Sermon, Dec. 17, 2017


St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8, 19-28


Today’s lectionary readings emphasize joy even though the context points to some not so joyous times and experiences. The prophet Isaiah, after noting the Spirit of God had anointed him, says God has sent him “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor… to comfort … and provide for those who mourn” (Isaiah 61.1-3; NRSV). It is worth noting that Jesus used these same verses when he stood up and read in the synagogue in Nazareth – but he added something, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4.21; NRSV). The people Isaiah addressed had experienced calamity and hard times, yet Isaiah says, “They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory” (Isaiah 61.3b; NRSV). I have long loved the imagery associated with oaks of righteousness. Oaks are incredibly strong – they can endure quite a beating.

Many biblical commentators believe Isaiah was speaking of those who had returned from the Babylonian exile following the destruction of Jerusalem. References to the “oppressed,” “brokenhearted,” “captives,” and mourning certainly bear this out as does verse 4: “They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastation of many generations” (NRSV). In verse 7 Isaiah proclaims, “Everlasting joy shall be theirs” (NRSV). This note of joy is even more pronounced in verse 10: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (NRSV).

The psalmist speaks of laughter and shouts joy in celebrating the restored fortunes of Zion. Psalm 126 closes with the assurance “Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves” (Vs. 6-7; NRSV). This calls to mind the old hymn, “We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.” In Psalm 30, the psalmist reminds us “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Vs. 5b; NRSV).

In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul exhorts us: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (Vs. 16-18; NRSV). Looking forward to the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, Paul adds, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body [i.e., your whole being] be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Vs. 23; NRSV).

Now we come to the Gospel of John. John tells us John the Baptist came as “a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him [i.e., the light]” (John 1.6; NRSV). John makes it very clear that John the Baptist was not the light: “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (Vs. 8; NRSV). People began to take note of John’s preaching and baptizing. He was not a rabbi, nor a prophet, so what was he doing out there in the wilderness on the banks of the Jordan? The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, in that they were subject to Rome, were always on the lookout for any movement that might upset the status quo. Hence, they sent some priests and Levites to investigate. They asked, “Who are you?” I suspect the question also conveyed a bit of the sense of “Who do you think you are?”

An interesting interchange follows. John tells us John the Baptist confessed and did not deny “it,” which I take to refer to John’s testimony to the light. The Baptist replied, “I am not the Messiah [i.e., the Christ].” They replied, “What then? Are you Elijah?” to which he answered, “I am not.” They must have thought, “Huh, we are not getting anywhere here.” So, they asked, “Are you the prophet?” to which John the Baptist answered “No.”

Can you sense the frustration level building just a bit? They get a bit more direct: “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” And the Baptist replied, quoting Isaiah, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1.20-23; NRSV). I suspect this may have rocked them back a bit on their heels. They then asked, (and this is where we really get to the “Who do you think you are?” part), “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” Note how John skirts the “why?” of their question with his response, “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” (John 1.25-27; NRSV). John never tells them why. In effect, John the Baptist said, “I am no one of any account – merely a voice crying in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord.”

What can we learn as we contemplate these scriptures? What can we take with us? Can we live in joy and rejoicing?

First, let’s note the abject humility of John the Baptist. Most of us, when asked, “Who are you?” will engage in a bit of fluffery, huffery, and puffery. Let’s face it, we want to project the best image we can – no, actually, we want to project a bit better image than the best image we can. This is our humanity shining through, our own sense of importance and ego. But John the Baptist simply says, “I am no one of any account—not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet— merely a voice crying in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord.” How can we become more like John the Baptist?

Second, to what extent are we willing to cry into the wilderness, to prepare the way of the Lord? Yes, we live in a wilderness! Truth seems to have lost all sense of mooring. Your “truth” is no better than mine. If we disagree with someone’s rendition of truth, we now dismiss it as “fake news.” The only thing that is important is what this means to me and for me! To hell with financial responsibility! We deserve a tax break! Let the grandchildren worry about tomorrow. Everyone knows “Boys will be boys!” What’s wrong with being a man’s man? What does one’s character have to do with running the country? So what if I am a child molester, I have a moral vision for America! Forget about the needs of the poor, the stranger, the alien, the sick, and physically and morally injured veterans. Yes, it’s a wilderness out there. How do we cry into the wilderness? How do we prepare the way of the Lord?

Last, Christmas can be downright painful for many people. It can bring back memories of poverty and abuse. It may be the time of the year when someone’s best friend or loved one died from illness or an auto accident. It may be the time when someone was supposed to have returned from the battlefield but did not. Given the state of the wilderness in which we live, it is difficult to remain upbeat, to live in faith. Joy? What’s that? Where is it to be found?

We can learn something from a good celebration of Advent, for Advent invites us to not only remember and celebrate the Incarnation of the Light, of God become flesh in a receptive womb, but to also anticipate the Second Coming of Christ, Christ’s triumphal return. Advent invites us to remember the joy of the resurrection was preceded by the pain and sorrow of the crucifixion. Despite the pain and the sorrow, the darkness of the hour of crucifixion and of the sealed tomb, God’s triumphal love and Light could not be buried. What a gift! Christ meets us in our pain and sorrow bearing the gift of love and new life. Perhaps the best of Christmas is experienced when we carry the gift of Christ’s love to others, when we meet them in their pain and sorrow such that joy may come in the morning. I like the way this is expressed in Peg Whalen’s Facebook post:

This is a rule in our house. If we know you’re coming, the door will literally be open for you.

Our house is a safe zone. Coffee or tea can be on in minutes or a beer, and the kitchen table is a place of peace and non-judgment. Anyone who needs to chat is welcome anytime. We can pray, talk, share a laugh or two, or just listen. It’s no good suffering in silence. I have food, or we can always order out, eat and cry. I will always do my best to be available…you are always welcome!! This is an old value that has been lost to technology…a text, facetime, gif or emoji is not the equivalent. This is called Midwestern Hospitality. This is called being there for someone, thru the good and bad; thru the happy and sad; thru thick or thin; no matter your skin color or your gender; just being here, because it’s the right thing to do. So, my door is always open.


I was very tempted to reply, “I’m on my way over!”

We can get so wrapped up in our pain and suffering that we fail to remember that we can choose to rejoice! With Isaiah, let us gather together and proclaim, “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (61.10; NRSV).


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