In Advent we wait, we watch, and we work to prepare. We’ve been circling around this for three Sundays now, we have been reflecting on the consequences of these activities, and we have been thinking on what scripture has to reveal to us about what it all. This Sunday the scripture keeps leading me back to thoughts about God’s desire to work in cooperation with humanity and how we discern God’s call to that work.
Being a prophet is not a great job. We revere prophets today, to be sure. But they’re prophets who are long dead and whose words have been revealed to contain much wisdom. Wisdom from God that was often not heeded in the days when the prophets were alive and trying to call their friends’ and neighbours’ attention to it. Good news from God but the people did not have ears to hear it and, instead, turned on the prophets, hurling abuse and accusations their way. We can readily imagine why so many prophets, when they first hear God’s call to this work, are hesitant to take it up.
Moses, when called by God to go to Pharaoh and demand the release of the people of Israel, famously responds by asking “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3.11) Perhaps Moses is, in part, concerned that he has no authority—no business—doing this work. But I suspect that Moses is also concerned for the consequences of approaching one of the most powerful people in the world and demanding that they release a significant number of their slaves. This may not end well for Moses.
In Advent, we spend a great deal of time with the prophecies of Isaiah. In his case, the call to prophetic ministry comes in a vision. Isaiah 6 retells of the prophet’s experience of being given a vision of heaven, a vision that he is immediately concerned about because he is a man of unclean lips, from a people of unclean lips, and he believes that such impurity cannot be acceptable in the presence of the Lord of Hosts. Only after he is purified does Isaiah hear and accept the Lord’s call to prophesy to the people. God sometimes calls people, prophets and many others, to work that is difficult, inconvenient, dangerous, and not what we might choose to do if left to our own devices.
In the passage from Isaiah 61 appoint for today, Isaiah proclaims good news from God for people desperately in need of good news. The oppressed, the captive, the brokenhearted, the mourning, and the imprisoned are all to receive good news from God. These people are to be raised up that they might display the glory of the Lord. This is work that the Lord has committed to doing and that is very good news indeed because, after all, God is God. But if God planned to do it with a simple wave of the divine hand, there would be no need for Isaiah to be sharing this news with the people. It would be done already. It seems that, once again, God seeks the cooperation of humanity in this work.
Humanity has some part to play in the comforting, healing, and raising up of these people identified in Isaiah’s prophecy. God will be present, but we are all of us somehow to work together and contribute to this great project. If we hear God’s call, voiced through Isaiah, and participate faithfully, we will be a part of this people known to be blessed by God. This work of God’s, in which we cooperate, to lift up the poor, the imprisoned, the mourning, and to make them glorious will be, somehow, a sign to the world that we are among the blessed.
Isaiah, like all prophets, stands as a signpost in the many-branched path of life, pointing in the direction that God would have us take. But prophets need to be heard and signposts need to be read and many of us do not always hear or see what is plainly before us. Sometimes we are preoccupied and simply miss the signpost. Other times we have chosen our path and deliberately ignore the signposts along the way. And still other times, we see the signposts and choose to ignore them, or we justify ignoring them by assuring ourselves that they’re wrong and that we know the right way to get where we’re going. We don’t need anyone’s assistance. Not from our traveling companions, not from a prophet, not even from God. We know who deserves to be lifted up and glorified and what blessing means in spite of signpost after signpost trying to help us discern a good path, a Godly path, we choose our own way.
Being a signpost, like being a prophet, is not a great job.
Today’s gospel passage also has much to say about what it means to discern a good path. John the Baptist—the Forerunner of Christ—is being questioned by many who want to know exactly who he is. Is he a prophet? Is he Elijah returned from heaven? Is he the Messiah? John rebuts all of these questions, assuring everyone that he is none of these things. His questioners switch tactics and finally ask “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” (John 1.22) Rather than try to pigeonhole John, they want to know what he has to say about himself. And John’s response is very important:
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. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” John 1.23-27
John’s response is so important because John has a very clear sense of his role in what is happening and what is to come. John hasn’t spent all of those years in the wilderness, alone with God, for nothing. His discernment is clear and John knows his role: He is here to prepare people for the coming of the Lord; he is here to speak of the coming Lord; he is here to serve as a signpost, always pointing those who ask toward the Lord.
This theme of John’s is central to his life and our record of him. It appears in art depicting him. Often the infants, John and Jesus, are painted near one another. In these icons and paintings, the infant Jesus usually has a hand raised in a sign of blessings while the infant John has a hand raise with a finger extended, pointing toward his younger cousin. In other scenes, Jesus is aiding John somehow, or blessing him directly. If their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary, are also present, the mothers are looking sometimes each toward their own child, or sometimes both toward Jesus.
This choice of where John, Mary, and Elizabeth focus their attention in the setting is not by chance. Each of these people have responded to God’s call, in their own way, to serve as signposts who direct those who see them toward Jesus the Christ. Many people find the stories of John the Baptist, his mother Elizabeth, and Mary the Mother of Jesus to be inspiring, edifying, and powerful places of reflection and discernment in their own lives. Without digressing into a different sermon about saints (which I am prone to doing), this is a good thing! The stories and teaching about these people are intended to be useful aids to the faithful in their own lives. But every saint, every holy person, is recognized that way because of the ways in which their lives and words and actions point toward Christ. Christ is the life into which we are baptized, the life in which we share at communion, the life whose light we carry into the world, and the life whose Good News we proclaim in word and deed.
And it is here that we meet those Advent themes again. The calls to wait and watch and work. To prepare a way for the Lord. To listen carefully for the ways in which God is calling us to participate in this great work and still, so many generations later, to bring Good News to a world in such desperate need of hearing it. We must take heed of the signposts that we encounter; God’s reminders to us of good ways to travel. But we are also each called in our own way, like Moses, Isaiah, Elizabeth, Mary, and John the Baptist, to be signposts for others. To be, in all of our words and actions, always pointing toward the coming Lord. The Christ for whom we wait.
Come, Lord Jesus, quickly come.