature that has done the most damage—the one who was created in His image but turned away—man. God came in flesh to save the world. God chose a young woman living in Nazareth to be the vessel of this great gift. Her purpose was to bear the Christ child. The good news that brings us such joy at Christmastime could not have been very good news for Mary. Yet, despite the suffering she would experience, the rejection and the ridicule, Mary rejoiced in Her blessedness. She would be a torchbearer, too.

Mary received the news with joy. She accepted her purpose in life with thanksgiving and praise. Could we praise God if we found out that we have been chosen to do the impossible? She may not have completely understood the plan. She may not have realized that her son would be brutally murdered at the end of His life, but she gave herself over to the call of God without fear or doubt. She saw her purpose and willingly faced it. She echoes the words of Isaiah, praising God for fulfilling the promises He made to their forefathers. “And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour,” she sings.

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. We are the ones with the flashlight.

But Paul takes this joy to an extreme. “Rejoice always,” he says. How is that possible, especially at this time of year? 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 the middle of Advent we begin to get worn out. 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 why we are reminded of the big picture on the third Sunday of Advent. If we were waiting just for a baby in a manger, it would not be easy to remain joyful. But we are waiting for more: we are waiting for a Savior. Though it might seem impossible to rejoice always, but it are the very acts that Paul encourages that will give us the strength to face the hard times.

This passage finishes with these words from Paul, “Faithful is he that calleth you, who will also do it.” We can trust in the promises. The good news is that we will not always be oppressed or imprisoned. We will not be brokenhearted forever. We will be set free from whatever has held us captive. We will know the favor of the Lord. Those who mourn will experience joy once again, even though it does not seem possible. We don’t have to laugh to rejoice, we simply have to trust that God will help us through.

The rest of Paul’s words in today’s passage do not seem any easier, “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.” This is a great deal to ask of us. We cannot uphold all these expectations. We can’t rejoice always. We can’t pray without ceasing. We can’t, or don’t, give thanks in all circumstances. It just is beyond the ability of our flesh. We will doubt what we hear, and we should question every word, until we are sure that it comes from God. Our grasp is tenuous, and no matter how hard we try we will let go of what is good and we will fall into that which is evil. But through it all, the God who calls us is faithful and He will be with us and will help us through. He will help us to rejoice, pray, give thanks, listen, accept, grasp and abstain. And He will forgive us when we fail and give us another chance to live faithfully according to His Word.

We aren’t the light. The Christmas season isn’t about what we will do. This season is about God and what He did. Thankfully, it isn’t about us. We are going to fail. We are going to get too caught up in the commercial aspects of Christmas, buying gifts for all the wrong reasons. We’ll hang too many Christmas lights and bake too many cookies. We’ll forget to pray and we’ll get so wrapped up in ourselves that we will miss the opportunities to live, love and serve God’s creation in a way that will glorify Him. But we are reminded in these final days before Christmas that God came in flesh to fulfill His promises. He is faithful and He will use our gifts to shine His light in the world. He will be glorified despite our failure to live up to the purpose for which we have been created and called. But as we live lives of rejoicing, prayer and thanksgiving, we will shine the light so others might be able to see in the darkness. We are no more worthy than John, but we are given the flashlight help others find the way. We don’t offer anything spectacular, but the One to whom we point will change hearts and spirits by His grace.

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