Sermon for Advent 3, Year B December 17, 2017

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11                         Psalm 126                         1 Thessalonians 5:16-24                        John 1-6, 19-28

Reading books and listening to stories, gives us an opportunity to see ourselves in the characters we love and the characters we loathe.  We love the characters who represent the best parts of ourselves and the ones who represent who we would like to be.  And, we loathe the characters who portray the worst parts of ourselves, the characteristics of our personality we do not like.  Granted, sometimes it is not our selves we see in these characters, but rather, people we admire or love, or people who have wronged us or who threaten our happiness or the happiness of people we care about.

Stories are a wonderful way to teach for this reason, we can get lost in a story and in losing ourselves learn something about ourselves.  My Old Testament professor said of the Bible – it is myth, which means, he said, it is filled with stories that contain the truth without necessarily being factual.  Viewed this way, the contradictions and rough edges to many of it’s stories can be overlooked, making it possible for the story’s meaning to be revealed to us.

As I was reading today’s passage from the Gospel of John, it occurred to me that the story of John the Baptist is a perfect example of one that each of us needs to hear differently from the way I tend to hear it.  It begins, “There was a man sent by God from God, whose name was John.  He came to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”  I’ve always read this passage as an introduction to John the Baptist, never once considering the possibility that I SHOULD identify with his character in this story.  I think we should all consider ourselves as the one sent by God – and I do believe I am here because I answered God’s call to come be a part of this faith community.

I am here to testify to the light, which is to say to Christ, so that all might believe.  I am not the light, but I am here to testify to the light – and so are you!  So today, I want you to consider the introduction to John the Baptist as your introduction.  You have been sent here by God so that you might be a witness and testify to the light of Christ.  You are here so that others might believe because of you.  Before I go any further, I want to talk about what I believe it means to testify.

I have long been turned off by people throwing Bible verses out as a testimony to Christ’s love for me.  I have always been more open to listen to people who show God’s love with their actions.  How we treat others, what we do for others, says more than any verses we might quote or words we might say as a profession of our faith.  A quote attributed to St. Frances is one of my favorites, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary use words.”

Thus, I am not suggesting that we should literally consider ourselves called to do the same thing John the Baptist does, calling on people to repent and referring to church leaders as a brood of vipers.  I believe the most effective form of witnessing is through our actions.

And this brings us back to Isaiah.  If we use the same approach to it that I suggested for the beginning of the gospel, and we read this passage from Isaiah as if it is speaking about us, to us, it tells us what our witness needs to be:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

We are to share the love of God with those who are oppressed, and to those who are grieving.  We are to help those who are held captive, by their sins or the sins of others, and we are to bring joy into the lives of those who are struggling.

I want to tell you what this looks like here.  You have already heard me sing the praises of our Community Meal and our support of the Backpack Program, but this past week I meet with the youth of St. Paul’s and discovered they too have a heart for mission.  They wanted to do something for others this Christmas – and so Wednesday night they baked cookies and Thursday night they lead a game of Bingo for those who were waiting for the Community Meal to be served.  After the meal, they gave those present, the cookies they had baked.

Not only was this witnessing to the people who came for the meals, it was a witness to me, to their parents, and to those who prepared and served the Community Meal.  If God is the source of love, than whenever we reach out to others in love, we find that we are participating in God’s love – and it shows.

That is why, I believe that I have found that I often receive more in return than I give, and I hope that our youth experience that too.  I was so proud of them for wanting to make a difference and for following through and doing it.

It was an example of them living into their baptismal covenant.  When John the Baptist was baptizing people in the Jordan River, he was performing the ritual act of cleansing which the Jews would often do when they realized that they had strayed from doing God’s will and needed to repent.  The ritual was a symbol that represented their need to turn their lives around and go a different direction – which is what the word repent means.

For us, baptism represents our choice to follow Christ. We turn away from following our own selfish desires and seek to follow Christ’s example of serving others.  Although many of us were baptized as an infant or small child with our parents making the commitment to raise us to be followers of Christ, we make this commitment for ourselves when others are baptized and when we are confirmed.

In the gospel reading, John says, “Among you stands one who you do not know, the one who is coming after me.”  This should serve as a reminder that Christ is with us, even when we fail to recognize his presence.  St. Paul teaches us that we are the body of Christ in the world today, and in his first letter to the Thessalonians, he says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  Do not quench the Spirit.”  To be the body of Christ in this community means we need to give thanks for what we have.  It also means that we need to be careful not to quench the Spirit in others by expressing our doubts and disappointments, but rather offer them the mantle of praise.   We need to trust in the power of the Spirit, so that we might offer those in need, comfort and the oil of gladness.

Let us pray.

Loving God, we give you thanks for your presence with us, and we pray that you may fill us with your Spirit that we may know the healing power of your love, and share it with others, bringing to them, comfort and joy.  We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.