a sermon, based on Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11 and John 1.6-8, 19-28reached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 17, 2017
Over 2500 years ago, the people Israel, after nearly fifty years of captivity in Babylon, were free. For a second time, they would journey to the Promised Land. The prophet Isaiah marked the auspicious occasion with this word of hope: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me…anoint(ing) me…to bring good news to the oppressed…the brokenhearted…the captives…(and) all who mourn.”
By contrast, stories of this past week from around the globe screamed the sorrowful news of the daily revivals of ancient animosities, civil unrest, escalating terrorist violence, and, perhaps most ominously, steps forward and backward and forward again toward the threshold of war with North Korea.
Reading Isaiah, then looking at the world, where is the good news to the oppressed, brokenhearted, captive, and mourning? It’s been 2500 years! Plenty of time for God to bring this glorious vision to light and life. Sometimes, when I think things never will get better, I feel like suing God for breach of promise!
But one thing gives me pause. My belief that we humans bear responsibility for the state of the world. Yes, we pray: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and…come among us…we (who) are sorely hindered by our sins…to help and deliver us.” Yet what seems an honest confession of our need can sound like our abdication of our accountability; our all-too-facile admission of our failings so to absolve ourselves of our guilt and grief over the mess we have made of this world. Perhaps we should sue ourselves, declare moral bankruptcy, and throw ourselves on the mercy of the Court of Cosmic Claims (or Crimes, as the circumstances may warrant)!
However, accepting our responsibility immediately raises the question: For what? And if the “what” are the big and abiding problems of our world – hunger, homelessness, economic disparities between rich and poor, the destruction of the environment, racism, sexism – then every one of us, whether one individual, one community, one congregation, one nation, with limited energy and resources, immediately is overwhelmed.
So, what do we do?
John can help us. To the question, “Who are you?” he confessed, declared, “I am not the Messiah!” that is, in common parlance, to say, “I’m not God!”
John then described himself in terms of his life’s mission: “I am a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’”, thereby, reminding all of their responsibility. If the vision of good news to the oppressed, brokenhearted, captive, and mourning had not then and has not yet dawned, perhaps it was they then and we now have not done all we could do to bring it to light and life.
Thus, in response to the question, What do we do?, which is another way of answering the question, Who are we?, following John, we are to be those who always are mindful of our responsibilities for and to the world. It isn’t about whether we always fulfill our responsibilities. We never always fulfill anything. Ultimately, that’s God’s job. Our job, individually and communally, is to be aware and alert to human need and to our resources (not worrying about what we don’t have and acknowledging what we do have!) and to our commitment to respond, and then in the name of the One for whom we Advent-wait, to make straight the way of the Lord, that is to say, to do something.
Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902)
Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens), James Tissot
(1) Full text of the Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent: Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.