This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, is built around the Collect for the third Sunday in Advent and the Gospel reading for the third Sunday of Advent in Year C.
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
Please be seated.
How long, O Lord? How long?
We wait here in the dark, longing for your coming, and our hearts groan with news of the world around us: wars and rumors of wars, famine, refugees on the move seeking safety and shelter.
People are hungry, cold, alone… right here where we live. We continue to hurt one another in ever more brutally efficient fashion and we seem to be powerless to do anything about it. And so we pray:
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us…
We long for God to remember God’s promises and come among us to lead us out of the darkness. We long for God to to fill the hungry with good things, to release the captives, to give sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free. We long for all flesh to see the salvation of God!
It may be comforting to know that we’re not alone. We are in good company on this third Sunday in this season of Advent. People are streaming into the wilderness to hear John the Baptist proclaim a baptism for the forgiveness of sins because they too are desperate for change, for relief, for deliverance from the news of the world around them and from the world in which they live.
They are desperate because they are facing much the same trials that we are. Listen to John’s instructions to them when they beg him to tell them what to do:
To the crowds he said:
If you have an abundance, an extra coat or food – give it to those who don’t have enough.
To those in power he said:
Don’t use your position to enrich or aggrandize yourself.
Don’t use the power you have to exploit others through violence or threat of violence.
We can infer from his instructions that they are in fact dealing with a lot of the same things we are. And while John’s injunctions might seem at first to be overly simplistic approaches to the issues that have us groaning, longing for change… if we stop to think about it, following John’s direction we might get us right to the heart of a lot of the evils that we face today.
The evils that we face today…
On the same day that we pray:
“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us…”
we also pray:
God of all mercy,
we confess that we have sinned against you,
opposing your will in our lives.
We repent of the evil that enslaves us,
the evil we have done,
and the evil done on our behalf.
The juxtaposition of these two prayers that we say together, the collect of the day and the General Confession, paired with John’s instructions to the crowds, the tax collectors and the soldiers, begs us to ask the question… Just what is it that we are praying for when we ask God to stir up God’s power and come among us with great might? What are we asking God to do?
John the Baptist had a pretty clear vision of what God’s intervention might look like.
John calls the people who came out to hear him a “brood of vipers” and asks “who warned you to flee the “wrath” to come” (Luke 3:7)?
He warns them that even now the “ax” is lying at the root of the tree of the family of Abraham, ready to cut off the people of Israel.
He tells them that the one who is to come, the one more powerful than John, will have a winnowing fork in his hands.
John tells them that unless they repent of the evil that enslaves them, the evil that they have done, and the evil done on their behalf, unless they begin to bear good fruit…
God will deem them chaff and burn them with unquenchable fire!
Is that what we are asking God to do when we pray, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us…” Is that the message that we came out to hear this morning?
John sure seemed to think so.
John’s approach isn’t hard to understand. The People of Israel were more convinced than we are today of their corporate culpability and the relationship between their awful circumstances and the evil that enslaved them, the evil they had done, and the evil done on their behalf.
They were more than ready to believe that the restitution they desired required that God come to judge them.
It is understandable that John, a first century Palestinian Prophet in a long line of prophetic voices would proclaim the judgment of a wrathful God… but from where we stand, here in the darkness of Advent, almost two thousand years later, we know that he was wrong. He was wrong.
That may be a surprising thing to hear from the pulpit on the day that we read John’s prophecy from the Gospel According to Luke but hear me out.
John was talking about Jesus. Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, is the one to whom John refers when he says, “…one who is more powerful than I is coming…”
Well, Jesus came in a manger in Bethlehem, his family too poor to afford lodging in an inn, in a town, where the rates had been jacked through the roof to take advantage of the lopsided supply and demand curve created by the census.
He was born in a place where animals were housed and fed, totally dependent on the people around him to survive.
The “one more powerful” than John needed people to feed, clean and shelter him. The one we are calling to come among us in “power and great might” came among us defenseless, dependent, vulnerable, a babe wrapped in bands of cloth.
John knew all that. Jesus and John were cousins. He might have been ready to ignore that first coming of the “one more powerful” than he as he looked forward to Jesus beginning his public ministry,
you have to wonder just how John felt when Jesus began that ministry, baptized in the River Jordan and named by a voice from heaven as “God’s Son, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased.”
There was no crowd of supporters to help overthrow the oppressors. No ax to cut down the family tree of Abraham and David. No winnowing fork in his hands. No unquenchable fire to burn the chaff. And then just to top it off, having been named as the Messiah, the one more powerful than John, Jesus goes off, alone, by himself, into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
John was confused. This wasn’t working out the way that he thought it would. Later in Luke’s Gospel account we will hear that John, who was in prison, sent messengers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another” (Luke 7:20)? Where were the wrath, the ax, the winnowing fork, and the unquenchable fire? Where was the “power and great might?”
John’s messengers returned to tell him what they had seen… the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22). Did this news reassure John? We don’t know. This is the last we hear of John in Luke’s Gospel. We know from Mark and Matthew that Herod has John beheaded in prison so John wasn’t around to see Jesus’s story through to the end.
If he had lived to see it I bet he would have been surprised!
Jesus, the Son of God, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased; the one who is to come, the one greater than John, the one whom we call to come in “power and great might” ends his life on a cross. He put his life into our hands, a vulnerable child born in “such mean estate.” He gave himself to us. And he never backed away. He never withdrew what he had given. He remained vulnerable to the very end and was willing to die at our hands.
I said earlier that John was wrong. Maybe I need to be more specific. John was right when he told us that one more powerful than he was coming. He was right when he identified Jesus as “the one.” He was right when he told us that we need to
repent of the evil that enslaves us,
the evil we have done,
and the evil done on our behalf.
And he was right to characterize all of this as the “good news.”
But John was wrong about the way that God comes among us with “power and great might.” God’s power and great might are not expressed with wrath, axes, winnowing forks, or unquenchable fire. God’s power and Great might is expressed through love, vulnerability, and the willingness to risk all for the sake of communion and relationship.
We are here today, in the dark, longing, even groaning, for change. What is it that we are asking God to do when we ask that God come among us in “power and great might?”
It’s that next line of the collect that is so important. It’s that next line that expresses the radical truth proclaimed by the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us…
God’s “power and great might” are God’s “bountiful grace and mercy!”
We aren’t asking God to come and do something to us. We are asking god to come and do something through us!
…because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us…
We are hindered by our sins. Our corporate culpability, our readiness to fall back into a world dominated by wrath, axes, winnowing forks and unquenchable fire all conspire to keep God’s power and great might from working through us to effect change and realize the kingdom here and now.
What are we asking God to do when we pray this day?
We are asking God to come among us, one more time, and remind us of God’s radical power and great glory, manifest in vulnerability, in the willingness to risk all for the sake of communion and relationship, and in love.
We are asking God to forgive, restore, and strengthen us; to heal us and make us whole through the abundant grace and mercy that flows unceasingly from God to us.
We are asking that we be set free to love one another so that through us the world might finally learn to put away the wrath, axe, winnowing fork and fire.
Stir up you power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.