Preaching Notes for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B (December 14, 2014)
During the time of Jesus, there was an interesting, hard-to-understand figure whose path crossed the life of our Lord. The Gospel of John goes to great lengths to make it known that this man was sent from God and that he was sent to bear witness to the light. John’s Gospel is clear that this man was not the light himself, which is important because it makes it plain that while John the Baptist was not the main attraction, he was still a man sent from God to be a powerful witness to the light.
That’s not a bad job to have, to be a witness to the light. Likewise, it isn’t a bad idea to have an attitude like John; that is, to think of oneself only as a single voice crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” all the while remembering and confessing that we are not the Christ and, in fact, we are not worthy even to untie the thongs of the sandals of the one who is coming, the one who is the Christ. Likewise, it isn’t a bad job to have to be the one who gets to bring people the good news and hope that Christ will come and give us all joy this Christmas.
If this is who John the Baptist was, sent from God to bear witness to the light of Christ who was coming soon to bring joy, than I can’t imagine any of us would mind being the kind of person he was, even if he is a strange and interesting and hard-to-understand figure.
Invite people to close their eyes and try to imagine what this mysterious figure known as John the Baptist might of been like: try to picture him in their mind’s eye—his hair, his clothes, his voice, his general demeanor. As they consider how he might have looked, how he might have acted, ask them to step into John’s sandals. How might it might have been if they had been the ones God had sent to confidently announce that Christ’s light and Christ’s joys are coming into people’s lives this very year, at Christmas, in only a few days. Ask them to imagine that they are the ones who are able to make this announcement with so little doubt about its coming true that people would actually believe them and come to look for Christ and look for joy in their own lives on Christmas morning. Let them sit a moment and imagine themselves in that role. Now, have the people open their eyes.
Could they have done what John the Baptist did? Could they have really and truly believed, deep down in their hearts and souls, that God would do such a thing this Christmas? Not that God would bring them a thousand fancy presents under the tree, or give them anything visible to the eye and sensitive to the touch, but that God would instead bestow into their lives that invisible, life-lifting sense of renewal and gratitude that comes from repenting of their old ways, the ways that keep them from walking the straight and narrow way that leads to abundant life?
Could they really and truly believe that God would prepare their hearts, break them wide open and make them ready for the Spirit of Christ’s birth again—admitting that the moment of that renewal is yet to happen, but not drawing back from the innocent, childlike trust that it takes to believe, to open their hearts and be vulnerable, to genuinely ask that God will send the gift of the Spirit that surrounds the Christ child, to surround their souls this Christmas?
Imagine how it would be, not only to believe, but to be the ones chosen by God to announce boldly and convincingly that such a gift will come to everyone this Christmas.
Just think of what it would be to be like John the Baptist. He was the one chosen by God to ask people to open themselves up, expose their brokenness and hurt, make themselves vulnerable, in preparation for and expectation of the newness and wonder and hope that was in the countryside on the night Christ was born. He was the one who prepared people to believe and inspired them to join him in anticipating the Spirit of the Christ child. He was the one who enabled crowds of people to become trusting and hopeful, to openly and honestly let down their guards and expose their souls to him. He was the one who invited them to face their fears and open themselves wide to the possibility of being hurt.
Suppose your parishioners were the ones called to convince people that they did not bring the Christ themselves, but that all they could do is look with everyone else for him and prepare for that childlike spirit to open their hearts, to make them unguarded and vulnerable enough to have the Spirit of the Christ child among them this Christmas.
Yes, it would be good if we could all take on the attitude John the Baptist had as part of our preparation for receiving the Spirit of Christ this Christmas. It would be good if we could all adopt the attitude that admits, “No, I am not the Christ myself. The Christ is other than who I am. I am not worthy even to untie his sandals.”
Unfortunately, this is not the attitude that some people who call themselves Christians have. There are some believers who think that they are somehow already part of Christ’s inner circle. We all know those folks. They are the ones who, when they ask someone to repent of his or her sins, the person feels judged, degraded, looked down upon. They want others to do all the changing, but they can’t admit that they need to change too. By their attitudes, they let everyone know that they are part of the circle of saints, while most everyone else is part of the circle of sinners.
But this was not John the Baptist’s attitude. Not ever. When he called upon people to repent, it was as one sinner speaking to another.
Let us prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ into the world. If you are going to call upon people to try to imitate John the Baptist as part of the process, if you are going to ask them to be God’s messengers who call upon people to let down their guards and become vulnerable and open themselves up to being trusting and childlike and filled with wonder about Christmas, then they must be certain not to do this work with a holier-than-thou attitude. They must try to be like John the Baptist and know that not only are they are not the Christ, but they are not worthy to untie his sandals.
The people of God are not the main attraction when it comes to Christmas, in spite of what the commercials tell us. The people are, rather, more like John the Baptist. They are powerful witnesses sent by God to tell others about the joy that is about to come into the world and to help the world prepare to receive that joy.
- How is your church helping to prepare people, both inside and outside of the church, to receive the joy that Christ brings to the world and to our lives?
- What are you doing to help folks focus less on themselves and more on their witness?
- How can you help your members to adopt a stance of confession and humility and to enter into a state of vulnerability and childlike trust in preparation to receive the joy that Christ offers?
When I took my preaching class in seminary, one of the exercises we all had to complete was to preach a five-minute sermon with only a couple of minutes to prepare. The process was that we all signed up for the day and time in which we would do this. On the appointed day, one at a time, we drew from a basket filled with slips of paper. Each slip had a Scripture lesson from the lectionary on it. We had a couple of minutes to read the lesson and think about it; then we had to stand up and preach. I was terrified.
In fact, all these years later, even after nearly twenty years of preaching weekly and a much greater familiarity with the Bible, the thought of doing such an exercise still terrifies me. But I tell this story not as a confession of what a chicken I really am, but because I remember vividly that all those years ago when I reached into the basket, the Scripture lesson I drew was this text from the sixty-first chapter of Isaiah. I remember reading it in my classroom at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and pondering what it meant for those of us sitting the room that day: graduate students attending school on a beautiful campus where we could at the time still see Lake Michigan from some of our classroom windows. All I could think to say, as I considered my position of privilege as a person living in the United States who was able to afford a master’s degree education at a private institution, was that this text was not meant for me.
It isn’t that I don’t suffer any form of oppression or have never struggled through difficult times. As a female, I deal with the ramifications of living in a patriarchal culture every day. And like everyone else, I have had my share of “dark nights of the soul” over the years.
Even so, as I read this passage again today, I realized I have not changed my mind significantly about my initial response to these words from Isaiah, even knowing much more about the passage than I did when I read it so long ago and under such different circumstances. I read it now from my home office in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where I work as the Director of Preaching for Discipleship Ministries. I own this home from which I am privileged to work much of the time, when I am not traveling. Furthermore, I have achieved much since that day some twenty years ago. I am now an ordained elder in full connection in the Holston Annual Conference, which means if I were to lose my job at Discipleship Ministries, I would still have a guaranteed appointment, a luxury not many people possess in this age of widespread job insecurity. I have attained a terminal degree at this point, a Ph.D. in liturgical studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological seminary, another luxury that few can claim. My husband and I both are both employed in fulfilling and challenging careers and enjoy a comfortable lifestyle. I am thus a person of great privilege in this world, and so I am obligated to name that, to confess it, as I approach this text. Having made this confession, I continue to believe that this Scripture is not meant for me.
My audience, however, is very different from the folks who shared classroom space with me all those years ago. I know that there are many of you who are reading my words are in very different circumstances from those in which I live. Many of our United Methodist churches are located in places where the people for whom these words are meant NEED to hear them and, indeed, MUST hear them. Some of you serve in places where everyone is struggling to make ends meet. You may be struggling yourself. There are folks who live in dangerous communities governed by gangs or corrupt local governments or prejudicial law enforcement agencies. There are folks who live in parts of the country or world where there are no jobs, and for whom obtaining food, water, and safe housing is a daily battle. There may be many of you who are preaching to people for whom the primary source of comfort in a difficult and broken world is drugs and alcohol. It is to these people—the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the imprisoned, those held in captivity by discriminatory, unjust, prejudicial systems, be they corrupt governments, unscrupulous business practices, a dysfunctional family, or devastating personal circumstances—that these words from the prophet Isaiah speak most profoundly.
It is to the people of this world who are broken in heart, spirit, mind and body that Isaiah announces the good news of God’s deliverance for all of God’s righteous people who have been unjustly treated. And it is to these same people that God initially sent Jesus to proclaim these very same words at the opening of his public ministry:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me
To bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To let the oppressed go free
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll,
gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.
The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
Then he began to say to them,
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”
Who are the people of the world that are being unjustly treated today? Can you name who they are? Can you name the injustices they face? Are you and your community among them? How can you and your church be anointed to identify and bring the good news of Jesus Christ to those in your community who most need to hear it?
In today’s Scripture lesson from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church, Paul is teaching these early Christians how to worship fully. He instructs them to, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil.”
Rejoice always! Pray without ceasing! Give thanks in all circumstances!
That sounds like worshiping fully to me!
The people in the early church, including the first disciples, and Paul, and the people in the Thessalonian church and the other early church communities, all believed that Christ would return to the earth in their lifetime to rule over his kingdom in final glory. So they were constantly on watch, trying to be vigilant about their lives and their faith at all times. They were waiting and watching for Christ, and living every day with a sense of heightened anticipation.
Advent is a time of year when we join with the early church in preparing ourselves for Christ to be incarnate among us. It is a season of living every day with heightened anticipation. We are waiting with great excitement.
- Waiting for Christmas to come.
- Waiting for Santa Claus to bring us presents!
- Waiting to celebrate the birth of the one we call our Savior and Lord.
- Waiting for Christ to come again in final glory.
We may not think of ourselves as waiting for Christ to return in final glory, but the Advent season is about that kind of waiting too. It isn’t just waiting for a baby to be born in a manger. It is waiting for Christ to come again.
So it is important for us, just as it was important for the people of the church in Thessalonica, to be on watch, to be prepared, to be worshiping fully, with our whole lives, rejoicing always, praying without ceasing, and giving thanks in all circumstances.
- In these final weeks of waiting, how are your members preparing to welcome Christ into the world? Ask your congregation to talk for a few minutes with the person sitting next to them in the pew about what they are doing to prepare for Christ’s coming.
- How is your church joining in the rejoicing of all creation?
- What are you doing to encourage your members to pray without ceasing?
- How are you leading the congregation to give thanks for all God has done and is doing?