Who are you? Who, who, who, who? – December 17, 2017

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday of Advent
December 17, 2017

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28; Psalm 126

“Well, who are you? who are you? who, who, who, who?
Come on and tell me, who are you? who, who, who, who”

You might recall those lyrics by the English rock band, The Who, released in 1978 and later the theme song for the popular TV series CSI. It would have made a good lead in song for today’s Gospel, well, except for the profanity in the original version.

“Who are you?”

That’s also the question the priests and Levites have for John the Baptist.

Who are you? I am not the Messiah.

Who are you? I am not Elijah.

Who are you? I am not the prophet.

Unlike Matthew and Mark’s Gospel which paint a very colorful picture of John the Baptist for us, John’s Gospel asks us to figure him out for ourselves based on what he says. This testimony of John is a series of responses to the priests’ and Levites’ Questions. It is more about who John is not than who he is. Flustered by his answers, they finally ask who the heck he thinks he is baptizing if he’s nether the Messiah nor the prophet nor Elijah.

“I’m not sure myself,” John tells them, “I just know I must wait for the one coming after me and that I’m not worthy to fiddle with his shoelaces.” Yet for all his uncertainty, John knew exactly what his job was: to testify to the light, to be the voice in the wilderness, to make straight the path of the Lord.” 

That light of which John speaks is light that is sorely needed in a dark world, a world full of violence, pain and conflict, in which the poor are still poor, the brokenhearted are still grieving, the oppressed still await liberation and justice. The powerful words of Isaiah

look straight into the face of a dark world and proclaim that, no matter what humankind may think, this world still belongs to God—and therein lies our hope.

Fleming Rutledge, one of the first women to be ordained in the Episcopal Church,  once offered this perspective: “Oddly, of all the seasons of the year, Advent preaching is the easiest, at least in my opinion. Why is that? It is because Advent is about a world in darkness, and it is not at all difficult to show that this is a world of darkness, certainly not at this period in our history. Advent is therefore a season in which to help one another to face up to the truth about the human race in general and also the truth about ourselves.”

“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” says John.

The wilderness was a concept that John’s audience would have understood well. The Hebrew people had experienced many periods of exile, captivity, oppression, and disruption. The Isaiah passage we heard today was written in the context of the Babylonian captivity of the Jewish people in the sixth century B.C. The text has to do with restoration and renewal through the ministry of healing.

Isaiah, as the anointed one, was called and chosen by God to invite the people to receive favor from God. It is in the wilderness that John the Baptist, is calling another community to receive God’s favor in the person of the one who is coming after him—Jesus, the Messiah.

The passage from Isaiah is the very same text that Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue of his hometown Nazareth when he began his public ministry. It is a dangerous text because it got him in deep trouble. In fact, they ran him out of town. When Jesus had finished reading from the scroll, he looked them square in the eye and said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Then he sat down—a sign to the Jewish people present that he was in charge. Sitting in the midst of his peers was a declaration of his authority. He was affirming that this world still belongs to God

Two thousand years later we hear this same message of hope and expectation today. The passage is rich in imagery and identifies three categories of people that pretty much constitute all of humanity. Who among us does not feel somewhat oppressed by the seemingly unending barrage  bad news that invades our lives everyday—news of violence, sickness, racism, terrorism, natural disasters, war and threats of more war, poverty, homelessness—an endless list.

What does the wilderness mean for you? Is it that dark space in which you find yourself when some life issue seems to be sucking the life out of you? Is it a place of emptiness and bleakness following the loss of a job, relationship, health or loved one? Could it be the very atmosphere right now in this unbelievably troubled world and the dark cloud of anxiety, fear or anger that seems to hover over us?

Have any of us not had our hearts broken at least once in our lifetime or seen a dream shattered to pieces? And in how many ways have we become captive to addictions and infatuations, and hostage to a pervasive climate of worry and apprehension about the future?

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. God keeps the covenant made with God’s people. But even more than that, God is a God of salvation who brings favor, comfort, gladness, relief, and restoration.

The prophet Isaiah offers us the image of wedding apparel, the garment of praise that symbolizes something new happening for the people of God. John the Baptist echoes the good news of the prophet and points us to a new dimension: we need to stop living dressed in the garment of death and mourning and put on the clothing of a people who believe that God has given us life and given it abundantly.

Despite John’s picturing God as a steely-eyed harvester of grain who would give you the axe and toss you into the fire for your sins—and in spite of his fanaticism and severe asceticism of which Jesus would have no part— if we look hard enough and read between the lines we are able to see in and through him a critical function for the community of faith, that is often overlooked. For John is, under these excessive external qualities, a hope-bearer and hope is too precious to be soft-pedaled. Take hope out of the equation of life and you take away lie itself, because hope is faith facing the future.

So with our rose-colored vestments and the call to “rejoice” on this Third Sunday of Advent, we can do so if it feels right and we can abstain if we’re just not there.

Author Joan Chittister offers us some perspective on it all:

“It is while waiting for the coming of the reign of God, Advent after Advent, that we come to realize that its coming depends on us.

What we do will either hasten or slow, sharpen or dim our own commitment to do our part to bring it. Waiting—that cold, dry period of life when nothing seems to be enough and something else beckons within us—is the grace that Advent comes to bring.”

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