Third Sunday of Advent

Sermon for Third Sunday of Advent, Sunday, December 13 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

So, last week we had Mark’s version of John the Baptist, and this week we get the version from John’s gospel—recognizably the same story, but with some significant differences, perhaps most of all in the character of the Baptist as we meet him in the two texts. It’s all much calmer, in John’s version. It sounds less like a revival meeting than it does in the other gospels—John in this version is not shouting about repentance, not calling people vipers, not making threats of fire or of trees being chopped down, not explicitly described as the strangely-dressed locust-eating character we are accustomed to imagine.

The Baptist in this gospel is focussed on one thing only—the identity of the one who is coming, the one he will see the next day passing by, and identify as the Lamb of God. Aside from that, he has nothing. Aside from that, he can speak only in denial. He will claim one thing for himself, and one only, that one thing he is given as saying in all the gospels—that he is a voice, that he is calling us to prepare the way. He will identify himself with that same passage from Isaiah, that summoning of the people out of exile and back into their land. And it is important, in that context, that he is on the far bank of the Jordan. He is where the people were before they ever entered the land, and they will, in the symbolic universe he creates, be led in, led back, restored, by the new Joshua—for that is Jesus’s name, it’s just a different way of rendering it. That very different Joshua who is God’s Lamb, at the moment of passage is not a military leader, but a willing offering.

So what does it mean, then, to be restored, to be led across the Jordan by the Lamb of God? Here we might turn to the first reading. It is from the last part of the book of Isaiah, written probably much later than the passage which the Baptist applies to himself, and this final Isaiah author seems to have been speaking at a different point in history. He seems to have been speaking after the return from exile, after the people had come back into their land—and were already starting, as is the way of people, to make a mess of things. And the point he is trying to make here, I think, is that God has not brought the people back just for the sake of it, because God happened to feel like it; nor has this happened because they are particularly awesome, nor—indeed, least of all—because they are being rewarded for their own good deeds. God has brought them back, failing and inadequate as they and we are, because they have a task, and that task is their calling to become a new kind of people, a new kind of community. To rebuild the ancient ruins as a people of justice, to create a land in which justice will rise as naturally, as amazingly, as the green early growth after the rain.

Jesus himself, in Luke’s version of the story, will take this as a sort of mission statement, standing up in the synagogue to announce that now, now truly, is the coming of good news for the oppressed, for the prisoners, the sick, the lost, for all the hurt, the trapped and forgotten wreckage of the world. That he will rebuild these ancient ruins of time. And he calls us to that task of repair, the mending of the world. It is for this that we are redeemed, for this that we are freed. To be the people of this calling. The Lamb takes us across the Jordan not to conquer, but to heal. To plant gardens both metaphorical and actual, gardens of justice and equity, gardens from which the food is shared. To open the jails, in the world and in our hearts. To speak of good news, and to keep speaking, no matter what.

We are always in exile, and the exile is always ending, and we are always rebuilding a new land. As Advent lightens towards Christmas, there are glimmers, too, of the dawning of an end to these pandemic months, glimmers a long way off for most of us, though the first vaccinations in the UK have already begun, and here in Canada, will begin on Tuesday, in hospitals less than a mile from our church. There are still many months left until the disease is under control, and we are still in a time of great risk for the vulnerable, and great need to take care of each other, to sacrifice the celebration of Christmas as we have known it so that we can all be here for Christmas next year, to continue the restriction of our social contacts, our mask-wearing, our hand-washing, and at the same time our work for those who have been most seriously affected by all these changes.

But we must also, even now, start to imagine a rebuilding that is better than what we have known, more just, more beautiful, a rebuilding which allows real and meaningful lives and spaces for everyone, a rebuilding which considers the long-term survival of our ecosystem; imagining that, and doing all we can to make that real. And our ancient texts can still guide us in that imagining.

Isaiah uses the imagery of the bridegroom—and also, interestingly and unusually, the imagery of the bride as an exact and balancing equal—two figures who are at the centre of celebration, who are clothed with special, ceremonial clothing, who are, for a moment, the meaning of the party; and who, in this, shadow forth just a bit of what it means to be clothed by God with justice, to be brought into the joy of the redemption of creation, the healed world become a greater wedding then we can fully imagine, a wedding of all things finding their home together. In Isaiah, we are all, each one of us, the partners of all creation, wedded to this whole world and all its strange beauty in a consummation of joy, charged with its care by love alone.

The Baptist as he is drawn in John’s gospel will use this imagery too, but in a different way; a few chapters later, he will continue to identify himself as what he is not—not the true bridegroom, not the one who wears the garland of righteousness. He will continue to name himself by denial, naming only what he is not. And yet he will allow another image for what he is, not only a drifting voice, but the bridegroom’s friend. Not the one at the centre, not the main character of the story, but still within the celebration, within the joy, held within the greater movement of love. And this, too, is a variation on the imagery which we might use sometimes. Because we do sometimes, in fact often, need to be reminded that we are not at the centre; none of us is quite so uniquely special as we may feel to ourselves. If we are in some sense the brides and bridegrooms of Christ and of the world, it is not because any one of us is special, but because everyone is, every single last lost one of us, and we understand it least by looking at our own selves, and most by looking away.

The Baptist in John’s version can teach us something about looking away from ourselves, pointing away from ourselves, understanding ourselves to be a part of the celebration indeed, but not the makers of it, and not the meaning. Friends, friends of the Christ who comes to make us no longer strangers but friends, friends of the suffering created world which still needs to be freed and healed and brought into the party, brought into joy.

We will never free and mend this world by our own strength alone; we are too frail and broken, our own love is too limited, our own capacity for joy too constrained. But, on this Sunday called “rejoice”, we can allow ourselves to be made more capable of being friends. Through worship and prayer, through service and art and scholarship, through the love we learn in our human relationships, we can allow God to change us towards joy. Make us more able to point away from ourselves, to move ourselves away from the centre, and rejoice in the rejoicing of creation precisely because are not, and need not be, its heroes or its narrative centre, but simply friends.