The last six weeks and the last six months have found us in the wilderness of loss. We have interred two of our members, had a delayed funeral for another, and tomorrow there will be another funeral. How much then do we need this Sunday dedicated to hope and joy? But even as we remember our lost loved ones, I am comforted by the fact that the liturgy for funeral rites reminds us of who we are, and whose we are from its opening anthems. “For none of us has life in themselves… If we have life, we have life in the Lord, and if we die, we die in the Lord. So then, whether we live of we die,we are the Lord’s possession.” Even in the midst of wilderness. Even in the midst of trial.
Our psalm is a song of joy and reclamation from the midst of trial. Think how amazing that is. Our psalm is a song of joy, perfect for this Sunday with its theme of Joy—even while the people themselves are in the midst of a crisis. The people can tap into this joy and embody this joy because they know who they are—and WHOSE they are, come what may.
The theme of this psalm is restoration, a jubilee concept. The people are located between two restorations: one in the past, and one that is hoped for in the future. Both of these restorations are celebrated for their impact on the community as a whole. Because they know who they are, they carry the assurance of their past as a predictor of their future. When the past restoration occurred, the people were filled with hope—"like those who dream.” They dared envision for themselves a future.
They saw their good fortune as coming from God, and gave God the credit, and also realized it made them an exemplar among the other nations. Their restoration was an opportunity to witness to the world about the wonders of God—simply by their mere act of showing their gratitude. They knew they were called to be a priestly people, and priests minister to not just their own, but in the name of God to the world. And that hope and that faith helped sustain them during their current time in the wilderness of occupation and oppression. Hope points the way through the wildernesses we all traverse.
This is an important realization. Crises can bring out the best—or the worst in people. Crises can either draw communities together—or destroy them. We also see that often, the best way to conquer a people is from within.
Again and again, when the people of Israel were conquered, they were literally separated from each other. Sometimes, the leaders were carried off into captivity—where some of them acclimated into the captors’ world, and never returned—leaving behind the people of the land to labor for the benefit of the invading empire. The invaders brought along other people and settled them within the boundaries of Israel, hoping to further dilute the people’s unity and encourage the extinction of the culture, in much the way the governments of Canada, the United States, and Mexico dealt with the indigenous people who lived here before European discovery of the Americas or as the Chinese did in Tibet when they invaded it in 1950. Other times, the leaders capitulated, and openly collaborated with the invader, or the invaders raised up those collaborators as leaders and placed them over the people as was happening in Jesus’s time with the Romans, or as the Germans did in France in 1940.
Crises can bring out the best—or the worst-- in people, especially when they lose sight of their reliance upon God and especially upon community. We see that right now in our own time. In the 1930s and 1940s, this country was faced with two staggering crises, one after the other—or more accurately, one that built on the opportunities of the other. The worldwide Great Depression brought this country to its knees. Providentially, this country was fortunate enough to choose leaders who helped rebuild this country by emphasizing the value of community -- the resources that together a people can muster that they would never be able to take advantage of individually.
Other countries weren't as fortunate, or as wise. They instead, while in the throes of the very same economic forces of destruction, turned to supposed “strong men” who offered easy answers and obvious scapegoats for the people's troubles. The funny thing was that these strong men before this crisis had themselves been failures by all the measures of society at the time. And so they needed to overcome that history of failure in their own lives by huge outward displays of power and ruthless oppression. And these so-called “strong men” wasted little time rallying their followers to oppress those around them who were weaker.
Our country was fortunate in that it had a history of democracy that stretched back over a century and a half, and that we had oceans on either side to shield us from the depredations of tyranny in both Asia and Europe. So when we were finally drawn into the conflict with these deadly dominions, on December 7, an anniversary we observed a few days ago, we were able to use our belief in the power of community and common action to form great alliances across broad swathes of our own population and with our allies abroad. The power and strength of common cause and common action in the defense a freedom, justice, and life, through long and bitter struggle eventually overcame the forces of death, division, and hatred.
We made use of our time of non-involvement to prepare for the day when we would be called upon to help. When we finally did enter the Second World war officially, we continued to rally together, moving ever closer to the ideal of being one American people despite our differences. Millions went overseas and fought. Tens of millions more sacrificed all that they had previously known here at home, upending their lives, giving up food, scavenging for scrap, giving up their former jobs and learning new ones for the good of their community and for the sake of the survival of democracy.
The power of determination not to be defeated—because it was unthinkable—and the understanding that only unified, coordinated action would defeat the enemy at our gates was vital to the defeat of evil. And this can never be a lesson that we in our time forget as we face our own challenges in this time of pandemic. Only by coming together and by honoring each others’ labor and contributions to building stronger communities—communities which themselves are part of a sacred whole—can a people survive times of crisis. Our history—and today’s psalm-- remind us of this. Our national spirit was fueled by a realization of the previous times that we ourselves had persevered and won through unity from our colonial past through the Civil War and beyond. After the war, groups who had previously not been fully allowed at the national table of equality used the idea of common action to themselves fight for their full inclusion within our common life.
Our psalm demonstrates the power of memory, and the power of identity. Knowing who you are, where you come from, and working together for the common good helped the people of Israel survive against repeated attempts to crush them. They know their history enough to know that they have survived, through the grace of God, in the past.
Looking back to those times of salvation, even in the midst of the current crisis, under their current occupation, the people have confidence that restoration can occur again. Even though they labor for the profit of their foreign overlords as a conquered people, they nonetheless continue in planting crops, even if it is with tears that they sow.
The proof that they have faith is this declaration: “The Lord has done great things.”
The importance of remembering and commemorating events in the past is that this gives those past events new life in the present: to “re- member.” The hoped-for restoration is anticipated like a torrent of rain after a long drought, that fills up the baked walls of arroyos and gullies and the baked channels of canyons with water enough to allow flourishing for months afterward. That’s what is meant by the comparison to the watercourses of the Negev.
Because it is not enough for the people of Israel to survive, if they abandon their true role as God’s priestly people. If they abandon their sacred duty to bear witness to the hand of God within their lives, to serve as a light to all the nations of the wonders of their God. This is also a challenge we as Christians—also called to be a priestly people—must meet. It is a challenge that we are being formed to meet. Do we ourselves know who we are—and more importantly, WHOSE we are?
Flash forward to our gospel. Those who are collaborators with the invaders see this wild-looking man come up out of nowhere, and they demand to know who he is. And notice the difference between John and Jesus. When Jesus gets asked who he is, he often turns the question back at his questioners.
John is more straightforward: right out of the box he tells his questioners who he is NOT: Not the Messiah. Not Elijah. Not “the” prophet. Just the one who we heard about in last week’s reading from Isaiah, the one whose voice comes out of the wilderness by the command of God, even when that voice itself doesn’t fully comprehend what direction God’s path through the wilderness is going.
John is in the wilderness because the wilderness is often where God is most near and obvious to us. Who is John? He is the witness to the light—not the light itself. He himself is not the source of salvation. He is sent by God to prepare the way for the One who is.
Once God helps strengthen the people and provides them with a savior, they don’t get to passively sit back and wait for salvation to be handed to them on a platter. They then have harvesting to do, with this harvesting will come with joy enough to turn their tears to shouts of joy. The harvest will be plentiful, and God’s people must continue in the meanwhile to be faithful, to have hope, and to do what they can to maintain the ties of community.
As we heard last week, the Way of God is the Way of fearlessly testifying to the power of God in our lives. God promises a way through the wilderness, not an exemption from the wilderness. God calls us back from the exile we have put ourselves in, through fear and faithlessness. If we choose the way of God, the path that is shaped not by our own fears and blindness but by the powerful, redeeming Law of Love, we will take a step toward working alongside God in building a new creation, a new hope that will now burst forth, in which all will be level and even and equitable. This is a song of relief, of joy at deliverance, and a renewed covenant between God and the people.
God reminds God’s restored people that salvation is now—not decided after our deaths, but offered to us as a gift and a blessing right NOW.
Eternal life is now. What we do today in this time is the most powerful testimony we can give to the power of God in our lives. It is in times of crisis and darkness that our witness shines as brightly as John’s did. Many around us are losing hope. It is our calling to remember that we are a people of hope, of resurrection, and to lift that message high before us for the sake of all.
Today’s reading from Isaiah roots salvation in the time in which we live. Salvation is the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, and requires not just our grasping it for ourselves but our making it visible to. those around us by how we live. Salvation looks like good news, healing, liberty, release, and comfort. It is what the reality of this world looks like by God’s command-- a restored city, better and brighter than it had ever been, restored to the glory it was intended but never achieved. It orients our attention precisely AWAY from our own selfish concerns as individuals AND as members of the Church, from our own self-preservation to a grander purpose: to working for the freedom, liberation, and healing of those who are marginalized in our society. Working for the removal of all barriers that stand between those around us and the life of blessing. On this third Sunday in Advent, we are drawn to ask ourselves who we are—and whose we are. Can we give ourselves over to our part in pointing the way? Are we willing to strengthen this community of faith so that it may care not just for our own needs but the needs of others? Are we witnesses to the active, powerful love of God in the world, especially to those who have lost sight of the light? Are we beacons of hope who exist for the sake of those who have lost their way? Are we living embodiments to the economy of God, willing to give of ourselves to embody the values of equality and compassion? Advent reminds us of the urgency of “Now” and what we do with it while we wait for the coming of the light. Together, may we declare that the Lord has done great things—and is doing them still, right here among us. Our witness moves that dream to a reality, for we know whose we are. Amen.
Preached at the 10:30 am live-streamed service at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO, in time of COVID-19.