3rd Sunday of Advent
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11 | 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 | John 1:6-8, 19-28
Oh, God, who sees how your people faithfully await the feast of the Lord’s Nativity, enable us, we pray, to obtain the joys of so great a salvation and to celebrate them always with solemn worship and glad rejoicing. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
AS we spend this time together in the season of Advent, the same theme comes back over and over on four Sundays, and it’s probably the most important theme we have in Christianity. It centers on what happened to God’s relationship with human beings at one point in history that radically changed everything. The Old Testament is a long, wonderful story of God revealing himself slowly to people. The people he chose, the Israelites, were known for their stiff necks and dispositions. They were a tough crowd. They had their own mindset. In so many ways, so many things were fixed, yet there’s the evolution of the way God revealed himself, which changed their image of God and their image of themselves. It came to a point in history when it was time, in a sense, to drop the veil and look at what had been prepared for people — an amazing relationship with God that seemed absolutely blasphemous.
I think the most interesting detail is, when Jesus came to reveal who God really is, they condemned him for many reasons. One, he demanded a great deal of change from them. That was frightening. But the idea of a God who was close to us, a God who would spend intimate time with us, who would enter our lives, was absolutely unheard of and seemed terribly offensive. And it’s interesting that the people in charge of the temple had God in the core of the temple. They had him. He wasn’t available to anyone. They’re the ones who sort of parceled him out through different services. So you can see very clearly that, when you have a way of life that’s based on a particular principle, to change that principle means having to change your entire life, and God knew that. So he really didn’t ask people to change their lives as much as he invited them to have their life changed.
Let’s look at the first reading from the prophet Isaiah. That book is more amazing the more I read it, the more I preach on it. It predicts exactly what happened when Christ came; he was the Anointed One, the Special One, the Unique One who is a model for all of us. What we see in the coming of Jesus is a revelation of who the Father is and what he’s about. The prediction is so beautifully stated in this particular passage at the beginning when it says this new image, this new way, this new plan of God — which was described as a way, a journey that you would be on — would be fed by a mysterious thing called light. And as you journeyed with this enlightenment continually coming into your life, particularly through the experiences you were having, you would grow in awareness to the point that you would begin to see the truth, what’s real. And then you see the truth, and that truth would lead you to life. So it’s called the way, the truth and the life. It’s beautiful. That’s our journey. That’s what God called us to, and he’s telling us he is the one in charge of the journey. He wants us to come with him. He will come with us, and we’ll do this work. And the gifts of this work, the way it manifests itself, is the poor. Those who are poor will have a new awareness of a strength within them. It’s so interesting that, in order to follow this journey, one can never say, “Oh, I’ve got everything I need. I have every talent, every gift. I can make this journey on my own.” No, the poor are the lucky ones who know their need for something beyond themselves and that God is there for you. The poor have this gift of strength pouring into them.
We know in life that there is relationship after relationship that can be hopeful and feel that this is the one, this is the person, this is the situation that’s going to fill my life. And then our hearts are broken when it is smashed, when there’s abuse instead of love, when there’s neglect instead of concern, so he says, “For those whose hearts have been broken, I will heal their hearts, and for those who are captive, those who are caught in some addiction, something they can’t get out of, I’m going to free them so they can see what is real and seek what is life-giving.” And then those who are in prison, who are so conflicted and so locked up in a way of thinking that they can’t possibly move into something new, because they’re either terrified or they’re simply so resistant to change, whatever it is, they’re imprisoned, and he said, “I’m going to free prisoners. I’m going to release those who are captive. I’m going to heal hearts, and I’m going to fill the poor with strength. And you know what? I’m going to do it through a thing called intimacy.” Intimacy. What is the intimacy of God? If you look up intimacy, it is the making known to another person who you are in your core, who you really are, and if you look at the story of God throughout the Old Testament, and the New Testament, he’s doing just that. He’s revealing his heart. He’s revealing his intention. He’s revealing everything about himself, even making himself seem vulnerable to our choice to love him or not. It seems to affect him. It makes him sad that we aren’t responding to the gifts he wants to give us.
So we have this image of closeness, and then it’s described in this way: “I want to marry you. I’m preparing you like a bride, like a bridegroom.” Imagine thinking that God wants that kind of intimacy with us, which means he would like to live with us and have us make ourselves known to him — it seems as if he already knows this. Of course he does, but when you are completely transparent, completely authentic in front of another person, that’s for you and partially for them, but it’s such an amazing need that human beings have, to find that kind of place where they can take off all the masks and be who they are. And so that passage from Isaiah ends with, “It’s going to be a fruitful life. This journey will always produce fruit.” Isn’t it funny? We’ve always thought, “My will is what produces good things. I decide to do what’s right.” No. No, you become someone authentic, someone real, someone truthful, and then all that comes through a person like that is goodness. You don’t have to work to do it. You are the goodness.
So the beautiful thing about Paul’s reading then, is: “Rejoice, because this is happening.” This isn’t a promise that you have to go out and try to accomplish. No, this is something that God is doing. He’s doing it for you. He’s pouring power and wisdom and the Spirit into you. I love when he says, “Don’t despise prophecy.” Prophecy involves the words that God speaks personally to you and to me. I don't know that we despise it when we have it, but I can tell you, people don’t like it when you start telling them that God is talking to you. They say, “Uh, I’ve got to go now.” Isn’t it funny, the idea that God talks to you is seen as somehow, maybe, presumptuous, or maybe it's frightening? Maybe someone who despises prophecy realizes that’s what we’re made for, a relationship where he speaks to us, and that passage ends with the most wonderful statement. “He promised this.” And you know what? God is worth trusting. He keeps his promise, and there it’s said so clearly, something that I was never taught as a child in Catholic school. God will make this happen.
God will make sure it happens, but there’s a little thing there that says, “Be blameless.” Be blameless as you take this journey. How can you be blameless? The only people I know who are blameless are hypocrites, and they act like they’re blameless. So what is blame? Is it the mistakes we make? Is it the sins we commit? If it is, there’s no way to be blameless. If you’re going to grow, if you’re going to be on this journey, if you’re going to be opening your eyes, over and over again, to what needs to change, you have to see what’s negative. You have to see something you’re doing that’s wrong and see its effects, and then you see that, and you’re willing to change. So if you can’t look at your sins and name them, if that’s what blameless is, not naming or not having any sins, then we can’t do it. But what is blame? What would be the biggest sin we would commit against a God who has promised to take us on a journey enlightening us, opening our eyes, freeing us, allowing us to become who we are? What would be the most disappointing thing to God? We won’t go. We won’t go on this journey. “I refuse. I don’t trust you. I don’t want to become what you’re inviting me to become, because I like what I am, and I’m not willing to change, because I’m not willing to look at what I’m doing wrong, because I’ve talked myself into believing it’s not wrong. I can abuse and use people, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It feels good. It’s pleasurable. That’s what I like, and I do that. Don’t talk to me about seeing something different.” That’s something you could be blamed for.
So what we see then in this final gospel passage — the final reading of the three — we have this wonderful clarity, again, about who John the Baptist is, which is another way of saying he is who the Old Testament is, and he has a job. And it’s really amazing to think that everything in the Old Testament, from the very first book of Genesis to the last book of the Old Testament, all that is in preparation for the one who is to come. And so you could say that John the Baptist, who is, in a sense, an incarnation of the Old Testament, he gets it. He realizes that everything that’s gone before, all these stories, all these wonderful experiences of God with his people and the struggles they went through, and the things he asked of them and his early reactions to them, which were so human-like; when he wanted to destroy them or reject them like an angry, jealous lover; and as he reveals himself like a human, he gains the interest and the respect of people. We’re more drawn to people who are like us than anything else, and they begin to understand this God and see him. And then it comes clearer and clearer that this Old Testament is good. It’s about justice, and it brings people to a higher level of consciousness, a better way of dealing with life, that you owe something to someone if you take something from them. You can’t use and abuse people without paying a price. That’s not just the world of justice. It’s the world as it is. The measure you measure out is measured back to you. You take from people, and you’re taking from yourself.
We know that mysterious piece of wisdom that keeps showing up in Scripture, but think about it. What a powerful image this man John projected when he said, “The one who’s coming is so much greater than I am.” In other words, what he is describing is a person filled with divinity. He’s describing you and me. We’re not Jesus, but we are like Jesus. We have the Spirit living in us. We have divinity in us. We have wisdom in us. We have an energy, called love, that transforms and heals. That’s in us. That wasn’t there. John didn’t have that, but you can get a sense of it. What John had was something that helped people feel better, to wash the outside, to clean up their act. That’s what John could do. That’s why he said, “I baptize with water. I can clean,” just like a shower. You’re smelly. You’re dirty, bacteria all over your body, and you go and get a wonderful, hot, sudsy shower. You feel so much better. You’re cleansed, and the law could help you with that. You’d go, and you’d be cleansed in the temple. Or you went and decided to be baptized by John. You were cleansed of your sins, and then you had to come back and get cleansed again. And baptism was something you did over and over again, not just once. That group of the Essenes had a sort of baptismal rite every morning when they covered themselves with water to cleanse themselves of their human impurities or human frailties, but here’s someone who’s so different. He’s not interested in cleansing the outside, getting you to act in a way that looks good and seems good to people. No, Jesus is engaged in an inside job. He wanted to get inside you, transform you, take you on a journey, open your eyes, heal your broken heart, free you from every blind addiction and give you hope. That’s what we’re preparing for. That’s what’s coming. So the theme of this third Sunday is always rejoice and be happy, and if I could, I would persuade anyone whose heart might be heavy and dark that there’s no reason to not be ecstatically happy because this promise is now taking place within them.
Father, your promises are often hidden by those who are afraid that we might take advantage of those and think that we don’t have to work or we don’t have to struggle, but the issue is not the work and the struggle. The issue is faith and belief in what you’re doing and what you promise, and once we understand the depths of that promise and the call, it invites us to take a journey with our eyes open, our hearts ready to change, our will ready to take on a new direction. So bless us with the conviction of this great promise as we pray to celebrate then all the Sundays of this coming year, that we begin with an awareness of you within us. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.