There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Lord, you have promised that when two or three gather in your name you will be present with them. We depend on that promise today and pray that you will move among us. Lord, we pray that have you inspired Mike's preparation, that you will enliven his presentation and that you will empower our application. Amen
Here we are on the third Sunday of Advent. This is a Sunday with an interesting history. Let me take a moment to cover a little bit from the historical notes.
Advent, not so long ago in church history, was celebrated as a 40-day event. As we have talked about before, it was seen as a reflective/contemplative period much like Lent. As time passed Advent was reduced to the 4 weeks (4 Sundays) before Christmas Day. It maintained its reflective/contemplative sense, but this was not emphasized quite as much.
This, the third Advent Sunday is celebrated as "Gaudete" or "Rose" Sunday. It, historically, was an opportunity to lighten the mood of Advent a little.
It is also associated with the Te Deum laudamus, which is a Canticle of praise named for its opening words in Latin. It appears as Canticles 7 and 21 in the BCP. In the language of the traditional Canticles it Canticle 7. It is known as "We Praise Thee," and the language of the contemporary Canticles it is Canticle 21 and known as "You are God."
So, amid this time of watching and waiting, reflecting, and contemplating our preparedness for the coming of the Messiah, we are given the opportunity to rejoice. We are encouraged to examine what we have discovered, because of our self-examination, and to identify what it is that we have to give thanks for.
What do we have to be joyful about?
The things that we have to complain about are right in front of us. The things that have been taken away from us are clearly evident. We are disappointed, we are sad. That sadness was amplified for us this week with the passing of Denny Lehner. I have to admit I was surprised and then shocked by how quickly the process happened for Denny. He, along with all those others we have lost from our fellowship, will be sorely missed this Christmas.
How can we rejoice and sing songs of joy? Why would we want to be joyful? This year I believe many of us would rather continue to be introspective and to continue to experience what we mourn.
I am reminded of the question that the exiles from Jerusalem cried out in their captivity in Psalm 137: 1- 4
"By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?"
Does that resonate with you? I have to say it does with me. How can we rejoice with all that we are dealing with in our lives right now? How can we sing the Lord's song?
Sometimes we need a place to start that process. I believe the Gospel, for this morning, from John gives us a potential launching pad. As a former actor, I have to say that the beginning of the Book of John sounds a bit like the prologue to a play.
John, because of his audience, doesn't take a lot of time getting to the central point or the identification of the characters he wants us to know. He covers Jesus in five verses. In the beginning, was...
Then he goes on to raise up his main supporting witness to the truth he is proclaiming. "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John." He goes on and in three curt verses, he paints the whole picture of John the Baptist.
Shortly after that, he brings in the contrast, the antagonists, the characters who question the validity of John's claims. The Jews send priests and Levites to question John the Baptist.
You can almost hear the sarcasm dripping in the words: "Just who you think you are?" Remember what I said last week about the fact that God hadn't raised up any new prophets and had revealed nothing new for almost 400 years. Here is this upstart proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
John the Baptist is unphased by the questions and the accusations behind those questions. He states simply that he is not the Messiah, he is not Elijah, he is not the prophet. He denies being all the predicted and expected entities that were proclaimed in the Old Testament. He is none of these things. This provokes his questioners to demand, now you can hear the frustration in their voices, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?"
John answers in clear and precise terms. He has no doubt who he is and what his role is. He also has no doubt about who Jesus is. He has no doubts about what Jesus' role will be.
This is where I believe we have the key to some of our own struggles and difficulties with our faith walk and our journey.
As we all wrestle with the fact that we can't meet together to worship. As we struggle to find our sense of belonging and community the question of who we are and who Jesus is has never been more relevant. We have never needed, as much as we need to now, to decide who we understand we are and who Jesus is to us.
Now, I am going to take us down a short potential rabbit hole. I am going to use an illustration which, may or may not, work for many of us.
Back in 1970 Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice wrote a ground-breaking musical which was named Jesus Christ Superstar. There were all kinds of reactions to that musical. A lot of that reaction came from the church at the time. People were strongly divided over how Jesus was portrayed in the musical on stage and later in the movie. Central to the impact of the musical and the reaction it caused was the question the whole production revolved around "just who Jesus Christ actually was?"
The refrain from the song "Superstar" went like this:
Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ Superstar,
Do you think you're what they say you are?
This irreverent and controversial musical raises a question for us all as we travel through this Advent.
Who do we believe Jesus is? And of course, before we can answer that question we have to have a firmly grounded concept of who we are. Which we can only do when learn to lean into Scripture and what we learn there about. I know that sounds convoluted, but it is the essence of how we can define our purpose and identity in this life and world.
In the Gospel of John, this morning, John the Baptist knows himself because he recognizes his role and relationship with Jesus. We can take that example and apply it to our life or the lives of those we know around us.
If we stop and think about Denny Lehner, or even more clearly, Gene Smercina, it may help us understand what I am saying. Denny and Gene both understood who they were because they had come to believe who they understood Jesus to be for them.
Now, I have to say that for many of us Gene was supposed to know that right? He was one of those professional representatives of the Lord. He had studied and he had committed his life to sharing Jesus with other people.
Denny was a great example for us all of someone who just knew Jesus and wanted to share him with all those around him. As I talked with Denny's son, James, this week we agreed that Denny was a man of "simple" faith. He had influence in churches and community groups throughout this area by just living the grace he had experienced in his own life.
Denny is a great example of what we heard in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
Now, that doesn't mean we don't question and doubt our relationship with our savior. There are times when we struggle with holding on to our faith conviction. John the Baptist does later in the narrative of his life. He is in prison and the Gospels record that he send messages to Jesus asking if he was actually the Messiah. We can empathize with John. He is in prison, Jesus doesn't seem to be doing what John predicted.
This happens in our everyday lives. Now, I have to say I asked Emma if I could share this particular part of my message.
You all know Emma. She is an accomplished young woman. She has blessed our community with her voice, her love, and care, her teaching and testimony to who Jesus is in her life.
There are times when Emma calls me and she needs to be reassured. She struggles at times with how she is managing her life and her responsibilities. She calls and I share with her the truth of who I perceive her to be. But it doesn't mean much to her unless she has an undergirding sense of who she is and what her relationship with Jesus is. When she hears from me she is seeking to have her concept and self-evaluation confirmed. I am not telling her anything new. I am confirming what she already knows.
I have to bring this message to an end so let me seek to encourage us all to read The Collect for today. Not just read it today, but to read it several times this week. I believe it will open us to perceive how we should see and understand ourselves. So here it is:
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen