Sunday, December 11, 2016
Third Sunday of Advent
Prayer of the Day
Stir up the wills of all who look to you, Lord God, and strengthen our faith in your coming, that, transformed by grace, we may walk in your way; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Readings and Psalms
Isaiah 35:1-10 The desert blooms as God’s people return from exile
James 5:7-10 Patience until the coming of the Lord
Matthew 11:2-11 The forerunner of Christ
Sermon: The Joy of Exiles
It’s hard to be joyful when you are living in exile. It’s hard to laugh, to enjoy life, when you are living in exile. It’s hard to sing songs of praise and offer prayers of thanksgiving when you are living in exile.
For most of us, the experience of exile probably goes no further than being sent to our room, be exiled away from the fun and excitement. Exiled from friends with a time out. Some may have stories of feeling like they were being exiled when they were forced to move, either because of parent or partner or spouse, leaving behind a place that truly felt like home for a strange new world. My sister certainly thought it an exile when we up and moved right in the middle of her sophomore and junior years of High School. Maybe some are exiled even now, cut off from family and home because of who they are and the inability of others to embrace and love that evolving person. Or maybe some feel a bit of an exile as they live in a land that is not their own.
Exile. It’s not easy. Cut off. Homeless. Loss of identity. Loss of meaning and purpose. Loss of community and relationships. Loss of customs that define and shape. Loss of language. With all that loss and more, is difficult to find a source of joy and a voice for rejoicing.
As we read a bit more of John the Baptist’s story, we see that he is in exile. Last week he was out there on the banks of the Jordan preaching repentance to those who came to listen to him. He preached judgement on the powerful and the dominating. (One of the reasons why we now see him in prison.) He was preaching the promise of one coming after him. But this week we find him cut off from his ministry, cut off from his riverside pulpit, even feeling cut off from the one he was waiting for, who he was preparing for. He is exiled and at a loss.
And now as he hears of Jesus’ ministry his disconnection has left him questioning. Is God in this or should we be looking elsewhere? Not a surprising question for one living and struggling in exile.
Typical of Jesus, he doesn’t just answer the question. He doesn’t simply say: yes. But he equips the disciples of John, those who are bringing the question and who will bring the response back to John, he equips them with what they need to answer John’s question, to speak to his longing, to bring good news to the exile, release to the captive. And so, duly equipped, John’s disciples do the teaching. They tell him what they have witnessed in Jesus. 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. He is told by the witnesses of these things what God is doing through Jesus of Nazareth. Although we don’t hear John’s response, we have good reason to believe that he was feeling on some level, less of an exile and at least a little more connected to the kingdom of God on whose behalf he had been working, the kingdom of God that Jesus was now bringing near to all God’s children who are living in exile on earth, away from the beauty of holiness that is ours in God’s perfect presence. And re-connected, we hope John was able to feel joy at this connectedness.
We are focusing on prayer this Advent. And we are taking familiar Advent words and looking at them anew in this context of prayer. From the first week it was light, prayers for light in the midst of our darkness. We know how that works. We know sitting in darkness to look to God for light. Last week it was peace. We know to pray for peace in the midst of anxiety, peace in the midst of troubled times. But praying with joy and for joy when cut off – that’s hard.
But the prophet Isaiah and the mother-to-be who has said yes to God and now is bursting with possibilities, offers us models of prayers for our exile. Models of finding the joy in the midst of the unknown when cut off, when in exile.
Isaiah challenges his listener to see that our God is the God of resurrection, of new life. Like flowers blooming in the midst of barren wilderness, like refreshing springs filling ground that was once starved for water, so is our resurrecting, renewing, and restoring God who not only brings new life to the land of death to which we have been exiled, but this God also creates the way for us to journey back, to go from exile to freedom, from death to life.
And the new life that we are coming back to is not just a restoration of the past we once knew, ready to crumble again when we make the same mistakes, when the same corrupt institutions return. No, the new creation that God is promising, building, guiding us to, is a world turned upside down, so sings Mary in her wonderful and counter-cultural hymn we call the Magnificat and that we sang as our psalmody this morning. No wonder the corrupted powers of this world seek to keep us in exile. Look at their fate in the kingdom of God that comes to us through Jesus, that comes to the world through us. They will lose power. They will be hungry. Thank God that those parts of us that seek to work in collusion with those corrupting powers are starved in the same way. Exiles though we be, let us not feed or encourage that which conspires with what appears to be the dominator d’jour.
As followers of Jesus we must constantly remind ourselves that we too live in exile from our rightful home. The early Christians that James was writing to certainly understood this. But that does not mean we freeze with inactivity, that we collapse in waiting. Like the prophets during the Babylonian exile to which Isaiah is preaching, like the disciples of John who seek to comfort and encourage, like Mary – who may have felt akin to an exile living in her own land but occupied and now joined to a foreign power, we are called to be witnesses for all that God has done and let that witness lead us and those to whom we proclaim it, to rejoice, to find joy even in the midst of exile, of feeling cut off, of feeling that all is lost.
Our joy is not in our success or our release. It is in the God who goes into exile with us. The temple was destroyed, for many a sign that God was dead. Our modern times speak of God as dead. Our despair may assume that God is dead. But we are witnesses to what God has done. And so we rejoice. We look to the life and ministry of Jesus, and we rejoice. We look to the cross and the empty tomb and we rejoice. We touch the waters of the font, we taste the bread and the wine of our Lord’s feast, and we rejoice. We connect with God the Holy Spirit through prayer, and are bound together as Christ’s body, and we can rejoice.
Exiles though we be, we have good news to bring, good news to live. Grounded in this joy, we join with Mary’s prayer looking to God’s kingdom of love that comes to us and through us, as we souls magnify the Lord and as our spirits rejoice in God our savior.
The Rev. Mark Erson,