sermon: new beginning: see (advent 3)
I have this great record album that I have kept for at least 30 years and that I only play around Christmas Time, although the songs are not all Christmas songs.
It’s on one of those compilation albums, and it’s called “Winter Solstice.”
I love this album not only for its rich, textural music, but because it was one of my dad’s favorite albums as well.
Each winter, he would pop it into the stereo, and it sort of became the background music to the season.
It’s funny how music can transcend a person.
My dad died back when I was in my early twenties, but I remember coming home for the holidays while he was still alive and hearing those songs each time.
And, quite honestly, after his death, it took me a very long time to be able to listen to it again.
His death cast a certain darkness in my life, that for so long I didn’t feel like I’d ever overcome.
Some of you may know what I’m talking about. Some of you may be going through this today.
But at some point, maybe less than ten years ago, I began again listening to that album, and I felt a release from that darkness.
Where it was dark, light had come.
The album still brings back so many memories and images, and it just feels rich and warm to me now in maybe what could be described as bittersweet.
But I’m hopeful that it’s sweetness, to carry the metaphor, will replace the bitterness.
And as maybe a shameless plug, if you’re here in church on Christmas morning, I’m planning on playing one of these songs on guitar — if I can get enough practice time.
That metaphor of darkness — no matter where it comes from — is quite powerful in our lives, in our world. But this time of year, we experience a literal darkness.
It’s December the 11th. The Winter Solstice isn’t for another 10 days. Therefore, we are still heading into the darkest days of the year, believe it or not.
So the question becomes: What do we do with this darkness? Does it become so debilitating for us that we forget what the light looks like?
That seems absurd, doesn’t it?
But if that’s the case, and the thought of perpetual darkness is absurd, then why do we let places in our hearts and in our lives go so dark and hopeless as if there will never be light again?
The holidays are hard enough without having the physical blackness outside that forces us into our homes each day to contend with.
We have lost people in our lives. We cannot get home for the holidays this year. We’ve taken ill. We don’t have the resources. Things change.
And it feels dark.
Over the last two weeks in this sermon series that we’re calling New Beginning, which focuses on the possibilities Christ brings to us, we’ve seen what it means to Watch for Christ’s fulfillment and what it means to turn to the loving God who will never let you go.
Today, the theme is to See. And we’re going to go back to Matthew for the vision of the prophet John the Baptist.
In today’s reading, Matthew 11, verses 2-11, we find John the Baptist in the darkest place he — and many of us — could ever imagine.
Remember, John is Jesus’s cousin, born about six months before Jesus, and he is the one who will come to clear the path for Jesus’s ministry.
He does this by calling the people to repent against their old ways and become baptized to a new way.
But John has run up against some friction. And he has now found himself in prison.
Talk about sheer and utter darkness, both metaphorically and literally.
Here he is, having been diligently delivering the prophetic message that the messiah is coming — that a savior will be born who will save God’s people.
This is supposed to be a time of great anticipation. This is a time of new bright dawn!
What a contrast to the prison cell John finds himself confined to and, if you think about it, an imminent execution.
Friends, it’s as dark and hopeless as it can get.
So when we are reading this passage in Matthew, we cannot fault John in this darkness and in his weak state, when he asks his friends about Jesus.
In the prisons of those days, it was this: You were locked up in a cell, period.
There were no meals, no care, barely any supervision.
If you didn’t have friends or family who could take care of you, it could be a death sentence. You might starve or freeze or die of an illness.
John had disciples, and they would care for him.
So it’s upon one of these visits that John has been hearing about Jesus’s teachings and healing and miracles, and he asks then to ask Jesus, in Verse 3, “Are you the one to come, or are we to wait for another?”
How absolutely hopeless is this question. How sad. How dark.
This isn’t just some random follower of Christ; this is John the Baptist. This is the same John who leapt in his mother’s womb upon seeing Mary, then pregnant with Jesus!
John knew Jesus before they were even born!
And he questions the Christ!
Certainly there are some among us who would admonish John for such questioning.
But, friends, I want you to think hard about a time — or times— in which you questioned Christ.
And by questioning, I mean doubting.
Certainly, John the Baptist and I aren’t the only ones, are we?
We suffer some hard times. We find ourselves in a hopeless prison, we, too, are left alone in the dark.
And we say, “How could you let this happen, Lord?”
As Jesus recounts this story to the crowds that have gathered around him, he says, in Verse 11, “no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist, yet the least in the kingdom is greater than he.”
We all have doubts like John. And yet John is “great” in Jesus’s eyes.
What a loving and merciful savior.
Listen: It’s in the darkest moments that the contrast of Christ’s light is the greatest. John doesn’t understand the magnitude of the light that he’s been clearing the way for.
We love to say “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
Because we know for certain dawn follows dark. Always. A new day always dawns, if we’re alive on this earth.
It’s 100 percent so far in our lives.
And we know this story, too: The cross comes before the empty tomb.
This one’s a little different, isn’t it?
Because you can count all the mornings that have ever come, and 100 percent of the times, without fail, the sun was there.
We don’t even question the odds that the sun won’t be there tomorrow.
But the cross and empty tomb? Well, that’s a question of faith, is it not?
But, as Christians, we will not doubt that. Our whole lives are constructed on this premise.
Death comes before resurrection’s light.
That’s the final promise. And that takes even more faith.
We might, then, take for granted tomorrow’s sunrise. Why would we ever doubt that?
We don’t always feel that way though about the True Light.
Like John, we question it. Some forget about it altogether.
No. Not us.
Instead, when it’s dark, we search out the Light — because we know that the Light overcomes the darkness.
We just need reminders.
One way to remember is to simply turn on a light.
I like to light a candle. I like to watch how the light of the candle drives out the darkness in even the most dark places.
I see that light the way I see prayer.
Whatever dark place you find yourself in, you light the candle through prayer.
Prayer brings faith. Prayer brings hope. Prayer brings light.
And this is part of the waiting, too — It’s the anticipation of Advent.
John’s imprisonment doesn’t end in eternal death:
It certainly ends in mortal death, sure.
But eternally? Absolutely not.
Jesus was there
Listen: Where John is, so is Jesus.
Think about it: Where was John born? Jesus was right there with him in Mary.
Jesus was there.
John’s ministry was paving the way for Jesus. Jesus met John while baptizing in the Jordan River.
Jesus was there.
John was thrown into a dark jail cell.
Jesus also was imprisoned. He understood what that was like.
Jesus was there.
John was killed by evil persecutors. So was Jesus.
Jesus was there.
But this isn’t where the story ends, does it? No.
Where John goes after death: To heaven. Jesus goes too.
Jesus was there.
Jesus is there for you, too.
Where? Where have you been that has been so dark?
Hospitals? Institutions? Courts of law? Divorce? Loss? Humiliation? Pain? Suffering?
Jesus knows those dark places, too.
And, listen, he knows those dark places because he was in them with you, too. Right by your side.
I was at Centre Crest nursing home last weekend making some visits to some of our church members who can’t make it here on Sundays.
And as I was waiting for the elevator to come up upon my leaving, I met a man who was also waiting — although he wasn’t leaving.
I asked him how he was doing, and we struck up a conversation. I told him I was a pastor.
When we were alone in the elevator, he asked me to push the red button to stop the car.
Then he asked me to take his hand and pray for him.
He said his life was “tumultuous.”
We prayed together. It was clear the Holy Spirit was present and using this time and space to to bring light into an otherwise dark world.
Why? We have such a compassionate savior.
Because Jesus knows what that darkness feels like.
Jesus was there. Jesus was there.
For who? For the man I was praying for? Absolutely! I got to be Christ for him!
But you know what? That man was Christ for me, too.
Jesus was there. Jesus was bound, just as this man may have been bound to a wheelchair or something much worse!
Jesus was confined, just as this man was.
Jesus was lonely, just as this man was.
Jesus was in need of friends, of love, of hope … just as this man was.
Jesus has experienced ALL of it.
And praise God, we won’t experience but a fraction of what Jesus had to bear for us.
Why? Because there is NOWHERE you can go, brothers and sisters, that Jesus is not there.
Light the candle
Like the days of December, darkness is more prevalent.
But in that darkness, we are not alone.
No. Jesus already has been there.
And because Jesus is the Light of the world, He is there, as the Light, for you as well.
When you feel that darkness, I want you to remember this message.
And when you find yourself in that darkness, just light a candle.
Remember your prayer is your candle, your candle your prayer.
Gaze into it and remember, there’s no where you can go — there’s no where darker than the tomb Jesus endured — that you can be without your Savior.
See? He’s there. Always.