Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 John 1:6-8, 19-28
When I was a child, like many youngsters, I was afraid of the dark. Unlike my Aunt, who let my cousin Eric have a lamp lit in his room when he went to bed, my parents thought it was wiser to “let me outgrow” my fears, though my Dad did allow me a flashlight, just in case!
When the light went out at night, I’d hide under the covers for a while. Then, slowly, I’d peek out and – like magic – what had been a pitch dark room once my mother or father turned out the light, was now reasonably well lit. Street lighting filtered in between the slats of the Venetian blinds, and the crack in the partially open bedroom door let in indirect light from the hallway. After my eyes had adjusted to the dark, things weren’t quite so scary after all.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;
Our first reading open with a familiar passage from Isaiah – one that we hear, not only in the Old Testament, but again in Luke. You probably remember the Lukan story.
Jesus attends Sabbath service in his home town of Nazareth. At the correct time in the service, He stands to read, presumably the haftorah reading -- the weekly portion read from the Prophets. Jesus looks for and locates this portion of Isaiah, reading it -- as it is written -- in the first person:
"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." Following the correct practice, Jesus rolls up the scroll, returns it by way of an attendant to its proper place, sits down, and preaches. He begins, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
Isaiah says such strengthening, comforting words, and we think how wonderful it is that the prophet wrote such a marvelous passage which to us so clearly foreshadows the coming of our Lord. While we rejoice to hear Jesus say it is indeed He who will fulfill this scripture, we expect the people in the synagogue to feel differently, to hear what Jesus says as blasphemous. But this isn’t what happens. Jesus is the hometown celebrity Rabbi, and it becomes quickly apparent that His interpretation of this portion of Isaiah in light of Himself does not upset those gathered for worship that day.
While the Congregational Church we do not practice the exclusivity of ancient Judaism, we understand that kind of pride. The congregation gathered that day in the synagogue waited for the Rabbi Jesus to read from their scriptures and tell them how God would favour them. Jesus is the hometown boy, so how wonderful that He should fulfill the Scripture. But having opened with the statement that He is the fulfillment of prophesy, Jesus goes on to refer to two stories of old in which God's favor fell upon those outside of Israel rather than on those inside. This did not go over well.
We never hear today’s reading in Isaiah and think that the prophet is referring people other than ourselves, and neither did those gathered in the Synagogue. But Jesus makes it clear to the faithful gathered around Him on that Sabbath, that they are not to be the recipients of God’s generosity. We always want to hear that the good things are for us, and preferably for us exclusively. It is Jesus' interpretation of the transformational "good news" of Isaiah being for those outside the fold that causes the crowds to go nuts and threaten to throw Him off a cliff.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
In John’s Gospel, the man we know as John the Baptist is never referred to as “the baptizer”. This is John the Witness. While he is described as doing some general baptizing here and there, if we carefully read John's story of Jesus' baptism, we will discover that John does not baptize Jesus. His primary role is not as one who baptizes but one who testifies to the Light coming into the world, a very human witness to a cosmic event. God is ordering a new creation, a new Presence of Light in the world, but it necessitates a fellow human to point to its presence, otherwise, human as we are, we might not see it. That human, the one who points to the Light, is John.
John comes to a people living in a darkness of which they are only marginally aware. The Jews of Jesus day see the Romans around them and the troubles that beset them. The darkness they perceive is one in which the spotlight they crave has shifted to another culture – and their wish is to again be the ones enjoying the limelight. They acknowledge this darkness and they wait for the Messiah who will come to free them from tyranny and restore them to the glories of an empire in which they are the dominant force. The true darkness, the one of which they are unaware, the one we too often do not recognize, is the darkness of the soul.
John is immediately different from his fellow Jews, not just because he lives in the desert and is something of a wild man, but because, unlike them, and us, he is humble. Repeatedly questioned by the priests and Levites from Jerusalem as to who he is, and given ample opportunity to claim to be anyone from Elijah to the Messiah, John answers honestly. He isn’t there to gain fame or glory; he is there to testify to the Light, and with true humility he tells those who question him that another is coming after him and, that he is not worthy to untie the thong of His sandal.
John is aware of the darkness, but he doesn’t see it in the same way as those who question him, as do the Priests and Levites. He doesn’t see it as the Jews who gathered for worship on the Sabbath when Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah. The darkness seen by the average person was outside of them, in others, in the world around them. The darkness John perceives is within. The average folks perceived themselves as people worthy of greatness, worthy to be the center of attention, worthy of God’s richest blessings. But John tells us that he, like them, like us, is unworthy.
John is unworthy, and he is aware of the great darkness of the soul. What is that darkness like? Imagine being in a cave so dark there is no light at all. There is nothing coming in through the slats of the Venetian blinds, no light coming through the slightly open hallway door. There is no light to which our eyes can become accustomed. There is only a darkness that is total, a darkness in which we can see nothing. That is the darkness of our soul without Jesus, the darkness of the world before our Lord came down.
And John came as a witness, came to a people living in darkness, to testify to the light. John’s Gospel tells us that even before "the Word became flesh" there was light, shining where light should not be. "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it." John, the one who cries in the wilderness, tells us today that that Light which has always been is coming into our world.
It is Advent, and we are people who desperately need Light. The light we think we want is the light of fame and fortune and success, the light that bestows great blessings. But the child who will be born, the Light that will come, the Rabbi who will teach from the scroll of Isaiah in the temple on a Sabbath morning, will not make us great, or rich, or famous. Instead He will give us a cross to carry and the strength to bring His Light into the darkness of our world.
We are the people called to live lives of humility. We are to be the ones who open the blinds of our souls, so we can help others to leave the doors of their hearts a bit ajar. . Our world is a dark and scary place – we know that – but once we let in the Light, we can see things as God means for us to see them, and live according to His will. Ours isn’t a life in worldly limelight, ours is life lit by the Light of Christ.
Paul tells us: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Then he blesses the Thessalonians, and us. May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let us pray:
O Fire Divine, go through our hearts. O Light eternal, illuminate our souls. Help us to discover you in our love, through the Spirit of Christ who abides in us. Amen.