Sermon for December 13, 2020

Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2020
John 1:6-8, 19-28

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

    19This is the testimony given by John when the Judeans sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20John confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23John said,

    “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,

    ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.

    24Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

There are many compelling verses among the readings appointed for today, passages full of en-Spirited energies. But the one that draws most of my attention is this, when John the Baptizer responds to the queries of the Pharisees about his identity and what he was up to: “Among you stands one whom you do not know…”

John said this of Jesus, “the one who [was] coming after [him]; the thong of whose sandal [he] was not worthy to untie.” (cf. John 1:26-27)

The religious leaders who were sent to John to interrogate him about who he was were not at the time curious about Jesus. They wanted to know if John was the Messiah. And if not the Messiah, then a return of Elijah. And if not Elijah, then one of the other prophets.

John answered no to all of the above. Then the religious leaders asked with perhaps some exasperation: “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

John’s response was to quote the prophet Isaiah, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

That says a lot, but it’s still not a very direct or straightforward answer which no doubt only added to the frustration of the leaders who needed to know.

There’s a lot of mystery, vagueness and uncertainty in the atmosphere of the reading for today from John’s Gospel.

There was a lot of mystery and uncertainty in the religious milieu of John’s and Jesus’ day and decades later when John’s Gospel and the other Gospels were written. In Jesus’ day, there were various religious movements in Jewish territory occupied by the Roman Empire. By the time John’s Gospel was written, the temple had been destroyed altering the nature of Judaism and Christianity was beginning to emerge. All of this change made for social and religious turmoil and uncertainty.

There’s a lot of mystery and uncertainty today all around us amidst the changes and chances of life in the twenty-first century. We live this everyday in one way or another. And reports of change and turmoil fill headlines in the 24 hour news cycles.

In uncertain times, it is human nature to seek after certainty. Enquiring minds want to know. We want to be in control. Knowing and understanding helps this sense of feeling in control.

Many religious traditions, many among Christian traditions, are burdened by this quest for certainty. We see this in certain kinds of extreme fundamentalism in all faith traditions, which seem to become more rigid and unwavering the more society changes in upheaval.

But the human quest for absolute certainty is illusory and ultimately does not serve us well.

Moreover, and crucially, certainty is not faith. The anxious seeking after certainty does not lead to faith. You see, faith is trust in that which may persist with lots of mystery, trust in that which is not entirely seen, not entirely understood, not fully known.

The rallying cries of the Lutheran Reformation did not include, “Truth alone,” or “Certainty alone,” but “faith alone.”

Yes, Lutheran Christians have a strong emphasis on God’s revelation, especially of God’s face seen in Jesus Christ. And we’re big on the scriptures and the revealed truth contained therein. But a lot of what is revealed about God in the scriptures is that God persists in some remaining mystery.

In this light – a divine light that both reveals and obscures – the words recorded as John the Baptizer’s in today’s gospel echo through the centuries: “Among you stands one whom you do not know.”

Let’s linger with this statement that makes for reality therapy for those of us, very much myself included, who want to know and understand and thus to feel more in control of our circumstances.

The quest for certainty, the need to know, is a huge burden on individual lives and the lives of whole communities, peoples and nations. A good chunk of my own disquiet, my own feeling burdened, these days results from my strong desire to know and understand what’s coming next. What will the new normal be like after the pandemic? How will all of this affect my son’s education and formation, and what will his opportunities be in a tumultuous world? Once we can worship safely in person again, how many people will come back to the routines of Resurrection Church? How is all of this affecting the future mission and ministry opportunities of our congregation?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, yet they persist in burdening me. I’m sure you have your lists of nagging questions. Furthermore, anxieties about wanting to know and control the future wreak havoc on whole societies, not just individuals.

Yes, our quests for knowledge have resulted in magnificently helpful scientific and other discoveries. But humble, thoughtful scientists and others in pursuit of knowledge will finally confess something like, “the more I know, the more I realize what I do not know.”

In contrast to the anxious seeking of certainty, by God’s grace, the Spirit’s call to faith, to trust, relieves us of our anxious, burdened quest for definitive knowledge. The call to faith, to trust, becomes a gospel word, a word of freedom.

I can assure you that on those occasions when I am given the palpable gift of faith, of trust in God’s gracious promises, and I feel freed to let go of my quest for certainty, I am much more at peace, much lighter in my being.

Indeed, Advent is a timing of waiting and of watching for the “one among us whom we do not know.”

Even if we let go of our quest for certainty, we can still in faith look for signs of this One’s coming. We seek clues, bits of suggestive evidence, pieces to the mysterious puzzle, propelled by curiosity, not driven by the need to be in control and to know it all.

Where do we turn to get a sense of what signs to look for?

The words of scripture do indeed give us signs, criteria to discern what may point us in sacred directions. We may know that the sacred is at hand when, as we heard in the first reading from Isaiah, there is “good news [proclaimed] to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, proclamation of liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (cf. Isaiah 61:1). When these things happen, holiness is nearby.

We see signs of the sacred, of God’s dominion, when there is “a garland instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” (cf. Isaiah 61:3) and when “righteousness and praise spring up before all the nations” (cf. Isaiah 61:11b).

We can claim evidence of the sacred will when in our midst there is “rejoicing always, and prayer without ceasing, and giving thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for us” as suggested by today’s second reading (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

Martin Luther also gives us clues to knowing when God’s reign is near in his Small Catechism explanation to the second petition to the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come.” In answer to the question, “How does this come about?” God’s kingdom, God’s reign comes, Luther teaches, “Whenever our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that through the Holy Spirit’s grace we believe God’s holy word and live godly lives here in time and hereafter in eternity.”

Among us stands one whom we do not know, but the divine word gives us signs of holy coming. Therefore, may God in Christ free us from the need to know with certainty and give us the gift of faith to trust that the fullness of divine light will be revealed in due course.

In the meantime, and Advent is one such meantime, may we by God’s grace and the energies of the Spirit that emanate from the sacred word of scripture be at peace as we wait and watch for signs of the coming one whose promises will not fail us, come what may. Amen.

Now for your reflection and holy conversation at home:

  • Recall occasions when you have been burdened by a need to know. In contrast, recall occasions when you have felt free of such quests for certainty. What makes the difference in moving from burden to freedom?
  • Where do you see signs of Christ’s advent, or coming, here, even today in your journey of faith?