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

Third Sunday of Advent December 14, 2008 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

Third Sunday of Advent Textweek

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

So we’re at the third Sunday of Advent, and one of the questions is, where are we? Where are we at; where am I? And the readings we have today are stunning readings in terms of us looking towards Christmas. The first question that comes to mind as we look at the reading from Isaiah is, can I speak with that voice? Is that my voice that I hear when I listen to the words of Isaiah? ‘The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion - to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.’ Is that my voice; do I know that place? Chances are if you are human, you will have glimpsed it at some point. It’s a wonderful place to speak from, to know this is my being, that voice is my voice. It’s a voice that really speaks from the place of being post-Christmas. When we don’t speak from that voice we’re then in a pre-Christmas way of being. When we glimpse that voice as being my voice, then really we are speaking from post-Christmas-being, in other words, the Divine is enfleshed, the Divine dwells within, Emmanuel, God with us – all of that we will celebrate soon. Isaiah speaks it; Isaiah stands in that place. He’s moved, and it’s a movement from the pathetic to the prophetic. It’s a movement from the institutional to the inspirational. It’s a movement of baptism; it’s a movement from death and dying. to life and rising. Isaiah has made that move. The question is, do we, can we, speak from that place with that voice?

The next part of the reading gives us another option. It is no easier, it is no simpler, and yet it is just as wonderful What if I don’t know that voice but the voice of the ‘they’ that Isaiah refers to? ‘They shall be called oaks of righteousness’ – is this a name that will be given to me? ‘They will be called oaks of righteousness. The planting of the LORD’ – do I know myself, me, planted, seeded, birthed, from the Divine? They shall be the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. Where do I display the glory of God?

‘They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.’ I’ve glimpsed that as we look at this wall. Isn’t it funny, as you start to do something outwardly you actually see that it’s happening inwardly. Rebuilding the ruins is part of our calling; this is just an outward sign of some inner work. The inside of rectory is a complete and utter mess at the moment; it’s in the process of being cleaned out, put away, space made for Christmas. The inside of the being is a complete mess at the moment, there’s junk lying everywhere; for the rest of Advent I want to get that inner junk into boxes, into skip bins or get rid of it – there are plenty of people that want it. There are plenty that want to hang on, that do not want to be the trees of righteousness, ‘Leave me alone’. Do we know this voice and place within?

Isaiah in his post-Christmas being finds fullness of life and identifies for us some of the divine characteristics, if you like they’re some of the building blocks that are seeded in us, and as such they give us an opportunity to question where is my life in relation to the foundations on which it was planted by the Lord, the Divine?

‘For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I give faithfully and I make an everlasting relationship.’ Where do those characteristics give shape to that which is my being, the Divine which is planted in me? It’s very easy to do it in a trite way and tick the boxes – of course I love justice. of course I hate robbery – tick, tick, tick. Look at ourselves in relation to the planet as a whole. To the one starves, would they see us as hating robbery, have we taken more, do we give? The Divine loves to give. It’s a wonderful reading for reflection to find our voice, to find ourselves in the process and the movement of Christmas.

The last part of today’s reading from verse 10 on starts with ‘I will’ – back to Isaiah, ‘I will’. It’s interesting because that’s the response made in the vows of marriage; it’s the entry point to the covenant of love. ‘I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.’ No wonder the ‘I will’ is there, the analogy that Isaiah draws on is the analogy of marriage, a willing entering a relationship with the Divine, in which I seek to find fullness of life, not just for myself but for the other. In other words, the fullest expression of the Divine is what I seek in this relationship, as well as the fullest expression and revelation of myself.

‘For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all nations.’ I wouldn’t waste time going to G20 meetings when it is so clear how the world can be changed by the revelation of the Divine. No longer can we look to others; if that isn’t becoming abundantly clear then please watch the news a bit more. What is revealed in the word of Isaiah, what is the message of Advent, what is the celebration of Christmas, is the Divine became flesh. The Divine - no longer stands apart and pulls the strings - became flesh, is here among us. Read it again in the peace of quiet of home, with a favourite piece of music. It’s there, it’s there inside that voice; it’s not in history, it’s inside.

Paul’s reading is helpful as well, because what Paul is now doing is he’s encouraging and affirming the community, the church in Thessalonica. It’s really helpful to get because what Paul says is that the word of Isaiah is not addressed to you; the word of God is never addressed to you, it is always addressed to us. Don’t worry too much about what Paul says, although it’s really helpful stuff in terms of affirming community, but be aware of where Paul’s coming from. He is really clear that the word of God is not spoken to you but always to us; there is no ‘I’, only a ‘we’, and that changes our whole understanding of the Bible, changes the whole. You’ve got to start really turning the church into the same mess that my lounge room is in. We’ve got to get all the rubbish into boxes and out. We’ve got to make way for an understanding that reflects what we hear as we move towards Christmas. The word of God is given, enfleshed in the ‘we’. It changes things because what it means is I actually do have a part of play in this and the other thing is, so does everyone else. If we do not play our part we can actually get in the way of the movement; we all have a part to play; the word of God is something that is carried by the ‘we’; it’s heard by the ‘we’. ‘We’ are the ones that seek to realize it – and that ‘s how we end up with that one-liner, ‘we are the Body of Christ’. That’s not ‘light a candle make wish and touch your nose stuff’, it’s the truth. We are. We are.

When we come to the Gospel we’ve got John the Baptist again. We had John the Baptist last week; it’s interesting. Why do we get John the Baptist twice? Two out of four weeks of Advent we get John the Baptist - must be something important. Next week we get Mary. As a complete aside I wondered if that’s because it takes men twice as long to actually find themselves as it does women? It’s like, ‘Hey guys, you probably didn’t get it last week, so here’s John the Baptist again’. ‘Oh yes, he’s a bloke, could be me they’re talking about’. I don’t know, it’s an interesting one though …..

This is a different reading to last week so it’s telling us something different; it’s telling us something stunningly important. Again, let’s just acknowledge the figures in the Bible are not there so we’ve got an understanding of history. John the Baptist isn’t named so you can locate him in history – ‘all right, that’s the guy that was just before Jesus; Jesus is when they started AD and BC and all that, do he must have been before 0AD’. That's not what it’s about at all. All of the characters in the Bible, all of them, are there to give us an opportunity to seek and to find ourselves and those parts of ourselves that bring us into the wholeness of being. So John the Baptist, we need to look at ourself reflected in that figure. When asked who he is, he makes a very subtle admission, in verse 20, "I am not the Messiah." It’s worth putting yourself in the place of John the Baptist and seeing if you can utter the same. In all truth, can you say, ‘I am not the Messiah’? It’s actually the first step in the AA twelve-step programme. The first step is to acknowledge that there is a divine power that is bigger than me, and in the western world where we are addicted to self and addicted to the greed of consumerism, to find the place where I can speak that in truth is the first step to acknowledge I am not the messiah. It’s a step that will actually call into mind our way of being because in this world, we invest in ourselves, we insure ourselves and we superannuate ourselves, to make sure that we are in control. Let us join the twelve-step programme and just take step number one, like John the Baptist find the place where we can speak with all honesty and say in all truth ‘I am not the Messiah’.

It’s a very subtle admission because only a couple of verse further on, in verse,23, he says ‘I am the voice as was spoken by Isaiah’. Now that’s an interesting one, because isn’t Isaiah a prophet? Isn’t Isaiah speaking the word of God? So here we’ve got John the Baptist, the figure that we’re seeking to see ourselves and find ourselves in, saying ‘I’m not the Messiah; I am the voice, I am the word of God as spoken by Isaiah’. We are called to follow in the footsteps of John the Baptist, to find those two truths, the truth that I am not the Messiah and the truth that I am the word of God voiced in the world. And that’s I think why this week we’re given these readings and next week we can go to Mary, because what we get in the figure of Mary is the affirming response that gets it: ‘yes I am the word that Isaiah spoke; I do bear the Divine, bring to the Divine to birth in the world’.

The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. The creation waits – all that God has given waits for a response. We’re called to be John the Baptiser, to bring into birth the word of God. And as we take those steps, then and maybe only then, will we make sense of Christmas.

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris