3rd Sunday of Advent
December 17, 2017
Listen to today’s gospel reading and sermon here:
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
19This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ ”
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. – John 1:6-8, 19-28
Not no one, to be sure, but certainly very few people would want the job of John the Baptist. If the church asked you to go live in the wilderness, whether that be an urban or rural one, shouting to crowds of strangers about some unnamed, yet unseen prophet coming to wash you with fire – you would probably join a different church. If in baptizing infants and children we asked parents to promise to let their children live in an ascetic community, shunned by most, someone who would never quite fit in with society, we’d probably have fewer baptisms. If we asked people interested in joining the church to spend all their time preparing for something we can’t promise is coming anytime soon and which we can’t fully understand, we’d likely have fewer new members.
But in a certain way, especially in Advent, God asks us to the same kind of work as John the Baptist. Not exactly the same. Not necessarily shouting to crowds of people about the coming Messiah. But called to the work that is set out for us in the waiting. And yet, like John, we must be clear about a few things. When asked who he is, he adamantly replies first about who he is not. He is, first and foremost, not the messiah. He is not Elijah or the prophet. That ought to be reassuring to us – our sacred calling does not require saving the world or living as a famous prophet. But for John that doesn’t diminish the calling he has to lead others with passion, purpose, and vision. He is a voice in the wilderness. He has a voice to name God and name the power of God to renew lives broken by the wilderness within us and around us.
What does your voice cry out? What voice has God given you? What voiceless wilderness does your voice break into? Is it a voice that draws feeds others by setting a welcome table with rich food or by making sure that food gets to the people who need it? Is your voice one that gathers little ones to experience God’s good news? Is your voice one that expresses itself in the written word to comfort or challenge or inspire or delight? Is your voice one that leads businesses and entrepreneurs to achieve their dreams in ways that build up the community? Is your voice one that refuses to accept the social stigma of mental health concerns? Is your voice one that speaks comfort to the aging, grieving, sick, and imprisoned? Is your voice one that designs and creates the materials and machines that help us do the tasks of living on a daily basis? Is your voice one that tends the land that all people may eat and land and animals are protected and nourished?
Whatever your work is, this task of crying out in the wilderness can be exhausting. It is never ending. If you are called to something that sees results, God bless you, but there will be something after that, too, another invitation to use your voice to lead. If you are called to voice a need that may not see an ending in our lifetimes, God bless you, because you will need every ounce of blessing you can get. But take heart from John, you are not the Messiah, or even the prophet, but a voice. To speak, to act is to live your calling, even if you do not understand fully what you think might come of your speaking and acting.
And as crazy as John’s message is, people are drawn to it. Not everyone, mind you. Not everyone is found out in the desert to repent and get dragged into the river by John. But a significant crowd. Enough people from enough walks of life that it raises the attention of the authorities. Enough of God’s power found in his voice to unnerve the power seat of the empire. Enough to get people riled up against him. So take heart when it seems not everyone heeds your voice. God is still opening ears and gathering people. And ultimately it’s not whether people find you and your voice but how your voice might help people find God’s voice and God’s presence in the world in ways you may never know.
In some ways that is the heart of Advent, the reason we spend so much time on John every year in this season. Because we are people in the wilderness and people with a voice and a calling from God to point people whatever way we know how to the God who is born, who dies, who rises again to gather all people to himself. And for such a large task God uses every voice that can be stirred up to do it. Your voice and mine.
In some ways that’s what this growing nativity scene is all about, too. Each week we’ve been adding more figures. I suspect that many of them come with stories about the ways that the tale of the Christ child has been told in our own families year after year. But in our midst we have named the ways they represent angels and prophets who carry God’s good news in a variety of ways, shepherds and all the other workers who are too often ignored and forgotten, the Josephs, the leaders who make room for others in the kin-dom of God and who lead others to safety. Next week we will add Marys, the ones who step forth into the unknown with courage, who bear God into the world, who risk ridicule and shame for the work of God. All different. All calling out with their own voice in their own work, with their own role to play. All drawn to the center, to the Christ, the one for whom they call out, the one who ultimately calls them home. This scene we are creating together is really a scene of all of us, each one different, each one gathered at the manger, crying out with our voice in our wilderness for the coming of God.
And when our voice tires and falters. When our task and calling seems to be more than we can handle. We are reminded of the words from our second reading: “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” God will “sanctify you entirely.” God will lead you in rejoicing and praying and giving thanks. God will well up an unquenchable Spirit within you and help you hold fast to what is good.
We each have a message to speak in this time of waiting and hoping, we can join John the Baptist in finding our authentic voice to proclaim the coming of the one greater than ourselves, we can do this because God is faithful. God has come to us already. God is coming to us now. The coming of God we wait for is already arriving. In our questioning and doubting, when the waiting seems beyond what we can handle, God’s faithfulness calls out to us like that voice in the wilderness: “Prepare the way. For God’s kingdom is already making its way to you.”
-Pastor Steven Wilco