Sunday, December 17, 2017

Advent 3B

Isaiah 61:1–4, 8–11, Luke 1:46b–55, John 1:6–8, 19–28




2017 may be remembered as the “year of high anxiety.” According to a CBS News Report earlier this year, “More Americans than ever before are stressed, depressed and anxiety-ridden, and many are unable to get the help they need . . . An estimated 8.3 million American adults — about 3.4 percent of the U.S. population — suffer from serious psychological distress.”[1] Furthermore, it seems like we have had more major disasters this year, both in our nation and around the world. In addition, the fear of impending disaster, such as nuclear war or climate catastrophe, has increased. The fear of violent shooting or terrorist incidents appears also to have intensified. The threat of impending disaster or violence can be almost as debilitating as the disaster or violent incident itself. It is hard to compare one period in our history to another. But I do not think I have ever witnessed a time in which people have so little confidence in our national and international leaders. We truly question our leaders’ ability to make calm, well-reasoned decisions that safeguard human rights and provide for the common good. Along with these major sources of anxiety we continue to struggle with the day to day anxieties of life.


Last week someone asked me how we as people of faith are to respond to the anxiousness many of us are experiencing. Many are overwhelmed with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. They are wondering who and what can bring change in our troubled world. Some are struggling with their confidence in God’s ability to transform the current situation.


Advent has been a season of hope in our faith tradition. All three Bible readings for today seek to kindle a strong measure of hope in the people of God. All three affirm that God will transform the current situation. All three express confidence that the world is about to turn.


Isaiah’s prophecy was addressed in particular to the people of God who had returned to the promised land after a lengthy exile in Babylon. While in exile, their faith in God had been tested. Once home their faith was tested again. The devastation to the Temple and the land was extreme. Restoring and rebuilding were going to be far more challenging than they had imagined. They wrestled with questions such as: Is God powerless to fulfill God’s promises? Has God given up on us?


Into that situation Isaiah spoke powerful words of hope: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.” He announced to the people that “they shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”


In Isaiah 61:8 the Lord assured the people of God: “I the Lord love justice.” Isaiah 61 concludes with the promise that “the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” In the face of an overwhelming situation Isaiah’s prophecy was a sign that the world was about to turn.


We have been using Mary’s Song—the Magnificat— in a variety of ways during the Advent season. The version we sing in Holden Evening Prayer is one of the most beautiful. There is something truly beautiful and touching about this young teenage girl lifting up her voice in song and rejoicing as she waits to bear the Christ child. However, the Magnificat can seem so beautiful and touching that we can easily lose sight of how radical the words truly are: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” In other words, justice will be done for the lowly and the hungry. So confident is Mary that God’s justice will be done that she sings of it as if it has already been accomplished. Mary’s Song was a powerful sign that the world was about to turn.


According to John 1:7, God sent John the Baptist to testify to the light—that is, Jesus the Christ. When the religious leaders came out to the River Jordan from Jerusalem, they asked him, “Who are you?” John identified himself as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord.’” His prophetic voice was a voice of justice. In Luke 3:5, quoting the prophet Isaiah, John announced: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low., and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.” He told the religious leaders that one more powerful than he was coming. “I am not worthy,” explained John, “to untie the thong of his sandal.” John made clear that the coming of Jesus, the light of the world, was imminent. John was confident that the coming of Jesus would change the world. The testimony of John the Baptist— a sign that the world was about to turn.


In 2017 we have observed the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, has traditionally been viewed as the beginning of the Reformation. In one sense it was simply an invitation by Luther to debate other scholars on the issue of indulgences. For Luther the sale of indulgences was a spiritual issue, but it also was a justice issue. Church leaders from the pope on down were taking advantage of the poor. In the course of history it became apparent that the posting of the 95 Theses was not just a topic for debate, it was a sign that the world was about to turn.


On Tuesday evening who would have thought that the Senator-elect from Alabama would be quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.? But that is exactly what Doug Jones did. He quoted words King used in 1956 at the conclusion of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." At a time when many despaired change ever coming in race relations, Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement were a sign that the world was about to turn.


In 1977 Skokie, Illinois was the site of a controversial Neo-Nazi rally. That rally tarnished the reputation of that community. I remember what we thought about Skokie when I was in seminary in Chicago in the early 80’s. The Christian Century just published a feature article in its current issue entitled “Some Bright Spots in 2017.” Apparently the editors have also been sensing a need for some words of hope in our churches and communities. One bright spot especially caught my attention. It is entitled, “Diversity welcomed.” Elizabeth Palmer writes: Skokie, Illinois, where I live, is plastered with colorful lawn signs that read `Skokie welcomes everyone.’ A non-profit organization called SkokieCares created the signs after some residents were yelled at for wearing hijabs and told to go back to their own countries. The signs are given out at a number of common locations, including the village hall and the library. They flank the downtown streets, and they’re a part of the landscaping in people’s front yards. SkokieCares doesn’t just give out lawn signs— it also helps people find volunteer opportunities and meet to talk about privilege, power, and oppression. But the lawn signs function for me as visible signs of hope a community that— despite its remarkable diversity— contains much of the anger that drives our politically fractious society.” Diversity welcomed in Skokie, Illinois— a sign that the world is about to turn.


Last Sunday Pastor Robyn drew our attention to the #MeToo movement in which many women and even some men are acknowledging publicly that they too have experienced sexual harassment or assault. From here on out it will be much harder for perpetrators to keep their destructive behavior secret. The #MeToo Movement is a sign that the world is about to turn.


Last night my wife Donna, our granddaughter Penelope, and I participated in a special event called Creating Sanctuary in Trying Times.” It was coordinated by the Islamic Center of Portland, Cedar Hills United Church of Christ, the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice, and Southminster Presbyterian Church. It began with a potluck, and then we shared with one another about how our faith traditions guide us. Several people commented at the end on the sense of unity in the room. Creating Sanctuary in Trying Times— a sign that the world is about to turn.


On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we will celebrate the birth of the Christ child. For centuries his humble, lowly birth has been a sign, a supreme sign, that the world is about to turn. In Luke’s lovely account of Jesus’ birth the angel announces to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” Jesus’ birth is a hopeful sign that God is with us. His birth is a compelling sign of God’s deep love for the world, not for some ideal world , but for the troubled world with all its shortcomings. The birth of Jesus has been and continues to be a sign that the world is about to turn.


In Luke 2:19 we are told that “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” As I have shared in “Listening to the Shepherd’s Voice,” the adult class I have been teaching, Mary’s pondering is a model for me of the devotional life. We hope the good news that the world is about to turn will motivate us as followers of Jesus to work for mercy and justice. However, it is vital, especially during anxious, troubled times, to set aside time—unrushed time— to ponder with Mary what God is up to in our world and what God is calling us to do. In pondering God’s word with Mary hope is cultivated and confidence is instilled that indeed the world, the world God loves so dearly, is about to turn.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.