Sunday, December 11th – Third Sunday of Advent
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Do you remember that game from a while ago, called “Guess Who?” There was a game board of faces to choose from, and the point was to guess who your partner was before they guessed who you were. You’re supposed to ask questions like “Do they have blue eyes?” or “Does he have red hair,” and by process of elimination you would come to the conclusion that your opponent was Fred, the blond-haired man with a beard, and then you would win the game.
Imagine for a moment that the first century religious leaders are playing this game, only in reverse. Before them is this character, John the Baptist, who was preaching in the desert, baptizing people, and from last week’s Gospel text we heard was wearing camel’s hair and ate bugs and honey. Now, they are trying to figure out who in the world this guy could be. So they send some priests and Levites to do a little reconnaissance. They bombard him with questions –
“Are you the Messiah?” – “No,” John replies.
“Are you Elijiah, who is supposed to return?” – “Nope,” he says.
“Are you the prophet?” - “No again.”
“Are you Moses? Elvis? An alien from outer space? Throw us a bone here! Who ARE you, then?”
John answered them in a way they didn’t expect: “I am the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.” And later he proclaims, “Among you stand one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.”
Who is John? John is a baptizer, a testifier, a witness, a voice, all pointing to the one who is coming after him. He came tell us about the light who was coming into the world. We, at least, know who he is talking about. John is pointing us to Jesus. Not Jesus the baby whose birth we will be celebrating in a few weeks, but Jesus the man, Jesus the grown up, at the very beginning of his three years of earthly ministry.
And what an incredible ministry it was – Jesus fed people and healed people and taught people about who God really is – a God of love and compassion who is desperate to have a relationship with his people. People’s lives were transformed – mourning became joy, sorrow became gladness, the oppressed were made free, and the suffering healed in body, mind, and spirit.
And for all that, we know how the Powers-That-Be reacted to Jesus message of love and freedom. They killed him for his trouble, with a horrific death on an instrument of torture, the cross.
While Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion has not yet taken place in John the Baptist’s timeline, it has already occurred for us. We have the privilege of knowing the end of the story, and it is a good one. In his resurrection, Jesus has conquered death in the most final way possible, by overcoming death with the power of life. Death has no power over us anymore – it has no sting, it has no victory, and it cannot make us afraid anymore.
But we all know that we still live in a world where death very much holds sway. Even though we have dressed up our homes with festive lights and garlands, the chill of this fear still nips at our heels. No amount of Christmas trees or grandma’s special casserole can mask the fact that there are still scary things going on in the world – wars and earthquakes and famine and unrest. And no amount of wrapping paper or holiday music can cover up our worries about providing our families with the Christmas they deserve.
Advent is half over; with the Christmas chaos is in full swing. I think more than a few of us are wondering if we are going to make it through this year with our sanity intact. The stresses of the holiday season can turn us into stressed and over-caffeinated versions of our former selves, and the peace and joy of Jesus coming into the world has been lost under all the Toys-R-Us ads.
Just in time, then John has come onto the scene, for not one, but two weeks of preparing our hearts and minds for the coming of Jesus, who we call the Prince of peace. Paul too, in our second reading, points us to the God of peace and joy, and invites us into a life in Christ who has come, is coming now, and will come again. He wrote to the congregation of Christians in Thessalonica:
“Rejoice 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.”
Let me tell you what Paul is NOT saying here. He is not saying “look happy, pretend nothing is wrong, and never complain no matter what and everything will be fine.” That is the message you see on commercial and on advertisements. Instead, Paul is inviting his readers, including us, into a life of rejoicing. You have heard it said, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Now I say to you, Jesus is the reason for joy in ALL seasons of your life. For Paul went on to write:
“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.”
Who are we, as the people of God gathered here today to worship? Paul is saying here that we are a people who rejoice, because God has given us a REASON to rejoice. Why should we rejoice in our God? Because the one who has called us here is faithful, continually making us holy and whole.
God had led you, this congregation, here to this place and this time. This journey leading us here today has not been an easy one, but you have taken the time to discern and test where this path is leading you, and I can see that the working of the Holy Spirit is not going unnoticed. God has given you many gifts, and you have demonstrated your trust by looking forward, into the amazing future that God has planned, and not giving in to fear and uncertainty.
I too believe that God has been faithful to me, over and over again, in the journey that has brought me to this time and this place. It has not always been smooth going, but God has proven to me, over and over again, that great things happen to those who trust. In most cases it’s only AFTER the fact that I can really tell that God has been at work. But in ALL cases, God has always gone beyond my hopes and expectations. God provided valuable experiences and supportive people I may not have encountered had everything gone according to “plan.”
THAT’S why we rejoice and pray and giving thanks in all circumstances. Because God is faithful to us here and now, in the blooming of every present moment. We don’t understand everything that happens to us all the time, or even most of the time; but the good news is that God is working with us and in us, to guide us down this precious and precarious path called life.
And while we wait for Jesus to show himself in our everyday lives, trust that he is there with you, and find comfort and joy in that. He is here with you even when that Christmas moment doesn’t feel as magical as you had hoped. He is here with you when you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, or even a bit scrouge-ish. You may meet him unexpectedly in the kindness of a stranger, or in the understanding hug of a neighbor or friend, or even in the contented gurgling of a baby.
Rejoicing in God as a way of life is not about changing our attitude to make our lives better or easier. It’s not something you can teach yourself by researching in the self-help section. It is a gift. It is an invitation to live as who we are – people who rejoice.
You individually are more than just your occupation or your age or your marital status. You are a child of God: so rejoice and take comfort in that. And you as a community, as the congregation of St. Paul Lutheran Church, are more than just a group of people gathering in a beautiful worship space on a particular day of the week. You are a people of joy, a people who rejoice, for the one who has called you here is faithful, and he will do all which he has promised, and much, much more. Amen.