Monday, December 8, 2014

The Future is Now – 14 December 2014 – Third Sunday of Advent

One of the tricky parts of Advent is the conflation of time. We await the coming of the savior but we know the savior has already come. We hear John the Baptist tell us someone is about to appear who is more powerful than he is and yet we know Jesus has already lived among us, died, and rose from the dead. Jesus’ ministry is about to begin, as we speak of it in the Advent season, but it is also already past. And we also proclaim the presence of the one who was, and is, and is to come. 

Advent is, for all these reasons, a marvelous time to play with time, to think about words that can bring to life in the present what is past and future. The preacher knows that scripture tells us what some people experienced before it happened, while we live in the aftermath of all that transpired. 

The temptation is to speak of what will be while the preacher really needs to help the assembly see what is here now, in our lives today. 

John 1:6-8, 19-28

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ is a strange-looking person only some people would call a “foodie” whose message brings the people from farm and city to admit their need for cleansing. We can imagine all we want about what, in John, so compelled people. But perhaps it was not so much John himself as the fact that his message of the coming one for whom everyone ought to prepare resonated with the people. They knew, as do we, that at the bottom of things, we are in need of cleansing. We need to be what we are not. In a sense, this is how John defined himself to others. 

Mark’s Gospel tells us: “This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.” (vs. 28) 
The Christian God acts in history; God is not just an abstract concept or philosophical truth. The writer of John made the effort to localize his words—a particular time and place. The act of preaching is another instance of such localizing . . . We should be cautious but not afraid of saying … [we saw that] God has indeed been at work among us?
- Jon Keune 
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
We live between that first Pentecost and the final Advent. But that means we live in the Spirit. Even in the Christmas rush, the Spirit opens us to hear these voices. Past, present, and future come into the light of God. Faith looks back to God's promises. Hope looks forward to God fulfilling them. And love is faith and hope active in the present, sharing the light here and now. 
And so we can join with Isaiah, who rejoices not in what God has done but in what God promises to do in the future. And with the Magnificat, as Mary rejoices in what God is going to do in her, and speaks as if it has already happened. And St. Paul urges the Thessalonians to rejoice always, in all circumstances, anticipating the coming of our LORD Jesus Christ. 
Advent joy is counting our chickens before they hatch, celebrating victory at half time with our team down fifty points.  . . .  When you clean the house for the coming guests, you can either hide all the junk behind closed doors and under beds, or you can hear John's call to make the way straight, which means exposing all the junk, bringing it into the light, where it can be sorted, gotten rid of, or cleansed.
Mother Mary teaches us to rejoice . . . as if each of us bore within us a new and fragile being, as if each of us carried another's greatness that makes us the fragile, lowly one that is blessed. . . . 
That is cause for rejoicing. In our community of faith, in our neighborhood, good things can happen, things that last beyond the world's ephemeral holiday season, things that truly come from the holy day when Christ comes among us. It's in the light of that coming that St. Paul's voice cries out: rejoice, pray, give thanks, quench not, do not despise, test, hold fast, abstain. They all sound somewhat reachable, but on our own we can't rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, abstain from every form of evil.
It will take the God of peace to sanctify us entirely. The Spirit that anoints Jesus, the Spirit who is not quenched by our sins, the Spirit who rejoices—that same Spirit empowers us to be witnesses to testify to the light, to be God's planting, a winter garden that grows into rejoicing in righteousness and praise. For this is the year of the LORD's favor. And our spirit rejoices. 
– Paul Bieber  
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Paul’s letter tells an early church community: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (vss. 16–18) Rejoicing requires gratitude, and that is the fundamental posture of Christian spirituality. 

And yet, how hard it can be to sustain our grateful prayers. They are vital, however, to being able to see past the present moment toward the generosity of others.

We live, as the early church did, with the same need for gratitude, the same questions, awaiting the peace that surpasses all understanding, the end to destruction, the reconciliation of all nations. Just as in our time when unspeakable horrors visit nation after nation, following the Holocaust, people cried out, “Where were you, God?” Some rabbis understood that God’s response was to ask, “Where were you?” 

John the Baptist stands tall on this Sunday as: witness to the light, not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet, but the voice crying out, the one who was not worthy. Many images lead us to see through them today the mystery that is Christ Jesus. We see through one who was not Jesus but who was, nevertheless, the finger pointing, the preacher who shows us the face of love. We have the same proclamation to make. 

Paul Bieber is pastor of All Saints Lutheran Church, San Diego, California.  

Jon Keune is a postdoctoral fellow in India Studies at the University of Houston and is approved for ordination as a pastor in the ELCA. 

Homily Service 39, no. 1 (2005): 3-14.

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