Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent
Sunday, December 13, 2020
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts
In the name of Jesus. AMEN.
Recently I was introduced to the Canadian Television show Schitt’s Creek now available on Netflix. Schitt’s Creek is a popular and successful comedy series that tracks a riches to rags story. In the very first episode we watch as IRS agents burst into the Rose Family’s sprawling mansion, and the family learns that not only has their accountant absconded with all of their money, but that the accountant failed to pay taxes, and so almost every possession the family owned needed to be sold to pay back taxes.
Forced out of their mansion and extravagant lifestyle, the family is told their last remaining possession, is a small town called Schitt’s Creek, purchased as a joke by the father for his son decades earlier, and then forgotten about. And so, suddenly homeless, the family treks off to the small, rural town, and ends up living in two rooms in the town’s one story, neglected, rundown, roadside motel.
Over the course of the ensuing six seasons, the four main characters of the Rose Family, meet a whole cast of characters in the small town. It’s a heartwarming series, as a mismatched and oddball group of men and women, each with their own blessings & curses, hopes & dreams, talents & shortcomings, muddle along together. Surprisingly, they find what unites them as parents, as spouses, as neighbors is more powerful than what divides them.
At the end of the series is a documentary about the show that takes a brief look at its origins and impact. One of the co-creators and actors in the show, Dan Levy, suggests that what made the show so special, was the cast of actors and actresses. In commending the cast, Dan Levy said this: “the actors knew who their characters were and sat firmly in those roles.” The comedy, the friction, the power of the show, was when these characters bumped up against each other, and realized that though they were different, they were united by a shared core of humanity.
In our scriptures today, for this Third Sunday of Advent, we see actors in the biblical drama, knowing who they were, and because they sat firmly in their roles and identity, enacted the promises of God.
In our First Reading from Isaiah this morning [Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11], the prophet knew who he was and what he was called to proclaim. The prophet knew the spirit of the Lord was upon him and that the spirit had anointed him. He knew he was called to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and to comfort all who mourn.
In our Gospel reading this morning [John 1:6-8, 19-28] John the Baptist knew who he was, and more importantly, who he was not. Point blank the religious authorities asked John, “Who are you?” to which John replied, “I am not the Messiah” (verse 20). But the religious leaders were not satisfied by that answer, and so they kept pressing John, until they asked him a second time: “Who are you? What do you say for yourself?” John responded that he was the voice of the one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.
In the prophet, and in John the Baptist we experience actors in God’s great drama who sat firmly in their roles as messengers, proclaiming God’s work among the people. Their firm message was clear: God had not forgotten nor abandoned the people. Whether it was in the prophet and the community’s work releasing the captives, or whether it was in John’s message about the coming of the Messiah: God was coming to reverse and overturn the ways of sin and death in the world.
Friends, on this Third Sunday in Advent – the question comes to us as people of faith that was asked of John in today’s gospel reading: who are we? Who are we and what is our role in God’s work in the world? What is the role we are called to sit firmly in for the sake of blessing?
In many ways, because of the newness of God’s work, those are questions of faith we ask for a lifetime. But, with many diverse talents and perspectives, here’s a simple answer I believe can speak to each of us. I propose that along with the Thessalonians, we read about in our second reading today [1 Thessalonians 5:16-24], we are called to be a people of rejoicing, of thanksgiving, and prayer.
Some scholars believe First Thessalonians is the oldest book in the New Testament. That means it was the earliest letter written by the Apostle Paul saved and later recorded as scripture. In the letter, Paul gave the Thessalonians an identity. The identity Paul gave was found in his commendation to the Thessalonians that they: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, do not quench the Spirit, honor the words of the prophets, hold fast to what is good, and abstain from every form of evil.
The role Paul gave the early Christians to play AS a community and IN their community, was that they be a people of rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving, to be a people who honors the prophets of old and the prophets of today, to be a people who hold each other accountable in turning from evil and in turning to good. This was not a role given to individuals – but the role given the church, to the assembled faith community as the people of God.
Commenting on Paul’s commendation, one scholar (Brian Peterson) points out: It seems nothing is separated from God’s activity. [for example: rejoice always; pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances]. In all situations, and with all people, we find the opportunity and calling to live out the faith, hope, and love that God has given and to which God calls us.”
What if we embraced this vision, for who we are called to be today? What if together, as community, we held ourselves accountable to being be a people rejoicing, giving thanks, and praying ALWAYS and IN all things?
Commenting on today’s reading from First Thessalonians, one theologian (Hank Borsch) pointed to Archbishop Desmond Tuto as an example for him of someone living this commendation. Living in the reality of apartheid, Archbishop Tuto may easily have been sad, he might easily have given himself to revenge, he may have despaired of praying – and yet, he remained a person of joy. Why? How? How could he have been an example in a situation so difficult? Perhaps, because as a person of faith, he knew Isaiah was still proclaiming good news to the captive and release to the prisoner; that John was still pointing to the Messiah, the one who was coming to make all things new. Perhaps, because he knew the battle continue to wage, the war was already over.
I propose today, that the world needs us as Christians to be a people of rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving – to be a people holding fast to what is good and turning from what is evil. I propose that by sitting firmly in that role, we become Isaiah, and we become John today proclaiming God’s new work in Jesus Christ. By sitting firmly in our roles as people of faith – we witness to the new life breaking into the world.
But, you might say, life is too hard, people today too stubborn, the world too divisive. How can we rejoice? How can we give thanks? How can we hold fast to what is good?
As people of faith, we do not deny the painful reality of death, we don’t ignore the stubborn and painful realities in the world, rather, we point to God’s work of life precisely in the midst of the pain. Here are three examples:
- During my recent trip to Iowa, my parents had to put to sleep their 15 ½-year-old black lab. I was the one who had to carry Ellie into the vet and placed her on the vet’s table. It was sad and there were lots of tears. And yet, in that same trip, when I sat on my parent’s porch, I was covered with cats and I played with 5 new kittens. My parents said yes to 4 kittens, at the request of their granddaughter, and those 4 kittens who weren’t fixed, now have turned into 14 friendly felines. In the place of death, here was new life literally crawling all over me.
- The cries for racial justice continue to go up through the land, but yet, we had 22 people on a Zoom Call on Tuesday night of this past week discussing Lenny Duncan’s book “Dear Church.” We’ve consistently had between 20-30 people, between members of Trinity and St. John, Sudbury, reading, reflecting, discussing, pondering, and thinking about how we can be part of the solution in meetings that began back in August. In a land with real pain cased by racial hierarchy, here is the new work of God alive in Christians who want to confess, repent, and be part of the solution.
- Longtime member at Trinity, Florence Kirschbaum is dying of liver and pancreatic cancer. On Thursday night, members of the Trinity Choir and members of the Tuesday Bible Study, arrived at Florence’s house like a heavenly choir, and we sang Christmas Carols. There – in a place of Florence’s impending death, was the love and life of Christ. After everyone else had left, I was with Florence, and she said – “Pastor, that was beautiful. I feel so loved. I am at peace.”
The Good News today, indeed, is the good news of Jesus Christ liberating and freeing those bound in sin and death. In water, word, bread and cup, we meet Jesus Christ today, and receive the promise of God leading us to new life. Even in the Schitt’s Creek places of our lives, even in the valley of the shadow of death, the good news we celebrate is that the spirit continues to be poured out, and the Messiah continues to be with us, leading to a future with hope and healing.
Alive in the good news of God’s healing and life-giving grace poured out for us, may we indeed remain firm and clear in our role, as a people of rejoicing, thanksgiving, and prayer, so that we may witness to the new life of God’s mercy and grace poured out for all peoples.
Thanks be to God. Amen.