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Text: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Liturgist Text: John 1:6-8, 19-28
Purpose: the purpose of this message is to live into the year of the Lord’s favor as Christ’s hands and feet, eyes and ears, heart and hope.
My wife and I got into a lively debate over my Weekly Greeting last night. I introduced the greeting with a quote by theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose writings on advent and Christmas, while imprisoned in a German concentration camp, form the core of an advent study facilitated by Kay Little on Wednesday mornings, via zoom platform. By way of biographical context, Bonhoeffer was executed by Hitler’s order just two weeks before Hitler himself committed suicide.
The quotation was a metaphor for advent which went like this: “A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes…and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of advent.” For me, the quote captures the feeling of advent, the waiting, the hoping, the anticipating, the expectation that God is about to do something new, different and exciting. In the words of C. S. Lewis in his fantasy novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, “Aslan is on the move.” I identify with Mary as she anticipates the arrival of her newborn, unsure of what delivery will be like, when it will happen, how it will change the world, how it will change her world.
My wife’s experience of advent, however, is less about the destination and impending deliverance and more about the journey. Far from being a stagnant prison in which one waits for God to act; it is a journey of discovery, opportunity, living into the creativity of partnership with God. She experiences it with Mary who companions God in nurturing the baby within her womb. She identifies with the Magi who notice what is happening and embark on a quest of true discovery. For my wife, advent is every bit as much alive as Christmas and Epiphany. The miracle may be coming but for those who are awake, the miracle is now, deliverance is now.
In truth, advent carries both of these within: the already and the not yet. As much as we theologically anticipate God coming to earth and dwelling among us, tangling with the human condition as we do every day, we also celebrate the Christ within us. The Christmas incarnation is not a hit-and-run sort of thing, where Jesus visits earth to show us a few magic tricks of healing before ascending to the heavenly throne. No, it is much more invasive than that; his goal is not simply to dwell on earth for a time, but to dwell in us for all time.
It was always Jesus’ intention that those he healed would themselves become healers. “You will do even greater works than me,” he said, “because I am going to the Father.” With this in mind, then, let us listen anew to the words of the Servant of the Lord as recorded in Isaiah 61. (Read the text for this morning)
Biblical scholars, both Jewish and Christian, debate ‘til the cows come home, who this ‘Servant of the Lord’ is, but in the gospel of Luke, Jesus applies it to himself. By this point in the gospel, he has become famous for healings such as the ancient world had never known. At the height of his celebrity, he returns home to Nazareth for a visit. He goes to the synagogue, as is his custom, to read scripture and comment upon it. His choice for the day is the text we just read: “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.”
He rolls up the scroll and sits down. Everyone is watching. Everyone is waiting, caught up in a mini-advent of expectation, holding their breath to hear what Jesus will say next, to watch what he will do next. Jesus speaks, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
“Yes!” they all think, “Now we can get to the good stuff—the miracles, the healings, the casting out of demons.” Yet, Jesus does no such thing. In fact, he insults them, by pointing to outsiders who benefitted from God’s biblical miracles, while with-holding signs and wonders from them. “How can he say, ‘Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,’ when he with-holds the good news from the poor, leaves the imprisoned in prison, and leaves the blind, blind?”
They fail to see that his home visit isn’t about demonstrating signs and wonders, but establishing faith on earth, establishing faith in the human heart, establishing faith in Nazareth, establishing faith in their human hearts. They miss out on the signs and wonders, because they do not do them! They can be full partners in the work, just as Jesus’ disciples are; but they lack the faith, the will, the courage, the imagination, dare I say it, the anointing, to awaken miracles among them. Instead of daring to dream like Jesus, they turn against him—even threatening his life.
Now here’s the thing. What sort of an advent are we living? Are we waiting for God to act for us, or are we ready for God to act in us? Who says the miracle must wait until 12 o’clock midnight, Christmas morning, when the animals supposedly talk and Santa slides down the chimney?
Join me for a story called, “Lights for Lena,’ by Karen L. Garrison.
It had been the perfect winter night to view neighborhood Christmas lights. The Garrison family piled into their van wearing pajamas, mugs of hot chocolate in hand. It was an annual tradition which delighted both parent and child. To Karen’s surprise, her daughter asked, “Mama, can you give me more money for doing my chores? I want to buy you, Daddy and Simeon the best gifts for Christmas!”
“The best gifts are those that come from the heart,” Karen grinned, remembering the rainbow picture Abigail drew the previous day when she wasn’t feeling well.
“You mean instead of buying things from the store, there are other ways to give gifts?”
“Yes, all people have to do is look within their hearts, and they’ll find many good gifts to give.”
Everyone exclaimed as they toured the town looking at Christmas lights. When they turned down a street where Karen and her husband, Jeff previously lived, the headlights flashed on the first brick house which was disturbingly dark compared with the other houses.
“The people who live there must not like Christmas,” Abigail remarked from the back seat.
“Actually, honey,” Jeff replied, “they used to have the best decorated house in the neighborhood.” He recalled how his neighbors used to say, “It’s for the children. We like to imagine them in the back seat of their parents’ cars, their little faces full of Christmas magic as they look at our home.”
Remembering the dark days when Lena’s husband was hospitalized, Karen picked up the story. “Lena, the woman who lives there, is very old and her husband died a few years ago. Her only child is a soldier living very far away.”
“Tell me what she’s like.” Abigail insisted.
“She’s very kind. Every Sunday after church, she’d make home-made cookies and invite us over.”
“Can we visit her now?” Abigail implored,
PJs and all–that is what they did. Lena was delighted and gave each of the kids a crocheted tree ornament.
“I wish I had something to give her,” Abigail said as they climbed back into the van.
The next morning, the kids gave strict orders not to come upstairs. They were on a Christmas mission. After rummaging around, they emerged with toy construction hats, snow boots and Simeon’s play tool belts.
“What is all this?” Karen laughed. “Are you going to fix things around here?”
“Nope,” Abigail smiled, “we’re going to give a gift to Lena. Since she’s too old and doesn’t have anyone to help her, we’re going to decorate her house for Christmas!”
Her words brought tears to her Mom’s eyes. “That’s a wonderful idea, but I think you’ll need some help from Daddy and me. Is it ok if we are a part of your secret mission?”
“Sure!” they exclaimed in unison.
Hours later, the Garrison family stood with Lena, admiring the lights on her brightly glowing house. Candy canes lined the sidewalk to welcome passers-by to the nativity crèche Abigail and Simeon assembled on the snow-covered lawn. It had been hard work, but it was all worth it to see the joy on Lena’s face. Suddenly, she disappeared and returned carrying a plate of cookies.
“You were right, Mom,” Abigail sighed, “the best gifts are those from the heart.
“Looks like decorating Lena’s house can be added to the Garrison family’s list of Christmas traditions!” Jeff announced.
Anyone can be a Servant of the Lord, if the power of Christ is within, and healing can take any number of forms…
Now what was Isaiah saying?
“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…”
Is today, the day, this scripture will be fulfilled?
“Lights for Lena, by Karen L. Garrison, “Chicken Soup for the Soul Christmas Treasury for Kids, Jack Canfield, et al, c2002, p. 7