Message: Isaiah 61:1-11; Canticle 3 (Luke 1:46-55); 1 Thessalonians 5:16-28; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Oh so long ago, as a child growing up outside of Detroit, I remember happily many a day skipping my way down the sidewalk from our house to church. One very memorable day after school, I skipped along to church, entering in the back door near the parking lot. Climbing upstairs into the balcony of the worship space I was greeted by the choir master and the choir members. I was twelve years old at the most. Clearly, I was the youngest person there. Choir rehearsal was just about to begin. Rather than being dismissed by the choir director, I was asked if I would like to join the group and sing along. I don’t know how to sing. I don’t know how to read music. No one questioned my ability, my place and position nor my qualifications. So, I sang with the choir. At that very instant, for that brief moment, if someone were to ask me, “who are you, what do you want to say about yourself,” I would have said with the knowledge of the glory of God shining all around, “I am part of the church and I sing with the choir!”
Ah, if only we would perpetually identity who we are with such clarity and confidence. In our Advent III lesson today from the gospel of John, John, not the gospel writer, John also known as John the Baptist, is clear about who he is. John is a “man sent from God.” John is a voice crying out in the wilderness. John is a witness to testify concerning the true light in the world that shines on all people. John is a pointer who points us to Christ; to the presence of Christ in our lives. John turns us in the direction of the one who is greater; the one who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John is a man on a mission.
At the same time, John knows what he is not. John is not the Christ, the anointed one of God. John is not the Messiah, the one who comes to save. John is not Elijah, a man called by God during the reign of oppressive King Ahab boldly demanding the people repent from the worship of pagan gods, nine hundred years before John the Baptist was on the scene. John is not even a prophet, not a go between standing between God and God’s people.
There are a lot of things we are not. We tend to identify ourselves by what we are not, especially when we are being recognized as people of possibility, people of hope, people of promise. Even as faithful followers of Jesus Christ, when asked, “who are you,” do we say, “I’m a Christian, a follower of Jesus.” My guess is for many of us, in our world today, to pronounce we are followers of Jesus can result in a negative connotation. We don’t want to be labeled as one of “those kind of Christians”.
In fact, on Friday morning Freddie and I attended the Christmas program at our grandchildren’s school in Washington, D.C. The program is specifically and deliberately entitled, “Lower School Christmas Assembly.” When the head of school stood to greet us, he immediately launched into an explanation of why the program is called “the Christmas Assembly,” knowing full well that celebrating Christmas, a Christian hallmark, is not necessarily representative of the entire student population.
John, to get around the negative labeling, instead identifies himself with words of scripture. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, John replies when asked what he has to say about himself, “I am a voice crying out in the wilderness.” Imagine if someone were to ask us, “who are you? What do you want to say about yourself? What if we were to respond with words of scripture? Now, we don’t have to “know” the Bible to know who we are in the words of scripture. Simply look at the words we’ve heard today. The prophet Isaiah tells us we are oaks of righteousness, blessed by the Lord, clothed in garments of salvation. Mary shares a melodic canticle as noted in Luke’s gospel. Perhaps we too can sing out, “my soul magnifies the Lord.” We too, in our blessedness, can pronounce, “the Mighty One has done great things for me and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” We too are a people on a mission to testify to the light.
Today, in lighting the third Advent candle, we light a pink candle that symbolizes joy. As we round the corner to the final days of Advent, we celebrate and rejoice that Christmas is near. With these last days, what if we read the Advent Daily Devotionals and spent some time looking at how God’s inspired words of scripture map out for each of us who we are. Could it be that we find in these last days words of scripture that inspire us to truly embrace who we are as Christ’s own? Scripture that tells us we are ornamented in the jewels of God’s mercy, God’s strength, God’s justice; to rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances. Our Lord God fills our mouths with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy. The Lord has done great things for us.
When asked, “who are you,” like John the Baptist, we’re called to testify to the true light that shines on all people. For the Lord God causes righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. Sadly, though, oppression, brokenheartedness and a faint spirit seem to continually prevail as our world becomes increasingly polarized and angry. Too often the light is overshadowed by the darkness.
Yesterday, serving as witnesses to the light, several from Epiphany, lovingly, with heavy hearts, attended the funeral of infant Adelia Sue Walker, child of Seldon and April Walker. Seldon, as you know, is our seminarian now in his second year with us. We’ve grown to love April and Seldon as they’ve made a home with Epiphany. There has been no better witness in the watching and waiting of Advent than the good news of Adelia Sue being born. Her coming has been a cause of much rejoicing. Mystifyingly, on November 21 Adelia Sue died, just three and a half weeks before her official due date, tomorrow, December 18. There is no rejoicing in this deep sadness. Children are not supposed to die before their parents die. A loss so great can’t help but trouble us when we examine the question, “who are you?” This beautiful couple, so beloved by God, so trusting in God’s great mercy, shouldn’t they be able to respond when asked, “who are you?’ that they are happy, rejoicing parents? Yes; and Seldon and April will be parents. But they are not rejoicing just now.
Now, Seldon and April, surrounded by their beloved family and friends, strengthened in their rock solid faith in a God who comforts those who mourn, a God who blesses us with rejoicing, a God full of grace and truth, a God who draws close those very souls, weeping are at the same time sowing the seeds for joy.
Who are you? What do you want to say about yourself? We know well what we are not, my friends. God in Christ knows well what we are not. God in Christ knows well who and what we are as well. Sent by God, we are those very witnesses to the light! Witnesses to the light of Christ, about to be born within us once again this Christmas season. May we in our each and every action; hold fast and not quench the Spirit of Christ within us. God has done great things for us in making us his own. May it be that our witnessing to the light brings others to the light as we round out these final days of Advent. For such a joy, may we rejoice! Amen!