Sunday, December 17, 2017

"Witnesses to the Light." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Advent

Edward Hicks, "A Peaceable Kingdom with Quakers Bearing Banners," 1829-30

"Witnesses to the Light"

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28; 1 Thessalonians 3:16-24

            I love the season of Advent-- the invitation to quiet reflection and expectant waiting… the eschatological hope for justice through God’s realm on earth.
            The Third Sunday of Advent has traditionally been known as Joy Sunday.   That’s why we lit the rose-colored candle.  Joy is a theme in most of the scripture lessons we heard today.  In the epistle lesson we heard the apostle Paul urging the church to “Rejoice always and in everything.”
            Yet-- during the past few days, as I've meditated on the scriptures, I've been thinking about how painful a season this can be for many people. Some are lonely.  Some are grieving the loss of a loved one.  Some are depressed.  Some are too poor to be a part of the festival of extravagance the merchants would have us believe is what Christmas is all about.  Some are hungry. Some are homeless.
            In our nation, parents of millions of children are worrying about how they will pay for their children’s health care if the CHIP program isn’t re-funded.
            Every day, someone in our nation dies due to gun violence. Opioid addiction keeps claiming more victims. Forest fires continue to rage in California.
            More and more women have been breaking the silence and accusing those who have sexually assaulted or harassed them--many of them powerful men from the entertainment business, or politicians or journalists, who used their power and privilege to oppress women and to assure their silence. Many of us have our #Me Too stories. Most of us long for it to end so we can live and work together with respect and civility. But how?
            We live in a system in our culture where people have learned to see one another as less than fully human, as less than precious and valued, and we have adapted ourselves to this understanding, with our lives shaped by these values. Sometimes, for those who are privileged, it works to their advantage. Others live with this because they don’t know what else to do… or they haven’t had the power to do so… or they couldn’t survive the cost of losing a job if they spoke out.
            In the midst of so much bad news, we long for some good news.
            Today we heard the prophet Isaiah proclaim: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the LORD has anointed 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 rescue of our God; to comfort all who mourn….”

            This Advent, many of us are longing for God’s justice and peace in the world.  We long for good news for the oppressed, for the brokenhearted, for the fearful, vulnerable and captive. We wonder: when will our ashes be replaced with garland?
            We could use some good news for those who mourn and those who huddle in ruined cities and devastated places. We wish that our elected officials could hear the prophet’s message from God, “For I, God, love justice. I hate robbery and sin.” 
            Surely, this is nothing new. God’s people have been yearning for the fulfillment of God’s promises for thousands of years.
            Some days, the prophet’s vision seems too good to be true, no matter how badly we want to believe that the God who loves justice is on the way. 

            Isaiah saw the injustice of the suffering of his people. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be, he tells us.  And so does John, as he points to Jesus, the one yet to come.
            John comes as a witness to testify to the light, proclaiming, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.

            Perhaps this is the beginning of the freedom Isaiah announced and Jesus brought and will bring in all of its fullness… a time when the brokenhearted are finally bound up and healed… and God’s powerful promises are fulfilled. Do we believe that God’s good news has the power to transform our lives?  I want to believe that.
            The message of Advent is that God in Christ is coming into the world.  In Jesus, God's Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.   What came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.[1]

            In Charles Dickens' story, "A Christmas Carol,"  Ebenezer Scrooge is London's most notorious miser.  He's a mere shadow of the joyful person he was created to be, hunched up against the world...  stingy and suspicious.  When the Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge his own grave, the knowledge that he will die breaks through all the defenses he’s used to try to hide his childlike soul for so long.  He's overwhelmed with a piercing sense of remorse for how he has been living. 
            Seeing the light of truth after living in the darkness for so long is painful.  But what follows his rebirth into new life is joy!

            For some time, I’ve felt drawn to the work of Edward Hicks, who was an American sign and stagecoach painter in the early nineteenth century.  He’s known almost exclusively for his many paintings of the Peaceable Kingdom. 
            One of these, entitled The Peaceable Kingdom with Quakers Bearing Banners, was painted during a time when tension and separation had split American Quakers into two groups.  In the background is a cluster of very somber-looking people.  But in the foreground, is a depiction of the peaceable kingdom:  a leopard is lying down with a lamb.  A little child is embracing a lion. 
            Those somber-looking people in the background are connected to the peaceable kingdom by a banner that declares, “Behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy.”  The sinuous ribbon with its beginning in the mists of eternity weaves its way through and among them, braiding them together.
            Our Christian joy and faith aren’t based solely on the evidence we see in the present-- but on the hope of the future.  Our Christian joy comes to us in our experience of God’s presence.
            This Advent, the coming may be a present experience.  God is about to be born in the cradle of believers' hearts and lives, either for the first time or as a renewed birth, as God-with-us reaches new depths within our very souls.  And this, my friends, is reason for joy! 

            Do you remember what Ebenezer Scrooge was like when he was re-born that Christmas?  He couldn't keep his joy to himself!  He was filled with the joy of new life...   and he just had to share his joy with others!
            When we receive the JOY of Jesus Christ, we're called to proclaim the light that outshines all darkness.  Once we've been touched by the light of Christ, we're called to carry the light out into the world    and be witnesses of the light. 

            The God we know and trust because we have seen his love revealed in Jesus Christ calls us out of darkness--  into the Light that overcomes the darkness.  Our job as we wait for Christ to come again in power and glory is to proclaim the good news of Jesus, who is the light of the world and calls us to live lives that reflect Christ's light!  
            Our calling as the church of Jesus Christ is to mediate God’s promises and commands to the world.  We are called to live into hope-- of captives freed...  of sight regained...  the end of greed. 
            No matter how dark things look, we know that darkness does not have the last word.  Jesus, the Light of the world, has come and shines in the darkness.  The darkness does not and will not overcome it.
            So-- let us rejoice always.  Let us pray without ceasing, and give thanks in everything…  for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for us.
May the God of peace make you completely holy and whole.  May your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ![2]
            Come, Lord Jesus!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
December 17, 2017

[1] John 1
[2] 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24