December 17, 2023

The Third Sunday of Advent

December 17, 2023

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; I Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

From the Gospel according to John, “And they asked, ‘Who are you?’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     This morning’s gospel reading reminds me of a song. Now, I had hoped we could sing it, but for some reason it is not in our Hymnal, nor Lift Every Voice and Sing, nor Wonder, Love and Praise (that’s the green book in your pews) and it certainly is not in the 1940 Hymnal. But it is so fitting not only for grasping the depths of our Gospel reading, but all of today’s scripture lessons. That song asks this question over and again, (singing) “Who are you… who, who, who, who? I really wanna know! Who are you … who, who, who, who?” Now, whether you like or even remember that song (and come on, most of you were around in the 70’s!), or you think I’ve gone off the deep end (again!), it asks a great question. And the answer is important to not only our understanding of who John is, and who Jesus is, or the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, but who we are today.

     A group of religious men approached John and asked, “Who are you?” That is a reasonable question, but his answer throws everyone for a loop. See, in the Jewish faith tradition because Malachi proclaimed, “Lo, (God) will send you the prophet Elijah before the great … day of the Lord” (4:5), our Jewish brothers and sisters believe that the arrival of the Christ, the Messiah, will be preceded by a new Elijah. You might remember that in last week’s gospel lesson, John the Baptizer was described as “clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt … and (he) ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6). That is the same description of the Prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1). And we might also remember that Elijah, just like Isaiah, called the people of Israel to turn away from idolatry and forever leave those valleys and hills where they worshiped false gods. See, not only is John’s presence and message important here, so is his identity. The Messiah will be, must be, preceded by a new Elijah and Christians believe that new Elijah was John the Baptizer.

That’s why his answer is a huge problem for us because when asked, “Are you Elijah” John answers clearly, “No, I am not.” And with that our theology and faith in Jesus as the Christ appears to go down the drain. Or does it?

     The Baptizer’s response draws us to the core of John’s gospel which focuses on light and darkness. See, for John, people either walk in the light of God, or walk in the darkness of sin and separation from God. It’s one or the other. And those who truly walk in the light of God, those who embrace God’s ways, John believes, can recognize God’s presence around them. In the words of Isaiah, they are “oaks of righteousness” – pillars of society – who see God’s work, God’s presence at all times and in all things regardless of circumstances. John believes that is what identifies true people of faith.

So, when these “religious” men ask, “Who are you?” their question reveals that they do not know God. And that’s the scary part of this story. See, religious people can do all sorts of miracles, pray beautifully, raise the dead, meet the needs of every neighbor, and still not know God. Remember, Jesus said “Not everyone who calls me Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21). John’s response reveals that these men do not know God and their very question unmasks their inner darkness. In John’s mind, if these guys had any sense of God at all, they would know that he is that new Elijah: The voice crying out in the wilderness; the forerunner of the Messiah promised by Isaiah and Malachi. And if he is that new Elijah, then Jesus of Nazareth whose birth we celebrate next week, is the Messiah!

    Now, our story goes on with even more questions and in a nutshell, John responds, “Look, don’t worry about why I am doing this or by what authority. I am simply alerting you to the fact that the Christ is already here. He is the one you need to worry about. He is the one who is about to step forward and be anointed by the Holy Spirit as foretold in our reading from Isaiah (‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me (and) sent me to bring good news…’). He will baptize you with the very breath of God, the Holy Spirit. So, forget about me: seek what really matters; seek the Christ.” And those words “Seek the Christ” challenge us, to both see God and to seek God in the midst of daily life; to see Christ in all things.

Now, seeking or looking for God in all things is both admirable and wise. But actually seeing God, seeing Christ, in everything is one of the great struggles encountered by all people of faith. I know I find that very difficult to do, especially with all the chaos and hatred permeating our communities and the world today. So in the context of the question, Who are you? Who are we? What are we to do?

     Well St. Paul, in today’s reading from Thessalonians, urges the Church to give thanks in all things. Fortunately, he is not suggesting a Pollyanna approach to life because that is not what the Christian faith is about. But what Paul does do is affirm the promises of the Gospel: That as children of light, we live, breathe, and walk in the presence of God who, in Christ, offers to redeem every circumstance. Not take it away or make it disappear, but redeem it and, thereby, consider what is happening in our lives with and from, a new, a different perspective.

      See, Isaiah tells us that Christ comes not to fix our problems, nor to just redeem God’s people, but to redeem everything and to be in relationship with the whole of creation. So, he comes to lift up the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the contrite and afflicted, the captive and the prisoners. He comes not for his own glory, but to proclaim the Lord’s favor, to comfort, to give gladness, to clothe us with beauty instead of ashes. He comes offering the wholesome, redeeming and healing presence of God right now.

     So Isaiah suggests that when we look for God, not just in good times, but in every moment, we are invited to consider whatever is happening around us within the light of God’s grace and redemption. And Paul takes that a little deeper by suggesting that if we see all of life – our ups and downs – as redeemed by Christ, we can actually be thankful because regardless of whatever is happening, we never walk alone; that in Christ we walk with and within the presence of God forever. And that is wonderful, but is it really possible or even practical to see the presence of God, see Christ in everyone and everything when the world around us seems to be falling apart?

       I admit that would take and does take a lot of faith. See, like many of you, I experience frustration, disappointment, hurt, and to be honest, some real anger, every day over all that is happening in our world. And sometimes I find it so overwhelming, I want to throw up my hands and walk away. That’s when I remember that it is okay to ask, “God. Where are you in this mess? What’s going on here? Where is that redemption you promised.” And you know, sometimes those things that grieve me do not get any better. In fact, they seem to get worse! But my perspective and my focus changes even if just for a moment so that I am prompted to pray about what is happening around me and in the process grow thankful even in the midst of my anger because I recognize as scripture reminds us over and again, God can redeem everything. And that redemption began to take shape when John the Baptizer arrived and shouted, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

The truth is, friends, on this 3rd Sunday in Advent, we may not be able to give thanks to God in all our circumstances right now, but we can lift our lives – our joys and our frustrations - up to the light of God and begin to see God’s work, God’s redemption, that work of God’s grace to us in Christ who has and will continue to do great things for us and in us if we will so choose to seek him and see him.

     We know who the Baptizer was, and we know who Jesus Christ was and is. The greater question for each of us is, “Who are you? Who am I? Who are we? And what difference does that make in how we experience and wrestle with life, in how we think and how we choose to live, in how we experience God every day? (Singing) “Who are you? Who, who, who, who.” Beloved, the world really wants and needs to know. To that end and to paraphrase this morning’s collect, may God’s bountiful grace stir us, deliver us and, in teaching and reminding us who we really are, help us to not only see Christ present around us, but be Christ’s redeeming presence to one another, this community, and the world. Amen.