Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Advent. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 61: 1 – 4, 8 – 11; 1 Thessalonians 5: 15 – 24; and John 1: 6 – 8, 19 – 28.
When I first looked at the readings for this Sunday (Isaiah 61: 1 – 4, 8 – 11; 1 Thessalonians 5: 15 – 24; and John 1: 6 – 8, 19 – 28) and especially at the passages from Isaiah, I saw words of despair and gloom. Perhaps that was because those have been the dominant words and thoughts in my life these past months. But in my second reading of the Scriptures (and we all know how important it is to read any passage at least twice) I found a different take on the words.
When you re-read Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, you perhaps get a sense that while there may have been gloom in their minds, there was also a faint glimmer of hope. And it is that faint glimmer of hope that one needs to focus on.
Now Isaiah says, in verses 5 – 7, which are not part of the Old Testament reading for today, that the people of Israel will hire outsiders to herd their flocks and bring in foreigners to work in the fields (verse 5). Isaiah also proclaims that the people of Israel will feast on the bounty of other nations (verse 6).
It is hard to hear Isaiah’s promise of hope contained in verses 1 – 4 and 8 – 11 when you look at verses 5 – 7. That’s because we have already outsourced many of our jobs and we quite willingly let foreign workers work in our fields. We have mostly definitely feasted on the bounty of other nations and on the bounty of this world, to the point that we have become fat, lazy, and self-centered.
Now, I am not arguing against abolishing the various free trade agreements that are so much a part of the global economy. Nor am I arguing for the banning of immigration into this country or a ban on the hiring of undocumented workers. We, as a society and a country, have allowed that to happen because we want the benefits of that cheap labor. We want cheap goods; we will go to any length to keep the costs of our goods low. We do not care about the quality of working conditions in factories in the third world nor do we care about the conditions immigrant workers (legal or otherwise) have to endure while working in some of the worst jobs in this country. All we care about is that we get our goods at the lowest possible price.
It is our unwillingness to demand quality and to pay the price for quality that underlies the economic crisis we are facing right now. We have grown used to cheap oil and we see the only solution in more oil, not other solutions. We have grown use to bountiful harvests, aided by countless pesticides and herbicides, and we care little about what this does to the food or the workers that handle the food.
We certainly do not echo Paul’s words of sharing and working together. Our present leaders will gladly give money to big business without regard for how it is spent; but let the discussion turn to the workers for those companies and they are either cast out into the street without proper remuneration or they are told that they need to sacrifice. We have endured eight years of the rich getting richer while the poor keep getting poorer and we are told by our leaders that we need to keep doing that. I didn’t hear our leaders in Congress or the present administration tell the CEO’s of the Big Three Auto makers to take a pay cut while telling the workers that they had to do so.
My friends, as William Shakespeare might have written, “The fault lies within us.” We are like the Pharisees who come to John the Baptizer seeking a messiah who would lead them out of the wilderness. But those who came to the Baptizer were seeking a messiah for the present time, a political leader who would let them keep their power and their glory. This encounter between the Baptizer and the Pharisees echoes our own blindness, our own willingness to see in many a messiah who will lift us out of our despair but keep the status quo. We seek someone who will lead us as we continue to walk the same paths that lead us into this wilderness of darkness and despair.
The leaders back then were hardly prepared for the Baptizer’s words and we know that later they would not want to hear Jesus’ words either. I am not sure, in light of what is going on, that we are prepared to hear the words of Jesus this year either. We are still a society focused on the now, the present; we are not prepared to deal with tomorrow. If you will, we stand on the shores of a river and want to cross the river at that point in the water. But the point in the water where we focus our efforts moves before we get to it and we are swept aside by the force of the river’s current. Our focus needs to be on the other side of the river and how to cross the river, not how to get through the river.
I have two resources that I turn to when I need to refresh my thoughts. One is Faith in a Secular Age by Colin Williams; it was given to me by Marvin Fortel, my pastor when I was a sophomore in college. I have the pages of this book clipped together because, of constant use over the past forty years, it has fallen apart. The other book is A Guide to Prayer by Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck; this was given to me by John Praetorius, my pastor when I began lay speaking. It hasn’t fallen apart but its pages are dog-eared and it shows the signs of use and age.
And from that second book I found this passage for the 3rd Sunday of Advent.
The contemplation of God is not effected by sight and hearing, nor is it comprehended by any of the customary perceptions of the mind. For no eye has seen, and no ear has heard, nor does it belong to those things which usually enter into the heart. One who would approach the knowledge of things sublime must first purify one’s manner of life from all sensual and irrational emotion. That person must wash from his or her understanding every opinion derived from some preconception and withdraw from customary intercourse with companions, that is, with sense perceptions, which are, as it were, wedded to our nature as its companion. When so purified, then one assaults the mountain.
The knowledge of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb — the majority of people scarcely reach its base. If one were a Moses, he would ascend higher and hear the sound of trumpets which, as the text of the history says, becomes louder as one advances. For the preaching of the divine nature is truly a trumpet blast, which strikes the hearing, being already loud at the beginning but becoming yet louder at the end. (From Gregory of Nyssa)
We cannot see God in the darkness if we are afraid of the darkness; we cannot see God in the world if we see the world as it is. Our despair grows out of our fear of the darkness. And we may feel abandoned by God because we let the darkness overcome and surround us. Those who preach or speak to our fears cannot lead us out of this darkness but only take us further into it. The Baptizer tells us that there is someone coming who will lead us out of the darkness but only if we are prepared to make the changes in our lives. And the change that must occur is a change in our own lives, in our own soul.
From A Guide to Prayer, we read
God is no longer the Friend I meet, the Father with whom I hold converse, the Lover in whom I delight, the King before whom I bow in reverence, the Divine Being I worship and adore. In my experience of prayer God ceases to be any of these things because he ceases to be anything at all. He is absent when I pray. I am there alone. There is no other.
If this experience persists — and is not the effect of the flu coming on or tiredness — it means that something of the greatest importance is happening. It means that God is inviting me to discover Him no longer as another alongside me but as my own deepest and truest self. He is calling me from the experience of meeting Him to the experience of finding my identity in Him. I cannot see Him because He is my eyes. I cannot hear Him because He is my ears. I cannot walk to Him because He is my feet. And if apparently I am alone and He is not there that is because He will not separate His presence from my own. If He is not anything at all, if He is nothing, that is because He is no longer another. I must find Him in what I am or not at all. (From Tensions by H. A. Williams)
The transforming moment of Advent is when we open our hearts to the coming of Christ, not as a moment in time on the calendar. In the darkness and despair of the present times, we will not find God, for God is not there. He has come and is coming into our lives through Christ. A little child will be born and with His birth will come the promise of a new tomorrow and the hope of a better day. It is the hope expressed by Isaiah in the rebuilding of the Israelite nation; it is the hope that Paul offers to the people of Thessalonica when there appears to be none. It is the hope that the Baptizer offered to the people by the banks of the River Jordan when it seemed that there was no hope.
It is the hope found in Christ. We are invited to see that hope in the darkness, to let that hope into our hearts and our souls, and to share that hope with others. We can find the hope we need if we but look to Christ.