Bishop Michael Rinehart

Advent 3B – December 17, 2017

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 – The spirit of the Lord God is upon 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… to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

Psalm 126 – When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter… The Lord has done great things for us… Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
OR
Luke 1:46-55 – The Magnificat. Mary’s song. My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… (ELW pp. 314-315, hymns 236, 251, 573, 723, 882, 723)

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 – Respect those who work among you in the Gospel. Be at peace with one another. Admonish the idol. Encourage the fainthearted. Help the weak. Do not repay evil for evil. Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances.

John 1:6-8, 19-28 – John: there was a man, sent from God. He was not the light, but he came to bear witness to the light. I am the voice in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.

Advent B Summary

A Magnificent Magnificat

Although next week we will have the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), this week an option for the psalm is the Magnificat (Luke 1:47-55). The Magnificat is a psalm option every year in Advent. In Year A it is a psalm option for Advent 3. In Year B (this year) it is an option both Advent 3 and Advent 4. In Year C it is a psalm option Advent 4.

Mary’s song provides a stark contrast to the backdrop of partisan politics, harassment scandals of those in power, and a recently passed tax plan:

46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…

51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

This is a powerful, subversive gospel. Who can hear it?

 

John’s John is Just John

Advent often rolls like this: Week one is on the Second Coming. Weeks two and three focus on John the Baptist. Week four focuses on Mary.

The first lesson for Advent 3B is from Isaiah 61, in which there are echoes of Mary’s song.

The spirit of the Lord is upon me. I’ve been anointed to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom to those in prison.

1 Thessalonians also touches upon Mary’s song with Paul’s exhortation to rejoice always, give thanks at all times, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, to not return evil for evil.

Though we are in a Markan year, the gospel reading comes from John this Sunday. To save us from an exceedingly long gospel reading, we read John the Evangelist’s introduction of John the Baptist (sic), skip John’s foray into light and then hear about John’s understanding of his call.

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. (John 1:6-8)

A man sent from God is a prophet. John the Evangelist and the other gospel writers hold John the Baptist in high regard. Brian Stoffregen points out no one else in John’s gospel is “sent by God.” In John’s gospel, even Jesus is not sent by God. Jesus is God. “The Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning.”

As Karoline Lewis tells us at Working Preacher, John’s John is different than the synoptic writers’ (Matthew, Mark and Luke’s) John. John’s John is just John. That is, John’s John is never “John the Baptist.” Just John.

Yes, John’s John happens to baptize with water here and there, but this is incidental. John never baptizes Jesus in John’s gospel. Whereas Mark wants us to identify John with Elijah, John’s John quite clearly states he is not. And unlike in the synoptic gospels, John’s John doesn’t eat bugs or wear itchy camel hair. He never asks anyone to repent of anything. He just points to Jesus. In fact, John never even uses the word “repent.”

In our heads we tend to mash up the stories of the four gospels, but to understand John’s theology, we need to, for a moment anyway, get Mark’s John, Matthew’s John and Luke’s John completely out of our heads.

John’s John testifies to the coming of light into the world.

Hear the cosmic mystery of the Gospel of John: In the beginning was the Word. The word was light, the light of all humanity. That light shines in the darkness. The darkness has not overcome it. The Word/Light became flesh in the form of Jesus (who has not yet been named in the Gospel according to John. John “outed” him. “Look! Him!”

Several pieces of the skipped portion are helpful. In verse 14 the Word/Light becomes flesh to dwell among us. And verse 15: 

John testified about him and shouted out, “This one was the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’”

John is the announcer. The testifier. The witness. The Voice in the Wilderness, as we shall soon see. The statement “he existed before me” is a portentous theological statement about Jesus preexisting as the Word/Logos. Even though John is older than Jesus, Jesus “existed before” him, John professes. This is not just a chronological statement. It is a theological statement.

And verse 17: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” This, now, is the first time Jesus is named in John’s gospel. It provides a picture of John’s understanding of the gospel. Moses = The Law. Jesus = The Gospel. We must not read this equation into the synoptic gospels, but it is clearly here in the Gospel of John. Jesus is the physical incarnation of the preexisting Logos. John is the transition between Law and Gospel, between Moses and Jesus.

If John makes it clear he is not the light, then who then is he?

John tells us in vv. 19-28:

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “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.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. 

He is NOT the light. He is not the Messiah. He is not Elijah. He is not the Prophet.

He IS sent by God. He is a witness to the light. He is the Voice crying in the wilderness make straight the way of the Lord.

The Voice.

John is clear. “I am not the Messiah in Isaiah’s drama. I am the Voice. Karoline Lewis points out that Jesus says “I AM,” many times in John’s gospel. I am the way, the truth, the light, the door, and so on. John says “I AM NOT.” Not the Messiah. Not Elijah. Not the Light.

More importantly, John sees his identity in relationship to Jesus. “Can we say the same?” Lewis asks. Are we also witnesses to the light? What does that mean? Being the Voice? Could we also take our cues from Isaiah: Binding up the broken-hearted? Comforting the weak? Announcing God’s love to prisoners?

What’s your voice? Have you found your voice?

Max DePree, in his book Leadership Jazz, says that your voice is who you say you are and what you believe: your character. Your voice is reflected in your touch (your behaviors). A leader’s actions flow from her character. One of the first things a leader needs to do is find her voice. In my experience, this takes a while, but it is critical. How do we, as leaders, articulate our values, the things that really matter in life? Are we willing to present timeless truths, even when those around us seem reluctant to hear them? Have we aligned our voice and our touch? If people know you love them, they are more willing to hear your witness, what you have to say.

I am reminded that the Greek word for “witness” is μάρτυρ, “martyr.” Brian Stoffregen helpfully points out,  the verb for witness “occurs once in Matthew, once in Luke, never in Mark, but 31 times in John (five times in chapter 1: vv. 7, 8, 15, 32, 34). Similar statistics exist for the noun, which occurs three times in Mark, once in Luke, never in Matthew, and 14 times in John (twice in chapter 1: vv. 7, 19).”

When we witness, we put our lives on the line. It is our martyrdom.

What is your witness?

The good news is, a Christian’s witness is simply to point to Christ. This is not so complicated. It may not be easy, but it is not complicated. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve simply pointed to Christ, quoted his teachings, and received tremendous push back from those who claimed to be Christians. Time and time again I am astounded how often Christ is trampled under the feet of American militaristic capitalism. Preach Christ, and let the cards fall where they may. This is our martyria, our witness. Have you shed blood yet?

The preacher might invite people to consider their witness. What do you believe about Jesus? What does his crucifixion mean to you? His resurrection? How does this find its way into your voice?

Then we might consider how our voice finds its way into our touch? How does our faith in Christ become flesh in our daily words and actions? How might it this week? John prepares the way of the Lord. Let us go and do likewise.