DecemBer 13, 2020, Scripture Readings and Sermon
Message from Rev. George Porter
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11The 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.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
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.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.
2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.
3 Then they said among the nations, *
"The Lord has done great things for them."
4 The Lord has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.
5 Restore our fortunes, O Lord, *
like the watercourses of the Negev.
6 Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.
7 Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24Rejoice 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.
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.
John 1:6-8,19-28There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Sermon: George Porter
'Come, walk with me in a new way - a good way...
When I last lived in Massachusetts, I had some friends who used to talk about the Italian prophet ‘Malachi’. His name was actually pronounced ‘Malaki’, and the Prophet Malachi plays a significant role in this Sunday’s Advent adventure.
Advent, as I said last week, has a long history but not necessarily a clear one, so before we get to that ‘adventure’ I’d like to do something that I call: ‘Do you speak Anglican?’ (or I guess: ‘Do you speak Episcopalian?’). It’s something I do from time to time to try to help us understand some of the peculiar things we do and say as Anglicans/Episcopalians.
Among the symbols of Advent – probably one of the primary symbols of Advent season – is the Advent wreath with its 4 outer candles – 3 of which are usually purple or blue (both royal colours) and 1 that’s rose or pink (a colour of joy). They’re arranged in a circle with a white candle at the centre – the Christmas, or the Christ, candle. Yet Advent wreaths aren’t part of the long tradition of Anglican/Episcopal worship. It’s a ‘borrowed term’, so to speak – a symbol or practice we’ve adopted from another tradition.
In fact, it’s not had a very long history, relatively speaking, in Christianity in general. It dates only from the mid 19th century. In Germany there was a Lutheran pastor – Johann Hinrich Wichern – who worked mostly among the ‘urban poor’. Most of his ministry was actually with the children among these urban poor. He found these children very impatient for the coming of Christmas and always asking when it would come. When would it be Christmas?
He came up with this idea in 1839 as an aid in helping these children to channel their impatient waiting, and perhaps to spare his own sanity. (It’s perhaps the first youth ministry practice I’m aware of.) Every day they would light a little candle to mark the days until Christmas. On Sundays, they would light larger candles to mark the weeks before Christmas.
We’ve retained and adopted only the Sunday tradition of the larger candles. In that process, each candle was given a ‘name’ or assigned a particular significance. But, not everyone uses the same naming or significance scheme. Most commonly now we hear of the Hope Candle, the Faith Candle, the Joy candle and the Peace or Justice candle. In the centre is the Christ candle of love, marking Christ incarnating or embodying – ‘enfleshing’ – the love of God in the Nativity mystery. Formerly they we called the Prophet candle (for John the Baptist, as well as the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures), the Mary candle, the Shepherd candle and the Angel candle.
It doesn’t seem very Anglican/Episcopalian to switch things up. By reputation, we’re people with whom things aren’t supposed to change. (The first time we do something, it’s an innovation; the 2nd time, it’s a tradition; the 3rd time it’s ‘We’ve always done it this way’.) On the other hand it does fit, because in reality tradition in the best sense of the word is a living reality, which means that it changes; it adapts to new needs and new situations. Just think about how we’ve come to use hand sanitizers – even before we were in this pandemic situation. It’s related to the ‘lavabo’ when the priest would wash the hands before handling the vessels and elements of the Eucharist. It was originally a practical sanitary action. It was, of course given a spiritual significance as coming to the celebration cleansed. (I have a cartoon somewhere, upon which I can’t seem to lay my hands right now, in which someone is carrying a huge bottle of hand sanitizer in the entrance procession.) Now, it seems, we’re back to being practical.
So enough of Liturgics 101 for today, except to say that this is John the Baptist candle Sunday – the Faith candle – and this is where the prophet Malachi comes in. Mark’s Gospel says: ‘Isaiah the prophet says: “Look! I’m sending my messenger ahead of me; he will clear the way for you!” A shout goes up from the desert: “Make way for the Lord! Clear a straight path for him!”’
But Isaiah didn’t say that first bit. That was Malachi 3:1. The rest is a blending of a couple of Isaiah passages, but in context Malachi’s words say: ‘You have wearied the Lord with your words. But You say: “How have we wearied him?” By saying: “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.” Or by asking: “Where is the God of justice?” Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight: “Behold, he is coming,” says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.’
Now, like ‘Emmanuel’ wasn’t first Jesus, this voice – this messenger – wasn’t John the Baptist. The circumstances and settings were different, but the Gospel writer re-applies these words to John. We hear echoes of the prophet’s words in the story of John – crying in the wilderness, preparing the way for the Lord, the Messiah, and purifying the people. He says that he baptized – washed, cleansed – with water but one was coming who would baptize – wash, cleanse – with fire and with the Holy Spirit of God.
So who was this messenger in Malachi and Isaiah? It was the prophet Elijah. Malachi 4:5,6 says: ‘Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.’
A couple of things come into play here: these words of the prophet Malachi plus the fact that in the story of Elijah he never died; he was carried off in a chariot of fire. So the tradition developed that Elijah would return before the final ‘Day of the Lord’. When the table is set for festive gatherings among the Hebrew people, a chair is left empty – the Elijah chair. Elijah is one of those who appeared with Jesus in the story of the Transfiguration, and when Jesus asks some of the disciples who people were saying he was, they say that some were saying he was Elijah, the prophet. In one place, John is asked if he were Elijah who is to come, but he says that he is not. Yet, in another place, we read that Jesus says; ‘If you can receive it, John the Baptist was Elijah.’
Indeed, in the telling of the gospel stories, John does function as the Elijah-figure, preparing the way by his prophetic preaching and baptismal washing. He was calling out for the people to set things right and be ready for the coming of the Lord, the Messiah – for the coming of Jesus. As the story unfolds, John fades away as Jesus emerges in prominence. Jesus, in a way, picks up where John left off and carries everything further. As I’ve said before: John said that the Kingdom of God was coming; Jesus said that the Kingdom of God had come – was there among them. (Remember that Jesus is the Emmanuel sign: God is with us, here.
John’s ministry was prophetic in the deepest sense of the word. A prophet wasn’t a ‘fortune teller’ or even a predictor of distant, future events. John wasn’t a Nostradamus kind of guy in his day. He was a prophet. The clothing and food specifically mentioned mark him. Camel hair garments were the mark of a prophet – especially of Elijah. The locusts in his diet were a ‘clean food’ (along with honey); in the Levitical law, they were the only clean insects. They were a food to the Essenes – the sort of prophetic monastic-like community who dwelt out in the wilderness and who were responsible for collecting and writing what have become known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. This seems to mark John as one of them. But this is also connected to the Emmanuel sign of Isaiah’s words that ‘before this child is old enough to eat curds and honey’ the powerful will be overthrown and the people of God, delivered.
So what? Interesting, maybe, but so what?
So what is this: right in the middle of our Advent candles and chocolate Advent calendars – right in the middle of our weird Christmas preparations in this time of pandemic – John the Baptist comes tramping in with his hairy prophet’s cloak and his locust breath with his reminder that God hasn’t gone somewhere else. God hasn’t fallen asleep at the North Pole, and God’s not messing around with naughty and nice lists.
The prophetic word of John is a call to trust. The other ‘name’ for today’s candle is Faith, and ‘faith’ isn’t a set of doctrines and beliefs or stances of morality. In the biblical writings, ‘faith’ means ‘trust’; it’s the same word. The prophetic word of John, in the midst of our pandemic Advent, is a call to trust.
Probably at some deep level we are all aware that trusting someone isn’t just something we do with our minds. It’s that, but it’s so much more. I heard a kind of corny story once about a tightrope walker who set his tightrope across Niagara Falls. He proceeded to walk back and forth a few times, and a crowd began to gather. Then he produced a wheelbarrow and said to one of the people watching: ‘Do you believe that I can push this wheelbarrow across this tightrope?’ The observer said: ‘Yes, I do. I’ve seen your go back and forth quite easily, so it should be no problem for you to push this wheelbarrow across.’ The tightrope walker relied: ‘OK, then get in.’
Trusting is really hard for us because it comes from the very deepest depths of who we are – our ‘innermost being’. This is why when trust is broken the pain and the wounding are very powerful. Since we’ve all experienced broken trust at different times, on different levels and in different ways, trust becomes all the harder.
Trust makes us vulnerable. Even John the Baptist knew this. When he was languishing in prison, he sent one of his followers to ask Jesus whether he was really the one they’d been waiting for or should they look for another. Even Peter knew this when the disciples were on a storm-tossed boat, and Jesus not only comes walking on the water but then calls Peter to get out of the boat and come to him.
Notice that Jesus didn’t push Peter out of the boat. He called him – invited him. I think that sometimes, for many reasons, there’s a long history of seeing John the Baptist as this hell-fire-and-brimstone sort of tough guy preacher, like some of the TV evangelists and other religious hucksters. One time when I was in Toronto – and in Toronto there is a sort of central square much like Time Square in New York City – and some guy had set up a huge sign, fifteen or twenty feet high, listing all the various reasons for which a person would go to hell when they died. He was screaming into a microphone and carrying on about all these things – things like joining a sports team and such nonsense. I think that’s how many people think of John.
But what if John comes tramping into the desert of our lives, where we keep guarded our wounded hearts, and instead of kicking them around, invites us to open them up – invites us to risk vulnerability – to risk, as my friend Steve Bell sings, readying our hearts for Emmanuel – God with us – God who can be trusted to be with us – to risk the vulnerability of faith? What if we hear the invitation to trust this God who has promised to be with us regardless of whether we anticipate a blue Christmas or a merry Christmas, whether we’re lamenting or caroling – or even maybe kind of oblivious to it all, because sometimes all the trappings and parties and pageants can make this coming of Jesus no more than a cutesy fairy-tale story?
But here comes John the Baptist, locust breath and hairy prophet’s shirt, preparing the way for God-with-us in a way that opens whole new possibilities – whole new ways of being – a new creation life. God-with-us in a way that opens to us new ways of seeing beyond what we see – or even more, seeing what we see in new ways that move us to put our trust in this one who has come among us – as vulnerable as a tiny baby – as vulnerable as a crucified criminal – as vulnerable as the heart of God who hold nothing back in the process of restoring relationship with us – who still comes to abide with us, to live with us – who risks taking us home into the very heart of God’s own life – who says in some way all over again: ‘I set before you life and death. Choose life.’ This is the one who says: ‘Come, walk with me in a new way – a good way – a way of life that I’ve prepared myself for you: a way of true life, not just existing but really living.