Sunday, December 14, 2014

Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Turn again our captivity, O Jehovah, as the streams in the South.

Today's verse can be translated "Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negev." The Negev is a desert/semi-desert region of southern Israel. There are wadis or dry riverbeds scattered around the region; they run strong only briefly after rain. I live in South Texas and we know what it is like to see the dry creek beds across the landscape. Many of these run over the back country roads; when it rains the creeks quickly fill, leaving those who want to cross stranded until the water recedes. There are numerous creeks that are so large that they appear more like rivers, rising ten or even twenty feet above normal, but when it is try they are nothing more than dirt and rocks. Long periods of draught allow grasses and shrubs to grow. I look forward to driving over the bridges that cross these creeks after a rainstorm; it is a joy to see the water running again because that means the refreshing and life-giving rain has fallen on our region. The creeks don't last long after a single day of rain, but if we have a wet season, they can run wild for weeks.

The psalmist brings our thoughts to the joy of God's people when He has showered His grace upon them. This is a hymn sung by the returning exiles. They were happy that God was restoring them to their home; they would once again dwell in the shadow of His temple. Can you imagine the scene? These people who had been in captivity for much too long, traveling on the road back home. They were laughing and singing, a stream of people bubbling with joy along the path. They proclaimed the Good News: God set them free! It was tough to be carried away into captivity, the tears must have run strong, but God stopped the tears as He took them home, restoring their fortunes, turning their captivity. The desert filled with life.

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.

Joy. This is the season of joy and we spend a lot of time and money to make it joyful. We have parties, buy presents, and decorate. We watch happy television shows and bake dozens of delicious sweets. We take our children to sit on Santa's knee and go to Christmas pageants filled with singing. It is a joyful time. The third Sunday of Advent is often called Gaudete Sunday because it focuses on joy. "Gaudete" refers to the first word of the introit (opening of the liturgical celebration of the Lord's Supper) of the mass, and means "rejoice." Our scriptures for this Sunday certainly speak of joy. Besides the joy of the freed captives, Isaiah talks about rejoicing in the Lord for all He has done, and Paul tells the Thessalonians to rejoice always.

We get confused, though, because we live in this time when joy or happiness is tied so closely to physical and material things. We talk about the joy of the season and we do what we can to create that joy for ourselves and those we love, but we often fail, don't we? Unfortunately, there are many people who are dealing with troubles during this time and joy is the last thing on their mind. They are worried about how they are going to pay the bills, whether they will have enough money to pay the rent so that they will have a roof over their head. They know that there will be no money for Christmas presents and that their kids will have to settle for baloney sandwiches rather than a meal with roast turkey and all the fixings. They aren't planning parties, they are praying for a warm winter so that they don't have to turn up the heat.

Others are dealing with illness or loneliness. This is the first Christmas that many will spend without a parent or spouse. Mothers will mourn over the children that died in infancy. Terminally ill patients often linger through the holidays to spend one last Christmas with those they love, and their families face the reality that they will be gone soon. Some people have had to move too far from family and do not have the money to go home for the holidays, or their jobs do not allow them the time for a vacation. They will be alone for the holiday, struggling to find the joy.

Most of us are probably not facing such desperate times that we won't be happy this Christmas, but the words of Paul really strike us as impossible. "Rejoice always." I'm a pretty happy person, and not giddily happy, but content, and yet I have moments when I just can't rejoice. I get angry and I've been hurt by those I loved. I have felt so sick with a cold or flu that I was sure I would not live to see another day. I've worried about how to pay my bills and missed people who are far away on earth and in heaven. I can't be joyful all the time.

But Paul says, "Rejoice always." He goes on to say, "Pray without ceasing" and "In everything give thanks." There was an episode of "The Big Bang Theory" where Leonard and Penny got into an argument over the use of the word "always." Penny said, "You always do that," which Leonard took very badly. He said that using the word "always" is an exaggeration that makes the offense worse. In this case it isn't an offense, it is an unrealistic expectation.

Paul next says, "For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus to you-ward." See, a life of rejoicing, of prayer and of thanksgiving is what God wants for us. It isn't about the emotion of the action or the response, but about living constantly in the presence of God. The Israelites were set free from captivity, but we have been set free from something even greater: sin and death. If their mourning and tears were turned to singing and joy, should we not have even more joy? They were restored to their home; we've been restored to the Kingdom of God. We have been invited to dwell in the presence of God always; that life is one of rejoicing, conversation and praise because God has done the greatest thing for us.

Paul goes on to say, "Quench not the Spirit; despise not prophesyings; prove all things; hold fast that which is good; abstain from every form of evil." These are hard, too, because we live in an imperfect world. There are times when we can't help but quench the Spirit, both in our own lives and in the lives of others. We fear that we, or they, are on a wrong path. How do we know that a prophet speaks the truth? In our world today so many even argue about what is good and evil. Sadly, many have turned it upside down: the good is evil and the evil is good. How do we live this life? We trust in God.

Paul writes, "Faithful is he that calleth you, who will also do it." We cannot uphold all the expectations in this passage. We can't rejoice always. We can't pray without ceasing. We can't, or don't, give thanks in all circumstances. It is beyond our ability in the 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 was born in that manger and died on that cross to bridge the chasm we had created by rebelling against Him. 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.

The people wanted to know John the Baptist. They wanted to know who he was and where he came from. They were so taken by his ministry that they even wondered if he was the one for whom they had been waiting. He quickly put that rumor to rest, saying that he was not the Christ. "Well," the people asked, "if you aren't the Messiah, are you Elijah? Elijah was expected to return to announce the coming of the Christ. As a matter of fact, the Jewish people are still looking for Elijah's return. They set a place for him at their Seder tables and hope that he will come soon. It was natural for them to think that perhaps John the Baptist was Elijah. John said, "No."

If John wasn't the Christ and he wasn't Elijah, then perhaps he was the Prophet. In this case they were referring to the prophet described in Deuteronomy 18:15, "Jehovah thy God will raise up unto thee a prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken." John emphatically denied being this Prophet, too.

John wasn't being unduly humble by denying that he was either Elijah or the Prophet. Instead, John denied identification with the Old Testament promises because he knew that the work of God's kingdom that he had been sent to do had nothing to do with him. If he accepted the role of Elijah, or the Prophet, the people would put too much authority and power into his hands, authority and power that was not his to have. He denied those roles because it was never about him. It was always about Jesus.

John the Baptist was given the most extraordinary task of paving the way for Christ the Lord. Were the people ready? Too many came looking for baptism without truly understanding what Jesus was coming to do. They were ready to lift up John to be something he wasn't. When Jesus came, they did the same to Him, expecting an earthly king rather than an eternal Savior.

The priests and the Levites were concerned about John's baptism because it was a ritual of purification for which they were responsible. 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 by God 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.

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. 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, which the crowd did not recognize as the sign they were waiting to see. John’s purpose was to point to the gift.

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 cantankerous, but 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 joy, although it would have been hard for us to identify it as joy.

John was not the light; 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. That did not stop John from doing what He was called to do: prepare the way of the Lord.

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. I wonder how often we get lost in despair and disappointment because we have tried to be something we are not. We see it at Christmastime as we struggle 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 always. This is a joy that should be shared and so we are called, like John the Baptist, to share the light of Christ with the world.

We have been set free and are on our way to our eternal home; God has restored us to Himself through Jesus Christ, the Son whom we await this Advent. Let's be like the Israelites and the overflowing streams in the Negev, unable to contain ourselves, singing and laughing as we glorify God with our praise and thanksgiving. As we do so, we'll see the fulfillment of the promise in today's Psalm: "Then said they among the nations, Jehovah hath done great things for them."

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