Some weeks ago I brought a sermon to our Sunday evening congregation from Paul’s letter to the Romans, after which one of my parishioners responded by saying, “I have absolutely no idea what he was talking about.” In a very real sense, there are few words that could be more discouraging to a preacher than those.
Isaiah was called by God to deliver a prophetic message to the Israelites concerning their impending captivity and God’s judgment on their apostasy. We hear a faint echo of those proclamations in today’s passage from Isaiah 61, though the primary thrust of this chapter has to do with God’s keeping His end of the covenant, ensuring His people that He will bring them freedom, comfort, joy and salvation. Yet much earlier in the 6th chapter we find God telling Isaiah to say to the people, “‘Keep on hearing but do not understand, keep on seeing but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts and turn and be healed” (6:9, 10).
Do those words sound familiar? They should, because these very words are quoted by Jesus Himself in Matthew 13 (verses 34, 10, 13, 14), where we read, “Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing... Then the disciples came and asked Him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered... “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive.’” Paul, quoting a similar passage from Isaiah (29:10), writes in Romans (11:8), “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.”
If misery loves company, I could take some serious comfort in the thought that people found the messages of Isaiah, Jesus and Paul as inscrutable as some find mine. But just last week I said that John the Baptist shows us what it is that we should do, in calling people to repentance, getting them to confess their sins, bringing them to an overt expression of their repentance through baptism, and pointing them to “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). That’s our mission, no matter how it’s received. That’s our Great Commission from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
In his annual Advent letter to the Diocese, our Bishop wrote, “On the third Sunday of Advent, the Gospel again reminds us of the mission of the Baptist, which we must imitate by becoming witnesses to the light that illuminates the paths of all humanity. Because to everyone who receives that light, Christ Jesus will give the power to become children of God (John 1:6-8, 19-28).”
While that message and that shining example is clear in today’s Gospel reading from the 1st chapter of John, we find that some of the priests and Levites sent by the Pharisees missed John the Baptist’s point altogether and, instead of asking to learn more about Jesus, diverted their attention by puzzling over who John may have been. At least some of John’s ardent pointing to Jesus was to blind eyes and deaf ears.
So what should we do? Throw in the towel? Submit our resignations? Quit trying to climb Everest? Any time we entertain such thoughts we need to turn to the growingly popular question, “What would Jesus do?” And in this case we don’t have to search very far for the clear answer. What Jesus did was to keep right at it, right up to the very end, right up to His death on the Cross for us and for our salvation. Quoting yet another contemporary adage, we need to “keep on keeping on.” It’s what Jesus did, and He is our great Example, among many other things. His first followers carried on unflinchingly. How could we do any less, when the cost for us is so slight compared to the price they paid with their lives? They really knew what it meant to follow their Lord and Master.
And that’s what we’re to learn from John the Baptist, not just in the Advent season when his story invariably pops up, but in every season for as many seasons as God chooses to leave us on this earth. John “came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him.” Now that responsibility falls to all of us. John exemplified humility as a servant-leader, and we can find few more compelling examples of that than he. He said he was unworthy even to loosen the sandal latchet of Jesus. Later he said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). We need to say the same.
And what became of him? He landed in Herod’s prison where ultimately he was brutally beheaded just for the entertainment and vengeance of Herod’s wife. But he unflinchingly pursued his mission to the end. He understood that it was all about allowing the greater light of God’s only Son to shine forth unobstructed. He, too, turned to the words of the prophet Isaiah and characterized himself as nothing more than “a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
Our sequence hymn this morning is among my favorite Advent and John the Baptist hymns. Its first verse speaks of the message and ministry of John, but the next two verses are all about us, our continuation of his mission:
O thou that bringest good tidings, get thee up to the heights and sing!
Proclaim to a desolate people the coming of their King.
Like the flow’rs of the field they perish, like grass our works decay...
But the Word of our God endureth, the arm of the Lord is strong...
These thoughts, drawn directly from last week’s lesson in Isaiah, should be great confidence-boosters for us as we toil in the fields that are ready for harvesting. They serve to counterbalance those things that sound grim, unrewarding, somewhat frightening, and certainly unappealing. How do we really feel when someone off-handedly says, “Your reward will be in heaven?” Surely something inside of us thinks, “Couldn’t there just be a wee foretaste of that reward, just a smidge of gratification in this life, just to keep us going?” Well guess what? There is a present reward, and it’s immensely satisfying for those who seek it.
What was it that motivated the early Christians to welcome and, in some cases, even seek martyrdom? It wasn’t just a matter of hastening their eternal reward. It was that in their obedience to their Master Jesus Christ they were already so richly rewarded that no cost seemed too great, none was of any real consequence. Even when given the opportunity to save themselves from torture and martyrdom, they refused to recant their faith.
Today’s epistle reading takes us back to I Thessalonians, where we spent several weeks in November. We noted that Paul had undergone a seriously rough stretch in his ministry when, in the Macedonian vision, God called him to an area where he would experience relentless persecution. Now he’s having a bit of a breather while staying in Corinth, but he’s aware that things back in Thessalonica are just as turbulent and oppressive as when he was there.
So what does he write to his young-in-the-faith converts? “Your reward is in heaven?” No, absolutely not! He writes, “Rejoice always!” and “In everything give thanks.” How? And why? Because, writes Paul, “this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” And don’t forget praying without ceasing and not quenching the Holy Spirit!
What is Paul’s end goal in all of this? It’s that our “spirit and soul and body may be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” There’s our Advent theme once again: the Second Coming of Jesus and our time of preparation for it. Both the work we’re to be doing and the suffering we may be called to endure have their meaning in that context. They’re part of our sanctification by the “God of peace,” our progressive conformity to the image of Christ, Who is our great Example. We’re reminded of Romans 12:1 where Paul admonishes us to present our bodies a living sacrifice, but here in Thessalonians he expands that to include our spirits and souls.
And through it all, we are to “rejoice always!” This is “Gaudete Sunday,” the third Sunday of Advent, and gaudete is the Latin word for “rejoice.” It’s been called “Gaudete Sunday” for hundreds of years, because the Introit of the Latin Mass for this Sunday is taken directly from Philippians 4:4-6, which begins with the word Gaudete: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.”
This is why the word “rejoice” appears in three of our four Scripture readings this morning: Isaiah wrote, “I will rejoice greatly in the Lord, my soul will exult in my God; for He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” What strikingly beautiful imagery, and this from the quill of a severely persecuted prophet of the Lord!
Then we heard the psalmist saying, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with rejoicing. He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, shall indeed come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.” That’s just another metaphor for doing our John-the-Baptist job of spreading light. And finally we have Paul telling the persecuted Thessalonian believers to “rejoice always.” If they could, how much more could we!
And so I want to leave you with two thoughts on this third Sunday of Advent: First, we must be doing our part to prepare the way of the Lord, both for His soon coming as the Babe of Bethlehem and also for His soon return to set up His eternal Kingdom; and second, no matter what challenges we may be called to face in this life, may we never fail to go about our business with rejoicing. Gaudete, gaudete!
A few weeks ago we sang the Advent hymn, “Rejoice, rejoice, believers, and let your lights appear; the evening is advancing and darker night is near.” But in every Evensong service we say with the psalmist David, “Darkness is not dark to You, O Lord, the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light to You are both alike” (Psalm 139).
May we re-commit ourselves this Advent and Christmastide:
to be light in this dark world, shining on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death;
to reflect the light of God, in Whom “there is no darkness at all;”
to be beacons of light on the hill, lights that cannot be hidden or extinguished;
to be the very light of Christ, Whose Name and Cross we bear; and, finally,
to shine like stars for all eternity (Daniel 12:3).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen