Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday of Advent – December 14, 2014
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me…”
This is for me both one of my favorite and most challenging passages of the Scripture and it’s given to us on this Third Sunday of Advent, a day we typically called “Rejoicing” Sunday and don rose colored vestments, the color of joy.
These are powerful words. “Bring good news to the oppressed; bind up the brokenhearted; comfort the mourning…” For me it implies that we give people peace instead of war; give them what they need to live a decent life; bring them the Good News of God’s unfailing and unconditional love. Tell people that they are not alone and that a faith community like ours is there for them.
Isaiah points to what so many people long for every day of their lives: the great reversal. The poor whose lives have for so long been filled with nothing but bad news get the gift of good news. Those detained in dungeons and prisons of all kinds get promised their freedom. Those who for years have spent so many days wetting handkerchiefs with their tears get comforted and steered toward a day of smiles and laughter. Ashes get blown away to make way for sparkling crowns. The drab shrouds of mourning get replaced with festive and colorful garments fit for a really great party. People who for too long have felt like dead wood are promised that they will soon stand as tall and sturdy as the majestic oak tree.
We can never underestimate how badly people to whom long for just such reversals. Even those who are not outwardly imprisoned, even those who by all worldly standards are far from being poor in any economic sense, even those whose attire seem far away from garments of rags and whose heads are not laden with ashes: even they long for the day of the great reversal.
This is Nelson Mandela emerging from his jail cell after so many years of unjust incarceration and taking the oath of office as president of the very nation that had locked him away for 27 years. This is East German families streaming through the cracks in the Berlin Wall to embrace loved ones who for decades had lived both three miles away and a million miles away on the other side of the wall.
Our faith tradition has a long list of people whom God has raised up and anointed as God’s messengers to act, speak out, and cause us to sit up straight and pay attention. Moses, a stammering shepherd, confronted the most mighty military force with a staff and a mandate from a God who was manifested in a burning bush.
Sarah and Abraham left their comfortable and expansive home in Haran to go to an unknown place to begin a new life at their very advanced age. There is Isaiah who walked through the land barefoot and naked as a flabbergasting sign to the Israelites to abandon their alliance with Egypt and put their trust in the One, True God.
The prophet Exekiel would never have passed the psychological testing administered to those seeking ordination. He displayed outrageous behavior to show that he was bearing the sins of Israel and convince the Hebrews to be faithful to Yahweh.
Then there is John whom we meet again this morning. “Who are you?” asked the priests from the temple in Jerusalem. “I am not the Messiah. I am not Elijah. I am not the prophet.” He answers. Then why the heck are you baptizing and preaching if you are a nobody? If you’re not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the prophet then you must be a fraud, a charlatan. John was real clear about who he was not but he was also very aware of who he was and what he had been called to do: to be that one, unmistakable voice crying out in the wilderness, pointing his finger—not in judgment but in direction—to where we all need to go in our head and in our heart. “You have to get out of the past,” he says, if you want to discover the wonder of the future.”
The image of John that is conjured up is of a fanatic fire and brimstone preacher, spewing forth platitudes of judgment and condemnation. Or he is dismissed as a crazy person who has eaten one too many bugs—harmless, emaciated but, nevertheless, a bit nuts.
There is, indeed, a long list of “fools” for God and we have experienced them in our own lifetime—those who by the unfathomable grace of the Holy Spirit make it through the blockades of correctness and acceptable behavior to get our attention. Dorothy Day, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, Simone Weil, Desmond Tutu, Oscar Romero, Mother Theresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rosa Parks, Harvey Milk.
Someone once said that in a world gone mad, the revealer and guardian of truth is invariably dismissed as a lunatic, an indictment faced by Jesus himself.
Today Isaiah and John, prophets of truth, crash into our pre-holiday lives amidst the sound of Jungle Bells ringing through the malls and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. John the Baptist and Isaiah before him bring us a simple yet startling message of good news. It is this: God is faithful to God’s word and promises.
We, like the Hebrews whom Isaiah and John challenged, live in difficult, uncertain, times. But what is still true is what God has promised to remain in covenant with us. We can’t change the reality of the times. We can change how we will respond to them and how we will live as people of faith. We can mope in the ashes of gloom or we can put on a garland of hopefulness and be anointed with the oil of gladness.
Theologian and bishop, Lesslie Newbigen, asks in his work The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, “How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer is a congregation of women and men who believe it and live by it.”
Think about this: The Gospel begs the question “Who are we?” How do we identify ourselves in the world? How do we testify to the light? How do we act, speak out, or live in heads-turning ways that cause the rank and file to wake up and pay attention to what needs to change in order for God’s realm to materialize.
Scratch the surface of anyone’s life and you’ll find just below that outwardly calm-looking surface a world of hurts of which we may be totally unaware. So we offer hope to the person who wishes his life had turned out more exciting, more fulfilling than it did. We offer healing to those whose relationship was never all it was cracked up to be. We offer comfort to those whose bank accounts are full and whose hearts are empty as well as to those whose hearts are full but eke out a meager existence. We offer support to the lonely who never could find the love of their lives and to the minorities who were forever made to feel inferior by others.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon you, because the God has anointed you; God has sent you to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
That’s who we are. We have been made in God’s image and likeness. Isaiah and John are just reminding us to live as if we believe it.