St Matthew’s, Bloomington—John 1:6-8, 19-28; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, I Thessalonians 5:12-28
When we’re in school, we’re required to learn all kinds of scientific principles and laws of nature. “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”—that sort of thing. One law that we don’t learn in class, but which all of us know to be true by actual experience, is known as Murphy’s Law: “Whatever can go wrong will go wrong.” When I was getting ready to go to seminary in 1986, I bought my first computer. It was a used, first-generation IBM PC, the kind with two floppy disk drives—one for the software program, and one for the data. There was no hard drive. A short while into the semester, I got ahead of myself, and finished three five-page term papers before they were actually due. I had not yet even printed them out. So I wanted to be really, really careful about things, and lots of people had warned me about backing up my work. Enter Murphy’s Law. Between the unfamiliar world of MS-DOS prompts—some of you who are either older or younger than a certain age range won’t even know that those are!—and apparently not being able to tell left from right, A from B, rather than backing up the floppy disk containing my completed term papers, I reformatted it. They were gone. This is the first time somebody mentioned to me the words “Norton Utilities,” but it was too late. The papers were gone. I had to rewrite them. Murphy’s Law strikes again.
We’ve all been there. If a medicine is supposed to be effective in 95% of the population, we’re in the lucky 5%. The one day that we absolutely depend on the buses or trains or planes to run on time, there’s a delay. When we’re late for a flight, there’s a highway accident en route to the airport. The job or house or relationship that looks like the answer to our prayers turns out to be a disaster. When Murphy’s Law reveals itself, sometimes we can laugh about it, sometimes we can smile through our tears, and sometimes all we can do is weep.
But however it happens, it’s no wonder that we as the human race are as vulnerable as we are to apathy and despair, loss of feeling and loss of hope. At this time of year, as the glitter and glamour of the world around us rises to a frenzy, so does the suicide rate, so does the level of gnawing spiritual emptiness among the very people who are hoping that holiday cheer will temporarily anesthetize them to their pain. Unless our livelihood depends on retail sales, when the normal routines of life return in January, we look back and wonder what was it we just did. For many, or even most, of those around us, if not for ourselves, it seems kind of empty. What’s wrong with me? Why didn’t I “get” more out of it? Why did it feel so empty? Everyone else said they found it rich and fulfilling; why didn’t I?
The reason is, “everyone else” is probably lying. And the reason behind that reason is that the “holiday” experience is devoid of any anticipation of the coming of Christ. The exchange of gifts on Christmas morning seems detached, an empty ritual, a thing unto itself, because it is cut off from that which it used to symbolize. It no longer symbolizes a deeper experience of waiting and hoping and preparing and, finally, welcoming. It is divorced from that which it used to stand for. We no longer associate it with the supreme Christmas gift: God’s gift to the world of Himself, incarnate in human flesh and bones and DNA molecules.
Without trying to stake out a position in the “war of Christmas” cultural debate, it’s just a simple fact that the trend, for whatever reasons, has been toward avoiding talking about the “Christmas season” or “Christmas music” or “Christmas gifts.” Instead, everything is “the holidays.” This is not news to you. We even put up “holiday trees.” And since we celebrate Christmas less and less, fewer and fewer people actually have a clue as to what it’s about. The level of sheer innocent ignorance in our society is staggering.
But if ignorance were the only issue, it wouldn’t be much of problem. All we’d have to do is get the word out that the landlord has occupied one of the units in the building he constructed and owns. He’s come to be with us. The Christmas affirmation that “the Word was made Flesh” literally means “God has pitched his tent among us.” But if we’re already doing a shoddy job of keeping the place up, the fact that the owner is paying us a visit does not come as good news. The fact is, even when we’re not ignorant, we’re still sinful. And when the Holy Spirit shines light on our sin, we have two options: We can repent, and change our ways, or we can unscrew the light bulb and pretend we haven’t seen the sin. When we are unrepentant, it becomes necessary to avoid the truth, to forget what we know, because to acknowledge it would be too costly.
Fortunately for us whose hearts are, as the hymn text puts it, “prone to wander,” our God is a persistent God, a stubborn God. He doesn’t coerce, but neither does he take No for a final answer. He just keeps on asking us to repent and believe, to have faith and follow him. And so we have experiences of God touching our lives in unexpected and unsolicited and memorable ways. We have experiences of undeserved blessings, of inexplicable good fortune, of diseases that just all of a sudden aren’t there, of damaged relationships that find healing, not through heroic effort but just by being open to grace, of marriages that seem to have hit a dead end, but somehow find a spark of new life, of things working not the way they’re supposed to but better than they’re supposed to.
Through the eyes of faith we can see God in these experiences, and know him as a Presence that sticks to us like Super Glue, of One who simply will not abandon us to our own foolishness or to the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. We are like the people hanging out along the banks of the Jordan River and eavesdropping as the priests and Levites from Jerusalem interrogate John the Baptist. “Who are you?” they want to know, “Are you the Messiah, the Christ?”
“Nope,” John replies.
“Then tell us who you are.”
And John quotes from Isaiah, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” In other words, John is saying, “I’m just the warm-up act. The main event is yet to come. Jesus is the one. Pay attention to him.”
John’s message to the priests and Levites is also his message to us on the Third Sunday of Advent two millennia later. The main event is yet to come. Pay attention to Jesus. And what an abundant source of hope this is! The message of Advent is a veritable hope chest for our wounded and weary hearts. We derive hope from remembering, with the advantage of hindsight, that the prophetic ministry of Isaiah and John the Baptist did bear fruit. The Messiah, the Savior of Israel, the Savior of the nations, did come. God did visit and redeem his people. The Savior’s name was Jesus, and he did live and die and rise from the dead on our behalf.
We also derive great hope from our anticipation of his continuing Advent, his every-day coming in and through the fabric of our lives. Christ comes to us in ways we do not expect and at times that we would not have chosen. If we are ready for him, if we have, through repentance and faith, prepared room for him in our hearts, these are moments of unspeakable blessing.
Finally, we derive great hope from our anticipation of the final coming of Christ at the end of time, in power and great glory, to bring his saving and redeeming work to a glorious conclusion. For those who are ready to meet him, it will be an occasion of great victory and unimaginable joy.
And joy is, in effect, the bottom line of everything that today’s liturgy is about. Our experience of God, interpreted by the gift of faith, yields hope, and hope, in turn, brings forth joy. Our hope in the coming of Christ—whichever coming that might be—our hope in the coming of Christ is the source of profound joy. As St Paul wrote to the newly-established Thessalonian church, in the first letter he ever wrote to one of the churches he had established, “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” We rejoice because we know that in the kingdom of God, Murphy’s Law is repealed! Not only repealed, but inverted: “Whatever might bring forth evil, brings forth good instead. Whatever might issue in harm, issues in health. Whatever might break down ends up working better than new.”
Let our Advent hope be spoken in these words from the prophet of the Advent himself, Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.