The Third Sunday of Advent ~ “Birth Planning: Darkness Before the Dawn”
Isa. 35: 1-10 & Mt. 11: 2-11 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United Church ~ December 15, 2019
We are approaching the darkest day of the year. Winter solstice, as it is often referred to, occurs this coming Saturday and will contain just under 2/3 of the day filled with darkness. Further north of the equator, there is even less sunlight to be found. So much darkness…darkness before the dawn. This morning our White Gift campaign concludes and we begin assembling the hampers for our 7 families. Yet, we also think of the many, many families in need; not just the families that our church have sponsored. We think of the many families who never imagined they would be in this position, humbly awaiting the receipt of their hamper. So much darkness…darkness before the dawn. Our coat drive is continuing to receive support from the community as coats are being dropped off for those who spend much of their lives on the street. Yet, I suspect, each recipient never imagined they would be in the position of needing to ask for a coat to simply keep warm. So much darkness…darkness before the dawn. This afternoon, many of the families whom we have served over the past year or so, among others in the community, will gather for our Quiet Christmas. We gather in this way because this is not the Christmas they had imagined, and we gather for healing and hope in memory of their beloved. So much darkness…darkness before the dawn.
As we look at comforting Christmas image on the screen, have you wondered about the setting for the holy family’s birth? I wonder if Mary and Joseph ever imagined that they would give birth in a filthy manger, rather than in a birthing suite in a sanitary hospital staffed with medical personnel? On the third Sunday in Advent, that we focus on the coming of God’s Joy, this is not the way that I want to begin our reflection time. Yet, I feel compelled to begin this way as we examine this morning’s text. John the Baptist, perhaps the greatest prophet of all time. The one who saw the coming of the Messiah in his cousin Jesus. He was the one to boldly proclaim that: “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to carry his sandals” (Matthew 3:11) He would see in Jesus a new vision when he proclaimed: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). While John was an esteemed prophet himself, even he would bow to Jesus saying: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Yet here John is, behind prison bars, held as an enemy of the state. And as these prison walls surround him, surely John also wonders…Jesus, are you really the one who has come to save us? Are you really the one who has come to guide us? Are you really the one who is the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of all the years?
I suspect that this is a question that we all ask, as people faith, when we face the difficult times in our lives. We may not live in literal prison cells, as John does in this morning’s text, but all of us have occupied figurative ones. Prison cells created by failing health, by poverty, by broken relationships, by addiction, by loss. We look out from our figurative prison bars and want to yell like John: ‘Jesus…do you see me? Jesus…do you care? Jesus…where are you?’ This has been the timeless question for all who follow Jesus hasn’t it…Who is Jesus? It is asked by all who encounter him; it is asked by his disciples who love him; it is asked by the tax collectors, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, it is even asked by Pilate as he is being interrogated before his crucifixion. Who are you? And this morning, find ourselves, along with John asking this central question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus’ response, of course, is not to give an answer, but rather to give the question back to us to solve…the one question that all other faith questions boil down to: “who do you YOU say that I am?” (Matthew 16). And in these ‘prison cell’ situations of our lives, John (and you and I), have the true opportunity to ask this core question of discipleship: who is Jesus for you?
(image) There is an interesting wisdom story pertaining to the birthdates of John and Jesus. As you know, the Gospel of Luke tells the story of the two pregnant sisters: Mary and Elizabeth who meet amidst their expectant joy. Elizabeth is pregnant with John and Mary is pregnant with Jesus. The story is told that Elizabeth is actually further along in her pregnancy and delivers John on the summer solstice ~ June 21st ~ the day filled with the greatest amount of light. John’s entrance to the world occurs amidst a day of maximum light! Mary, is not as far along in her pregnancy. Mary is just completeing her first trimester and later delivers Jesus six months later around the time of the winter solstice; the day with the greatest period of darkness. John is born into the greatest period of light; Jesus is born into the greatest period of darkness. Jesus will not be born amidst the glitz and glamour in the full light of summer. Jesus will come, quietly, into the darkness. Jesus will arrive, softly, in the night. Jesus will arrive, and the question we ask…is will we actually recognize him when he comes. Who were you expecting?
Jesus speaks to this in his existential faith question in his response to John. What were you expecting? A reed shaken in the wind? Were you expecting one dressed in soft robes living in a royal palace? The wilderness along the Jordan contained reeds that blew in the wind. The wilderness contained some of Herod’s palaces in Herodium, Machaeus, and Masada. Some Herodian coins in those days actually bore the symbol of a reed from the Jordan Valley. What were they expecting? People have pondered what a true disciple is since the beginning. Perhaps, a true disciple is a holy man or woman who abandons civilization to practice solitary ascetic disciplines while living in the wilderness…like John? Or perhaps, a true disciple is a God-fearing King whose riches and worldly power demonstrate God’s favour towards them? Or perhaps, a disciple is one who declares God’s will, preaches God’s Word, warns and prepares of the coming Kingdom? What does discipleship, following the Way of Jesus, mean to you? Who are you really expecting in those times when you are left behind prison bars? Who do you expect in your times of pain and suffering? Who do you expect in the coming of Christmas?
(Image) Karl Barth, considered to be one of the great theologians of the last Century, answers these questions in his understanding of who John the Baptist is within the setting of the biblical story. (and that is why we have spent much of our time last week and this week on him). In John the Baptist, Barth saw the prototype of what it means to be a disciple. To be a disciple is not to look at oneself and one’s needs. But rather, to be a disciple is to look at Christ and consider all that God has done for us in Him. The image on the screen is the Isenheim Altarpiece, one of the great icons of the Russian Orthodox church. A reproduction of it hung over Barth’s desk as he studied and wrote. In the middle, we see a large icon of Christ whose life was freely given to the darkness of the world, demonstrating God’s liberating power over all darkness. And on either side of Christ are Mary held by John, the beloved disciple and John the Baptist. All of them looking and leaning towards Jesus. Looking and leaning as though their entire existence is bound up with his. To be a disciple is to look towards God in Christ as if our very existence depended upon it. And I think that is why Jesus is born into the darkness…the dark places of our lives; that is why Jesus is found in the prison cells of our lives; that is why Jesus comes in a humble manger where shepherds, Kings and angels (all of them) are welcomed to come and behold him. That is why Jesus isn’t birthed into the light. For his birth brings pure light into the darkness; his birth brings pure joy to us all.
I’m a dad. And as my children come towards the end of their teen years, they have dabbled in a lot of sports and activities over the years. Hockey, soccer, gymnastics, dance, and the list goes on. And over the years, they have amassed a large collection of medals. Not medals for victory, but rather medals for just showing up and participating. And it turns out that social scientists who study such things are raising concerns with this practice. What they are now arguing, is that all this ceaseless praise only protects kids from failure. So, when failure inevitably appears, we are creating children that become so demoralized that they actually choose cheating rather than risk failure. Jesus challenged them about what they were expecting…a reed shaking in the wind? A regal King dressed in a soft robe? Jesus does not come holding a trophy…he is not birthed into a castle…he will be despised, neglected and murdered. Yet, he is…light! He is light into the dark places in our lives because that is exactly where he can be found. He is found in the struggles, in the pain, in the suffering. And it is only in the deep darkness where we truly appreciate the shining of pure light.
And so, even in the dark places, we can be touched by the light that is Christ; the light that inevitably comes after the darkness. If we truly lean into his grace and his light. And that is what allows us to boldly proclaim this Sunday as the Sunday of Joy. For God’s light is shining into the prison cells of our lives and offering us hope and joy.