Texts: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Suppose for a moment that you are the only soul on the street when an armored truck comes by and a bundle of money falls out and breaks open, with hundred dollar bills floating in the air. Would you stop and gather the money? And if you gathered the money, would you move heaven and earth to get every banknote back into the hands of the rightful owner? And would you absolutely refuse any offer of a reward for the return of the money, because all that matters to you is to do the right thing?
But perhaps this line of questioning is too improbable to imagine. So let me ask instead: are you the kind of person who drinks the milk or juice straight from the carton when no one is looking? Or if you’re having trouble finding a parking place and one opens up and you know that the person coming the other direction has seen it also, and is perhaps just a bit ahead of you, but they get blocked by a car pulling partway out to get straighter in their space, and do you wait and let them have the space anyway or do you sneak in there, figuring that it was meant to be?
These, of course, are questions of character. What do you do when unguarded opportunity lies before you? Your response is a measure of your character. And character is largely a function of self-discipline, and the compassionate exercise of your ethics. Now, as any parent can tell you, we are not naturally born with an ethical system. The ability to think outside of one’s own self-interest is something which must be learned.
One day John the Baptist was being interrogated by some religious legal authorities and scholars. They appeared to be deeply concerned about his identity and motives. They had travelled some distance to reach John. And the tone of the conversation was not peaceable.
They demanded to know if John was claiming to be the messiah – the long anticipated one who was to restore Israel to political pre-eminence. If not the messiah, then perhaps a prophet. And if not a prophet, then perhaps the revered Elijah returned to lead his people.
This was John’s great opportunity. Any of these three roles would have given John a special place in the temple for teaching and leadership of the people. But first he would need the approval of the Judeans who brokered power in Jerusalem.
John was already on the way toward such recognition. He had gained a group of followers, and was performing baptisms for the purpose of ritual cleansing in the Jewish tradition. He dressed like a prophet, and was known for his fiery rhetoric.
But given the opportunity to go for power, John refused. Why did John do that? It says everything about his character, his self-discipline, and his purpose. After all, there are always plenty of people willing to follow a charismatic leader; to give up their own independent thoughts and to give everything they possess to be a follower. An intoxicating idea. And if the power is not a motivating force, often great wealth can come from being such a leader.
But none of this mattered to John. He was only a voice calling out. The baptizer announced someone else who was coming with greater authority. His work was to prepare the way for people to believe in the light of God. Though, it’s not as if by his humility John saved himself any grief. He ultimately was killed for his preaching and his support of Jesus.
Might his commitment have had something to do with John’s alternative hope for the world? Ah yes, hope. Hope in a kind of light that hadn’t been seen since creation’s dawning.
Isaiah had exactly that kind of hope for his world. Even after years of giving warnings that the Israelites were breaking God’s covenant, and behaving badly enough to deserve a severe backlash. Isaiah had hope even after the terrible exile that came to pass.
In the 61st chapter, after so many oracles of accusation against the Israelites, and words of judgment, now Isaiah had a new song to sing. It was a song of hope and joy and proclamation. God was bringing about a new day for all people and the broken covenant was to be restored.
Paul also had hope. He urged people to live joyfully in faith because Christ is coming. His words conclude his oldest existing letter written to the Christian community at Thessalonica about the year 50 A.D. Paul reminded them – pray always, give thanks always, don’t quench the Spirit, listen to the prophets, be allied with good and take your stand against evil. That’s what life in God – that is, baptismal living, looks like. Essentially the message of John that Jesus later upheld.
Still, how do we hold onto authentic joy and hope in a season of unspiritual craziness and over-the-top expectation? And in this year of pandemic, we also grapple with sadness because we are discouraged from gathering for our holiday celebrations.
In one of their classic sketches, comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen called in a repairman for Gracie’s new electric clock which was not working. The repairman took a look at the clock and said, “There’s nothing wrong with this clock, it’s just not plugged in!” Gracie said, “Well, I didn’t want to waste electricity, so I only plug it in when I want to know what time it is.”
What helps is when we stay consistently plugged into the hope that is ours through Jesus Christ. We do this by staying connected with the biblical story. From the light of creation, to the light of Bethlehem’s star, to the bright dawn of the resurrection, God’s greater light is proclaimed.
We need this story. We all do. If you think about it, many classic tales of Christmas: Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol”, A Peanuts Christmas, the Grinch, and Rudolph whether lighthearted or serious, are expressions of darkness into light, hope into joy. Though these characters are fictional, our hearts recognize the truth that is in them. A holy truth. And what better character is there to have than one of joyful hope?
Today, the third Sunday of Advent, is named “Gaudete” Sunday which in Latin means joy Sunday. The Hebrew language has 27 words to speak of joy, particularly joyful participation in worship of God. Of course, we need only one word to proclaim our deepest hope and joy – it is the name of the one who is coming – Jesus, the light of the world. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.