Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, December 13, 2020

YEAR B 2020 advent 3

 Advent 3, 2020
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Canticle 15
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8,19-28

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I love that reading from Isaiah, the first lesson we heard this morning.  This is the section of scripture Jesus reads when he returns to his hometown, which we hear about in Luke’s gospel.  I want you to hear the first few verses again . . .

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. 

Perhaps you can see how similar this is to Mary’s Magnificat, which we heard sung right after this reading.  

He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit.  He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

What I love about both of these readings is that God’s vengeance—God’s wrath—is shown not in harming anyone, but rather in caring for the oppressed.  When God seeks vengeance, it is not in punishment of the oppressors, but rather it is a free gift to those who are oppressed.  You have to agree, it’s not how we view vengeance, is it?  We think of vengeance and justice as punishing wrongdoing.  However, God’s vengeance and justice are expressed in mercy and compassion for those who are the victims.  We focus on punishing wrongdoers; God avenges by making things right for those who have been done wrong.  Reparations and restitution, rather than punishment and prison.  That’s quite a different emphasis.

As we heard in Isaiah, we are promised the “vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.”  God’s vengeance is worked out in comforting those who mourn?  That seems kind of crazy doesn’t it?  But consider this:  For a God of life and creation, those who mourn have been done wrong by death.  Death has committed a crime, by taking away someone we love.  And God’s vengeance, God’s justice is shown in comforting those who have been done wrong.  And God will swallow up death forever.

And we heard this:  For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.  God hates robbery and wrongdoing, but in response, God lifts up those who have been harmed, rather than focusing on the robbers and wrongdoers.  God does not hate the robbers and wrongdoers, but rather the robbery and the wrongdoing.  And in response, God cares for the victims.  In God’s just world, those who have been harmed are made whole again.  That is a world I want to live in, I have to say.

But we are not in that world, are we?  At least, not yet.  Right now, we live in a world that is more like John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness.   But which wilderness?  When I hear the word “wilderness,” I usually think of something like the forests and mountains of Vermont.  But there’s another kind of wilderness.  In the Bible, the wilderness is where the Hebrew people wandered for 40 years.  It’s where Jesus went to be tempted after being baptized.  The wilderness is not like Vermont; it’s more like west Texas.  Think tumbleweeds and cactus.  A whole lot of nothing.

Most of us haven’t spent much time in that kind of wilderness, because it is an inhospitable place.  In the wilderness, you can’t see your friends.  You can’t have any parties.  You can’t get close to people, or hug them, or go shopping, or sit in a restaurant, or . . . sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  Because there’s still another kind of wilderness.  There is a wilderness of isolation and being cutoff, while still being right in the middle of everything.  We are living in that kind of wilderness right now, aren’t we?  And you might think the difference is that John chose to go into the wilderness, while it’s being forced on us.  But that’s not true.

Because there are plenty of people who are choosing not to live in this wilderness right now.  People who are having parties, and crowding into small spaces, breathing all over other people, claiming it’s an act of defiance against oppression.  There are lots of folks who assert that their individual rights as Americans mean they don’t have to go into that scary wilderness that the rest of us are living in.  But I would say, John chose to go into the wilderness to find redemption, just as we must choose to go into this wilderness if we want to find life.  Literally.

But I know . . . people are angry, and frustrated, and grieving.  We didn’t sign up for all this, you know?  We toughed it out at Easter never imagining it would be even worse by Christmas.  We started to open the church doors, only to have to slam them back shut again.  We want to blame it on someone, like the Governor, or the Bishop, or the Priest.  Who are you to tell me what to do?  Who are you to tell me to wear a mask?  Or when I should be home?  Or whether I can throw a party for my kid’s birthday?  Who are you?

Coincidentally, it’s the same kind of questions the religious leaders have for John.  Who are you?  What authority do you have to do these things?  Who are you, and what do you think you’re doing?  And he answers, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.”  I am baptizing people and pointing to Jesus.  

And this is the same answer we can give, as a congregation.  We are the ones who care for people and point to Jesus.  We are the ones who say, love your neighbor—more than your rugged individualism.  Love your neighbor—more than being in your beautiful church building.  Love your neighbor—more than supporting your political party.  We are all out in the wilderness of 2020 pointing to Jesus, the one who tells us to care about other people.  He has sent us 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.

John is out in one kind of wilderness, and we are in another.  We know why we are here.  But why is John there?  Why do people come to him?  He is out there with something, and it seems that people are looking for something.  And I’m not even sure they know what they are looking for, or whom they’re looking for.  But still, they come to John to be baptized.  And John tells those interrogators questioning him, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.”  Standing in his wilderness, pointing to Jesus.  Because John knows Jesus is out there, somewhere in the crowd, ready to declare the year of the Lord’s favor.

As you and I continue living in our current wilderness, I hope that idea will give you hope.  In this wilderness, Jesus is standing among us, just like with John.  We are waiting to celebrate his birth—in this most unusual and terrifying year—and he is standing among us.  Waiting to declare the year of the Lord’s favor.  Bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.  Here among us to lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things.  So that we might sing with Mary, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.  For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.”  Yes, we are in the wilderness, but Jesus is here among us, and we need not be afraid.  Jesus is here.


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