The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Advent 3—Year B; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Tis the season of preparation. Some of us are probably pretty far down that path—homes decorated to the hilt, gifts already wrapped, carols playing, mulling spices putting their sweet fragrance into the air, and some of us have hardly begun. And then there’s the excitement of the kids. They know something is in the air; it’s electric. And honestly, the adults are no better than the kids. Exhibit A—a good many of your fellow St. Luke’s parishioners flash mobbed (is that even a word?) Lost Province last night and, in a rather planned, spontaneous way, broke into Jingle Bells and We Wish You a Merry Christmas, complete with Santa hats.
The church is no stranger to this preparation. The choir is in a full-court press learning lots of music that will make our souls sing on Christmas Eve. Flowers are being planned as we speak. Gifts purchased for those in need. Carols sung to elders who know them by heart. It’s a busy season; it can even feel a little frenetic.
But beneath all this activity, there is another beat; another rhythm calling to us. A steady beat that you have to get still to hear. Like the bass note of a drum, like the sound of a heartbeat. Calling us to the center, calling us to the quiet, calling us to be still…and wait for the Lord. The church invites us into this space as well. Exhibit B—the service we will have tonight—lots of space for contemplation, lots of candles, incense, quiet. This, too, is preparation.
And then there’s the preparation that attends any birth that is about to occur. We were still painting the nursery the week before Julia joined this world. Jim was still building the crib right up until the end. There were onesies to be bought; diapers to be stocked. Any new parents-to-be can tell you about the swirl that happens right before the birth. We are ten days out from the Feast of the Nativity when we will mark once again the birth of Jesus into this world. And where we were painting the nursery and building the crib working ourselves into a joyous, expectant frenzy, Mary and Joseph are on a journey, and they remind us that we’re on a journey, too. It’s not just that we are preparing for his birth, but we are also preparing for his birth in us. Our baptism tells us that we die with him, we rise with him, and we are born anew with him—we in him and he in us.
And our lessons today come crashing in to tell us something we might not know about this One who is to come. It’s not just that we are preparing for the birth of the Savior or the birth of the Lord, but Isaiah makes it abundantly clear that we are preparing for the birth of a Savior and Lord who is anointed to bring good news to a world that is hungry for it. How hungry? Here’s a rundown of the headlines in the news just this week: continuing protests across the country lifting up the explosive intersection of race, policing, and the justice system; the fallout from the University of Virginia and Rolling Stone story about sexual assault on college campuses, schools struggle to confront it, in some instances, a lack of due process for the accused, and the demon that lurks amidst all of it, a culture of binge drinking; the release of the Senate report on Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EIT’s) raising profound questions about the use of torture and our values as a country; a BBC report revealing that 5,042 people were killed in the month of November by the Islamic State and other groups like them with Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Syria accounting for 80% of those deaths. And at the heart of every one of these stories are real people and profound brokenness on all sides. Never has the world needed a prophet more, and here’s how Isaiah works it out.
“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 [rescue] of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense [compensation, return in kind], and I will make an everlasting covenant with them…
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exalt in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness…For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations,”
We are preparing for the birth of a prophet, and if we think this is only Isaiah’s concern, well, we would be wrong. Paul echoes this theme in his first letter to the Thessalonians. “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of the prophet, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.” And then there is good ol’ John—the one who was not the light, but who came as a witness to testify to the light. And when the Jerusalem elite tried to pin him down on just who he was, all he could do was circle back to the prophet Isaiah—“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
So here’s the rub, amidst all of our preparations for Christmas, amidst all of our preparations for Jesus’ birth, and ours, we are called to prepare for the birth of the prophet, not just in Jesus, but in us. Because this passage of Isaiah that we hear today, when the fullness of time comes and Jesus steps into his active ministry, it will be this passage that he chooses, and proclaims, and preaches for his first public act. See Luke 4.
There is no understanding Jesus, his work, and ours, without understanding what we hear today.
In all those news stories that I ran down before, I don’t yet know precisely what the prophet’s call is in each of those instances, but as followers of Jesus I do know this—we don’t get to opt out of wrestling with what our prophetic call is. We have to discern it, and we need each other to do the discernment. Advent is so much about being attentive, paying attention, waking up.
Who are the oppressed, and what good news could you bring them?
Whose heart has been broken that you could bind up?
Who is being held captive, and by what, and what does liberty look for them? How can you proclaim it?
Prisoners? Think real prisons and think prisons that are just as confining but far more invisible—how are you called to participate in the release of those who inhabit them?
The year of the Lord’s favor—oh, this one goes back to the dream of God in Leviticus, and it’s daunting because it’s all tied up in debt forgiveness and economic redistribution. Isaiah is sketchy on specific policies, so let’s not get caught there, but go big picture—how could you proclaim and begin to live in an economic world where no one has to stay on the bottom for perpetuity and all have a chance to thrive?
Isaiah doesn’t stop there. He knows there is profound grief across his world, just as there is across ours.
Who is mourning, and how can you comfort them?
Where are there ruins and devastations—real ones in cities, real ones in the mountains, real ones that cross the generations, real ones that are unseen but just as tangible in the wreckage of people’s lives—how might you set your hand to the shovel and help rebuild all these places? And remember, Isaiah’s concern is always collective and individual.
How are you called to be an oak of righteousness? How do we sink our roots deep in a time when everything is, in the words of Brene Brown, “fast, fun, and easy”?
And in a world full of despair and cynicism, how do we rejoice? How do we be people of joy? How do we let our whole being exult in God? How do we don garments of salvation? How do we embrace the salvation, the wholeness with which God has clothed us? Because when you touch and taste that wholeness in yourself, the robe of righteousness is not far behind—when we feel whole, we want our relationships to come round right, we want them to enflesh that same wholeness.
Feeling overwhelmed? Whew, I do. I don’t feel like I am prophet material. Maybe you don’t either. But this is our Christ-infused DNA.
Take a step back. Even as you tend to the birth of the prophet in your own heart, hear again Paul’s counsel—“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of the prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.” Start by rejoicing, never stop praying, practice gratitude. Let the Spirit set you on fire. I know Isaiah is overwhelming, but don’t despise him for laying out our call as lovers of God and followers of Jesus. And before you cut loose on the world with prophetic zeal, remember, not everything that looks and sounds prophetic is prophetic—you’ve got to be discerning; you’ve got to test it. Hold fast to what is good and abstain from every form of evil, and sometimes, evil can look a whole lot like good.
I know we’ve got just ten days left, and I know that you are crazy busy, but we can’t neglect this part of our Advent preparation. This is our work. Jesus turned the world upside down—how could we think that our own lives can go on just the same?
A prophet is about to be born—in the One whom we adore, in our hearts where he will, and already, dwells.
Get ready, as any parent could surely tell you, when this Holy Child comes, your life is no longer your own. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 14, 2014