Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Who are you? This is an essential question that we never stop exploring, and that never stops being important and interesting. Who are we? I bet not many among us would call ourselves prophets. Together we probably have a long list of our identities and roles. We might define ourselves by our professions or volunteer gigs, or by our personality traits—extroverts/introverts, cat people/dog people. We might describe who we are in relation to others—sister or daughter, student or wife. Some of us may identify with one or more of the groups listed in our reading from Isaiah—the oppressed, the ones whose hearts are crushed, the captives, those who are mourning.
The people who are mourning in this passage from Isaiah are people returning from exile in Babylon, frustrated and humiliated over the failure to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. They are discouraged by the economic disparities and the religious and political factions they find within the city. Can anyone here relate to feeling despair about economic disparities or political and religious divisions?
Take heart! It’s to exactly these disheartened people that God sends a prophet to deliver good news! This is God’s message for the oppressed—there will be healing for broken hearts, liberty for the captives, and an opening so the imprisoned may find release. The dream is that those who are comforted will change the way they see themselves, as well as the way others see them. Instead of wearing ashes on their heads—a sign of humiliation and grief—they will sport festive headdresses. They will be honored guests, anointed with “the oil of gladness.”
To improve their dull spirits they are given new clothes! How much do I love this? God sees the people’s pain, and presents them with mantles of praise, garments of salvation and robes of righteousness! The people are invited to dress themselves in their new identities—as those who are restored and renewed—and cast off their old humiliated, fragmented, and dispirited natures. Now they are ready to accomplish what is needed and what has been just too difficult before: rebuilding Jerusalem. Ah, Jerusalem as a city where righteousness and justice flourish! It sounds so wonderful, right?
But what about us? How can we find that sort of renewal? How do we face the ruins of Puerto Rico and the rest of the hurricane-wrecked Caribbean? Or the bombed out cities of Syria and Yemen? Or the fire-ravaged state of CA? How can we bring righteousness and justice to communities struggling with racism, homo-and transphobia, with deep class divisions and ever-unfolding stories of sexual misconduct? Where can we exchange our rags of despair for the robes of righteousness?
O come, O come, Emmanuel! Ransom captive Israel! We mourn in lowly exile here, waiting for the Son of God to appear!
(You know what comes next, right?)
“Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel has come you, O Israel.”
Yes, rejoice! Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. These are the truths by which we live and die. These are the assurances we cling to when nothing else seems to make sense. This is why Paul was able to say to the struggling church in Thessalonica, “Rejoice always.” He encourages them to “pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.” I think this is advisable for us as well.
Prayer and gratitude inevitably point us toward one another. Prayer and gratitude reveal our most authentic selves: our identities as baptized children of God. However else we choose to answer the question, “Who are you?” the one response that tells the absolute truth about who we are is “Child of God.” As children of God and heirs of Christ, we not only pray for ourselves and others, but we are also prepared to be the answer to someone else’s prayers. The church—you and I—may very well be how God responds to those who cry out for liberation, who hunger and thirst for justice, who yearn for the promise of the Word made flesh.
While we wait for Christ to come again, we must be found among the poor. Those of us who are not among “the least of these” need to take sides with them, because the God who comes to us in Jesus is the One who “brings down the powerful from their thrones, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.” We need to put aside our own interests in favor of theirs, knowing that their liberation is actually also our own. When the powers that imprison the captives are broken, the captors, too, discover the extent to which they’ve been held captive.
This kind of work is not easy; truth tellers are rarely popular. Such solidarity with the poor and suffering is only possible through the Holy Spirit. When we are doing our best ministry, we should expect some rejection. Prophets and witnesses always face the temptation to be disheartened by resistance, hostilities, and lack of progress. Still, we are God’s beloved, so we press on, confronting the perpetrators and sources of oppression, marginalization, hopelessness and despair.
Christian life is for us—as it was for Jesus—a life of dying to self and rising to new life. It is about being transformed by the Holy Spirit. Just as it was for the prophet in Isaiah, our calling is to reverse the difficult circumstances of the most vulnerable, weak and marginalized, transforming their self-understanding, which will, in turn, change their actions. This is not easy, but it is who we are called to be.
Through it all, our Advent hope is Jesus, the hope of the hopeless, the voice of the voiceless, the liberator of the captives, and the wealth of the poor. Whoever we are, when we point toward Christ and his kingdom, we make clear on what we are willing to stake our lives.
And so my fervent prayer for you is an echo of Paul’s prayer for the Christians in Thessalonica: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”
~Pastor Susan Schneider