Rambling thoughts on the Third Sunday of Advent...

anniversary of St. John Coltrane's masterwork - "A Love Supreme" - we spent time playing jazz and doing jazz in worship.

The wisdom, spirituality, aesthetics and ethics of the Third Sunday of Advent point us outward:  in the most direct way possible they ask us to become like John the Baptist. But be careful because the Wild Man we’re asked to emulate as Advent ripens is NOT the harsh, demanding, caustic social critic found in Matthew, Mark or Luke. Rather the Advent John the Baptist always points away from himself to the Lord Jesus – the Lamb of God – for in the gospel according to St. John, the Baptist is a witness to the light. He knows that he himself is not the light, the truth or the way – that calling has been given to Christ – and John is clear to note that he is NOT the Christ.

No, John is a witness – literally a martyr from the Greek word martyreo – one who was sent by God to point us towards the Christ. And everything John the Baptist does in this gospel points us away from him so that our hearts and minds might focus upon Jesus. John knows that he is NOT the Messiah, NOT Elijah, NOT the prophet or the Lamb of God.

He is simply one crying in the wilderness – a witness – who invites us into a way of living that is uniquely humble, compassionate and public.  That’s why the feel of our worship is different today. We need all our senses – and our rational minds – to be touched by this message. Because all too often human beings live and act like WE are the crown of creation. WE are the center of the universe. WE are the heart of it all rather than Christ Jesus.  And so in the midst of everything that is self-centered in our culture, the Advent John the Baptist points away from himself saying, “I must decrease so that he may increase.”

That’s a beautiful pronouncement – I must decrease so that Christ may increase – but it is so counter-cultural.  It is truly challenging, don’t you think? I must get out of the way – I must call into question all my opinions – I must let Christ evaluate my priorities – I must let the presence of Jesus guide my politics – I must shut my own mouth more so that with less of my noise there is more room to listen to the cries of those in the wilderness – I must decrease so that Christ may increase in my church, my heart, my family and my community?
And just so that there is NO ambiguity about this means, John gives us a graphic illustration of what we are to practice IF we too yearn to be witnesses.  “Who are you?” asked all the important people in John the Baptist’s world, to which he replied clearly:  I am the one who is unworthy to untie the thong of his sandal. And the way I get this, John is telling us that there are three practices for us to embody if we want to learn to live as witnesses to the light.

First is humility:  as a witness John tells us he knows that his role is to be a servant – that’s why he would be kneeling down to unfasten the thong on his master’s sandal in the first place – he’s not in charge. He’s not in control. He is on his knees.  Servanthood, you see, is how we voluntarily learn to kneel. Kneeling is practice for what we’re going to have to face at some point in our lives. You see, whether we’re ready or not, there will come a time life itself will knock us down to our knees.

It might happen through illness – or addiction – it often takes place in love when our hearts are broken – and sometimes it is death and grief that hit us like a sucker punch knocking us down and driving us to our knees. Make no mistake, we’re going to get whacked – we’re going to come up against our limits – we’re going to be void of any and all control at some point in our life. So why not get ready for it? Why not practice getting on our knees so that even in hard times we can point to the light of the Lord as witnesses?

That’s exactly what servanthood is all about:  voluntary humility. Life is filled with reminders that we do not have unlimited freedom so why not learn to live in harmony with this truth rather than fight it? John the Baptist asks us to practice kneeling in servanthood – to stop running away from all the things that are hard or demanding in our lives – so that we might finally see what God wants us to give.  An old story puts it like this:

One day a spiritual teacher said, “It is much easier to travel than to stop.” Her disciple asked, “Why is that true?” To which the teacher said, “Because as long as you travel to a goal you can hold on to a dream. When you stop, you must face reality.” After a pause, the disciple asked, “But how shall we ever change if we have no goals or dreams?” And again the teacher said, “Change that is real is change that is unwilled: face reality and unwilled change will happen.

First there is voluntary humility in servanthood. Second there is compassion
– sharing your heart with those in need – and doing it with joy rather than wooden obligation. John the Baptist willingly shared his life as a servant and witness to Christ because he felt the Lord’s pain.  That’s part of what compassion means: co-suffering –from the Latin compati – to embrace with feeling another’s pain. But one of the deeper truths about compassion over and opposed to sympathy or pity is that compassion doesn’t quit with sharing the wound – it also strives to heal it.

You see, compassion not only takes on the physical grief of another’s suffering – we feel in our flesh what another experiences so they don’t have to endure this alone – we also commit ourselves to healing or relieving the agony of their wound. Sometimes that looks like taking off the Master’s sandal after a journey – this is the compassion of hospitality that the Baptist is showing us – bringing a measure of comfort to one who is worn and weary.

But sometimes compassion pushes us to confront the principalities and powers that grind people into the ground and cause them pain. When John the Baptist speaks of himself as one crying in the wilderness, he is allying himself with the poet prophet of Israel, Isaiah, who gave shape and form to Christ’s own ministry. Remember that when Jesus initiated his public ministry, he went to his home synagogue, read from the writings assigned for that day (Isaiah 61) and told his community that he had been anointed by the Spirit of the Lord to:

To bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor  and the day of God’s judgment; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion and give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

Now this is important because it grounds compassion in history – in real life – in the true suffering of our spiritual ancestors. This portion of Isaiah’s poem probably comes from about 540 BCE.  The Jews were no longer in bondage to Babylon where they wept remembering Zion. They had been set free to go home and rebuild Jerusalem. And like Psalm 126 tells us, when this happened: When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’  The Lord has done great things for us and we rejoiced.

But things didn’t work out too well when those in Babylon returned to Jerusalem. They had a hard time renewing their old community. Many held on to dreams and hopes from the past that no longer made any sense in a changed world. Others had unrealistic expectations that could never be realized in reality. And scholars tell us that as much as they wanted to live in harmony, there were profound economic disparities in Jerusalem and ugly religious and political factions in the city that refused to find common ground. 

You think John Boehner and Barack Obama have differences? You think our contemporary gridlock is ugly? In the days when Israel returned to Jerusalem and tried to renew their former glory, THAT was real mess: the city lay in rubble – religious fear and discrimination was rampant – and bone-crushing poverty broke the spirit of hope among God’s people.

So, God promised a NEW type of renewal – a truly different restoration project – one that was built on COMPASSION and the sacrifice of SERVANTHOOD:  You shall build up the ancient ruins… raise up the former devastations; you shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

But this wasn’t going to take place through nostalgia or aching for the good old days: Transforming the "former devastations" would require more than a memory of the past and a promise to build. It required that the people of Jerusalem adopt, like God, a love of justice and a hatred of "robbery and wrongdoing." God brings comfort to the mourners – and healing to the wounded – not to preserve the status quo, especially a status quo of frustration, fear and division. NO, God’s grace and hope is given to a hurting people so that the comforted mourners rise up and repair the former devastations – the devastations of former generations.

When God’s mourners are embraced by God’s compassion, God’s people respond as servants who share God’s love in public. You see, justice is what grace looks like in public. Grace happens in our hearts. Justice is what happens in our streets, in our politics, in our institutions and communities. So when God comforts those who have been in mourning, God expects us to respond, to rise up and repair the former devastations.
And we know this because God’s servant John the Baptist pointed to the Messiah – Jesus the anointed – and what did Jesus tell us when he went public with his ministry? He told us exactly what Isaiah prophesied when he went public in his ministry:  when the Spirit of the Lord comes upon you with grace, when you have been comforted and fitted with the garments of salvation and the robes of righteousness – and let’s be clear that salvation isn’t only about heaven but being made healthy and holy in our physical bodies right now and righteousness has nothing to do with self-righteousness but rather means compassion in action – when this happens… we will willingly start to decrease so that the love and justice of God might increase.

Humility as servants – compassion born of grace – and going public with justice in our own time – NOW – is what the Baptist points to today.  So let’s get out of the way for a moment and reflect on this in silence and song. And if you sense an action you want to strengthen, them come on up and light a candle, too.

(various pictures from the last few days; credits:  Dianne De Mott/Jesse Piscatello)


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