He is Among You

Third Sunday of Advent

It happens every election cycle.  Those in office will claim they are doing the best they can, and that given more time they will do even better still.  Those who want their job will contend we are in a far worse place than we were the last election cycle, and that given the public trust they will lead us to greater prosperity and security, that life will be exceedingly better than ever, that our enemies will fear us more, and that we will rise again and take our rightful place as the greatest nation on earth.  Okay, maybe not in those same words, but definitely very similar sentiments.  You will only agree or disagree with me depending on which horse you are betting on.

But the hope of a better life is embedded in our nature.  Every generation desires better for their children – better education, better opportunities, better everything.  And we will fight to keep hope alive, if not for ourselves, then for those who come after us.  I remember dad giving his speech many times at the dinner table.  “Study hard so you get good grades,” he would begin.  “And when you graduate, you will find good jobs and make good money … and you will live the good life … and you will raise a family and give them the best life has to offer … and your mother and I will move in and live with you when we retire.”  He should have stopped while he was ahead.  But I’m sure it’s not just my dad.  Any success we achieve will also be his to some degree.  He was only making sure we didn’t forget that he set us on the right road.

When the people of Israel returned from exile, as we read in the prophet Isaiah, they came back to a devastated and ruined land, their temple defiled, their communities disillusioned, their lives and their livelihoods disrupted.  Although they were home finally, they still had to rebuild, and the work ahead was daunting.  So the prophet inspires them with a vision of stability, prosperity and security.  It seems all too perfect and a bit unrealistic, this vision of a bright new future, where the poor are comforted with tidings of great joy, the brokenhearted are healed, where liberty is proclaimed to captives, and release to prisoners, and God extends to his people his favor and vindication.  But these hopes are tied to the rise of the Anointed of God, a symbolic figure who would embody God’s deepest care and concern for his people.  For a while, the prophecy was one among many speaking of the coming of a savior, a messiah, who would act on behalf of God to bring about a new beginning for God’s people.

So when according to the gospel a man named John shows up by the river Jordan, dressed in camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, feeding on locusts and wild honey, preaching repentance and baptizing those who sought forgiveness for their sins, the leaders of Israel took notice.  “Who are you?” they asked.  “Are you the Anointed One, the Christ?  Are you Elijah?  Are you the prophet?”  “No, no and no.  I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord.’”  And even more striking than his outright denial that he was anyone of importance, was that someone greater than he was coming, whose sandal strap he was not worthy to untie, someone in fact, who is already among us, but whom we do not recognize.  So John, who would be the last in a long line of prophets in Israel, was no longer speaking of some event in the distant future.  “He is among you.  God’s promise is fulfilled.”

As we begin the third week of Advent, we are comforted by the words of the Baptizer.  “You do not recognize him, but he is among you.”  So when he speaks of preparing the way of the Lord, he is also announcing that the Lord is already in our midst, that repentance is vital, because he offers forgiveness for our sins.  Although hope is always predicated on some future reality, rejoicing is the proper response when that hope is achieved.  “Rejoice always,” we read in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians.  “Pray without ceasing.  Give thanks!”  It is the church’s way of saying that while we wait in joyful hope for the celebration of the anniversary of the birth of the Lord, and while we await his glorious return at the end of time, we have already attained that for which we hope.  And so we have reason to rejoice and give thanks now.

But when we look around us and notice that things can be a whole lot better, when we are inundated with news of widespread inequality, poverty, and hardship, when fear and violence still grip the hearts of many, we cry out to God, “When will he come whom you are sending to us – this Anointed One who will rid the world of darkness, evil, selfishness and sin?”  And we hear the words of John the Baptist, “He is among you.”  We who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have already recognized our sinfulness and received forgiveness for our sins.  And to us has been entrusted the light that is Jesus Christ to shine in the darkness of the world.  We are sent like John the Baptist to announce the coming of One more important than ourselves.  And we are as John was, not the Light, but markers pointing in the direction of the Light.

Although we proclaim the coming of God’s Light to dispel the darkness of the world, we also rejoice in the glow of that same Light now.  So we can not continue living in darkness ourselves, choosing selfishness and divisiveness, jealousy and pride, anger and lust.  We have already received Christ’s light at our own Baptism.  We affirmed our call to witness to the Light by how we live our lives when we received Confirmation.  And we continue to nourish the Spirit of God within us when we approach the table of the Eucharist.  How then can we continue living in the darkness of selfishness and sin?  And it seems the world is in no mood to wait either, that despite our observance of Advent in this building and in some of our homes, the Christmas season has already overtaken us.  But we, who have known the One whose coming John the Baptist announced, can see that the world’s observance of the Christmas season somewhat misses the most important point with its silver bells and candy canes, its “fa-la-la-la-la” and its partridge in a pear tree, its Frosty the Snowman and its Winter Wonderland.  None of these things invite us to a change of heart, to reconciliation with our neighbor, or a renewal of our faith, as John the Baptist proclaimed from the banks of the Jordan.  We who have received Christ’s light at our own Baptism need to refocus on the meaning of this season of joyful waiting.  For if the One whom John announced is already among us, and we still do not recognize him, then we will miss entirely the purpose of God’s visit among his people.

No, you don’t have to take your Christmas trees down.  You don’t have to take back your Christmas greetings.  You don’t have to reschedule your Christmas parties.  But maybe you can invite the Light of Christ into your life to dispel the darkness of selfishness and sin.  Then all this Advent waiting will actually mean something.