Preacher: Jennifer Hosler
Scripture: Isaiah 35: 1-10; Luke 1:46b-55; Matthew 11:2-11
Doubt, loss, pain, darkness… sounds like Christmas-time? Unlike our cultural displays of perpetual holiday cheer, our four weeks of Advent scriptures allow for a fuller gamut of Christmas-time emotions: pain, doubt, and loss come alongside themes of peace, hope, love, and joy. This 3rd Sunday of Advent, we focus on the theme of joy.
We’ve spoken over the past few weeks about the tension between genuinely rejoicing over Christmas time and also acknowledging the deep pain, loss, and struggles that people are going through. Our culture tells us that Christmas is a time of lights and food and social gatherings and presents. Yet for people dealing with bereavement and loss, that bereavement and loss continues over Christmas. For people dealing with chronic health issues or pain, those chronic health issues and pain continue over Christmas. For people with estranged family, that estrangement continues over Christmas.
In some ways, it feels like I’m being a downer, to mention this. For me, as a kid, Christmas was somewhat magical. Lights. Cookies. Santa. Presents. Shouldn’t this sermon just be the church-y version of that? Someone might say, hey! You have a kid now. What depressing groundwork are you laying for your child if you keep centering Christmas in darkness, pain, and loss?
Sorry, kid. Well, sorry, not-sorry. As a pastor and minister, I’m called to preach the gospel, or the “Good News” of Jesus’ work in the world. The good news isn’t fake news. It isn’t pretending that horror and pain and loss do not exist. Great loss and pain are part and parcel of our present world, the world I gave birth to my child in, the world my child will grow up in. Pretending it doesn’t exist won’t spare him; in fact, it will deprive him of the opportunity for the hope and joy that comes through the gospel. The gospel isn’t rose-tinted glasses. Yet at the same time, the gospel actually is GOOD NEWS. The gospel is news of hope and the possibility of joy, even amidst or in spite of great loss and pain. On this third Sunday of Advent, our scriptures illustrate the tension between pain, hope, and joy, and highlight the need for us to testify to one another about God’s work in our lives and this world.
A Vision for another outcome
As most of you know, I have been in a PhD program for 5 years. I am nearing completion, finishing up my dissertation, and the plan is to graduate in May. You enter a program like this with a set of milestones to look forward too, but for years, it all seems very distant and abstract. A long list of courses completed. Qualifying exams. A practicum placement. A dissertation proposal, data collection, analysis, and a written conclusion. A PhD program involves working towards a multi-stage end goal, while also needing to focus on short-term assignments, research assistant tasks, or other duties that have a different, more pressing timeline. It is a struggle to keep all of the timelines in your head—to prioritize moving closer to the end goal while also checking off those short-term assignments. For many, the journey can feel unending and bleak; people drop out for a variety of reasons (mental health, low pay, lack of support, and more), but a major one is that the finish line gets so blurred and obscured that you can’t see where you are going. Obstacles seem insurmountable and you become unable to visualize another reality.
Scripture is filled with times where prophets are helping God’s people visualize another reality—one that might be dramatically, even impossibly in contrast to the surrounding circumstances. I mentioned that the third Sunday of Advent’s theme is joy. Reading a bit about joy vs. happiness, one of the main hallmarks of happiness is that it is contingent on circumstance. This happened, this went well, therefore, I am happy. The implicit cultural message of Christmas focuses on happiness (happy with the food, the presents, the gatherings), but the biblical and lectionary approach to Advent and Christmas instead focuses on joy.
Unlike happiness, joy is not contingent on outward circumstances or events. Joy is a choice—grounded in an ability to see and know things that might not be tangibly or visibly evident. Joy is directly connected to hope, which, incidentally, was last Sunday’s theme.
We have three scriptures this morning, preassigned to this Sunday where we are tasked with considering joy and Jesus’ Advent or coming into this world. Two of them are songs of hope. The third is a bit puzzling—focused on some questions from a guy in prison. What they have in common is that they involve testifying to what God is doing and will do in the future– even if it is that ending is blurred or obscured by present outward circumstances.
A Desert Blooms, a Young Girl Sings
Our worship background image today is of a super bloom. You may have seen images of this year’s super blooms in California (in fact, I posted one on the church’s facebook page). After years of drought and environmental hardship, a combination of plentiful rains and the right temperatures made dry and barren desert bloom into a sea of colorful flowers—so vibrant and plentiful that they were even visible from space. The pictures are breathtaking. Our passage in Isaiah 35 reminded me of a super bloom. California images came to mind, but I wanted to shift our focus to Latin America. I decided to use an image from the Atacama Desert bloom in Chile, which exploded into color in 2015.
Our passage in Isaiah 35 is one of hope-filled testimony and prophecy, amidst presently bleak circumstances. The section of Isaiah from chapters 28-39 are very much judgment-filled, with the prophet describing judgments and upcoming attacks, with a few snippets of hope cycled in periodically. Prophets pronounced judgment when needed but were also tasked with speaking about God’s work of restoration and wholeness after the judgment. Here in chapter 35, Isaiah paints a beautiful vision of the earth being healed and physical ailments being transformed. God’s future is one of safety, where people travel on a road called God’s Way, where those who were scattered in violence and oppression can return to God with “everlasting joy.”
Our other passage is found in Luke. Mary’s song also is filled with dramatic imagery. Taking place after she’s accepted God’s call to be the bearer and mother of God incarnate, Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth who has also miraculously conceived—not a virgin birth but after decades of infertility. In her song, Mary praises God and, notably, she testifies to God’s acts that are not fully yet accomplished (then or now).
Under occupied rule, the powerful have not yet been brought down. The lowly have not yet been lifted up, nor the hungry filled nor the rich sent away. Yet Mary testifies to the possibilities of God’s reality. Mary has been given a message of God acting and she is grounding her joy in what God has done in the past (to the people of Israel) and in the present (the message from Gabriel and news from Elizabeth). From that, she has been given the ability to envision the future of God’s reign—and she can’t help but sing and testify to it. Her soul is filled with joy, because she has hope in what God has promised, despite outward circumstances.
Even a prophet doubted
These are two beautiful instances of people of great faith, speaking of joy and grounding their faith in an unseen hope. Scripture is full of messages like this. The history of God’s work in this world is full of testimonys like this. However, to focus solely on their stories would be an injustice to the human experience, which brings us to our third passage. The story of faith includes songs of joy and prophecies of beauty and hope. Yet, it also includes instances of prophets doubting, stuck in prison, about to be killed.
Wait, our theme is joy? In our Matthew passage, John the Baptist, the one who baptized scores of Jews, including Jesus, is in prison. John is Jesus’ cousin (2nd cousin or something removed, not sure how to parse that). John is a wild desert preacher who has been calling the people of Israel to repentance, baptizing them in the Jordan River and leading a spiritual renewal movement. As part of this, John baptizes Jesus and recognizes Jesus as one sent by God to fulfill the scriptures.
John’s preaching and baptizing rankle the unethical political elite, who lock up John for his preaching.
Our text starts here, with John the Baptist in prison. He hears about Jesus’ activities (lots of preaching and healing the sick), so John sends his disciples to visit Jesus. They ask, “Are you the one we were waiting for, or should we be waiting for someone else?” John is in prison and he hears of the one whom he thought was the Messiah just roaming around the Galilean countryside, doing good deeds and teaching. Jesus isn’t tearing down the corrupt proxy rule of Herod and his family, he’s not breaking John out of jail, he’s certainly not bringing down the Roman Empire or initiating a new political reign. And so, John doubts. “Are you the One we are waiting for, or should we be expecting someone else?”
In the latter part of our text, Jesus says that John is a prophet and even more than that. We know from other passages that John is also someone who has known Jesus since they were both in utero: the Holy Spirit inspired the fetus John to do some womb gymnastics for joy over the sound of Mary’s voice. Even with all this history, with John’s baptism of Jesus, in a time of great pain and suffering, John doubts. He sends his followers, “Go ask Jesus, ‘Are you the One we are waiting for, or should we be expecting someone else?’”
Jesus tells John’s disciples to go back and testify to John what they hear and see: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Mt. 11:4-6).
Somehow, it hasn’t struck me before this week: a prophet of God, one who even baptized Jesus and probably saw the Holy Spirit coming down like a dove, is doubting whether God is really at work in Jesus. Even a prophet like John can doubt. Some churches and strains of Christianity get really touchy about doubt, about questions, about questioning. I think passages like this show that doubt is real and even people of great faith can have serious questions about whether God is still working in this world.
Particularly in times of great suffering and loss, it is normal to feel like you cannot see where God is at work (perhaps even whether God exists at all). It’s also poignant to me that this passage is placed on a Sunday where the theme is joy, which is not contingent on outward circumstances.
Jesus doesn’t judge John. Jesus doesn’t judge this doubter! Jesus tells Johns disciples to go back and testify. Go back. Surround John with your presence. And tell him stories about what God is doing, what you have heard with your own ears and seen with your own eyes. It might not be what John was expecting. Yet go and tell John how God is at work—healing, liberating, reconciling, restoring.
This past year, we’ve been doing lectio divina together, often around once a month, where we listen to scripture, meditate, and share what we are hearing from the text. It has been an opportunity, alongside the joys and concerns times we regularly do, to create space to testify to one another. In the midst of a world with pain, challenge, suffering, and loss, we need one another’s testimony. When I am struggling to see God’s light in this world, I need you to tell me what you have heard with your own ears and seen with your own eyes. When you are struggling, I need to testify to you. Our tagline as a church is “seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus.” One of the crucial ways that we can live out wholeness and build community is by cultivating times for testimony. Testimony can build hope. Hope can build joy.
It’s Advent and we’re talking about Jesus’ coming into this world. Perhaps you’re asking John’s question, “Jesus, are you really the One on whom I can set my hopes?” Churches should not be places where we silently languish in doubt; we need to hear each other’s doubts and questions, to support without judgment. Can you share your doubts with us?
We also need those who are witnesses to healing and deliverance to testify to what God is doing. Perhaps God has blessed you with a vision of wholeness, of what is possible, and you are able to sing a song of hope and joy. If God is transforming your life and healing relationships, that’s the type of thing you need to be sharing. Are you willing to be vulnerable about what Jesus has done and will do, in your life and in this world? Can you sing about the light of God, which shines despite the darkness of our world’s pain, loss, and suffering? Can you share your joy with us?
Sisters and brothers, how can we cultivate a community that shares our doubts and loss and hope and joy?
We sit in this strange period of looking to Jesus’ first coming at Christmas, of longing for Jesus’ second coming, when Jesus will make God’s blessings flow far as the curse of sin is found. Let us testify to one another, so that we can visualize our future hope, and cultivate joy despite present circumstances. AMEN.