A Light in the Wilderness

December 17, 2017 – 3rd Sunday of Advent
John 1.6-8, 19-28 and Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11

For 25 years I have been preaching during Advent and for 25 years I have been surprised by the Advent readings. I have finally gotten used to the first Sunday of Advent reading being apocalyptic: the scene of the sun failing and the stars falling from the sky and Christ returning with power and glory. Keep awake the stories say. Be watchful for the day and the hour is known only to God.

So I’ve come to terms with Advent not beginning with the birth of a baby—or even an announcement of pregnancy. But then the lectionary serves up two weeks with John the Baptizer—every year the second and third weeks of Advent are about John the Baptist. We don’t hear that particularly at Central because the second or third Sunday of Advent, when the choir sings their cantata, almost always takes us to Christmas Day. Last week the choir sang Bach’s “For to us a child is born.” So, we got to jump ahead to the story of the baby being born.

But in the lectionary readings, the baby is nowhere in sight yet! In the story of John in the wilderness, we know Jesus the baby has been born and has grown up and John is giving witness to Jesus who is coming, but it’s not a story about the baby being born.

And in fact, in Mark’s gospel there is no story of Jesus being born at all. And there’s also no story of Jesus being born in John’s gospel which is the gospel reading for this morning.

So I have to ask, why does it take so long to get to the baby story?? And how will we ever get there if we’re reading from Mark and John?

 

Well, here’s the thing about Advent. Advent has two directions: looking back to the birth of Jesus and looking forward to the coming of Christ. We look back and tell the story of the birth of Jesus in a similar way that we tell the story of the arrival of the children in our families. It’s an event that’s already taken place but one that has changed our lives and so we keep telling it again and again. Sometimes it’s tumultuous and a whirlwind. Sometimes it’s overwhelmingly beautiful. Sometimes it’s long anticipated and sometimes it’s a surprise. Sometimes it’s marked with danger and even death.

And then we look forward to the coming of Christ when justice and righteousness, and all the good God intends for creation will fill the world, the cosmos even.

But you know, if I’m honest, I’m not really sure what to make of Christ’s second coming. That whole second coming idea can get kind of crazy with talk about people being raptured and tribulation and battles—a lot of which comes from biblical material that was not written to be taken literally. And sometimes the idea of Christ coming again becomes a way for us to be content with injustice and inequity and brutality today because “God will work it out tomorrow,” we say. And who’s to say that Christ is not already here? In us. Working through us, and maybe even in spite of us, to accomplish God’s desires for us and for the world.

So now we find ourselves with John in the fourth gospel. No baby in sight. Professor Barbara Brown Taylor describes this story as an Advent pageant with only one character and barely any costumes or props.[1] A man sent from God as a witness to testify to the light. John’s testimony is that he himself is not the light but he is a voice crying out in the wilderness. John testifies, he bears witness to the light. His role “is to recognize the true light when it appears, and to call attention to it so that others may recognize it…trust in, and commit themselves to the light.”[2]

 

But how does John recognize the true light? I suspect he goes back to the prophet Isaiah who describes a person who is anointed with God’s light. This light brings good news to the oppressed, the brokenhearted, those held captive, prisoners, and those who mourn. The light ushers in the year of jubilee, when debts are forgiven, land is returned to its original owners, people enslaved are freed. The year of jubilee is a reconfiguration of community with real, tangible, social and economic changes[3]—probably even changes to the tax law but not where the rich get more and the poor get less. In God’s jubilee, ruined cities are restored. Desolate land becomes a fruitful garden. Everyone and everything has what they need to flourish.

I wonder if our call isn’t also to be a voice in the wilderness, bearing witness to the light and reflecting the light in our lives. We tell the story of the baby born in Bethlehem and we stand in the wilderness, looking at the horizon, testifying about the light that is coming into the world, the light that is, at the same time, already in the world.

Now from where I stand, it can be hard these days to see much light. There is a lot of ugliness around us. The gap between rich and poor grows greater and greater—and people who could do something about it don’t seem to care. Lies are paraded as truth. We are losing the capacity to talk to one another when we don’t agree. The essentials of a civil society—things like education and healthcare, access to affordable and nutritious food, neighborhoods that are neighborly, and a justice system that is just—those values are treated as commodities available to the highest bidder.

It is easy to give in to the undertow of distrust and suspicion, to name calling and the dehumanization of people with whom we don’t see eye-to-eye. It is easy when the light seems far off, to turn inward and see ruined cities and desolate land, to see meanness and inequality, as “just the way the world is.”

But every year we tell the story every year of the birth of Jesus—who arrives in the world as a helpless, vulnerable infant—who is, we say, the presence of God, come to be with us. That story from the past shapes our present. Today, we wonder who are we when God is vulnerable? Where is the light breaking into the world when God is born into our lives as an ordinary baby?

As the past shapes our present, our present is also shaped by our view of the future. Do we see the future as hopeless or do we see glimmers of the dawning light? Where do we see the brokenhearted being healed? The prisoners being freed? The cities rebuilt? Gardens restored? How are our lives, even in whatever wilderness we find ourselves, bearing witness to the light?

Jan Richardson, an artist, writer and pastor, wrote a blessing she titled, “Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light.” I share it with you.

Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light

Blessed are you
who bear the light
in unbearable times,
who testify
to its endurance
amid the unendurable,
who bear witness
to its persistence
when everything seems
in shadow
and grief.

Blessed are you
in whom
the light lives,
in whom
the brightness blazes—
your heart
a chapel,
an altar where
in the deepest night
can be seen
the fire that
shines forth in you
in unaccountable faith
in stubborn hope
in love that illumines
every broken thing
it finds.

– Jan Richardson[4]

* * * * *

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective: John 1.6-8, 19-28,” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 69.

[2] Lamar Williamson, Jr., quoted in Gary W. Charles, “Exegetical Perspective: John 1.6-8, 19-28,” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 71.

[3] William P. Brown, “Exegetical Perspective: Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11,” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 53.

[4] Jan Richardson, “Advent 3: Testify to the Light,” The Advent Door, December 12, 2014, accessed December 16, 2017, http://adventdoor.com/2014/12/12/advent-3-testify-to-the-light/.

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