John 1:6-8, 19-28, Advent 3 B, December 14, 2014
Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
As we wait for the light of Christ to come, sometimes we are overwhelmed by the darkness of the world. In the news, we are saturated by stories of racism, inequality, and of torture. On the ads that surround us, we are overcome by rampant consumerism. Everywhere we turn, we seem to encounter people making bad decisions.
Sometimes the darkness comes not from outside but within. Take Julius for example. He immigrated from Germany in 1929 ready to work. He always believed, "What you give is what you get. Work hard, be honest, obey the law, and you will receive your reward." (p. 6) Not only did he work hard in his profession, but he worked hard at home too.
After fifty years of marriage, his wife Lina suffered a stroke. She lived, but she could no longer take care of herself. So Julius took care of her and did all of the chores that she used to do. He cooked and cleaned, paid the bills and maintained the house. Now that his wife has passed away, Julius lives at a retirement home.
He can't stop complaining about the food, though. After so many years of his wife's excellent cooking followed by his own careful food prep, he couldn't stand the fact that he had to pay so much more for low quality food. (Gather Magazine, June 2013)
All Julius wants is a good plate of food. He wants something to remind him of the wife that he loved so much. What Julius wants is a little light to shine in the darkness of his grief.
Sometimes a better way to describe this world is wilderness. Sometimes the world is a barren wasteland like the wilderness of the Bible. Other times, our world is more like the chaotic wilderness of an overgrown forest without any paths. Those who live in poverty certainly experience the wilderness of this world. Take Helen, for example.
Helen lives below the poverty line. In her small home, she has two daughters, a niece, and two toddler grandchildren. The sole provider for her family, she relies on a welfare check and a disability check. When one of her welfare checks got lost in the mail, Helen was at a loss for what to do. When she reached the point of desperation, her family had already gone two days without food. She only had $1.25 to her name, and that wasn't enough to buy anything.
So, Helen went to the dollar store. Not knowing what to do, she took five eggs from a carton and put them in her jacket. Before she could even leave the store, the eggs broke. Her failed attempt was obvious. As she said later, "You know what they say about karma, right? Of course when I put them in my jacket pocket, they broke. I'm not a good thief at all." The clerk approached her, and Helen admitted everything. The police were on their way.
Helen lived in the wilderness of poverty. She relied on two small checks every month to pay her bills and feed the five in her care. All Helen wanted was for someone - anyone to show her the path to clarity and comfort.
Detail of Isenheim Altar by Matthias Grunewald, 1516, pointing to Christ on the cross.
It is in this dark, wild, chaotic world that we live. It is in this space of despair and confusion where John proclaimed, "Prepare the way of the Lord!" And prepare he did. John spent his life preparing the world for Christ. He baptized many, telling all that one more worthy than he is coming. John preached and proclaimed wherever he went, so that all might be ready to receive Christ.
John made it quite clear that he was not in fact the light shining in the darkness. Instead, he testified to the light. John himself was not the Messiah, no. He wasn't even Elijah or the prophet. John readily quoted Isaiah yet he did not feel as important as such a prophet.
No, John in his own right wasn't much to look at. He didn't try to make a name for himself. His identity didn't matter. All that mattered was Christ. All that mattered was that he testified that Christ would come. As John waited for Christ, he witnessed to him. What a beautiful way to live out the Advent which was his life.
We can witness for Christ in this world. We can be more like Diana. Diana is Julius' daughter. She is the one who arranged for her father to move into the retirement home. She felt horrible when her father was so tough on their food. So, she worked with the staff there to offer alternatives on "bad meal" days. Diana stocked his mini fridge with sandwiches for lunch.
She helped him learn how to get a taxi and go out to a restaurant on his own. The staff at the diner learned to love Julius, always seating him at the same table. He enjoyed the food there, but it still was not like his wife's cooking.
Julius liked it best when Diana took him to her home. There, she would cook dinner just like her mother used to. Julius savored his daughter's pork roast, red cabbage, potato pancakes, and spaetzle. With good food and his daughter for company, Julius could be happy, at least for a little while. Diana was not the light shining in the darkness, but she pointed to it. Diana revealed Christ's light to her father by sharing Christ's love with him. Like John, Diana testified to the light. Then her father was ready to receive the light of Christ.
John also said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'make straight the way of the Lord.'" (1:23) In the wilderness of poverty, Helen never thought that she could find the path. Then she met police officer William Stacy. Officer Stacy, moved by her plight did not arrest her. He made sure that the dollar store would not press charges. Even more, this officer purchased a dozen eggs for Helen.
Officer Stacy himself struggled to find food to eat as a child, so he had some idea of her desperation. Not only did he buy her the eggs, but he also signed her up for a toy drive and helped her find the nearest food pantry. Helen later said, "I don't know if he's an angel or God-sent, but he was there for me and I appreciate every minute of it."
Helen was in the wilderness, and Officer Stacy pointed her on the right path. He himself is not the path - Christ is. Even so, Helen could not have found the right way forward without him.
This Advent, let us be like Diana and Officer Stacy. Let us find the people in our lives who are lost or lonely and shine Christ's light for them. Let us find those around us who are confused and desperate, and point them on the right path. For when we witness to Christ, then others - and we ourselves - are more ready to receive Christ.
In closing, listen to these words from our bishop, Michael Burk, "Let the shape of our waiting-in-the-world reflect a deep awareness of this world's brokenness and need. And at the same time, let our lives and ministries witness to our conviction that in Christ Jesus, hope abounds.
"What does that look like? In the face of violence and war, we actively seek peace. Aware that too many are hungry, we share our bread. Grieving the loss of loved ones, tending to the sick and lonely, lamenting the breaking of relationships, knowing that too many experience estrangement, we love, we share, we welcome, we pray. And, as often as possible, we do it together, in Christ's name." Amen.