Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Today is the third Sunday in Advent and so we continue the process of waiting, of looking, of searching to see God coming anew into the world. But today I want to focus on how we witness this for others, how we share the Good News of Advent with a world that has a hard time seeing the Good News, and certainly doesn’t want to spend the time waiting and looking, but instead jumps into Christmas – this year even before Halloween.
Today’s New Testament passage talks about John as a witness to the light. As I just read, “John came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.”
That is our call, too. And again, especially during this time of Advent, of preparing, of looking for God’s coming anew, we are called to witness, to prepare a world for God’s entrance, to help people to walk with eyes open to seeing God’s coming. That’s not to say that bad things don’t happen, too. But as Christians, as Advent people, we are to look for and usher in the Good News. Our focus needs to not be on what is going wrong in the world, except in our commitment to changing and confronting it. But instead, our focus is ushering in the Good News, announcing the Good News that has come and that is coming anew. Our job is to make the joy of Christ among us real for the world around us.
But how do we do that? I don’t think it is enough to just talk about our faith with others. I do not believe that we witness to Christ’s coming simply by saying that we are Christians. I also don’t believe that we witness to the Good News by trying to scare people into faith with the threat of hell. That’s not really Good News, first of all. How could the idea of an angry, wrathful God who punishes with hell be Good News for anybody? But second of all, and more importantly, fear based faith is not permanent – it is only as strong as the fear. When another voice offers a bigger fear, a bigger threat, and offers a different faith as a solution, a fear based faith will alter course to what feels “safest.” Third, and most importantly, perhaps, every time in scripture that an angel of God appears, the first words out of the angels mouths are “fear not”. Our relationships with God is not supposed to be about fear. I posted on FB a wonderful article that talked about how the Peanuts Christmas special has a profound moment in it in which Linus is reading from the beginning of Luke. He is reading the Christmas story. Linus, as always has his blanket, his security, his source of comfort with him. But at the moment in which he reads, “And the angel said, ‘fear not’”, he drops the blanket. He lets go of his physical security and instead rests, without fear or the need for those material securities, in the love of God. Fear has been misused a great deal lately to try to push through decisions that are hateful, that are unjust, that are damaging to “the least of these”. But our faith is clear about this: there is no room in Christian faith for that fear. So preaching a gospel of fear to people is not what we are called to do.
No, to really bring people to the light, we have to show them what that light is. And that has to start, not from a place of fear, but from a deep place of gratitude that comes from faith. We are called to show the world that that light makes a genuine difference in our lives, frees us to live lives where we can risk radical LOVE, and calls us therefore to act and live in the world with actions of care for others. Isaiah shows us what that looks like. According to Isaiah, the coming of God looks like the oppressed being lifted out of that oppression, the brokenhearted being supported and healed, captives and prisoners being released and freed, those in mourning experiencing comfort. That is what the Good News looks like – that is what we are to witness to, and to bring about through our lives and through our actions. Isaiah continues, “they shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines.” In other words, God’s entrance is radical. It is not calm, it is not quiet, it is not unimportant and it is not ineffective. It makes a difference – a big difference – in the lives of strangers as well as friends, in the lives of enemies as well as those we consider our own. We are called to be part of that, by being God’s hands and feet in the world, by sharing it, by reflecting the Good News of God with us.
The children have a wonderful book that I shared at our Christmas Day service and that I want to tell you about this morning as well. It is called the Fourth King, and it tells the story of another Magi who didn’t end up making it to the stable. He set out, like the other Wise Men, following the star with presents for the newborn king. But as he traveled on his journey he heard a little girl crying out in a sand storm for help. So he stopped and carried her through the sand blizzard until he found her parents. He started out again, but came across a merchant caravan, lost without a map. He led them across the desert and to safety, but then found himself even further behind in following the star to Bethlehem. Next he came across a wall that was being built by a tyrant using child slave labor. And he stopped to try to free the children, ending up becoming one of the slaves himself until the wall was completed and he was able to help the children escape. Finally, he ran into some shepherds who told him about Herod’s plan to kill all the children. And when he met a family trying to escape from Herod’s devastation, he could not help but stop and help the family to safety. At every crisis that he met, he realized he had a choice. At every juncture he said “What was I to do? What was I to do?” Should he go see the baby, the thing that his heart most desired? Or should he help the people in front of him – God’s people, in need. At every step he chose to follow in the way – not the way that he wanted – not the way that led him to actually meet the baby Jesus in the stable – but the way of God, the way Isaiah talks about. In the end, he did finally make it to the stable and he found it empty. The book continues, “We were too late! Our journey had been in vain. I fell to my knees and wept. And then, in the depths of my despair, the most wonderful thing happened. I heard a voice speak softly, ‘King Mazzel, you have not come too late! You were always with me. When I was lost, you showed me the way. When I was thirsty, you gave me water. When I was captive, you freed me. When I was in danger, you saved me. You were always there when I needed you, and I will be with you forever.’ ”
Lyle shared with me a story that Michael Piazza wrote about. He wrote about Bishop Leontine Kelly’s father, who also was a Methodist preacher, and who was assigned to an inner-city church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Apparently, the church was an amazing, Gothic structure building with stained glass windows and a huge crystal chandelier. The parsonage was also amazing and included an old, huge boarded up cellar. As the children were exploring this cellar one day, they found a hidden passage that led to a tunnel which they shared with their father. The tunnel, it turned out, ran under the church and then led off toward the Ohio River, which flowed just five blocks away. Apparently, these tunnels had been part of the Underground Railroad and had been used to help move escaping slaves to freedom. Bishop Kelly’s father said, "Children, I want you to remember, as long as you live, that the greatness of this church is not this huge Gothic building, but those tunnels. We are on sacred ground because these people risked their lives to do something great for God and good for our people."
We don’t have to do big things or feel that if we can’t do big things that it is all, somehow in vain. One day a terrible fire broke out in a forest - a huge woodland was suddenly engulfed by a raging wild fire. Frightened, all the animals fled their homes and ran out of the forest. As they came to the edge of a stream they stopped to watch the fire and they were feeling very discouraged and powerless. They were all bemoaning the destruction of their homes. Every one of them thought there was nothing they could do about the fire, except for one little hummingbird.
This particular hummingbird decided it would do something. It swooped into the stream and picked up some drops of water and went into the forest and put it on the fire. Then it went back to the stream and did it again, and it kept going back, again and again and again.
All the other animals watched in disbelief; some tried to discourage the hummingbird with comments like, "Don't bother, it is too much, you are too little, your wings will burn, your beak is tiny, it’s only a drop, you can't put out this fire."
And as the animals stood around disparaging the little bird’s efforts, the bird noticed how hopeless and forlorn they looked. Then one of the animals shouted out and challenged the hummingbird in a mocking voice, "What do you think you are doing?" And the hummingbird, without wasting time or losing a beat, looked back and said, "I am doing what I can."
John 14:6 says, “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Notice that this does not say we come to God through belief. Jesus says he is the way, the truth, the life. And we are called to come to God by following in that way, by living in the way. It is through our following in the way – through our ushering in of the way of Christ, a way of setting at liberty the oppressed, raising the valleys and making the mountains low, by feeding the hungry and visiting the sick, this is how we know God, this is how we live the Good News, and this is how we witness to the light for all those around us.
We will be saying this poem as a prayer of confession in a couple weeks,written by Ann Weems, but I want to read it to you now because I think it very much applies:
“What concerns me, what lies on my heart, is this: that we in the church papered and programmed, articulate and agenda-ed are telling the faith story all wrong, are telling it as though it happened two thousand years ago or is going to happen as soon as the church budget is raised. We seem to forget that Christ’s name is Emmanuel, God with Us, not just when he sat among us but NOW, when we cannot feel the nail prints in his hands.”
We are called to witness to that truth of Emmanuel, God with Us, now, as we look to the coming of Christ through this Advent Season.