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The sermon for week December 11, 2011

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Advent 3B, Sylvania UCC
December 11, 2011
Isaiah 61: 1-4; 8-11
John 1: 1-8, 19-28

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Temperatures have dropped and we’ve had our first dusting of snow. The evergreen in the living room is all dressed up for the occasion, and our homes are beginning to fill with colorful decorations, while children eagerly ponder what surprises lie beneath the tree. In cities and townships lamp posts are adorned with greenery and the trees shimmer with twinkling lights.

In the nave of the mall shoppers are greeted by eager elves and served by industrious and solicitious helpers where Santa, himself, presides at the altars of commerce. Retailers have changed their liturgical colors from the autumn shades of orange and gold and are heralding their most profitable time of year with red, green…and black. The cheerful beep and the gentle flash of the scanner assure us that we won’t have to wait long to carry home the spoils of Christmas shopping.

The Church is getting ready for Christmas too. This morning we light the third candle on the Advent wreath. Its small flame flickers like hope against the darkness that prevails this time of year. We are awaiting the birth of the Christ child. The season’s colors of blue and purple call us to reflection and repentance. The Advent themes of hope and longing resonate with our own suffering and our own losses, losses that grow more prominent this time of year.

It’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas as well. Last week we heard the soft strains of Isaiah wash over us…in a reading familiar to many of us as the opening words of Handel’s masterpiece, The Messiah. “Comfort Ye, Comfort Ye my people, says your God!” It would be difficult to estimate the millions of people who have heard orchestras, soloists and choirs proclaiming these words of hope and the promise of delivery from oppression and despair at this time every year.

And in the Church on this third Sunday in Advent the voice of the prophet Isaiah is heard once more as he proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor while we recite the familiar cadences of the prologue to John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

These are the sights and sounds of Advent as we mark the passing weeks in the lead up to Christmas. We will have to wait for the stories of angels whispering in Mary's ear, of shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, and wise men from the east following a star. There are no animals, meek and mild, standing around a manger stuffed with straw on this Sunday in Advent. Instead John’s gospel begins with the mystery of a Word as yet unspoken and a voice crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord!”

Advent is the Church’s season of waiting. Like a prologue, it gives meaning to all that follows. Advent is a reminder to people of faith that it will get darker before it gets light. Week by week we will light new candles, but even as we light them the darkness will increase. Anyone who has ever yearned for daylight to come after a long, sleepless night knows that the dawn will come, but it cannot be rushed. We just have to wait.

Yet it is not a passive kind of waiting that engages us during Advent; but an active, contemplative work. Work that involves listening to disinherited voices within ourselves and engaging in the struggle to understand who we really are as children of God. Advent acknowledges that the world as we know it is constantly passing away, so we must grieve its passing and pray for a wisdom that can only be hewn from the hard rock of all that has been lost.

Advent invites us to do something we’ve avoided all year long: to wait. We know we don’t do it very well. Waiting reminds us of our limits. We prefer to be doing—earning, buying selling, building, planting, driving, baking—making things happen, and preferably two things at once! Waiting is essentially a matter of being—stopping, sitting, listening, looking, breathing, wondering, praying. It can feel pretty helpless to wait for someone or something that is not here yet and that will or will not arrive in its own good time, which is not the same thing as our own good time.

So what are we waiting for? To tell the truth, most of us aren't sure; but that doesn't make the waiting any less real because reality is shaped by what we are waiting for.

Have you noticed that when you want something… really want something, your whole life tends to rearrange itself around that goal? Whatever you're waiting for has a way of shaping your life. For one person it might be a child, for another a house, perhaps it's independence or approval, or enlightenment. For others it’s as practical as a job, or a healthy recovery. Whatever it is that our hearts yearn for, chances are that it has something to do with our vision of what it would mean for us to be made whole, to be transformed into people who are not afraid anymore, whose basic needs are met, whose wounds are healed and who are more nearly the people God created us to be.

The story of Christmas really starts here, hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. It begins with the longing of God's people for the Promised One, the One who would bring light out of darkness. In the words of Isaiah they yearned for a Comforter who would bring good tidings to the afflicted, and bind up the brokenhearted, a Savior who would turn their sorrow into joy, and vanquish their enemies. But they, too, had to wait.

So God sent a man whose name was John. John the Baptist had a vision of a great Light that was coming into the world. It was a Light for all people…a Light so bright that the darkness cannot overcome it.

John was set apart by God to do one single thing with his life--to proclaim "the true Light was coming into the world." This is the Light Israel’s prophets had proclaimed so faithfully down through the years and yet John didn't have so much as a name to shout into the darkness. “John came as a witness to testify to the Light, so that all might believe thorough him," the gospel tells us, but he didn't know whom he was waiting for nor when he was coming.

He didn't know whether to watch the sky or the path leading to the Jordan River. Maybe the One he was waiting for would come in a chariot of fire that no one could miss, but it was also possible that he would come incognito, so that only those who were searching for him would know he had arrived.

Until that One came, John's life was one long Advent, a waiting in the dark for the Light, a waiting, without knowing, for the one thing that would change everything. He could not name it, but he knew it was coming and that was enough to make the wait worthwhile.

“Among you stands One whom you do not know,” John told the priests and Levites who came to him, looking for their own version of the promised Messiah. Read on in the fourth gospel and you will hear him say it two more times: “I myself did not know him.” John is warning us! "You may not recognize him either."

John had only one description of the One who was to come, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

The One they were all waiting for is simply Someone, a man walking in the dust of Galilee, wearing sandals like any other man, except this man would change the world, not with a sword; but by walking among us no one had ever walked before. John had only one clue with which to identify the One for whom they all waited: the Light of the World is wearing sandals!

John seemed to understand that everything would be determined by waiting, even if it meant he too had to wait to determine his own identity in relationship to the One he waited for. So when the priests and the Levites asked him “Who are you?” He couldn’t say.

“Are you the Messiah?” No.
“Are you Elijah?” No.
“Are you the prophet?” No.

John seemed confident he was not among those whom the leaders suspected he might be; but if you are not meant to play any of these roles, who are you?

All John could tell them about himself was that he was the voice sent to open the way, to point in the direction from which the Light will surely come. "He himself was not the Light," the gospel tells us, but "he came to testify to the Light."

Sometimes the simplest questions are the most profound...who are you? It's the sort of question that can plunge us into darkness from time to time. It is a question that frequently occurs in times of transition…adolescence, tragedy, loss, retirement. Transition is a time that is defined by all that came before and all that follows. It is a vulnerable time, when questions frequently out-number the answers…who are you? In times of transition even the Church must attempt to answer such questions: Who are we? What is God calling us to become?

Advent is a season of discovering who we are. Out of our yearning for the Light in the darkness of Advent emerges the One who can show us who we are in the Light of who he is.

Because of John we know that we may not recognize him at first, "he came unto his own and his own received him not…. But to those who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God!" That’s who we are!

Yet John warns us that there is nothing automatic about the coming of the Lord. The path must be plowed before the valleys can be exalted and the crooked roads made straight. Human expectation, preparation and repentance are all factored into paving the way for God to enter our lives.

All of the preparation for Christmas… from the hanging of the greens to the progressive lighting of the Advent candles, the agonizing over choosing the perfect gift, the wrapping and the packing and the last-minute hustle are part of preparing ourselves to receive the greatest Gift of all, the gift of God’s Son, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas.

Without all this preparation we would be like the woman who got so tired of the work involved in preparing for Christmas each year that she added a large closet to her den. Inside the closet she set up a fully decorated artificial Christmas tree. Now when the season arrives, she just opens the closet door. And when the season is over she closes it again…an idea that is bound to have some appeal at this time of year.

So while the world gets ready for Christmas, the Church, in the season of Advent, waits. Unlike the world, however, we do not wait for something, we wait for Someone.

We no longer tremble in the dark like frightened children for we have heard the promises of God. John and all the prophets of Israel who came before him have prepared us to receive the gift no one knew how to ask for, the gift no one expects, the gift of God’s self we have come to recognize in God’s Son.

So the church waits in the darkness of Advent with only the light of a few candles because we have heard the sweet refrain of Christmas approaching, and we know the time is drawing near when God turns on the Light.

Thanks be to God! Amen

“For the vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seem slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” Habakkuk 2:3

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