The third Sunday of Advent ‘Something to shout about’
1 Thess 5 16-24
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
Isaiah 6 1-4 8 –end
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ And he said, ‘Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.”
Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds and turn and be healed.’
Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And he said: ‘Until cities lie waste without inhabitant,
and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remains in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.
John 1 6-8 19-28
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 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. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ ohn answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
May these written words lead us nearer to the living word Jesus Christ.
If last week in Mark’s gospel we met John the Baptist, wearing camel hair and eating locust and honey. This week we do a 180 degree turn and meet a whole different John.
The John of John's Gospel is never called the Baptist. Rather, this is John the Witness. While he is described as baptizing for the repentance of sins, a careful read of John's story of Jesus' baptism does not describe John baptising Jesus. His primary role was to be the one who testifies to the light coming into the world. God is about to order a new creation, a new presence of light in the world but it necessitates a human to point to its presence, otherwise, human as we are, we might not see it. That human is John. He has been about his work – calling people to repent and preparing the way for Jesus.
So at last, after weeks of foreboding, of warnings that the coming of the Lord is not something to take lightly or to meet with unprepared, now at last the excitement begins to mount.
John knows exactly what he is and what he is not. He knows that he is a necessary part of God's unfolding plan, the first actor on the stage, the narrator who sets the scene and lets us know what is to come. There is barely suppressed excitement in his voice as he scans the crowd, waiting for the face that he knows, his cousin Jesus. John and only he will recognize Jesus for who he is. He does not mind that his work will be eclipsed. He understands the job of the herald, both its importance and that it is necessarily only a temporary job. He has no hesitation in applying the words of scripture to himself. He knows that the prophets foretold his coming, and longed to see what he is about to see. John is hugely content to be where he is and what he is.
As soon as John opens his mouth, he brings with him the whole cloud of prophetic witness to what God has been preparing for so long. The Light of the world. Everything tends to look a little different in the light. All you have to do to realize this is to try polishing your car a little too late in the day. The following morning you can see all the bits you have missed, white patches all over the car. Everything tends to look a little different in the light.
Light is not always a welcome visitor into our lives. This is especially true when we want to sleep. The light wakes us up; the light reminds us that we have things to do.
The light reminds us that time is drawing near.
When the light came into the world in the manger at Bethlehem, the world rejected it. Throwing curtains over the windows of their hearts, they preferred the darkness. Why? Why would a people living in darkness want to remain in the dark? Quite simply, because it is easier to stay in the dark than to have to face the light. There are all sorts of things we don’t want to look at in the light of day. The world wants just enough light so that they aren’t scared of the shadows in the room at night. The world wants just enough light so that the danger of stubbing one’s toe is taken away. But spare us the light that makes us squint and blink, and shows up all the hidden dirt. Everything looks a little too different in the light.
As the readings of the past few weeks have indicated not everyone will be pleased to see God, or thrilled by what he has prepared for the world.
That reading from Isaiah – did it make the hairs on your neck stand on end – I always want to shout YES whenever I hear that reading, it is full of joy. It is a joy that John would have recognized and identified with, because it is the joy of the one who has good news for others. It is such a privilege if we have good news to tell someone rather than bad news which gets shared so readily. The joy for the anointed one will be in seeing the faces of the oppressed, the captive, and the bereaved as they hear the good news he brings. But even this, enormous as it is, is secondary. The good news that the anointed one brings is the news that, at last, the earth is to see the full nature and glory of God. Righteousness, salvation, justice and praise will spring up all over the earth because now, finally, we see what God is like. Jesus is God with skin on.
The reading from Thessalonians is the icing on the cake! The Thessalonians are the early church rejoicing in all that Jesus had done for them. Writing to them Paul is perfectly clear that joy should be the natural condition of Christians, quite independent of our outward circumstances. Joy is the gift of the unquenchable Holy Spirit, whose job it is to keep us connected to the life of God offered in Jesus Christ. It is the same bubbling spring of excitement we found in John the Baptist and in Isaiah, the welling up of joy in those who have seen the nature of God, and the unfolding of his work. We only have to look at a wonderful sunset, snowdrops breaking through the snow, a new born baby I could go on and on, the things that make you glad to be alive are the wonder and marvel of a creator God.
This joy is not dependent upon prosperity, health, or luck but like most of God's gifts, it has a purpose. In joy, we turn to the world God has made, and we should become his heralds. Like John the Baptist, we too should announce the coming of Christ, who will bring joy to those who have never experienced it. We too should announce the faithfulness of God, creator, redeemer and bringer of joy. Finally we return to the Light. Have you ever been deep within a cave system when at the opportune time, the guide turns the lights off? Of course, this is not just to show you how dark it is. We all know that. Rather, it is a reminder of the fact that without light, even the smallest speck of light, our eyes will never adjust to the darkness. We could be down in that cave for five minutes, five hours, or five years and still never be able to see our hands in front of our faces. But if we had some light, even the smallest flicker of light from a match would eventually make our eyes adjust and we would be able to see.
So what does it mean to testify to the light?
Do we think of ourselves as witnesses to the light which shines in the darkness? In this time of advent and anticipation, we prepare our welcome for the Word made flesh, our welcome for Jesus this Christmas?
John the Witness reminds us of the importance of pointing to even the tiniest light and saying "Look, behold, the Lamb of God!" Maybe, preparation means simply adjusting our eyes to see light when there seems to be none. God calls us to be witnesses like John who point to Jesus and say "Look!" so that others might know God's love and peace. Perhaps you are thinking how can I point to Jesus, when he is not here?
John says “Make straight the way of the Lord.”
In the Roman Empire, if the emperor himself could not be present at an imperial function his image was escorted in with great pomp and ceremony, with heralds shouting out to the crowd: “Make way for the image of the emperor”. A Rabbi was describing this elaborate ceremony to his congregation and then he said “Before every human being there is an invisible army of angels shouting: “Make way for the image of the image of God. Make way for the image of the image of God.”
This is you and me, of course. We are the image of the image of God. That is astounding, but it is true also of the person ahead of us at the checkout in Sainsbury’s and of the homeless person at the street corner; it is true of the mentally ill man, the nurse, single parent and the addict andyou are getting the picture. It is true of everybody, saint and sinner, long ago, now and as far as we can see into the future.
We are the Images of God.
How can we understand this?
A certain monastery was going through a crisis. Some of the monks had left, there were no new candidates joining, and people were no longer coming for prayer and spiritual direction as they used to. The few monks that remained were becoming old, bitter, and depressed. The relationships between them were becoming stressed and unkind. The Abbot had heard about a holy man, a hermit, living alone in the woods and decided to consult with him regarding their problem. The Abbot told the hermit how the monastery had dwindled and diminished and now looked like a skeleton of what it used to be. Only seven old monks remained. The hermit told the Abbott that he had a secret for him. He informed the Abbott that one of the monks now living in his monastery was actually the Messiah, but he was living in such a way that no one could recognize him. With this revelation, the Abbott went back to his monastery, summoned a community meeting and told them what the holy hermit had said.
The aging monks looked at each other in unbelief, trying to work out who among them could be the Christ. Could it be Brother Mark who prays all the time, but has a “Holier-than-thou” attitude? Could it be Brother Joseph who is always willing to help? But then he is always eating and drinking and can’t fast.
The Abbott reminded them that the Messiah might have adopted some of their bad habits to hide his real identity. This only made them more confused and they could not make any headway figuring out who was the Christ amongst them. From that day, the monks began to treat one another with greater respect and humility, knowing that the person they were speaking to could be Jesus. They began to show more love for one another, their community life became more brotherly, and their prayers more fervent. Slowly people began to take notice of the new spirit in the monastery and began coming back for retreats and spiritual direction. Word began to spread and before long candidates began to show up and the monastery began to grow again in numbers as the monks grew in zeal and holiness. All this because a man of God drew their attention to the truth that Christ was living in their midst as one of them.
The truth of course is that Christ was present in all of them. They like us are the image of God – that is how we point to Jesus. Amen