Sermon: "Bearing the Good News: Cause for Rejoicing"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8, 19-28
Today we celebrate the third Sunday of Advent – Gaudete Sunday, so named for the Latin “Gaudete” which means “Rejoice.” Traditionally, the mass for this Sunday opens with the antiphon: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near” (Philippians 4.4-5). The first Sunday of Advent, we focused on faith, on being faithful. The second Sunday we looked at hope. Today we consider joy.
Imagine the joy and the excitement John the Baptist must have felt as people asked to be baptized in response to a message of repentance. Luke’s gospel portrays the Baptist as a rather fiery preacher who didn’t mince words: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come” (Luke 3.7; NRSV)?
In response to John the Baptist’s message, the Pharisees in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites asking, “Who are you?” He told them he was not the Messiah. They then asked if he was Elijah or a prophet, to which he responded, “No.” Being somewhat perplexed, they then asked, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” In response, John the Baptist quoted Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” They then asked John why he was baptizing if he was not the Messiah, Elijah, or a prophet. He responded: “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 1.26-27; NRSV). John the Baptist saw himself as lowlier than a slave, yet I suspect he was rejoicing. He knew he was bearing good news – yes, great news!
Imagine the joy Isaiah must have felt when he cried, “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 brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God: to comfort all who mourn” (Isaiah 61.1-2; NRSV). A few verses later, Isaiah proclaimed, “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” (Isaiah 61.10; NRSV). Isaiah knew where he stood with God. When we are at one with God, we have cause for rejoicing!
In the gospel of Luke, we again encounter Isaiah’s proclamation, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Early in Jesus’ ministry, when he visited the synagogue at Nazareth, his hometown, Jesus stood up to read. They handed him the Isaiah scroll, he found these words, and read:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Nota bene -- Jesus did not include the phrase, “the day of vengeance of our God.” After having read these words, Jesus returned the scroll, sat down, then said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4.16-21; NRSV). What a claim – a radical claim!
As you may recall, Jesus knew they expected him to perform the miracles he was performing elsewhere, but Jesus reminded them no prophet is accepted in his hometown. After all, they were already asking among themselves, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (John 4.22; NRSV). They were wrestling with the question, “Who are you?” Jesus reminded them there were many widows in Israel, yet Elijah was sent to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon, and there were many lepers in Israel, yet none were cleansed except Naaman the Syrian. Luke tells us the people were enraged. They took Jesus to a cliff on the outskirts of Nazareth and sought to throw him over, but he passed through their midst and traveled on (Luke 4.23-30).
Jesus clearly perceived his ministry and message as the fulfillment of Isaiah message. We see further evidence of this in Luke 7. John the Baptist has been imprisoned for having courageously condemned the actions of King Herod Antipas who divorced his wife and married his brother’s wife, Herodias. John the Baptist must have experienced some dark times, some troubling doubts, for he sent messengers to Jesus to ask if he were the Messiah or if they were to wait for another. Jesus answered: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Luke 7.18-23; NRSV).
Isaiah and John the Baptist came bearing Good News – cause for rejoicing! I suspect they experienced considerable joy. That is not to say their message was always appreciated or that their life was easy, for they experienced severe persecution. Although the Bible does not record Isaiah’s death, tradition holds he was sawn asunder at the order of the wicked King Manasseh. Matthew and Mark record John the Baptist’s imprisonment, and ultimately his beheading by King Herod at Herodias’ request.
As noted, the delegation sent by the Pharisees persistently questioned John the Baptist – “Who are you? … Are you Elijah? … Are you the prophet? … Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
“Who are you?” is an appropriate question for us to consider this Advent. How would you respond? Most of us would respond by speaking of our vocation. “I am a mechanic.” “I work in sales.” “I am a teacher.” “I am a professor.” “I am a doctor.” We have been culturally programmed to respond in this manner. But that does not really answer the question! It says something about what we do, as opposed to who we are. It does not touch the deeper questions pertaining to our being.
I may have shared this with you before. I used to ask my students to pair up and ask each other “Who are you?” After the person replied, they were to repeat the question. They were to ask this question of each other five times while taking notice of what was happening to the conversation. They began with surface-level communication but moved to deeper levels with each subsequent response. We then considered the reasons we avoid deeper, more meaningful conversations as well as the risks and benefits of such conversations. Most of us value our privacy, and let’s face it, we fear revealing too much. But what if we could move our conversations to the level of being as opposed to doing.
How does this relate to Advent? As noted last week, for Christians, Christ has come, Christ continues to come, and Christ will come again. But what is the evidence that Christ has come in our lives? What if we were to answer, “Who are you?” in light of “being” as opposed to “doing,” in light of Christ’s presence in our life? A few choose to do this, to bear witness to Christ’s presence, but all to often to do so in less than a loving manner. Bearing witness should convey invitation, not condemnation.
What if we were to simply say, “I am a Christian who has experienced the grace and power of Jesus Christ and I am striving to live more deeply into the joy of that relationship. Would you care to know more?” Admittedly, I could do better – most of us Episcopalians could!
This Advent season asks that we consider how we prepare the way of the Lord, how we make the rough places plain, how we bring good news to the poor, how we comfort the brokenhearted, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. In short, how we imitate the actions of Jesus Christ. Can others see Christ’s presence us?
Who are you? Who would you be? How will you get there? May we bear the good news and have cause for rejoicing!