Advent 3: "Led By the Light of Faith"

The Weary World Rejoices  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  21:30
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The New Revised Standard Version The Word Became Flesh

The Word Became Flesh

(Gen 1:1–2:4a)

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

Revised Common Lectionary 12-13-2020: Third Sunday of Advent

61The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,

because the LORD has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners;

2to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,

and the day of vengeance of our God;

to comfort all who mourn;

3to provide for those who mourn in Zion—

to give them a garland instead of ashes,

the oil of gladness instead of mourning,

the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

They will be called oaks of righteousness,

the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.

4They shall build up the ancient ruins,

they shall raise up the former devastations;

they shall repair the ruined cities,

the devastations of many generations.

Joy in the Dawning Light!

Today, we look back and remember the account of John, the Baptizer, as he prepares the way for Jesus’ arrival and ministry. We hear a different account, this time from the opening of the Gospel of John. (Remember, these are two different Johns — John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, and John the Apostle, the beloved disciple of Jesus.) We hear the beautiful opening words of the Gospel of John, written by John the Apostle, in poetic description of the dawning light in Christ.
We read John’s words in the context of his prophetic task, which we looked at last week. He is here to tell the truth, the make plain the pronouncement of Jesus’ coming, to set the stage for Emmanuel, the Messiah, to speak and proclaim the dawning of a new way of being.
In the lectionary, John preparing the way for the dawning light is paired with Isaiah’s prophetic text announcing the year of the Lord’s favor, a nod to the promise of Jubilee and restoration of all that has been lost in the devastation of the years of waiting.
This Isaiah text is the same one that Jesus preaches from when he enters the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown — the same text that announced his place as the Messiah to the audience of faithful hearers that day, a text that ushers in his ministry and situates him in the rightful place of fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy.
So we have John’s opening, Isaiah’s prophecy of Jubilee, and Jesus’ fulfillment of God’s justice arriving — all worked together into…what? Something is shared here, something bright, something that crackles with hope and anticipation.
The word Jubilee gets at it, a bit. The Jubilee, in Hebrew understanding, was the year when all debts were forgiven, land was returned to its rightful owners, captives freed, and a leveling of society around their common purpose as, first and foremost, a nation meant to be a light to the nations, is restored. Jubilee is a concept we long for even now — we think of debt repayment, reparations to families for generations of slavery, release of those unjustly imprisoned, a redistribution of wealth that lifts up the poor. We long for Jubilee…it begins to get at what is shared in the grand narrative of the Scriptures and what these three texts give us today.
But I wonder if Jubilee is even not quite it. There’s a sense of “yes, and...” when we think of these practices of economic restoration. Because while we know that they bring about great justice and reparation, there is something deeper that is needing to be healed in us. These texts point to it, to that something deeper.
And that, when that thing arrives, it is an announcement of Joy to its fullest. Something is dawning in these texts — restoration of all people in the loving family of God. Economic, political, social, and spiritual.

Stories of Joy

Today is Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday when we light the pink candle of Joy. The third Sunday of Advent is the peculiar Sunday, something different is going on here. So far, we have been waiting, holding our breath a bit, hoping, listening to the prophets, expecting something to begin to happen. But today — we go straight to the dawn!
It is this deeper sense, this JOY as we define it, that is at work here. Yes, the economic restoration is so good, the rebuilding of cities long left devastated is necessary, the return to a place of leveled lives is vital, a calm of peace in trusting that all of us have enough — all of this is so so good. But the Joy is something a bit deeper.
Joy is that wild, bubbling sense of awakening in the heart. It’s that ineffable light finding its way inside of us, working in us. Joy is that arrival of dawn where we know that long night of sadness and despair are over.
When I think of Joy, I think of stories from my life where the indescribable light has found its home in me.
I think of the cold winter night on a school bus, singing Christmas carols, in one of the darkest seasons of my adolescent life. I think of the warmth of Joy’s light filling me and lifting me out of a place of deep fear and uncertainty.
I think of joy when I think of the first Christmas I spent with Stacy. I think of the gifts and time together we shared and the deeper resonance of our two hearts realizing we had found our beloved.
I think of the raw, untamed joy that I see in Asher right now! That kid is SO into Advent and Christmas and all of the story and the hope and light. Last night, we walked through our neighborhood to look at Christmas lights and, I have to tell you, that kid is off the wall with joyous anticipation and excitement right now! OH WOW! LOOK AT THAT! DID YOU SEE THE SANTA CLAUS? LOOK AT THOSE BRIGHT ONES!
When I think of joy, I think of breathing in the bitter cold air of the mountains and remembering how small I am, how grand God is, and how the justice of God is not simply refined to restoring our personal and economic fortunes, but God’s justice extends into the abundance of Creation, the way God is calling for the restoration and cultivation of beauty and immensity and lavishness in all things — from trees, to mountains, to streams, to snow and rain and sun — that unrestrained goodness of Creation that we are also invited to be humbled by and protective of.
So joy, this strange and hyperabundant presence — joy is arriving here today!

And yet, we wait.

And yet, we wait. Jubilee has not arrived. In fact, we seem to be unable to find an instance where the great leveling of Jubilee was actually ever practiced in Israel.
And yet, we wait, because Joy can be fleeting. It can simply be a glimmer, a spark, a brief moment of confluence where we see the dawning light. But then it seems to fade.
The Gospel of John’s introduction continues on:
The New Revised Standard Version The Word Became Flesh

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

While we may witness Joy, we also find we are quickly distracted. We become like the people who Jesus came to, who see but fail to truly see. We say, oh, that feeling was just a bit of excitement in the moment. It was the spirit of the day, not something sustaining. And so the joy seems to fade away.
In the Advent season, we practice remembering Joy because we believe it can (and must persist). We resist letting it slide away. We are practicing this work of waiting and anticipating the arrival of the Christ child because we believe, we actually experientially discover, that the joy can last and not only be sustained, but it can sustain us.
As I was working on this sermon, a famous poem kept coming to mind: “Casey at the Bat”. If you’re not familiar, it’s the story of a final inning chance for the Mudville nine baseball team to overcome a 2-run deficit to win the game. It’s a tragic poem, because we hear in the final stanza that the mighty Casey, the hope of the team, has struck out.
Hear the final words:
Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright, The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light; And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout, But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.
I think this echoed in my mind as I wrote this sermon because some of my earliest formation was done on the baseball field (I played first base and pitcher all the way up to sophomore year of high school). I know what the joy that the Mudville nine is missing feels like it. We feel the tragedy of this poem and we feel it because we know what the alternative is.
I wonder if this sense of joy lost can help us understand what it means to have joy discovered.
While the fans have lost their joy, we discover joy in this anticipation of waiting in Advent. We do not place our hopes on the bat of a mighty baseball player. We place our hope and anticipation, which begin to swell with joy, upon the one who announces justice and restoration for the world. We discover our joy in the depth of our hearts because the one who brings about this new way of living persists to be restoring all things from now to eternity.
Mudville’s joy is lost because they lost one baseball game.
Our joy is found because the light of Christ is dawning around us now and speaks of wholeness found, hearts awakened, peace on earth and good will to all.
If you begin to notice it, the instances of joy we find in our lives are often that quick firing of awakening. It is true, they may not last in their fullness for all that long. But what we do as we practice joy in the season of Advent is we begin to do a couple of vital things to help hold on to the joy when the road gets dark again.
First, as we anticipate and experience joy, we begin to learn to recognize its feeling and accept its power. We become familiar with it and, when it arrives next, we trust it and look for what Christ is doing in us through it.
Second, as we experience joy, we begin to be able to hold that feeling in our body, our subconscious memory. What I mean is, that while joy may fade, our body knows it was there and we can tell the story to others. We begin to develop muscle memory, as it were, and can even begin to recognize it in others.

Rejoice

I mentioned moments ago that today is “Gaudete Sunday”, the Third Sunday of Advent. Gaudete is the latin word for “Rejoice.”
I’ll draw us to a close today with some reflection upon Rejoicing, especially amidst a very blue, very difficult Advent season. As you know, we’re working through this Advent series with lyrics from the carol, “O Holy Night” and today’s sermon is titled: “Led by the Light of Faith.” Drawn from the second verse of the carol, the lyrics of the first two lines say:
Led by the light of faith serenely beaming, With glowing hearts by his cradle we stand.
What does it mean to rejoice in this weary world, today? Are we fooling ourselves to say we’ve discovered joy somehow?
I want to leave us with the hope and possibility that the joy we come to know in Christ is not actually something that belongs to us, not something that we can produce.
The story of Advent is not about our arrival at peace, hope, joy or love. It is not about our conjuring up those experiences amidst a dark and saddened world. Rather, the work of Advent is to make ourselves more and more attentive to how Christ is announcing those things in and around us.
Remember again our texts. Jesus is the light that John proclaimed. Isaiah points to restoration found in the Servant, the Messiah. So the arrival of joy is our tending to and waiting for the spaces where Christ will arrive in us, to cultivate a posture of awareness for that joy. We cannot swing the bat and make it work ourselves, we cannot bail our team out from defeat. Sorry Casey. But that was never the point. The point is, for each of us, to accept the joy that arrives when Christ dwells in us.
Most of the time, I find myself searching for joy, searching for Christ’s presence, searching for some sense of meaning.
Perhaps, what rejoicing means, what finding joy means, in this season and in the days to come, is to stop our searching. And perhaps, instead, we cultivate that openness to how joy will break through TO us.
This is what we are doing when we worship and rejoice together — we are cultivating a space for arrival. We are the manger, the stable, the straw, the animals, the shepherds, the kings, Mary and Joseph. We are the ones making space, but we are not the Savior. We worship and rejoice together to say “come, Lord Jesus, come” so that joy might swell up in us and be found.
May it be so, O Lord. We rejoice in you. Let us pray.
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