Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John1:6-8, 19-28 December 13, 2020 – 3RD Sunday in Advent
John was moved by faith through grace to take up his calling at the Jordan River. This is the stream of living the nation of Israel had to cross when it returned from Egypt to the Promised Land.
This is the natural boundary that had stopped flowing on that day they had carried the Ark of the Covenant from the wilderness back into the history and the relationship that they had with the one true God.
So it was a place in the Promised Land that was full of meaning and hope that John the Baptist had retreated to when it was time for him proclaim the coming of the Promised One. Faith and hope and a promise…and patience.
John was asking the people to believe in the Word they had been given so they could live. He wore a prophet’s clothes, lived as a prophet lived, and spoke once again the words that the prophet Isaiah had given them 500 years ago.
“I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
But it has been 500 years since those words were spoken at the beginning of he Babylonian exile. Where has God been since then? Where was he when Alexander and the Greeks and Caesar and Rome had taken up the role as theil masters?
But one person, perhaps the one least likely, had taken up the call at the boundary of that wilderness the nation had left so long ago to say this was the time that this place would speak with God’s blessing again.
It seems like an odd thing to do… spending all the days the Lord has given you to say that an old, old promise would be fulfilled…here (again)…now (again). It was simply the best way John could spend his days and his life and his hope.
There are new priorities we have discovered in this season of the coronavirus. We spend our time differently and we find different meaning in our new ways.
I usually drive a little more than 20,000 miles in a year, but haven’t driven half of that distance in 2020. No meetings in Missoula or Estes Park. I zoom to clergy meetings now.
I looked at my closet last week and I saw that I had not worn half of the clothes in it. I have become as attached to Ollie’s dog, Zoe, as much as she has become attached to me. Good books are as precious as ever.
And after being away for a few weeks, I am grateful for this day to be back at the preacher’s craft of relating the Word of olden times to the hurly burly of our day.
Maybe it’s what Joni Mitchell was trying to lift up to us in Big Yellow Taxi as she sang, “Don't it always seem to go/That you don't know what you've got/Till it's gone/They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot.
But I have the same teaching from a prophet today who revealed to me the deepness of our desire to be in relationship with God and Jesus and our neighbor.
This week my daughter Amanda asked my favorite grandson Ollie what he wanted for Christmas. He didn’t ask for a video game or a Lego set or another plush toy.
He said very simply and with some depth of understanding that what he wanted for Christmas was “to go back to school!”
All John wanted, metaphorically speaking, was to go back to school. He believed Isaiah with all his heart that “The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He knew the Lord doesn’t grow tired or weary…not even after 500 years.
He was willing to accept knowledge beyond his own experience: The Lord’s understanding is beyond human reach, giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted.
The Word was not John, but John could proclaim the Word, claiming its promises for all Israel…and all the world…even us. We can do the same thing in our day.
This has been a long year and we are waiting for life to return to normal, whatever that was. It seems like we have been waiting for 500 years, but it has just been nine months so far.
There is help on the way and we hope we will be back to the good old days by late spring. But what do we do to prepare the way? How can we make that way straight…so it can arrive as soon as possible and be as glorious as we remembered it? How can we get back to school again? Faster…more completely?
It was hard for John to discern the events around him, but he knew enough to keep pleading with God and his neighbors to make the day of deliverance come…however it was to come…whenever it was to begin… wherever it was to appear.
We have a promise now, too, that the day will come when we will be free to shake hands, give hugs and sit and share a bite of food and our stories.
But the day is not here…yet…and it is starting to wear on us. So how can we make the paths straight…raise up the valleys… make every mountain and hill low… make the rough places a plain?
When will we get to shout, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!”?
Those who know the science have told us to wear a mask, socially distance ourselves and wash our hands. But this is a patient, stealthy predator in our neighborhood these days.
I went to Billings to see Amanda and Ollie and three days after I got back Amanda called me and said she had been sick and was going to get tested. I woke up with a headache that morning so I got tested, too.
The next morning, before I got my results, I came down with something that made it hard for me to keep my balance, eat food, and stay awake for more than a few hours.
Amanda called and told me she had tested positive. I tested negative. I told them my daughter is positive. They said you may have tested too soon. Come back through the drive through.
I was negative again. I told them my daughter had the same symptoms I did and she was positive. They said, “Don’t do the drive through. Go into the clinic.”
I was negative again. I told them my daughter was positive. They said I may have tested too late.
That was frustrating, but the really negative aspect of the whole thing was that before I felt sick or knew Amanda was, I had been to a Rotary meeting, I had given someone with a chronic inflection a ride to the hospital for a treatment and I had met with an Emmaus 4th Day group in Lakeside.
How many people might I have infected with whatever it was? So you need to tell everyone and they feel bad for you, but they also…how do I say this?...aren’t happy to hear they might have been exposed and might have to quarantine…that they might get sick.
I understand that church is a faith community. We are encouraged by each other…give new understandings to each other…and share all good things with each other.
Long before there was a pandemic… long before I was 40…being in worship with a room full of friends or strangers …was a way for me to spiritually reboot myself. I sit for an hour without interruptions. I listen for new meanings in old words. I receive support…and sometimes correction…from people I know care about me.
While it is a happy day to be back leading worship, it would be nice if I didn’t have to do it in an empty room. I know you are out there so we are virtually together…but not really.
And it is Christmas…a time when we feel a special need to gather and celebrate the birth of a child so long ago who was to become the Savior of the world. This is a delicious opportunity…for the virus.
We have come all this way and real hope is knocking at the door…but to mix the metaphor…it’s like we are in the back yard and it is going to take us some time to answer it.
That’s when an old memory came to me. I googled it and went to Netflix. There it was, in the second to last episode of Grand Hotel, a Spanish TV series that ran from 2011 to 2013.
At the end of the series there is a cholera outbreak at this luxury hotel. The first thing they do? Hope it will go away. They don’t want to alarm the guests and a quarantine will cost the hotel too much money.
Then guests and waiters begin to collapse in the lobby and restaurant. Something has to be done.
The woman who directs the staff had cholera when she was a young child and she finally has permission to implement the program she had been advocating since the first case appeared.
It’s interesting how art imitates life, but I don’t think I have seen a time when life imitated art so much. Here is the narrative, word for word.
“We must take measures to ensure the disease does not spread. We must close the Grand Hotel.
“The clothes of those infected must be collected and burned. Thoroughly boil all glassware and crockery.
“Meals must not be served in the restaurant or the lounge. They must be served in the rooms.”
“Contact between customers must not be allowed. It is essential that we isolate those infected. All of them, with no exception.”
And my favorite admonition was the last one. “Distinctions between customers and staff cannot be made now, but between the sick and the healthy.”
They actually showed a waiter bringing a meal into one of the rooms to serve a couple and the waiter is wearing a face mask much like the one we all wear…well, almost all wear…whenever we go into the grocery store.
This Christmas season here in Bigfork, Montana’s Currier and Ives Christmas village, it doesn’t matter who we are or what we do…or did…for a living, who much or how little money we have.
The virus might be a mindless heartless beast, but it is so stealthy we don’t know who has it or whether we have it. One of you sent me an article this week about someone who tested negative three times…then tested positive.
What does that say about us if it can outsmart us…or we…the richest, most powerful, smartest nation in the history of the world outsmart ourselves?
We could watch what we should be doing now with disdain for the stubbornness of the owners and managers of a hotel in a 2013 TV drama series.
But when it falls to us in 2020, what do the smartest, richest, most powerful people in the history of the world do?
The same thing that the smartest, richest, most powerful people in Israel did when Jesus appeared before them. They discounted him, dismissed him, feared him…and thought they could kill him and that would be the end of it.
They believed what they wanted to believe…just like us. They tried to avoid what they said they would do those 500 years when they were waiting for him and praying for him to come save them…on their terms, of course.
They wanted to believe what they wanted to believe more than they wanted to believe what they had to believe, more than they wanted to be enlightened by the truth.
And here, this morning, we have John the Baptist calling us to make the crooked way straight. All the good advice then…and now…was and is the voice of one calling in the wilderness. Will we hear it if we refuse to listen for it?
I think we have done a great job of keeping in touch with each other while we watch over one another with love.
We worship together in a new way. We serve our Thanksgiving dinner in a new way. We have learned how to get the work done in a new way. And we do it in the name of the same Jesus for the same people.
And yet, isn’t that what John the Baptist was doing, too? He called the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to repentance in the old way but in a new way.
Here we are, in the middle of Advent, the coming of the Light into the world, the Word is made flesh. It is a time to celebrate…in a new way…and bring peace and healing and good will to all people…wherever they may be…no matter the difficulty…no matter what it costs one Christmas?
I know we all wonder if everyone will come back when we can open again. I do, too. That is the tightrope we have been called to walk this Christmas… just as John the Baptist did in his day …Mary and Joseph did in their day… and Jesus Christ the Son of God who gave us the Holy Spirit…did in his day …and continues to do in our day.
Have a blessed and meaningful third week of Advent, in this year of our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty.
O Lord, what is it you want to do in the world through us…through me… this day? Amen.