Jennifer DeBisschop

Isaiah 61:1-4

John 1:6-9 & 19-23



That was Then...This is Now?


“A small attractive folder in the mail pictured a young woman with a radiant smile, holding a gift.  Below the picture was the word ‘JOY’ in big red letters.  Inside the folder were suggestions for gifts that would bring great joy.  [This year I-Pods, new computers, or perhaps just the perfect pants.]  Advertisers [especially around this time of year] tell us that buying [giving and receiving] Christmas gifts will bring joy that endures, but we should know better.  At best, material gifts bring only fleeting joy.”[1]  This was a lesson that was pointed out to me yet again this holiday season as I read through today’s devotional lesson in the spiritual study booklet “The Upper Room.”  You see, I must confess that I am one of those people who enjoys shopping for gifts at this time of year, when the lightbulb goes off over my head and I realize what the perfect gift is for someone I care about…the look on their face when they open up that “perfect” gift.  But it is true…generally then that perfect gift ends up being the perfect knick knack or “dust collector” instead of being used for the once perfect specific purpose.  The smile that was on the face of the friend or loved one for whom the perfect gift was brainstormed, purchased, wrapped with care, and anticipated opening now is no longer a smile or hug of thanks but more of a… “Wait.  What did you get me for Christmas last year?”  As Christian people we come to this time of year with a constant struggle….do I follow what society tells me I should do or do I figure out how it is that I can dig deeper into my own soul to find out where the real true joy lies?

            Today, sure enough, the third Sunday in Advent, is the Sunday when we celebrate joy.  The history of this day, when in some churches a pink candle instead of a purple candle is lit, pastor and church vestments are changed to rose instead of violet, takes us back to the early days of the celebration of Advent.  You see, Advent used to be a time of year much like Lent.  It was a time for self-examination, of repentance, of figuring out the ways that people had fallen short, of fasting, and of asking God for forgiveness.  Through the years that sense of Advent and its purpose has clearly changed a bit as we celebrate it in many churches now.  Now we have pageants and concerts, then believers spent time in solitude and thought.  Now we speak of expectation and anticipation each week, then they had one week, the Third Sunday in Advent when they were truly able to celebrate in joyous anticipation the birth of the coming Baby Jesus.  Today we celebrate with the lighting of Advent candles, the true joy that comes with the knowledge of a baby born among us…and not just any baby, but our very own perfect gift.

            Now, when I considered the idea that Advent used to be a time to do some self-reflection I wondered how different it truly was than current times.  After all, in church on Sunday morning and perhaps in our own daily devotions we are asked to slow down, to change our pace, to truly prepare not just the space under our trees, but also the space in our hearts for the coming of the Savior, God Among Us.  But then, the idea was not just to slow down and make space by taking time to reflect, but rather to slow down and to make space by clearing up wrongs against God, by repenting. 

            The truth about “repentance” is that it is not such a frightening word as it may seem to us today.  Repentance is really all about turning around, about transforming something in our lives.  We are asked to take off the cloak of the ways that we identify ourselves (as a mom, a brother, a friend, a doctor, a minister, a teacher) and to look to the core of who we are, children of God, and to realize what it is that we are truly called to do in this world.  In a story I read this week a woman wrote, “Repentance is often summed up with the slogan, ‘Lost?  God allows U-turns.’”  She continues,  “I was not always helped by this stark and simplistic image, with only one road, two directions, and one decision to make.  Life is much more complicated than that.”[2]  And sure enough it is, made more complicated by the fact that we live in a world and a time that is not clear cut and easy.  Much like the world that the writers of this morning’s scripture lessons lived in back then, we now have a world complete with its own set of complications, wars, greed, disaster, famine. 

            Then there were people who lived in poverty because of corrupt leaders.  There were people who lived in poverty because they were ill, orphaned, or widowed.  Sound familiar?  Now there are people all over our world who live in poverty because of corrupt leaders or because they are ill or orphaned or widowed.  As I look out at our tree for Brookfield Social Services it is made glaringly apparent to me that these people are not far away from home.  And there are also people who do not live in poverty because they do not have enough material possessions but they live in social, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual poverty.[3]  There are so many of us in the world today who are seekers, we are seeking wholeness and integrity in our lives, instead of lives led by the fears of “what-ifs,” “What-if onlys” and “What if nots.” We are seeking to be transformed, to be able to bear witness to something exciting happening in our lives.  And we are waiting.

            We see in our scripture reading from John today a moment when it seems as if the people gathered around John the Baptist to listen to his message were growing impatient with waiting, and became intent instead on playing a game of “20 Questions” in order to figure out his true identity.  “Who are you?” they asked him.  “Ah…Ah…Ah…only yes or no questions please.” 

“Okay, then….Are you Elijah?  Are you the prophet?  Well, who are you then?” 

John did his best to answer honestly, with integrity.  “I am not the Messiah…I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”  John was not afraid to shed all of the other stuff, after all he had been joyful about the coming of Jesus, since we read about in Luke he leapt up in his mother’s womb when Mary announced to her cousin Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s Mother, that she was pregnant with the child of the Lord. John the Baptist had a following and very easily could have succumbed to the success that he had gained with his baptizing ministry, his own ministry of repentance.  Instead he chose to be honest.  “He came as witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”  John the Baptist realized that Jesus was a source of real joy, a source that promised freedom for the oppressed (if not in this world then in the next).  Instead of claiming success for himself, he nurtured and helped grow Jesus’ ministry by pointing to Jesus as the “lamb of God” and by sending his own disciples to Jesus.  He helped people then to wait with expectation instead of impatience.

            And we continue to wait today…hopefully in more anticipation and expectation than impatience.  I read in preparation for today a source that said, “We do not simply wait for Christmas, or for something beyond Christmas.  Advent is not playacting, pretending to be a people waiting for the Messiah.  The waiting we Christians do ought not to be trivialized in such a way.  We let the December darkness be a strong and evocative symbol of our larger waiting, but we do not pretend to be living in a time other than we actually now are”[4] complete with its difficulties, its struggles and challenges.  “Waiting is our human condition.  Encounter and revelation and grace are God’s gift.”[5] And what an amazing and perfect gift that all is…a gift from God, the biggest symbol of which came then and continues to come now in the form of a little baby, born in a manger, for whom we wait in joyous expectation.

            As Melissa Tidwell, editor of “Alive Now” writes, “As we [enter into the middle] of our season of Advent, we are invited once again to rethink human life, to consider God’s choosing to be with us.  It offers us a new look at God, and the willingness of our creator to draw near, and to turn living and dying inside out, into something wholly new.  The glory of incarnation makes our life new—a fabulous journey, danced with so many turns and so much joy.”[6]  And we take pause at this time in Advent to remember that lasting joy does not come from the gift at Christmas that ends up being forgotten and tossed aside, but rather it comes from a gift that keeps on giving and calls us to be a people who continue to give and to serve in this world until all have the opportunity to step back and reflect on the joy of this time instead of the pain and longing for more.  We remember that the source of true joy comes from God’s love for us, the forgiveness and new life Jesus brings to us each year anew.  And we remember that God has used people just like you and me, complete with our hang-ups, our worries, and our doubts to change the world in many ways.  And God will continue to work through us if we open our hearts and our lives during this season and in the season to come to the ways God calls us to serve and be served in this world.

Then there were people who were recently coming out of exile and into a space where they could be free again, now we live in a free country where we are allowed to make our own decisions with right judgment.  Then, they looked for someone to break through the old and into the new pattern and time of their history that marked rest from exile and a time of renewal.  Now we wait for that someone to break through again this year, to know the love and joy and hope and peace brought to us and gifted to us in Jesus Christ.  May God grant us all of these things and so much more, and may we in turn help others to feel the joy of being gifted in their lives as well.  Amen.


[1] Upper Room (November-December 2005), “Joy that Lasts” (p.49)

[2] Alive Now (November-December 2005), “Editor’s Note” (p. 2)

[3], “Other forms of Poverty”

[4] Proclamation 4, Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany-Series B, p. 29.

[5] See above.

[6] Alive Now, p.3