FIRST READING Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to grant to those who mourn in Zion — to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. 4They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. 8For I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and wrong; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9Their offspring shall be known among the nations, and their descendants in the midst of the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are an offspring the Lord has blessed. 10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.
PSALM Psalm 126
1When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. 2Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy. 3Then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” 4The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed. 5Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negev. 6Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. 7Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
SECOND READING 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise prophecies, 21but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22Abstain from every form of evil. 23Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.
GOSPEL John 1:6-8, 19-28
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. 19And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” 24(Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
AMONG YOU STANDS ONE
In his book, Shepherds and Bathrobes, Dr. Tom Long tells a story that appeared years ago in the New York Times. It was just before Christmas. David Storch, a music teacher, borrowed a copy of the score of Handel’s Messiah from the Brooklyn Public Library. For some reason, through a clerical error, the transaction wasn’t recorded. Afterward, there were several other requests for the score, and the library staff–unaware that it had been checked out–spent many hours searching in vain for it through the stacks.
On the day that Storch returned it, he placed the score on the circulation desk and was astonished to hear the librarian spontaneously, joyously, and loudly shout, “The Messiah is here! The Messiah is back!” Every head in the library turned toward the voice, but, sadly, as the Times reported, “A few moments later everyone went back to work.”
If people had only known who was in their midst when Jesus walked the byways of Israel more than 2,000 years ago, a similar cry would have rung out–spontaneously, joyously, and loudly, “The Messiah is here! But sadly, only a few were blessed with that critical insight. The first of these was that eccentric preacher in the wilderness, John the Baptist.
We read John’s story beginning in our gospel reading for today: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. “Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ “They asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’ “He said, ‘I am not.’ “‘Are you the Prophet?’” “He answered, ‘No.’
“Finally, they said, ‘Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ “John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ “‘I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’”
As we continue our preparation for our celebration of the Lord’s coming, I want to focus on these important words spoken by John to the Pharisees: “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know. . .” These are indeed powerful words: “Among you stands one you do not know. . .” And who was this one that the world did not know? It was, of course, God Himself, incarnate, in human form.
“Among you stands one . . .” declares John the Baptist. Think for a few moments about the difference that the coming of Christ made in the world. With the coming of Jesus, light came into the world–the light of God’s love. That’s the way the Gospel of John describes the difference that Christ’s coming made in our world. “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5.) This is why churches and homes throughout the Christian world display candles and tree lights this time of year. We celebrate the light that has overcome the darkness. “Among you stands one . . .” When Christ came into the world, light penetrated the darkness–the light of God’s love. That’s the beautiful thing about Christmas. Love permeates every aspect of this wonderful celebration.
In a December issue of Good Housekeeping magazine, several years ago, a lady named Sheryl Van Vleck-Wells told her favorite Christmas story, a true story that happened many years ago in the life of Sheryl’s mother, Phyllis. Phyllis grew up in a very poor, but very happy family.
One year, just before Christmas, Phyllis contracted diphtheria. Diphtheria was a serious and highly contagious illness, so the whole family had to be quarantined for many weeks. Every Christmas Phyllis’ mother had sold baked goods in order to buy Christmas presents for the children. But this year, due to the quarantine, her mother wasn’t allowed to sell any baked goods, so there would be no fancy gifts around the tree. Seven-year-old Phyllis’ biggest concern was that the quarantine would keep Santa from coming to their house altogether. The poor little girl spent the weeks leading up to Christmas in a depression.
On Christmas morning, Phyllis’ father went up and brought his daughter down, from her bedroom, so she could see her surprise. Under the tree was the most beautiful doll Phyllis had ever seen. For years she would recall that doll as the best gift she’d ever been given. Years later, Phyllis learned the secret of the doll’s origins.
Phyllis’ mother had taken one of Phyllis’ old, ragged dolls and washed and painted it. Then she took her one and only dance gown, the prettiest dress she owned, and cut it up to make a dress and booties for the doll. Finally, she cut off a length of her own beautiful hair and fashioned a wig for the doll. Her mother’s sacrifice resulted in a Christmas memory that will be passed down through many generations. That’s the sort of response to adversity only Christmas can provide. Light came into this dark world when Christ was born in Bethlehem, the light of God’s love. The second thing we need to see today is, when Christ came into the world, a new way of living was revealed.
For me, this begs a question: Is the Christian faith simply a belief system, or is it a way of living? Now I realize that the answer should be both, but which, for each of you, best describes your faith—is it simply a belief system or is it a way of living? I hope you answered a way of living because if you did, that answer automatically assumes both. For most, however, they will simply answer that it’s a belief system, which would certainly explain why some people live such tepid lives. As long as they check off a few core beliefs about Jesus, then they, as far as they’re concerned, win the grand prize, life after death.
For the belief system only folks, they have the checklist of do’s and don’ts and like the rich young ruler who came to Jesus asking the easy way to heaven (Luke 18:18-23), so long as they abide by the rules, they go to eternal paradise. Of course, they believe the man of Galilee lived, died, and was resurrected, but they’ve never seriously considered themselves one of His followers. It’s about salvation by their own works, on their own terms. They’ve never involved themselves in seeking God’s kingdom here on earth.
John the Baptist had one mission in life and that was to prepare the world for the coming of Christ. Isn’t that my mission and your mission as well? As your pastor, that’s a major responsibility of mine to stand as John the Baptist stood and prepare the way for the returning King. But let me ask you a question. It’s a question that was raised Tuesday morning during our pastor’s pericope study. What if John the Baptist would have said no?
What if John would have decided that no one would listen? Or, he decided that it wasn’t worth the hassle of the ridicule? Or, chose not to prepare the way because of the religious establishment’s questions and pressure to conform to the new way of thinking? What if John decided that it was more beneficial to simply choose a more lucrative career; one with more pay and a better 401k? But these questions point just to John. Can’t we legitimately take these questions further?
What about John’s parents, Zachariah and Elizabeth? What if John and Elizabeth would have failed to follow through with raising John as a faithful Jew? What if they would have simply said public school is fine, he doesn’t need Rabbinical training? What if they would have been too busy on the Sabbath to take him to the Synagogue? Or to Sunday school or confirmation? What if they would have been lax in their faith and failed to set a good example of study and prayer? The question is, why do we focus so much of our parenting energy on preparing our kids’ future in society, but fail to put forth the same energy preparing them for eternity? But, let’s not stop with the parents.
What about the responsibility of the grandparents to set an example of living a faithful religious life? Don’t we as grandparents have responsibilities as well? Aren’t we called to use the wisdom, learning and experience gained from our many years to help our families in the same way we use these gifts to help ourselves and society? I think you get the point.
John was an important person in the introduction of Jesus to the people, but he was no different than you or me. He was called from the womb to prepare the way and so were we. Thinking of John the Baptist, the question is, what will the impact be if we fail to follow the call given to us to prepare the way? To comfort the people? To go and make disciples? There was little doubt in the minds of the early church that this was their role. So, what’s changed? The answer is nothing. John’s call and our call is the same. The question is will we? Are we among those who simply follow a belief system, or do we live our lives based on that belief? There’s a difference between just believing that Christ once existed and seeking to live for Him daily.
One of the movies that’s difficult to miss on television this time of year is the Frank Capra classic, It’s a Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart. Stewart plays a man named George Bailey who has great dreams and ambitious goals. He wants to get out of the tiny town of Bedford Falls and make a name for himself, but fate seems to have other plans. Problems begin piling up on him.
As he heads off to college his father has a stroke and George must take over the family business. His brother comes home from college with a new wife. Again, George’s dreams are put on hold. Then George gets married, but there’s a run on the bank and he and his bride must use their honeymoon money to bail out the family business. He even fears that he will be tried and sent to jail over money that has disappeared from the family business. He finds himself saying, “It would be better if I had never been born!”
Believing he’s ruined, George determines to take his own life. He’s prevented from suicide by an angel, however, who gives George a chance to see what life would have been like for everyone else if he had never been born. His faith in himself and his neighbors is restored as he finds out that his acts of kindness have made a difference. One of the most important questions that each of us confronts in life is this one: Is the world a better place because we were born? Have we left a trail of acts of kindness that honors our legacy? We know the babe of Bethlehem left such a legacy. The whole reason for this season is that His birth changed the destiny of this planet. What kind of difference has our life made?
Are you familiar with a concept called the Diderot Effect? It refers to a situation where you buy one thing only to feel the need to replace other things around it because they appear so shabby in contrast to the new item. It’s named after the French philosopher Denis Diderot who received a beautiful new scarlet dressing gown. But as he wore the garment around his home he realized that his furnishings looked shabby in comparison. So, he eventually replaced all of his comfortable yet worn furniture, with new but uncomfortable items. He later regretted this and wrote an essay titled, “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown.” The coming of Christ set into motion a magnificent and positive example of the Diderot Effect.
Christ’s influence touched every aspect of human existence–families became better families because of Jesus; marriages became better marriages because of Him; the fate of people at the bottom of society became better because of Jesus; hospitals have been built because of Him; schools were established for the young–all because Jesus once walked the sands of Palestine. Ripples of influence from His life continue today. And if we count ourselves as His followers, they continue through us.
“Among you stands one . . .” When Christ came into the world, light penetrated the darkness, the light of God’s love, and, thus, a new way of living was revealed. Isn’t that what the so-called spirit of Christmas is all about? For at least a brief season, human beings show their love for one another through such things as the giving of gifts and generosity toward the needy. People open their hearts in a way completely unique to this time of year. In closing, let me share a story that shows such love poured out.
It was a chilly night in 1949, just a day before Christmas. Elizabeth English and her husband Herman had an unusually busy day at the store, and all they cared about was getting a good night’s sleep. The only thing left unsold in their store that day was a layaway package that was never claimed. Elizabeth carefully put it away before closing the store. The next morning, after she and Herman and their son Tom had opened their presents, Elizabeth was cleaning up the kitchen. Suddenly she felt a gentle urge that she should “take a walk.” It was crazy, it was cold outside, but she couldn’t deny the power of this strong urge. And so, on this chilly Christmas Day she said to Herman, “I’m going to take a walk.”
Reaching their store, she encountered two young boys. They were poorly dressed. Their clothes barely covered them against the cold. When they saw her one of them exclaimed, “There she is. See, I told you she would come.” “What brought you boys here,” Elizabeth queried. “We came looking for you,” one of the boys declared. “Our little brother Jimmy didn’t get any Christmas gifts and we want to buy skates. We have $3, see.”
With tearful eyes, Elizabeth was about to tell them they had no more skates. But then she remembered the unsold layaway package she had carefully put away the previous day. She opened the store and reached for the package sitting on the topmost shelf. And what do you know? . . . the package contained a pair of skates. And amazingly, the skates fit perfectly. “Have this,” one of the boys said, offering the $3 they had to Elizabeth. But Elizabeth wouldn’t take the money from them.
“Go buy yourselves some nice gloves,” she said with a smile. Then she said to the boys, “How lucky you were that I came.” “I knew you would come,” the older boy said. “How?” she asked. “I asked Jesus to send you,” he said. Elizabeth felt something tingling down her spine. It appeared that God was somehow involved in this beautiful event. “I asked Jesus to send you,” the older boy said . . . and somehow, she knew it was true.
Elizabeth walked home with a warm glow in her heart. Dinner tasted more delicious that night. She went to bed with great joy in her heart. But the one thing that made that Christmas really joyous was the one thing which makes every Christmas joyous–Jesus was there. His love had touched her life.
The questions I asked earlier are very relevant. What if Elizabeth would have made excuses not to take the walk? What if John the Baptist would have decided that he had better things to do? What about John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, or even the grandparents? We don’t know the impact of refusing to prepare the way until it’s too late. Do we simply believe that Jesus existed, or do we live as faithful disciples of Jesus? No matter how we’re called to prepare the way, we have no need to fear, God will be with us. His promise, given through the Apostle Paul, to be with us and to strengthen us, is sure: “He who calls you is faithful; He will surly do it” (1 Thess. 5:24.)
I hope Christ’s love has touched your life and that you will touch someone else’s. When Jesus came into the world, the light of God’s love penetrated the darkness and a new way of living was revealed. May this spirit of generosity and love continue to spread through you and me, until the day Jesus returns and God’s love blankets the Earth.