The Third Sunday of Advent
“Well, who are you? who are you? who, who, who, who? Come on and tell me, who are you? who, who, who, who?”
You might recall those lyrics by the English rock band, The Who, released in 1978 and later the theme song for the popular TV series CSI. It would have made a good lead in song for today’s Gospel, well, except for the profanity in the original version.
“Who are you?”
That’s also the question the priests and Levites have for John the Baptist.
Who are you? I am not the Messiah.
Who are you? I am not Elijah.
Who are you? I am not the prophet.
Well, who the heck are you?
Unlike Matthew and Mark’s Gospel which paint a very colorful picture of John the Baptist for us, John’s Gospel asks us to figure him out for ourselves based on what he says. This testimony of John is a series of responses to the priests’ and Levites’ Questions. It is more about who John is not than who he is. Flustered by his answers, they finally ask who the heck he thinks he is baptizing if he’s nether the Messiah nor the prophet nor Elijah.
“I’m not sure myself,” John tells them, “I just know I must wait for the one coming after me and that I’m not worthy to fiddle with his shoelaces.” Yet for all his uncertainty, John knew exactly what his job was: to testify to the light, to be the voice in the wilderness, to make straight the path of the Lord.”
That light of which John speaks is light that is sorely needed in a dark world, a world full of violence, pain and conflict, in which the poor are still poor, the brokenhearted are still grieving, the oppressed still await liberation and justice. The powerful words of Isaiah look straight into the face of a gloomy world and proclaim that, no matter what humankind may think, this world still belongs to God—and therein lies our hope.
Fleming Rutledge, one of the first women to be ordained in the Episcopal Church, once offered this perspective: “Oddly, of all the seasons of the year, Advent preaching is the easiest, at least in my opinion. Why is that? It is because Advent is about a world in darkness, and it is not at all difficult to show that this is a world of darkness, certainly not at this period in our history. Advent is therefore a season in which to help one another to face up to the truth about the human race in general and also the truth about ourselves.”
“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” says John.
The wilderness was a concept that John’s audience would have understood well. The Hebrew people had experienced many periods of exile, captivity, oppression, and disruption. The Isaiah passage we heard today was written in the context of the Babylonian captivity of the Jewish people in the sixth century B.C. The text has to do with restoration and renewal through the ministry of healing.
Isaiah, as the anointed one, was called and chosen by God to invite the people to receive favor from God. It is in the wilderness that John the Baptist, is calling another community to receive God’s favor in the person of the one who is coming after him—Jesus, the Messiah.
The passage from Isaiah is the very same text that Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue of his hometown Nazareth when he began his public ministry. It is a dangerous text because it got him in deep trouble. In fact, they ran him out of town. When Jesus had finished reading from the scroll, he looked them square in the eye and said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Then he sat down—a sign to the Jewish people present that he was in charge. Sitting in the midst of his peers was a declaration of his authority. He was affirming that this world still belongs to God
Two thousand years later we hear this same message of hope and expectation today. The passage is rich in imagery and identifies three categories of people that pretty much constitute all of humanity. Who among us does not feel somewhat oppressed by the seemingly unending barrage of bad news that invades our lives everyday—news of COVID-19, violence, civil unrest, racism, terrorism, natural disasters, threats of more war, poverty, homelessness—an endless list. Could the “wilderness” be the very climate and culture right now in this unbelievably troubled world and the dark cloud of anxiety, fear or anger that seems to hover over us?
John the Baptist and Isaiah before him bring us a simple yet startling message of good news. It is this: God is faithful to God’s word and promises. God keeps the covenant made with God’s people. But even more than that, God is a God of salvation who brings favor, comfort, gladness, relief, and restoration.
The prophet Isaiah offers us the image of wedding apparel, the garment of praise that symbolizes something new happening for the people of God.
John the Baptist echoes the good news of the prophet and points us to a new dimension: we need to stop living dressed in the garment of death and mourning and put on the clothing of a people who believe that God has given us life and given it abundantly.
Despite John’s picturing God as a steely-eyed harvester of grain who would give you the axe and toss you into the fire for your sins—and in spite of his fanaticism and severe asceticism of which Jesus would have no part— if we look hard enough and read between the lines we are able to see in and through him a critical function for the community of faith, that is often overlooked. For John is, under these excessive external qualities, a hope-bearer and hope is too precious to be soft-pedaled. Take hope out of the equation of life and you take away life itself, because hope is faith facing the future.
Scratch the surface of anyone’s life and you’ll find just below that outwardly calm-looking surface a world of hurts of which we may be totally unaware. So we are called to offer hope to the person who wishes her life had turned out more exciting, more fulfilling than it did; to offer healing to those whose relationship was never all it was cracked up to be. We are called to offer comfort to those whose bank accounts are full and whose hearts are empty as well as to those whose hearts are full but eke out a meager existence; to offer support to the lonely who never could find the love of their lives and to the minorities who were forever made to feel inferior by others.
Think about this: The Gospel begs the question “Who are we?” How do we identify ourselves in the world? How do we testify to the light? How do we act, speak out, or live in heads-turning ways that cause the rank and file to wake up and pay attention to what needs to change in order for God’s realm to emerge.
Isaiah speaks these words to us today: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon you, because God has anointed you; God has sent you 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.”
That’s who we are. We have been made in God’s image and likeness. Isaiah and John are just reminding us to live as if we believe it.