Preparing for Joy

Isaiah 61:1-11, John 1:6-8, 19-28, December 17, 2017


I understand completely if you’re tired of the getting ready part of Advent.  When I was a child I used to imagine that the days got longer as Christmas approached.  I got impatient with all the waiting.  I didn’t mind picking out and decorating.  I didn’t mind making gifts for my family.  I didn’t mind hanging the cards we received on the archway between the living room and dining room…I just wished it had gone faster.  And then, I always noticed about midday—I wish it would stay longer.  It seemed like it was over too quickly.  I remember the radio stations never played a Christmas song after Christmas—even though a lot of them, like “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman” make no mention of Christmas.  They got right into the next big thing, counting down the top hits of the year that was ending.  Even the news started looking ahead, deciding which were the Top Ten News Stories of the Year.  All that planning, and anticipation, all the longing—it was too much longing.  The longing was too long!  And the itself was over too quickly.

Well, let me just say, it’s not exactly supposed to be like that.  Yes, Advent is a four Sunday season before Christmas, and we’re on the third Sunday today.  But Christmas is not just a day, it’s a season, at least in the way that the Christian church understands seasons.  Christmas is 12 days long.  And it ends on a day called Epiphany, January 6.  The 12 days of Christmas, as we sing in that really, really long song might encourage us to take Christmas a little slower, or maybe parcel out some of the fun activities over 12 days.  That way it won’t be over so fast.

And it’s no accident that the Season of Christmas is 12 days.  The Season of Advent is four Sundays or you can think of it a four weeks or 28 days.  28 + 12 = 40.  And 40 is a number that Christians use all the time to indicate stressful or difficult times.  The Israelites wondered for 40 years; it rained on Noah and the ark for 40 days; immediately after his baptism, Jesus was tempted for 40 days in the wilderness.  The Season of Lent is 40 days, so the Advent/Christmas combo platter is a balanced 40 days also. 

So let’s take some time with the season.  And the time of waiting and anticipating isn’t all doom and gloom.  Today for example, as I showed the young people, is the Sunday in Advent that we recognize joy.  It reminds us, or maybe gives us a sample of, what we’re waiting for.

I like to think of the Joy Sunday in Advent as a release valve on a pressure cooker.  If we didn’t let some of this joy escape…the whole thing would blow up before Christmas and we’d be cleaning pot roast off the walls.  So whoop it up, a little, today.  We’ve got the Madrigals and special treats downstairs after worship.  If, like Auntie Mame, you need a little Christmas, right this very minute, you’ll get a sample today.

It’s hard to put the experience of the Israelites in captivity into a perspective we 21st century Americans can understand.  They were a broken people.  Weeping as they sang the songs of their homeland by the waters of Babylon.  They did not know whether the God they had worshiped in Israel was still their God now that they had been conquered and their holiest place, the temple in Jerusalem was a ruin where wild animals walked where holy places had been. 

Then the prophet Isaiah spoke God’s word.  They were not forgotten!  Those who desperately needed good news heard that God would set prisoners free, comfort those who mourn, bind up the broken hearted.  Their ruined, beloved city where wild animals walked through former city streets would be rebuilt.  They will be strong again, and faithful, and as true and sturdy as oak trees.

Their conquerors would be punished.  People from other nations would do all the hard work, and they would live a life of ease, basking in the love, protection and comfort of the Lord. 

Foreign nations would bring wealth to this broken, desolate land and people.  And they would not only be secure and prosperous; they would be filled with praise and be righteous.  That’s an important part of this whole transformation.  To be righteous they needed to remember the poor, not exploit the vulnerable.  To treat all people with justice.  They were getting a new start.  The Living God was giving them a new start.  They had been broken too long.  The Lord had not forgotten.  The Lord would act…one of these days.

The hope and promise, the comfort of the lesson from Isaiah almost overflows off the page of the Bible.  Imagine how it would feel to know, to feel, to trust the promised deliverance of God when you’re broken. “My whole being shall exult in my God!” That’s joy.  That’s a sample of what we’ll completely release on December 24….in the afternoon.  In the morning, we’ll still be in the Season of Advent.  But I promise that we will get to the joy of celebrating our newborn king.

John out in the wilderness by the Jordan River, 21 miles away from Jerusalem is preparing the way of the Lord in a different way.  As I mentioned last week, John is leading a very popular renewal movement.  People are going a long way to be baptized as a sign of their repentance, that is their turning away from their former life and marking a fresh start.  What John’s doing is different from what we do in baptism; it’s different from what we believe.  We believe that baptism is a sign, a seal, a reminder of God’s profound, relentless love for all people.  We do it once, and in many ways it’s an initiation into the Body of Christ, the universal church.

Jews have other rituals that mark inclusion into the community.  One does not need to be baptized, if one is born of a Jewish mother.  If one is converting to Judaism from another, or no, faith, then part of the rite of passage is baptism, a passing through water, as when the Israelites passed through the Sea of Reeds in the exodus, or passed through the Jordan River when they entered the Promised Land.  John was claiming that practice and people were flocking to him to show their renewed commitment to following the Living God.

John got the attention of the big wigs back in Jerusalem, and they sent a delegation to ask him what he was up to.  And in answering them, John did something that makes me crazy…he keeps telling them what he is not.  He is not the Messiah, (that is the Christ, the anointed one) he is not Elijah, he is not the prophet.  Elijah was, and is, a very important prophet in Judaism.  Earlier in what we call the Old Testament, Elijah is taken up into Heaven by a whirlwind, in a chariot of fire and horses.  He is not recorded as having died, which sets him apart from other prophets.  About a century after our lesson in Isaiah was written, the prophet Malachi wrote that Elijah would return as a forerunner of the Messiah.  To this day, when Jews celebrate the Passover around the Seder table, they leave a door open for Elijah to join them.  They pour a cup of wine for Elijah to have.  It was probably a relief to the priests and Levites when John denied being Elijah.  They asked him whether he was the prophet, he denied that too.  They knew who John wasn’t.  At last he told them who he is…

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness….this is the prophet lesson from last week.  The famous words of Isaiah, the message of comfort and hope…John says he is that voice.  And he goes on, there is already someone on the scene, whom no one had recognized yet.  Someone direct from the Lord, whose sandal John is not worthy to bend down and untie.

Furthermore, the baptism in water that John is offering people who are turning over a new leaf, is nothing compared to the baptism that this coming messiah will lead the people to.

The leaders of the temple are wary, maybe one could say threatened, by this one who would appear on the scene at any moment. 

We, though, have the advantage of knowing the next part of the story.  We know the One for whom John was preparing the way.  We know this story.  We hear it every year at this time.  It’s so familiar it’s routine. 

Imagine that you are desolate, like the Israelites in Babylon were.  Remember your lowest point in life…a time when you were broken-hearted, crushed by despair and did not believe there would be any end to your suffering.  I’ve been there.  The hardest part is not the despair, the deep sadness; the hardest part is the belief that it will never get any better.  Or the inability to imagine that it could ever get any better.  Imagine a time when we were completely hopeless.  Broken.  Balled up in a fetal position in your closet.  Imagine feeling unloved by God, but beyond that, unlovable. 

I think of a colleague in ministry who told the story of her brokenness following her divorce.  She felt like her whole life was a failure.  She’d failed as a wife.  She’d failed as a mother.  She imagined a scarlet D for “divorce” on her forehead.  Everyone could see it.  That scarlet D did not describe her—it was her. 

And then, one day, when she looked into the mirror, she saw her face.  Her real face; the face that God sees.  She was no longer “Ann with a D on her forehead for the whole world to see.”  She was “Anne, beloved child of God.”  Beloved child of God.  The Living God accepted her.  The Living God treasured her.  She became a new person, by accepting, finally, God’s acceptance of her. 

Her joy did not come on the church’s timetable, it did not fall on Christmas Day when we celebrate the birth of the one whom John foretold.  It did not come on Easter morning, when crowds of people gathered for worship to proclaim that Christ is risen.   I don’t know when on the calendar it happened, but I know the radiant joy in Anne’s face whenever she recalls that moment.

The prophet Isaiah spoke for the people of Israel as he said, “My whole being shall exult my God!”

In the Season of Christmas we will sing, “Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.”  That’s the joy that we are preparing for.  That’s the joy we are anticipating.  That’s the joy we look to when we see the birth of God’s plan and intention for the world.  The birth of our Lord and Savior.  Amen.