This sermon focuses on the Old Testament and Gospel readings assigned for the Third Sunday of Advent.
He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” We know a lot about this man named John. From Luke’s Gospel we know that John was born to Elizabeth, who was past child-bearing years and thought to be barren. We know that this miraculous birth was foretold to his father Zechariah, who was a priest of the temple, by an angel who said that John would “turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:16). We know that Elizabeth, John’s mother, and Mary, Jesus’ mother, were relatives so John and Jesus were maybe cousins…
Luke also tells us that in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee… The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:1-3).
Both Matthew and Mark note the beginning of John’s ministry saying that John appeared in the wilderness, dressed in camel hair and eating locusts and wild honey. Both Matthew and Mark report that John’s message was so compelling that the whole countryside of Judea and Jerusalem were going out to see him. Mark calls him the “John the Baptizer.” Matthew calls him “John the Baptist.”
So it is very interesting that when the officials from the temple arrive and ask John who he is, he doesn’t have much to say! With those credentials he could have said a lot… “I am the one whose birth was foretold by an angel, born to a woman who was considered to be barren, whose cousin has begun to rock the world, and just look around you! I am packing the house every day!” But apparently John doesn’t tell them who he is so they have to start making suggestions on their own. Are you the Messiah? No! Isaiah? No! The Prophet? No! His interrogators get frustrated, “Come on man! Give us something. What are we going to tell the people who sent us?” John finally relents, he offers a little more, but he still doesn’t tell them who he is. He only tells them what he is. A voice. John tells them that he is no more than a voice, a role, a function… “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness…” Here he stands, knee deep in the muddy waters of the River Jordan, with the whole countryside coming out to see him and be baptized, and John is refusing to let these people focus their attention on him. Instead he shifts their attention to something that everyone there was hoping, longing for.
When John quotes the Prophet Isaiah his audience would no doubt have been put in mind of the reading that we heard this morning. After all it was this promise in Isaiah’s prophecy that had drawn them all out into this desolate place. They had come out to hear John preach because they hoped that the oppressed were about to hear the good news, that broken hearts were finally going to be bound up, that captives would be granted liberty and the prisoners release. They were there hoping that they would be comforted in their mourning and that instead of ashes they would be able to wear a victory garland. When John quoted the prophet Isaiah the people of Israel would have also heard this promise of God’s Kingdom coming to fruition in their midst.
John isn’t willing to tell the people sent from the Priests and the Levites who he is because he knows that people are longing for the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy and he knows that in this moment lies great danger. Look again at our reading from Isaiah and you will see that, in this short reading, there are multiple speakers. The first several verses are the anointed one, the one who has come to fulfill the promises of good news, binding up of broken hearts, liberty, release, and victory. Then the voice changes and it is God speaking. And God tells us that the fulfillment of those promises is just the beginning. Not only will good news be procliamed, hearts mended, liberty granted and all the rest, but the ancient cities now lying in ruin will be rebuilt, and the devastations, the lost symbols of our relationship with god, will be raised up and restored. More good news! But there is a bit of a catch here. Notice who Isaiah says will do this rebuilding, this restoration. It is the people for whom the promises of good news, reconciliation, liberty, release and victory have been fulfilled who will bring the kingdom back to its former glory. God says “they” will rebuild. “They” will be called oaks of righteousness. “They” will raise up. John knows that the fulfillment of the promises for which the people long is not the end of the story, it is just the beginning, so he doesn’t want people to focus their attention on him.
It would be easier to focus on John himself than on what he is saying. There is comfort, there is security, there is rest and peace in John. Look! Here he is! It is going to happen at last and we will be saved from ourselves and from one another. Whew! Lets go home and celebrate with a glass of eggnog! But when we look beyond John, to the rest of the story, to the vocation to which we are called even as the promises are being fulfilled, we see that we have a lot of work to do. The rest and the peace for which we groan and long may not be part of our immediate future. John refuses to flash his credentials here because he doesn’t want people to miss the fact that the arrival he is foretelling is not the end of the story. It is a new beginning!
I think that we hear this passage from John’s Gospel today, on the third Sunday of Advent, the week before we hear the story of the Annunciation, of the Angle Gabriel’s visit to Mary, because we are in the same danger that the people of Judea and Jerusalem were in that day on the banks of the River Jordan. We stand in this strange moment in time where we are celebrating and remembering an event that happened a long time ago, as we acknowledge and proclaim it’s currency today, as we await it’s happening again. We stand here in Advent and remember Christ’s coming to us as a child born in a manger, as we experience Christ’s coming to us every day and moment of our lives, as we await the time when he will come again and all things will be put right and the kingdom will come fully to fruition.
We groan, we long for the good news, the mended hearts, the liberty, release and victory that is symbolized by the manger. It would be easy to go Bethlehem and stay there, claiming the peace, comfort and rest that we need. But it is terribly important that we listen to the next speaker in Isaiah’s prophecy, that we recognize the vocation to which God is calling us, and that we prepare ourselves to rebuild, restore and raise up the ruined cities and the devastations of our age. We hear these readings today, on the third Sunday in Advent, before we hear the story of a young girl who opens herself to God and helps to usher in the kingdom, so that we know and understand that the Feast of the Incarnation does not, for us, mark the end, but that it indeed marks the beginning of the story.