Our Advent candle today traditionally represents Joy.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
We are awaiting this rich renewal. I love the passages that make the earth alive using human signs we can relate to: Mountains that skip, deserts that rejoice, flowers that sing, trees that clap their hands! This Advent we are awaiting with great expectation the signs of God’s presence.
We are always seeking it… but Advent marks this renewal specifically. We are awaiting new birth. We are awaiting the signs of God breaking into the world…
And today the Gospel raises the question for us:
Will we recognize the signs?
John the Baptist is the focus of two of our Gospels for Advent. Last week he was offering forgiveness and prophesying the coming of the Messiah. People were flocking to John - and to the Jordan River.
"Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
All of Judea! This is a large population recognizing that forgiveness was essential to their identity, to their wholeness and to their relationship with God. To be forgiven of sins; to know we are okay. Truly.
They needed this! What a gift! It was a sign.
This is pretty bold of John on two levels. The tradition held that the community paid for forgiveness by purchasing animals for temple sacrifice. Not everyone of course could afford to do this. John is offering them free forgiveness. Remember how the religious authorities also told Jesus he was blasphemous for doing so “for only God can forgive sins.”
Second, John is proclaiming that he heralds the coming of the Messiah. And this work of forgiveness is part of the plan for the coming of the Lord.
John the Baptist had a huge following. He was raging against the machine. He was dressed in animal fur and living off of locusts and wild honey. He was living an extreme ascetical lifestyle to make the extreme point that society and the powers of the world were out of communion with God.
John knew he was not the messiah… he was proclaiming the coming of another…baptizing people in the same river in which the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus…
And the crowds were flocking to him to the dismay of the “powers that be.” Even that “brood of vipers” (as he called them) came to see what the stir was about…
How halting: Forgiveness is disruptive to the status quo!…Forgiveness heralds the healing of so many places in ourselves and people in our lives.
I have spoken of forgiveness in other sermons. Here it is at the very beginning of our Christian story. With the one who heralds the coming of the messiah. Our story does not only culminate with Jesus’ forgiveness on the cross. Our story begins with forgiveness.
It’s a circle.
And on the spiritual path we encounter stages of development. Practicing Forgiveness is essential to our identity as Christians. It is essential for hope, and it is foundational for recognizing the signs of God’s redeeming work breaking into the World.
John has been imprisoned for his disruptive prophesying. Perhaps he is frightened. Perhaps he is unsure. He expected the messiah to be powerful. John was full of righteous judgment. That’s what animated his followers.
He hears what Jesus is doing and sends word to him essentially asking "are you the one?”
Jesus responds by saying, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
This is the powerful work of the redeemer that is built on a foundation of forgiveness… Indeed John, you have paved the way.
Jesus sends good news to John. Hopeful news: Yes, indeed all of the things Isaiah prophesied and our psalmist sings:
Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! *
whose hope is in the Lord their God;..
6 Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.
7 The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; *
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;…
the Lord cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.
This is the dream for John in captivity. Here are the signs! Who knows what stories John is hearing in prison. Perhaps he wonders about a personal sign from Jesus. We all may wonder about this. John gives us the permission to doubt… and yet Jesus still praises John saying “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.”
In this doubting, the question arises: what are the signs of the Good News?
Are we looking for them?
Recently I was speaking with someone who is very goal oriented in his spiritual life, well in his whole life. When he reviewed his goals for this year, he had achieved a lot of them, but while he could’ve broken out a glass of champagne to celebrate, instead he was overcome by the “when" and “where” God really showed up for him. This year he said God showed up in his relationships where unexpected holy moments had emerged.
Working on relationships hadn’t been a particular goal for him. It was God’s hidden work showing up in unanticipated ways. “Goals or no goals” God was present. In his efforts to seek out God, he was “heralding in, paving the way.” Reflecting on these experiences freed him.
What does freedom look like for you?
What parts of you are imprisoned? Would forgiving yourself or someone else set you free?
What is the hope of God that we ask for this Advent?
Certainly many of us doubt like John the Baptist when we struggle with our lives, our bodies, and what is going on around us. We have been waiting for the great disruption of the World as we know it. For peace for and love to prevail.
In the Epistle this morning, James asks us to be patient, but more so, James’ patience can be translated as endurance. He speaks to us of waiting, but not simply waiting. His description of farming evokes work and persistence. James’ message follows suit with our Advent readings thus far, that have asked us to get ready, sows the seeds, be prepared, and then keep awake to the signs in this world of God’s love and renewal.
Jesus shows up to show us the nature of God is Love. Interestingly he says, “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
The world was scandalized by Jesus. How can one who shows up to heal be the one we’ve been waiting for? We want a great and mighty leader.
And still today the world seems to want a great and mighty leader. Most people continue to be scandalized by a God that would come to identify with our suffering rather than magically end all suffering. How many times have you heard, “If there really was a God why is the world this way.”
God’s love unites us in our suffering, strengthens us in that communion, and leads us into wisdom and truth.
To me, the faces in this sanctuary are signs. Our work is to be patient with one another and ourselves. To forgive one another and our selves. To bring healing love into the world.
This Advent let us embrace the joy of renewal. Here as a community together let us rejoice and sing. And let’s also think about what kind of renewal our neighbors need and their children seek?
How can we, like John, make holy disruption in the lives of our community?
…How can we be a sign of hope for them?
Do our friends and neighbors understand that forgiveness, healing and love are at the core of our identity?
Ask them what signs they seek?
And let’s ask ourselves how we can help pave the way…for Emmanuel breaking through:
God Among us!