Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Good news to the oppressed. Bind up the brokenhearted. Liberty, release, comfort, gladness, praise, recompense, righteousness.
The beauty and poetry of the Isaiah text for this week pours over us like the oil of gladness the prophet promises. Reading each verse rings out like the antithesis to the headlines we hear 24/7. Yemen’s civil war threatens to worsen, civilians already without basics, trapped as violence rages. Another politician/journalist/actor is named in the #MeToo movement that continues to gain momentum as those long silenced finally speak out. The tsunami of heroin addiction pulls under more victims daily. Investigations into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 elections continue. Ordinary people anticipate the impact of actions taken in Washington. Charlottesville grapples with the report detailing what went wrong on August 11-12. North Korea tests missiles and tense relationships between nations get more tense.
I could use some good news, for the oppressed, for the brokenhearted, for the fearful, vulnerable and captive. I could use some good news for those who mourn and those who huddle in ruined cities and devastated places. The prophet’s vision seems too good to be true some days, no matter how badly I want to believe that the Lord who loves justice is on the way. The poetry resounds with beauty while the world all too often wallows in the ugly. The prophet preaches comfort while those in positions of power inure themselves to suffering. The verbs of Isaiah – liberty, comfort, gladness, recompense and righteousness – absent from our earthly lexicon. The word of the year, announced last week, was “complicit,” after all.
That’s why I welcome John the Baptist yet again this Advent season. Normally so out of place during such a festive time of year, John the Baptist feels strangely right in 2017. Speaking truth to power (or at least truth to those with ears to hear), John’s proclamation of repentance sounds like the harbinger of good news promised in Isaiah, perhaps now more than ever. But we get an additional word about John the Baptist from John’s Gospel and it comes just in time. John the Baptist, we are told, came as a witness to testify to the light. John the Baptist repeats the purpose of his arrival on the scene: to point to Jesus, to let the world know that Jesus is both among the religious authorities even as they interrogate John and coming to bring the promised liberty, comfort and recompense. As the hymn notes: The world is about to turn. And it depends which side of it you are on as to whether you welcome this divine pivot.
John the Baptist witnesses to the light. Testifies to the light’s presence, a comfort to those huddled in the dark, a threat to those who will not like what it reveals about them. The light of Christ has the capacity to warm and enlighten as well as expose and burn. The world is about to turn. The Lord who loves justice and hates robbery and wrongdoing will have the last word and that Word is on the way.
Trusting John’s testimony and the prophet’s promise, how then are we to respond this Advent in the year when the worldly word is “complicit”?
Rejoice always? Pray without ceasing? Give thanks in all circumstances? That’s what the writer of Thessalonians advises. Don’t quench the Spirit. Don’t despise the words of the prophets. Test everything. Hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. Seems to me a good to-do list if we want to be ready for the Word that brings a revealing light – rather than, well, being complicit in the ways of those happy to keep others in the dark.
Testify to the light. That’s our role, too. Point to Jesus, among us and on the way. As the relentless roll call of hurt and hurting and hurtful rings out, be the voice crying out in the wilderness that the days are surely coming when crying and mourning will be no more and even now God hears people’s moans of pain and we do, too. The world is about to turn and as it begins to pivot toward the oppressed, captive and brokenhearted, we who worship the Lord who ushers in this great reversal, should already be leaning in that direction. Testifying to the light. Holding fast to what is good. Abstaining from every form of evil. Praying without ceasing. Rejoicing and giving thanks, always, in all circumstances. Such behavior unnerves purveyors of darkness, puts them off balance, maybe even prepares them for the Spirit to do a 180 on them.
You have no doubt heard the stories of how Nelson Mandala’s treatment of those who imprisoned him transformed their perception of not only Mandala, but themselves and their country as well. The accounts of how Dietrich Bonhoeffer carried himself, cared for fellow prisoners and even ministered to his jailers are legend. Testifying to light, during deep darkness, brings the possibility for illumination to all those in proximity to it. And daily there are people who courageously do so, not just the Mandalas or the Bonhoeffers or the Mother Teresas.
There are the parole officers like Tiffany Whittier, whose patient, positive witness allowed light to shine through the racism of one of her clients. So much so, that he had the swastika tattoo removed from his chest. Tiffany is black, Michael Kent, that parolee, white. He says of Tiffany, “she is much more than my parole officer. I would think of her as family.” Hold fast to what is good. Abstain from all forms of evil. Do not quench the spirit.
There is the husband, a retired physician, who walked with his wife through cancer and her death. Fulfilling his promise to have a home funeral and attending to the details they discussed with their family about her death and burial handled entirely by those who loved her. Reporter Libby Copeland writes about her time with the couple:
“It was during a conversation in May, about two months before she died, that Kate mused about the beautiful casket Deloy had had a carpenter fashion out of cherry trees blown down by a hurricane. The Oberlins called it “the box” and kept it down in the shed. Kate would not be buried in it, but would be in it while they took her up the mountain. She and Deloy engaged in a long, animated discussion about its merits and limitations. Deloy said she’d fit, but just barely. Kate wondered if she could wear boots as part of her final outfit, or if they’d add too much length. And what would it feel like to climb into the box alive? She kind of wanted to. The Oberlins coped, it seemed to me, by looking straight at what was coming and making it their own. It was the worst kind of adventure, but they were doing it together.”
Testifying to the light. Giving thanks in all circumstances. Holding fast to what is good.
Daily there are those who bring good news to the oppressed and love justice and hate robbery and comfort those who mourn in the name of the Lord they follow. Testifying to the light, pointing to Jesus among us and coming to bind up the brokenhearted. I want to be complicit with them this Advent.
- What does it mean to pray without ceasing? What might that look like if we think of praying more as a corporate act of the Body of Christ, rather than just as individual Christians?
- The text from Isaiah speaks repeatedly of comfort. How do we comfort one another? When have you experienced comfort?
- John the Baptist is clear about his role: He is a witness who testifies to the light. What is our testimony to the light this Advent?
- How do we hold fast to what is good and abstain from every form of evil? How do we keep one another accountable in doing so?
- Do we really want the world to turn toward the oppressed and suffering? What would that mean for those who are not oppressed and for whom the way the world now functions is beneficial to them?
- Pray each day this week to testify to the light.
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