Sermon for Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2020
Read Pastor Julie's sermon as shared on Facebook Live. Visit https://www.facebook.com/saronstrasburg each Sunday at 8:30 a.m. for a brief live service of scripture, prayer, and a sermon by Pastor Julie. Theme: Love/Right-ness Isaiah 61:1–4, 8–11 | 1 Thessalonians 5:16–24 | John 1:6–8, 19–28
John the Baptist gets his air time during Advent, which has often left me scratching my head. I mean, he’s not the “real thing” right? So why two Sundays in Advent? In short, it helps remind us to sharpen our hearing and attend to a message and reality that gets drowned out in the urgency of living and our conflicted feelings; as well as remind us of our own role as people who can share what this is like. (Witnesses)
First, this word “voice” is a fun one. (Sorry—more word studies: And it's only getting worse with these long dark evenings and now I find more educational shows on things like languages…) In Greek the word “voice” is where—today—we get the word for that small computer that most of you now carry around—that used to be the thing hanging on the wall with a cord: That is, “phone.” Or in Greek, phoné. John calls himself the phoné that is crying out—or yelling out—which is what a voice DOES to get your attention. Phones do things like ring or ding or play your favorite song from the 80’s to get your attention; with a call, but maybe a text or facebook post. The action of John, here—then, is something like a phone. It’s something that gets your attention for the sake of a message.
One thing we see about John the baptizer right away is that he doesn’t let his own popularity or even eccentricity get in the way: As we hear is true about the real prophets, there’s no ego-seeking attention “I am not the messiah.. or Elijah… or a prophet” NOR is there an agent of consumerism agitating your amygdala to get you to keep watching and therefore, buying. The voice of John is exclusively for the sake of using what influence it has to bring attention to the One Who is Coming and continues to come into a world that in many ways is not all that different from our own: At large—the powerful hoarding and oppressing; and in particular—the big and small complications of being human.
Jesus is coming to bring us into a way of being collectively and individually that breaks the chains of our captivity (why we hear so much from Isaiah who is speaking to a people literally in captivity) from a way of being that requires violence to maintain; that accepts vast differences in access to resources; leading us to constant frustration and despair; self-doubt and weariness. Right now we are captive, literally, to not being out in public or being with family as much as possible. There is a sense of being in the ashes (visible sign of mourning), AND maybe a sense of opportunity to raise up something really good- filled with justice; that others will look up to: “Righteousness and praise” springing up before the nations—as Isaiah III says to the returning exilees.
But it’s hard for us to hear this message; unless we attend to hearing it. Thankfully, we have “witnesses” (someone with personal observation or experience) who talk about God’s alternative ways and the kind of love that Jesus demonstrates—and who share this in the letters and accounts of the Bible, or speak about it today, or just ARE in a way that speaks loudly. With the gospel of John, John the Baptist is the first to show up on the scene as the gospel or “good news” story is told: (Other than the abstract Word was with God and the Word was God that we hear at first.) That is, there’s all this cosmic stuff instead of a birth story, but then it zeros in on a person who is in “Bethany across the Jordan” and who points to Jesus.
To hear from others what it might look like to know God and God’s ways won’t fix the world’s problems immediately: But we are also reminded that we are not alone; everyone struggles; God’s presence is not dependent on sunny circumstances—and, in fact, comes to us in the darkness. The voices can help to fix call our attention and bring us to know—as the theme is for today—JOY. We have more examples today—Isaiah 61 and I Thessalonians—where people have been suffering: Israel concluding their time in Babylon after 70 years and the early believers in Thessalonika, who had suffered tragedies amongst their numbers: The words that come here- the “phone call” we might say—are not “I’m sorry” or “keep on with the ashes and sackcloth” (although there are a time for these) but they are now to “bedeck” themselves with a garland and oil and a mantle. The words of Isaiah III are to the survivors of a devastating military action; and Paul to a beleaguered church: Both say—seemingly without much cause—“Rejoice.” That is, have joy. Have joy, (chara)—which specifically implies this is possible because of God’s grace. Joy happens not without sorrow, but perhaps most poignantly in the midst of it. Because God is there when we listen.
Brené Brown—sociologist and researcher—has found that people in our culture often resist joy. It’s a way of making sure we don’t end up feeling even more disappointed, frustrated, angry—with ourselves and others. The other shoe is going to drop anyway, right? Might as well feel foreboding and not joy—happiness, excitement, contentment. And at least we won’t look life a fool.
John the Baptist and Paul come down on the side of the fools’ hope: “Someone much greater than I is coming.” Was there a little giddiness? “Rejoice.” Jump up and down if you want. “Pray always.” This is a great way to plug into a sense of grace which is behind that joy. “Give thanks.” It’s hard to be dour when you are grateful. And this is a practice because we can all find things that aren’t right. What if you saw all that is so incredible around you, even if right now it’s just the blanket on your lap keeping your warm. Maybe it’s that poignancy to contact with other human beings: not only is it risky, but it’s a rare and precious thing: Even just passing someone at a distance on the trail. “Hi” we say with some bit of wonder that here is someone else. Another human who is going through something similar. Life can deal some pretty hard stuff. Like 2020, for instance. But did you know, you are being held by the God of joy who is faithful? Let others knows, too. Thanks be to God. Amen.