Sunday, December 14th, 2014 – Third Sunday of Advent
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11, John 1:6-8,19-28
Hymns: “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, “Come Thou Almighty King”, “The First Noel”, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”, “Angels We Have Heard on High”
I have a confession to make:
I hate watching the news.
Every time I turn it on, it’s as though the worst parts of humanity are crawling out of my television set and into my living room. Death, destruction, warfare, sexual assault, political corruption, you name it, any given newscast is going to give it to you.
And it only gets worse when you venture into the vast wasteland known as “cable news”. The only time I would EVER be willing to voluntarily sit in front of a newscast on a cable news channel is for the hour every day that Shepherd Smith is on Fox News, and then I’m gone. I would rather crawl through a field of glass than watch any of the cable news channels for a protracted period of time. Heck, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are more credible and trustworthy cable news personalities than any of the others – and now Colbert’s show is over!
But the main reason why I dislike the news is because there’s never any GOOD news, and if there is, it’s a fluff piece at the end of the newscast about puppies and rainbows, designed to cleanse your palate of the hour of horror and garbage you were just forced to swallow. The only place you can really get GOOD news these days is if you go searching for it on YouTube!
Or, well, the newspaper. Yeah, those still exist. As a matter of fact, that’s where I GET most of my news – from the New York Times, albeit in electronic format. I like the Times – they’ve got a politically well-balanced editorial board, and they actually report NEWS, not trash. But EVEN THEY from time to time will get swept up in the overwhelming wave of an insistence on striking fear, doom and gloom into the hearts of their readers.
One would think, from this preponderance of bad news that is crammed down our throats, that we’ve developed an addiction to it, that we as Americans can’t go one more day without getting a hit of the worst of humanity from our television sets. But I really don’t think that’s true. After all, if it were true, would a YouTube video entitled simply “Dogs Welcoming Soldiers Home Compilation” have over twenty-two million views?
It seems to me that within just about every human being there is goodness, an innate desire for the better things of this world. But because we are imperfect beings who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, we have this fascination with the dark, the bad, the baser parts of the human experience. It messes with our minds and turns us away from the good.
That, then, is why we must seek out the good – we must activate the inner parts of our beings that long for hope, love, and joy. And not only must we seek it out, but we must take it to others.
In today’s Old Testament reading from the book of Isaiah, the prophet has been sent to do exactly that. “The Lord has anointed me,” he says, “to bring good news.” This prophet has been chosen by the Lord to proclaim good news to the people who have experienced years upon years of bad news. These people to whom he speaks are those same people of Israel who have spent the last seventy years in their Babylonian exile. Freed now by King Darius, they have been allowed to return to their home, but Jerusalem is a wreck. Destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s armies and allowed to rot for seventy years, it is a desolate ruin.
Can you imagine the devastation? A people allowed to return home after years in captivity, only to discover that that home essentially no longer exists. Israel must begin again. The good news so recently spoken to the captives has been replaced by the despair of the newly-arrived-home. And so, the Lord sends the prophet to bring good news to the people of Israel – “they shall build up the ancient ruins,” he says, “they shall repair the ruined cities.” The Lord promises to repay the people for what has happened to them, and make Israel a great nation once more.
But as it turns out, God doesn’t just want to make Israel a happy people once again. No, God wants Israel to be a MODEL people. The whole purpose of lifting the suffering endured in Babylon, of restoring Jerusalem to its old glory, and of renewing the spirits of the people of Israel is to lift them up out of the sinful ways that resulted in their exile to Babylon in the first place. God doesn’t want them to revert to the sin and self-centeredness that caused them to become a fallen people a century before – no, God wants to save them from themselves, to return them to the covenant of Abraham as the people of God.
And once THAT has occurred, that is when Jerusalem will become the “city on the hill”. According to the prophet, God will clothe the people with the garments of salvation and the robe of righteousness. In fact, the prophet compares the appearance of the people to that of a couple getting ready for marriage – and as somebody who just went through that a few months back, I can tell you that they generally look pretty spiffy heading into the ceremony! You see, once the people of Israel have been saved from themselves, kept from falling into their own ways, God wants them to not just HEAR the good news, but to BE the good news – to be the symbol, the beacon of God’s light to the nations around them, so that the Lord may “bring about justice and praise in every nation on earth, like flowers blooming in a garden.”
You know, it’s that idea of BEING the good news that’s sort of the kicker. Obviously, we’re not going to get the good news that we desire from the big screen in the living room, so why not go about BEING the good news?
All well and good, but we have to LEARN how to be the good news first. Just as God had to teach the people of Israel what it means to be the good news, so too do we have to be taught.
It’s funny, when I first proposed the idea of the CYF mission trip to southern California some six months ago, there was no small amount of resistance to going there. “Why go that far away?” I was asked. “What’s wrong with Kansas City, or St. Louis? What can they do there that they can’t do in Missouri?”
And the technical answer is: nothing. While in California, we’ll be working with food banks, soup kitchens, and community gardens, all of which you can find within an hour’s drive of here. The youth could just as easily spend the day exploring Kansas City as they will Los Angeles; while we don’t have beaches here, we do have white-water rafting, which the youth did last year; and who needs Disneyland when you have Worlds of Fun?
But wait. These are all things that our youth know. They KNOW Kansas City. They’ve worked with community organizations around here. They’ve been to Worlds of Fun. This would be nothing new to them.
And there’s your point. Just as the youth of Israel KNEW Babylon, but had to LEARN Jerusalem, so too must our youth LEARN something new. California, and especially Los Angeles, is essentially on a different planet. It is a different culture, a different way of life. And parts of the city are agonizingly poor.
I’ll be honest, that, perhaps more than anything else, is one of the things I want our youth to see. I want them to see the immense poverty in which some 3.2 MILLION people live in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Yes, there is poverty in Kansas City; yes, there is poverty throughout Missouri, but you simply cannot UNDERSTAND the overwhelming nature of the poverty in southern California until you have ridden the Blue Line light rail through south-central Los Angeles and seen the cardboard shanties lined up behind the buildings along Long Beach Avenue. You cannot begin to grasp the degree of despair until you have walked through downtown Los Angeles and seen the faces of just a few of the 91,000 homeless in the city. And don’t get me wrong, my intent is not to drown our youth in BAD news – indeed, I want to fill them with as much good news as possible, so that once they come to understand that strife and despair in which their fellow human beings live, they can put the good news and the understanding together to BE the good news TO those people, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to shout from the mountaintops that this is the year of the Lord’s favor!
Last week, I talked about how the Israel that John the Baptist came to was an Israel that had no end of bad news and very little good news. Since the end of the Babylonian captivity, they had endured centuries of conflict, both external and internal, as well as occupation by no fewer than three different nations. Just like the prophet before him, John was anointed by the Lord and sent to bring good news to the oppressed. He came to the people of Israel to tell them the good news of one yet to come. He baptized them to cleanse them of their sins, but as he told his followers, the one who came after him would baptize them with the spirit of God.
The authorities, of course, wanted to know who this bearer of good news was. Was he a prophet? Was he a reincarnation of Elijah? Was he the promised Messiah of God? None of those, John told them. He was merely the voice crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” The news which he was sent to proclaim was not the news of the people, but rather the news of God. This, then, was the year of the Lord’s favor, and it was put upon John to ensure that the people of Israel heard it. To do so, he sought to understand them, living among the poorest of the poor, following in the ways of life of those who dwelt in the desert, and inviting all who would hear his message to follow him to the one who would give them life.
There’s this saying that’s long been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi – “Proclaim the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” You see, in a world in which we have to seek out good news, we are ourselves CALLED TO BE good news – and not just ANY good news, but The Good News. Indeed, this calling is the summation of the two Great Commandments and the Great Commission which we are given by Christ: first, we must UNDERSTAND, by loving our God and loving our neighbor; and then, we must SHOW, by going into all the world. We gain context, and then we use it to put the Good News to work.
It seems appropriate, then, that this Sunday is the third Sunday of Advent: the day of Joy. For what else could we possibly receive from the Good News BUT joy? When we are sent to bring the good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, they shall receive JOY.
Just as we have received joy from the coming of Christ into our world, so too may we be joy to all the people of God. May our joy be never-ending.