December 11, 2011 – Advent 3B
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
© 2011 Evan D. Garner
An audio file of the sermon is available here.
You can learn a lot about Jesus by listening to the radio. And that’s good because there are plenty of stretches of road in this state where the FM dial doesn’t pick up much more than static. On roads like the one between Thomaston and Faunsdale, there’s not a lot to do other than tune your radio to a thundering preacher or an angry sports jockey. The good news is that it doesn’t really matter what’s playing on the radio. As long as you’re listening out for Jesus, I think you can find him on just about any station.
The other morning, when I was pulling out of our driveway, I heard a tiny blurb on NPR that reminded me of Jesus. It wasn’t anything religious. It was that moment when the local radio host reads out the name of the person who sponsored the current hour of programming. I can’t remember his name, but someone’s family had given an hour of Morning Edition in honor of his birthday. And, when the host read his name, she called him, “a loving and faithful son, husband, father, brother, coworker, and friend.” That’s a lot of different ways to think about someone, and it reminded me of how many different ways we think about Jesus.
Do you remember that ridiculous scene from the movie Talladega Nights when Will Ferrell’s character, Ricky Bobby, mentions the “baby Jesus” a half-dozen times while saying grace at the dinner table? In mid-prayer, an argument breaks out between the family members over which Jesus is the best one to pray to, and Ricky says that he likes the “Christmas Jesus” the best and that anyone else can say a prayer to the “teenage Jesus” or the “grownup Jesus” or the “bearded Jesus” when it’s his or her turn to say the blessing. That movie has almost nothing to do with Christianity, but, like a back-road radio station, you can still learn something about Jesus if you listen out for him.
Who is Jesus? In this season of Advent, as we prepare for the coming of the messiah, which Jesus are you waiting for? We’ve been discussing that topic in our adult Sunday school class, but I don’t think we’ve come up with any clear answers. There are lots of different depictions of the messiah in the Old and New Testaments and in popular culture. A quick survey of sermons available on AM radio suggests that some of us are waiting for a wrathful judge, others are waiting for a heavenly king, and still others are waiting for a peaceful prophet. But, at this time of year, as we journey through Advent and get ready for Christmas, it’s hard to wait for anything other than the little baby Jesus.
As one of the children here at St. John’s recently declared, Christmas is that time when Jesus becomes a baby again. And that’s true. In our hearts, we’re getting ready to celebrate the birth of a baby. But, in order for our faith to mean something to us in the twenty-first century, we need to be getting ready for more than that. Our faith can’t just be locked in the past—trapped in a moment of history that came and went over two-thousand years ago. Yes, Advent is about getting ready for Christmas, but that involves preparing for a savior who is both a tiny baby and yet so much more.
I think that’s why we read today’s lesson from Isaiah, which should sound familiar to us. In fact, of all the messianic prophecies from the Old Testament, this should be the one that we know the best. That’s because it’s the passage Jesus chose to describe himself. In Luke 4, when Jesus stood up to read in his hometown synagogue, this was the passage that he read: “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.” If we want to know which Jesus we’re supposed to be waiting for, this passage from Isaiah is where we should turn first.
In some ways, it’s an odd place to start. Originally, this was a message delivered to the people of Judah about five-hundred years before Jesus was born. At that time, God’s people had been through a terrible period, during which their home had been destroyed and they had been carried off to Babylon as prisoners. This message of hope and comfort reflected a change in their situation. In 539 BC, the Persian king conquered Babylon, and he set God’s people free to return to their homeland and rebuild. In a very real way, that foreign king was the one anointed to bring good news to God’s people so long ago. But that didn’t stop Jesus from choosing this passage to describe why he came to earth.
Jesus came to declare God’s good news to the world. And that good news means that the brokenhearted are bound up, the captives and prisoners are set free, and the mournful are comforted. Jesus took that message from the past and brought it into the present. It was as real to his contemporaries as it was to their ancestors. And it should be as real to us today as it was back then.
Which Jesus are you waiting for? Well, which Jesus do you need the most? If you’re only waiting for a cute little baby, I think you might be disappointed. For many of us, the coming of Christmas reminds us that we are brokenhearted and hurting. Some of us are held prisoner by the pain of lost loved-ones or the sting of broken relationships. The season of Advent is not just a time to hear again stories from the past—stories of a birth that happened so long ago. This season of preparation is about waiting and watching for the coming of the messiah who can heal our brokenness and set us free from our captivity.
The great joy that we await is more than a celebration of the past. Instead, we prepare for the coming of a messiah who can comfort us and heal us and save us. As we get ready again to draw near to the stable, let us do so not simply as those who look back into the past but as those who see what happened in Bethlehem as a sign of things yet to come. We must look and listen for a messiah who is as real today as he was two-thousand years ago. Jesus came to bring us good news. He came to be our savior. Let us prepare our hearts to receive him again. Amen.