On this third Sunday of Advent, our theme is joy. And it’s everywhere!
In the Advent prayer at the beginning of our service,
the refrain was “Sorrow may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
As we lit the third candle, the pink candle specially for this week,
we proclaimed that “the promise of Advent offers true joy that sustains a weary people.”
Joy continues as the common thread in our readings.
After lots of very good news,
the prophet Isaiah says “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God.”
In our Canticle, the Virgin Mary begins,
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”
In our epistle, the Apostle Paul tells us
to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing,
give thanks in all circumstances.”
That’s a lot of joy and rejoicing.
And then there is our Gospel reading, about John the Baptizer,
which is harder for me.
I have always found John a little intimidating.
As I have pictured John, he is a cantankerous old man with a long beard,
covered in filth, wearing animal skins, eating nasty food,
and fussing at everyone who comes to hear him.
I knew that we are supposed to listen to the Baptizer every Advent.
But I never much liked actually doing the listening.
John seemed too angry, almost mean.
Not much joy there!
So last weekend was a big help to me.
It began on Friday at our session of contemplative prayer.
Our passage came from the Gospel reading for Sunday,
Mark’s version (1:7) of what we just heard from the fourth Gospel.
“John [the Baptizer] proclaimed,
‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me;
I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals’”.
In contemplative prayer, we read that passage out loud three times,
each time asking ourselves what God is saying to us.
I got hung up on the image of stooping down,
which didn’t feel great,
but which was typical of how I hear John
and also, unfortunately, what I needed to be hearing
at that moment.
What helped my attitude toward John was what the other four heard.
They all focused on the promise of one coming after John,
so they all heard John speaking a word of hope.
For me, that was a revelation.
John was not just a prophet of repentance,
fussing at the people who came to see him and, by extension, fussing at me.
John also really did point to the promise of Christ.
John offered genuine comfort and peace.
Terry’s sermon last Sunday sealed the deal.
Terry reminded us that John was in fact relatively young--
just thirty years old, which seems quite young to me these days.
Terry emphasized John’s simplicity of life and his humility.
Terry emphasized the wisdom
that John has to share with us.
That all sounds pretty good.
After hearing all that, I was feeling like kind of a jerk.
I have always pictured John in this negative way,
but everyone around me is finding John positive, inspiring, and helpful.
So my task this week was to get on board the Baptizer train,
to find truly good news in John’s message.
And it turns out to be there!
Our reading is mostly the same as last week.
Once again we hear John proclaiming the one who comes after him,
the one whose sandal thong John is not worthy to untie.
But in our reading for this week, John adds one crucial bit.
The one who is coming already stands among you,
even if you don’t yet know him.
That’s a line worth sitting with.
Because I am still recovering from my distrust of John,
I hear that line partly as a reprimand.
What is wrong with you people that you can’t see the one in your very midst?
Even if my instincts are suspect on this point,
I think we probably should hear some reprimand.
Maybe reprimand is too strong.
But we should hear an invitation to do better,
to open our eyes in a way we have not yet done,
to get more focused than we have yet been,
to do what we can to see Christ who is with us right now.
That is the Advent invitation.
To prepare ourselves to see Christ more clearly, with God’s help.
That raises an obvious question.
Where should we look if we want to see the one standing among us
whom we do not yet know, whom we cannot quite see?
Thankfully, there are LOTS of answers!
Jesus himself tells us
that we should look to the people who need help of whatever kind.
Jesus says what we do to the least of our brothers and sisters,
we do to him (Matt 25:40).
They are one place we can find Christ.
We just have to remember to look.
Another place we can see Christ is here.
In the normal course of events, this one is easy for me.
I feel Christ’s presence when we gather for worship,
when we hear the Word, when we share the sacrament.
This year has been more complicated.
For most of the year, we have not been able to gather for in-person worship
as we would like.
But to my great relief, I have come to see
over the course of this year
that Christ is fully present when we “gather” online.
And it doesn’t take a big gathering, just two or three.
That means Christ is present when we gather with family or friends
in our small pods,
particularly at this holy time of year,
particularly when we pause to give thanks.
Even, maybe especially, when we are alone, Christ is with us,
supporting and sustaining us when we are lonely or discouraged or afraid,
sharing our hopes and joys,
giving us peace,
filling us with his love.
And so on this third Sunday of Advent, I rejoice.
I rejoice with John the Baptizer who reminds us that Christ stands among us,
even when we cannot see him.
And I pray that God will continue to open our eyes,
so that we can know the joy that comes from Christ’s presence.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan