Advent 3 Isaiah 61:1-11 John 1:6-28
Each Sunday with another candle lit, Advent moves relentlessly towards the Feast of the Incarnation. First hope, then peace; today joy as we light the rose candle. Tradition calls this Gaudete Sunday, which translated means Rejoicing Sunday. We are rejoicing that the one we have been waiting for is no longer off in the distance or in the unknown future awaiting a return engagement. This Sunday John the Baptiser hints mysteriously that among us now stands one whom we do not know but who is the one we have been waiting for. The author of the Fourth Gospel uses John to validate his theological idea that the divine word has become flesh in Jesus Christ. It is a radical, if not scandalous, up-is-down notion. Radical because it transformed how humanity views itself. A view in which are the seeds of empathy, democracy and social justice.
Furthering this upside down notion we get, as Glynn put it last week, another sprig of Isaiah – only this time it’s more like a branch. Our lesson from Hebrew Scriptures contains the passage Jesus reads in the synagogue to inaugurate his ministry according to Luke:
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”
Listening to the Baptiser and Isaiah, I feel a little like Alice falling through the rabbit-hole into Wonderland. She was convinced that she had fallen right through the earth and was destined to come out where people would be upside down. The world is definitely upside down when God is no longer only beyond us, but discovered within and between us. The world is definitely upside down when the world’s rejects are found not to be the cursed of God but the ones through whom God shows us new possibilities for abundant life. The impossible is now not only possible but plausible.
Having our world turned topsy-turvy sometimes is exhilarating like unexpectedly falling in love or winning the Lotto, but more often it feels less than positive, kind of like the way the world is feeling now as global markets melt down or how most feel when a parent or partner dies. But either way it is disorienting.
Alice called such reversals Antipathies. She wasn’t sure that was the right word, but she was on target when it came to identifying the way we feel when our world is turned upside down.
When she finally landed at the bottom of the rabbit hole, Alice discovered she had to change to enter a new world.
The Third Sunday of Advent invites us into a world of reversals, a world where the captives are freed, where the hungry are filled and where the rich are sent away empty. But to enter the mysterious new world that lies before us, like Alice, we need to change.
No! Not change, we shudder. Deliver us from change. Why can’t things stay the way they are? Things may not be perfect, but at least I understand who I am in the midst of my adversity. Besides I have Christmas to give me a diversion from life’s challenges. Parties, pretty lights, Christmas carols; retail therapy all allow me to escape the ways the world and I are still oppressed, bound, and imprisoned. I’d rather use Christmas to escape not change.
Yet thanks to John and Isaiah we find ourselves at the bottom of this damn rabbit hole and the only way to move on is to change. What has to change is not who we are but how we see ourselves.
Like Isaiah and Jesus, Advent invites us to understand that the Spirit of God is upon us as well. Both the word Messiah and Christ mean anointed. When we were baptised we were anointed with oil as a metaphorical acknowledgment that part of what it means to be human is to be part of the divine order--part of and connected to something greater than ourselves. That is ultimately the message behind the Christmas story.
When it fully sinks in, that no less than Jesus, we are God’s anointed, it still seems inconceivable. Our first reaction may be like John the Baptist denying we are the one and pointing to someone else. But such denial is to avoid our unmistakable calling. We are not only the ones in need of abundant life, we are the ones anointed to bring it into being. That may sound like good news on the face of it, but is it? Doesn’t it mean seeing ourselves in a brand new light, which might be quite different from how we have grown comfortable seeing ourselves?
If the spirit of God is upon us, can we still excuse not living fully because life has dealt us some admittedly harsh blows? Can we still give in to despair or simply mark time when our hopes and expectations have not been met? Can we hide from our status of being anointed in addiction and obsession? Can we excuse our denial because life is unfair? Can God’s anointed really be victims?
If the spirit of God is upon us, can we use feeling powerless to avoid bringing good news to the dispossessed and broken-hearted? It is such a useful excuse and very plausible. How is little ol’ me going to stop the four horsemen of the Apocalypse and their minions? Global warming, terrorism, war, genocide, disease, famine, family violence, poverty, racism, homophobia; homelessness are too great for one person to impact we argue. Yet, if we really are awaiting the birth of the Word of God as a baby in a manger, how can we really believe that? While the church has distorted his message and perpetrated many horrors over the centuries in his name that does not change the fact that an itinerant preacher in the backwater of the Roman Empire changed the world for the better simply by how he was present in it. Living as if powerless denies not only our own capacity, but the work of Jesus, Paul, a whole lot of saints we know about and a whole lot we don’t. Would we really want to stick to our claim of powerlessness were we face-to-face with Gandhi, Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King? Can God’s anointed really be powerless?
If the spirit of God is upon us, how can we avoid loving wastefully in a world desperate for it? How can we not embrace those in need, those who are despised; those who are vulnerable? Perhaps the answer is we feel unworthy to love or be loved so deeply. Perhaps we are so aware of our own failings and frailties we feel no one would want our unconditional love? Yet, what makes us believe anyone has fewer failings and frailties than we do? How arrogant is it to believe we screw up more than anyone else? Do we really believe our capacity to fail is more powerful than the spirit that is upon us? Can God’s anointed really be unworthy?
Rejoicing Sunday is in our face challenging our self-image; telling us it is time to turn it around. Being anointed is our calling. Sure, we didn’t fully choose it any more than we chose our personal DNA or family of origin. But it is what it is. We really can’t escape it in victimhood, powerlessness, or unworthiness. If we embrace being God’s anointed we discover we are already capable of changing our circumstances and making the world look a little more like God’s domain.
There is one more hurdle to pass once we quit denying who we are and of what we are capable, and that might be shame or embarrassment that we have taken so long to get it, especially those of us with more than a few years under our belt. We might begin thinking of all the times we might have made a difference for others or ourselves if we had not been in denial of our true nature and calling. Let me suggest that such thinking does not move us on. It disengages us from a world crying out for our good news. The transformation we are being offered does not change the past that has brought us to this point, it only changes the present and the future where that which we call God is one step ahead of us.
This upside down Sunday prepares us to receive the Christmas gift of new possibilities by wiping our slates clean. Songwriter Carrie Newcomer captures the power of lives wiped clean in these simple lyrics:
The empty page
The open book
Redemption everywhere I look.
With the spirit of God upon us we are free to be born anew in a stable on Christmas Day. Let us rejoice and welcoming our transformation. And then move on with Alice into the Wonderland of God’s domain.