Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
61:1 The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
61:2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
61:3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
61:4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
61:8 For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
61:9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.
61:10 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
61:11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
1:46b “My soul magnifies the Lord,
1:47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
John 1:6-8, 19-28
1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
1:7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
1:19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”
1:20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”
1:21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.”
1:22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
1:23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,'” as the prophet Isaiah said.
1:24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.
1:25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?”
1:26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know,
1:27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
1:28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Here we are in our third week of Advent, visiting for a second week in a row, the ministry and proclamation of John, the cousin of Jesus. For those of you who are ready for baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, some wise men, and shepherds keeping watch over their fields in the night, I promise you that next week we’ll have some more Christmas(y) scripture readings. The scriptures will at least give an indication that Mary is pregnant and aware that the Most High God is coming into creation as a child, flesh and bones just like us. But we’re not quite there yet, not quite ready to hear the earth transforming, life changing good news of the Incarnation of God. So we find ourselves still in a place of preparation and anticipatory urgency. In other words, we’re waiting, probing, trying to get a handle on what the prophets of old have said we should keep an eye for when the Messiah comes.
So instead of stories about a pregnant Mary visiting family and making preparations, we are gifted by the lectionary with a second week of John the Baptist in his public ministry. Last week, the focus of John’s ministry at least from the Gospel of Mark’s perspective is one in which the assembly is called to repentance. Change your hearts. Change your lives. Clean up the unswept corners. Turn toward a new direction and live in a greater fullness of love of God and neighbor. Don’t keep going down the same beaten trails expecting a different outcome. Change course. This line of proclamation is preparatory-it takes self awareness, introspection, and honesty to look into your life or the life of a loved one and recognize that all is not well. It then takes a double portion of courage to own up to God and others for some mistakes, bad decisions, or excursions down unfruitful trails. Lord, forgive me; Lord, help me.
John is that fiery prophet standing on the banks of River Jordan telling those within earshot a bit more truth than they are accustomed to hear. In Matthew’s account of John the Baptist, he greets the religious elite as a family of snakes when they go out to the River Jordan to see what kind of works he is performing. I think John might have made a few more friends with a softer greeting but he makes the point well. You’re a family of vipers and you need to turn in a new direction toward God. A little later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus draws upon the same image in asking the Pharisees how they’re going to escape the fires of hell like snakes slithering away from a field that a farmer has set on fire to prepare for a new growing season.
I suppose it’s no surprise then that one of the most well-known sermons in American history, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards, invokes similar fiery imagery to provoke or scare folks into changing their lives. By the way, I don’t think this is an effective way of sharing God’s grace but listen all the same.
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.
The account we have of John the cousin of Jesus today is not the fiery preacher calling folks to get right with the Lord-far from the style of Preacher Edwards. The Johannine Gospel brings us a John the Baptist who is not calling for repentance but in the midst of an identity crisis. Who are you? A prophet? The messiah? Elijah? Moses? Who are you and what are you doing out here?
John is a witness, a judicial witness, like one who is testifying in a courtroom or in a deposition. What he has to say about Jesus, the Messiah, the one who is coming after him is absolutely true, unassailable, and his valid experience. John’s primary role is as a witness, the primary witness to the Light of God coming into the world. John isn’t the divine light-he points toward it. He speaks about it. He offers up testimony so that others might become illumined to the work of God in the world. To testify is to bear witness and bearing witness is the linguistic root for martrydom. The martyrs of the church, especially the ancient church, are the ones who were brought into public spaces of power and affirmed that they had seen and experienced the transformative grace of God in Jesus Christ, despite every kind of accusation and slander that sought to undermine the validity of their testimony. They could point with accuracy to an event and attribute it to the Spirit of the Living God at work in their life and the life of the assembly.
We would all do well to follow part of the example of John the Baptizer and the martyrs as they offer testimony and witness for the reign and justice of God in the world. They point past themselves toward Christ, like a signpost. There’s a Renaissance piece of art, the Grunewald Isenheim Altarpiece, that was crafted over 500 years ago. In it is depicted the Crucified Christ with John the Baptist standing in the foreground holding the Holy Scriptures in his hand with a citation reading ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’ At John’s feet is a Paschal lamb holding a cross in the crook of its leg. Even though John the Baptizer isn’t often depicted at the crucifixion because he had been beheaded long before by Herod, in this depiction, his long index finger is pointed directly at the crucified Christ. How appropriate. In pointing past himself, John is able to serve as a witness for the light of God breaking into the darkness.
This week, Thursday night, the darkness will seem a bit longer for it is. The longest night of the year is a stark reminder of how much we need the Advent and Christmas stories. Divine light must break into the darkness and bring full illumination. The good news is that when light breaks in, even in small doses, it drives out the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
On this Advent Sunday, I’m reminded of how many families in this community and across creation will feel the weight of that long night as grief lingers too closely. Widows will weep in the midnight darkness for a beloved and parents will wail for their little one. And the weight of shadows will set in for those who in a perceived joyous season can’t find joy because the grip of depression isn’t letting go. I don’t really need to tell you how many folks have a good grip on the textures of darkness and yearn for divine light to break through.
But what is always worth the reminder is that every single day, there are witnesses testifying to the grace of God at work in the world. They are bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God, and comforting all who mourn. There are individuals and entire communities that are lighting candles in the darkest of places to expose the most vile and inhumane conditions human beings have created for one another. I hope that folks are emboldened this third Advent Sunday by John’s ministry of testifying to the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ to tell the truth, to point to divine light, and send darkness on its way.
There is a strong tradition in the Christian faith to tell the truth of God’s grace in Jesus Christ like the world depends on it. So my ask of you is this: in a world that is hope hungry, will you identify just one sphere in which you live, work, or play where shadows linger too closely? Then in a way of your own creating, will you give witness of God’s grace in Christ that will push darkness at least a few steps back? Someone’s fullness of life is depending on that witness.
Bless you in the name of the One who is always coming toward us. Amen.