December 14, 2014, 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year B
The Rev. Nancy Gallagher
The Pharisees sent priests and scribes to ask John the Baptizer, “Who are you?”
He said, “I am not the Messiah.”
And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?”
He said, “I am not.”
“Are you the prophet?”
He answered, “No.”
Then they said to him, “Who are you? What do you say about yourself?”
He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said…Among you stands one you do not know, the one who is coming after me.”
Why did they ask if he was Elijah? According to the Hebrew Scriptures in II Kings, Elijah the prophet ascended into heaven in a chariot of fire. This spectacular event supposedly happened about 850 years before Christ. Later, in about 450 BCE, Malachi prophesied that this same Elijah was also going to return from heaven to herald the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One.
Why did the priests and scribes ask ‘Are you the prophet?’ This might be a reference to the prophet Moses promised in Deuteronomy 18 where Moses tells the people, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; and where the Lord will put words in the mouth of the prophet . . .” Perhaps they are asking if John is the new Moses.
John says no to all of that and chooses to describe himself as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. This reference to Isaiah, as we’ve received it, is a bit different. The verse from Isaiah reads “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ Not that I mean to correct John the Baptizer.
So in the context of John’s people, there existed the expectation that Elijah would return or appear before the promised Messiah comes. And John says he’s not Elijah and the Messiah is in their midst and they do not yet know him.
John’s preaching has been effective. The community knows something is going on. That’s why they are asking these questions. And John says that something is the true light which enlightens everyone is coming into the world, the advent of the Word made flesh, the emergence of the Messiah.
John is a witness and testifies to the Anointed one. Notice that John the Baptizer, here in the fourth Gospel, doesn’t actually baptize Jesus but rather acknowledges and testifies to the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus. John points to Jesus. This passage is important to preachers, as it is a valuable reminder of the preaching call—to point to Jesus. And I wonder if I might also suggest that John as Witness is not just an example for preachers but also for all Christians. John, as far as I know, wasn’t ordained. Yet in word and deed he pointed to Jesus in a way that we still remember and from which we might take both direction and encouragement.
In our first reading, the Lord sends Isaiah with a message of good news and justice. In the Gospel, God sends John to testify to the light of Christ. Does God send you? How can you testify to the light in some way? Who in your life pointed you toward Jesus? Or God in whatever form makes sense to you? Who encouraged you on your journey? Why are you here today?
At the Diocesan convention this year, the Right Reverend Brian Thom, Bishop of Idaho, asked the gathered delegates, why are you an Episcopalian? Why do you come back every Sunday?
Now I’m going to do something a little scary—well, scary for some. I’m asking you to answer that question, here and now. Take a deep breath, let it out slowly, turn to someone in the pew close to you and tell him or her why you come back so many Sundays. Your answer doesn’t need to be fancy or perfect and remember that other person is anxious also. And they too for some reason are here today too.
Why do you go to church? Is someone willing to share an answer?
Most of us haven’t talked about our faith very often. One of the hardest parts of the ordination process for me was articulating the importance of my faith. I think the reason was because I hadn’t had much practice doing it or listening to others share their faith stories.
If we are called, like John the Baptizer, to witness to the Messiah, to point to Jesus, then we need to practice. Our community can grow only if we, as individual Christians, can name and share why our faith is important to us with our friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors. How will our children and grandchildren have faith if we don’t tell them why faith matters to us? And if we don’t have a chance to practice sharing our thoughts on faith in the relatively safe environment of church, how in the world can we just blurt it out when our kids or friends ask why do we go to church. We would need a miracle to have some sort of answer just out of the blue.
In the back is a rose colored sheet with resources for telling our stories about a vital, living faith in community. The Task force on Congregational Development of which our Father Brent is a member has both results from an earlier survey and a new survey for you to take. I have their website contact information. Also, as an inducement, there is an explanation about Gaudete Sunday and why the third Advent wreath candle is rose colored. Pick it up and explore ways other people talk about their faith, what language we might use, and if you take the survey you might find out what parts of church matter to you.
We don’t have to invent a new language to say what is on our hearts and minds. Somehow I find the words to tell you why I love to read or love to garden. We can use those same words to describe why we love God. And I’m thinking that once we get talking about why we go to church, why we love God, we might become active participants in Advent, heralds of the Kingdom coming, and, like John the Baptizer, a witness to the Light of Christ.
CHURCH VITALITY FORM
Church Vitality and Talking About Our Faith
From the Diocesan Website http://vitalchurchinwesternoregon.com/
In Round One, we sent out a survey in August, 2014, and got an impressive number of responses on some marks of congregational vitality and vital churches. In Round Two, we worked with a captive audience at Diocesan Convention in November, 2014, to surface more language about the most popular marks of vitality identified in the August survey. At Convention we introduced the idea of Ten Essentials, announcing our hope that early in Epiphany, we will publish and make available as a resource for planning and inspiration “Ten Essentials for Vital Churches.”
Have you taken the Vital Congregations Essentials survey? Do it now! It should only take five minutes, and you may learn something about yourself and your fellow Oregonians in the process.
In August, 2014, a questionnaire was distributed throughout the diocese as a way to generate some reaction to language and ideas about Congregational Vitality. We started with some marks of vitality generated through numerous Congregational Vitality Task Force discussions. The input we sought was two-fold: response to those marks of vitality, and additional ways of talking about vitality.
The response to the survey was terrific, and the Task Force continues to be grateful for the engagement and contribution of so many people. We had well over 600 respondents, a portion of whom completed the survey in Spanish.
Episcopal Church Foundation Vital Practices
Gaudete Sunday (pronounced gow dĕ’ tā)
The day takes its common name from the Latin word Gaudete (“Rejoice”), the first word of the introit [a psalm or antiphon sung or said while the priest approaches the altar for the Eucharist] of this day’s Mass
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob.
The season of Advent originated as a fast of forty days in preparation for Christmas, commencing on the day after the feast of St. Martin (12 November), whence it was often called “St. Martin’s Lent”—a name by which it was known as early as the fifth century. In the ninth century, the duration of Advent was reduced to four weeks, and Advent preserved most of the characteristics of a penitential season, which made it a kind of counterpart to Lent. Gaudete Sunday is a counterpart to Laetare Sunday, and provides a similar break about midway through a season which is otherwise of a penitential character, and signifies the nearness of the Lord’s coming.
The spirit of the Liturgy all through Advent is one of expectation and preparation for the feast of Christmas as well as for the second coming of Christ, and the penitential exercises suitable to that spirit are thus on Gaudete Sunday suspended for a while in order to symbolize that joy and gladness in the promised Redemption.
On Gaudete Sunday rose-colored vestments may be worn instead of violet or Sarum blue which is prescribed for the season of Advent. In churches that have an Advent wreath, the rose colored candle is lit in addition to two of the violet or blue colored candles, which represent the first two Sundays of Advent. Despite the otherwise somber readings of the season of Advent, which has as a secondary theme the need for penitence, the readings on the third Sunday emphasize the joyous anticipation of the Lord’s coming