December 17, 2017

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

He who calls you is faithful, who will also do it.

I have to admit that I’m struggling over the problem of what to get my family for Christmas. Gift cards seem so impersonal, and yet I’m leaning toward them this year. I have a few ideas, but nothing that would be particularly special on Christmas morning. I have the added problem of ensuring my daughter can take her presents with her on her flight home. I suppose I haven’t been any more helpful with ideas. I don’t need anything that others can buy for me and I have gotten to the point that I simply don’t want more stuff.

We have had Christmases in the past with piles of presents under the tree. Family from far away always sent money so we could buy the children gifts. We also bought them several from us and from Santa. I worked hard to make sure that we used every available resource to ensure the children had the same number of packages to open. One year I realized that they had more than twenty gifts each under the tree! From that day we decided not to go overboard and the money was saved for another time. I still find myself trying to keep things balanced. Even Bruce and I worry about whether we are keeping things equal under the tree.

The struggle was real on a Christmas episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Raymond and Robert were planning a weekend trip to play golf, but Raymond had to convince Debra to let him go. He decided the best way to do so was to make her very happy and then ask her when she was in a good mood. If she was happy, she would surely want him to be happy. Christmas Day was the perfect opportunity. Robert happened to walk in a room when Debra was wrapping his present. She lied and said that it was for Raymond. Robert excitedly told Ray about the gift, and so Ray chose a present for Debra that would be better than an ugly tie. It was a nice gift, two actually. Debra was thrilled. Then she gave Robert his present: the tie. The men were shocked. Debra admitted her lie and then brought Ray his gift: a DVD player and a bunch of movies. Ray was disappointed because he thought he had to buy something worth more money than what she bought him. Sadly, he missed how happy she was that he bought something she really wanted. She was happy, but he was sad because he was happy about his gift, too.

Isn’t it silly how caught up we get in the Christmas present race? We buy too many gifts out of duty or because we are using it to get something for ourselves. We think we have to spend so much money and buy for everyone. We are so concerned with giving something, anything, that we don’t even both buying a present. We buy gift cards. And while we might be purposeful in choosing the store, what point is there in giving a gift card to someone who will probably just give us a gift card back. That’s not much different than just handing each other twenty-dollar bills.

But it is hard. We all have so much. Christmas is no longer about getting that one special toy for a child because the child has probably convinced Mom and Dad to buy it for them on a regular trip to the grocery store. Does anyone really need another dust-catcher? Clothing is hard because we don’t all have the same taste and what size should we buy? A gift card is a simple solution to an age-old problem.

We are right to consider how Christmas has become too commercial and the misplaced focus on the day. I’ve heard many people talk about how they are going to cut back every year so that they can center on the real reason for the season: Jesus. But gift-giving is very much a part of Christmas. The first and most important gift is Jesus Christ, born for our sake and salvation. The nativity story has examples of gift giving. Gift giving is a part of the ministry of Jesus and the early church. Consider the woman with the alabaster jar of perfume, Barnabas who gave the prophet from the sale of property to the Apostles and Dorcus who gave handmade robes and clothes to the poor. Our problem is not gift-giving, but rather the motivation of our gift giving.

We are reminded that the type of gifts that God gave were not material. In the passage from Isaiah we see the miraculous things God has done. Jesus came to accomplish these things for His people. Jesus came to preach good tidings to those humble enough to listen. The Gospel is the greatest gift because it is eternal life for those who believe. Jesus healed the sick, but dis-ease is more than just physical. Jesus heals our bodies and our souls. Jesus freed those who were imprisoned, not behind bars of iron but those trapped by sin and death. Jesus brought grace. He comforted those who mourn. He gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf and feet to the lame.

We may not be able to give physical healing to the people suffering in this world, but we can share Jesus. And we can consider our gifts more carefully. Instead of trying to get a gift that will fulfill our duty or keep things equal, let us look more closely at those to whom we wish to give ourselves, that we might touch their hearts honestly and deeply, so that they will truly be happy. Christmas is a time of joy, and much of that joy comes from what we place under the tree, yet the joy that God desires for us has nothing to do with the stuff we buy and wrap to give one another.

The psalmist brings our thoughts to the joy of God’s people when He has showered His grace upon them. This was 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.

Joy. 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, but we often fail. Unfortunately, there are many people who are dealing with troubles that 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, but the words of Paul in today’s epistle text really strike us as impossible. I’m a pretty happy person, and not giddily happy, but content, and yet I have moments when I have difficulty finding joy. 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. Paul writes, “Rejoice always.” How is that even possible? We have good times and we have bad times. Even Jesus wept; it is foolish and unhealthy to ignore those feelings. Sorrow is a natural part of life and can offer healing and growth.

“Pray without ceasing.” Paul must not have had a day job. How can we spend every minute of every day in prayer? Most of us have trouble coming up with five minutes a day to set aside to talk with our Father in heaven. Oh, many of us will pray while we are doing other things: I like to pray while I’m driving and doing the dishes. But is it enough to chit chat with God while we are doing other things? Don’t we get distracted by the other drivers on the road or that stubborn greasy stain on our pot?

“In everything give thanks.” Everything? Should I give thanks when the cats spit up a hairball on my newly cleaned carpet? How about when my checking account is near zero and I still have bills to pay? Should I be thankful when the storms flood my house or a drunk hits my car? How can I be thankful when I am afraid of what tomorrow holds?

“Quench not the Spirit,” Paul says. But do we really know when it is the Spirit talking? My church, along with many other churches, are dealing with the questions we face living in today’s world. Where do we go from here? Are those who want change speaking for the Spirit? Or is the Spirit speaking through those who believe that we should hold to traditional values? Is God speaking through that dirty, smelly stranger on the street corner preaching a message of repentance? Or is He speaking through the protesters who are marching on City Hall? Which message does He want us to hear? Should we allow those other voices continue to cause confusion in an already chaotic world?

“Despise not prophesyings.” I have to admit that I find this one especially difficult because I have experienced prophets who prophesy messages that fall far from God’s good and perfect Word, and they love this text. Anyone who questions the authority of their words is labeled as an unbeliever and destined for hell. Paul says to “prove all things” and yet this is often difficult. How do we prove faith? How do we prove the things of faith when there is so much in the world which seemingly disproves everything we believe?

“Hold fast to that which is good.” This sounds easy, and yet how often have we lost touch with the things that are really good? Even now, as we wander through Advent, are we really paying attention? Are we spending so much of our time busy with Christmas preparations that we forget to spend time in prayer and thanksgiving? Are we so worried about whether or not we have picked the perfect presents that we forget that God first gave us the perfect gift: Jesus?

“Abstain from every form of evil.” This makes sense, and we try. But how many of us can honestly say that we can abstain from every form of evil, even for a day? In Luther’s Small catechism we are taught that every commandment is not only a message of what not to do, but what we should do to keep our neighbor from suffering. In other words, it is not enough to obey the “shall nots”; we are expected to also do the things that will make life better for others. We shall not murder or endanger or harm our neighbors, but instead help and support our neighbors in all life’s needs. To keep food from the hungry is to do them harm.

This is a great deal to ask of us. Yet, there is comfort in this passage, the greatest comfort we can be given. Paul writes, “He who calls you is faithful, who will also do it.” 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 will we 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.

John the Baptist was a faithful one, and despite his oddness the people wanted to know him. 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 described in Deuteronomy 18:15, “Yahweh your God will raise up to you a prophet from among you, of your brothers, like me. You shall listen to him.” John emphatically denied being this Prophet, too. Now, Jesus refers to John the Baptist as Elijah in Matthew’s gospel and John certainly fulfilled the description of the Prophet in Deuteronomy. Why would John deny being either? He wasn’t being unduly humble; John knew that if he had accepted the role of Elijah or the Prophet, the people would have 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 was not the light, but John was a witness to the light. He pointed the way. He pointed at Jesus. 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? John answered that his baptism was nothing. “I baptize in water, but among you stands one whom you don’t know. He is the one who comes after me, who is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I’m not worthy to loosen.” 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.

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, “Among you stands one whom you don’t know.” How many people in our world today still 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 exchanging 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.

When we read the words of Paul to the Thessalonians, it seems like an impossible expectation to which we’ve been called. Yet, we are reminded of John the Baptist who 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. We are like John, sent to share the light of Christ. We are reminded that we are not the light. We are simply sent to bear witness to the light.

It isn’t about us. It is about God. 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 God is faithful and He will use our gifts to His glory despite our failure to live up to the purpose for which we have been created and called.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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