December 17, 2023

"Be Like John – Embracing Joy”

Rev. Scott Landis

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 & John 1: 6-8, 19-23

You may remember those beautiful, prophetic words of Isaiah read moments ago as the ones Jesus quoted in his first sermon recorded in the gospel of Luke. They are challenging, poetic, and invite us, in the same way they invited the original hearers, to bathe in the promises of God – a covenant – in which God will bring healing and hope, peace and righteousness, a mantle of praise, a garland instead of ashes to God’s people. Isaiah described a bucolic setting in which the people of God enthusiastically rejoice as they receive the gifts bestowed upon them. They are perfect words for this third Sunday of Advent – the Sunday of Hau’oli (Joy)! 

Then we come to John – and hear the gospel reading slated for this Sunday and we might scratch our heads in wonder. What’s this got to do with joy? 

John, as the gospel writer informs us, came not to baptize – but to bear witness to the light. He came to witness to that which was yet to come. It’s a story that is frequently read during the Advent season which really conflates the birth narrative of Jesus with the beginning of his public ministry – but it does so with the intent of demonstrating John’s role as witness.

We all know what it means to be a witness. In a court of law, the witness is one who has seen and experienced an event. The witness comes forward to testify to the truth – to tell exactly what she has seen and knows. The witness in many cases is not a part of the event – rather the witness is the one who tells about the event. 

In John’s case the witness is prophetic – he sees and knows and proclaims from a unique vantage point – which is precisely where I would like us to focus our attention for the next few minutes. 

Notice the position of John in this story. He comes between two major phases of religious history. 

Everything that occurred before John’s proclamation was based on the religious practice of Judaism that was based primarily on law, righteous living, faithful obedience, and the fear of the Lord.

Everything that took place after John is based on the life and ministry of Jesus, which is steeped in grace, embracing the outsiders, taking care of those in need, bringing light into darkness, while embodying the love of God.

John stands between those two distinct phases – a liminal space as it is sometimes referred – between the “already” and the “not yet.” But this liminal space, in John’s case, is in the wilderness – another important feature in biblical history we must pay attention to. 

Metaphorically the “wilderness” represents a place of uncertainty. One can easily lose one’s way in the wilderness. Fears can arise, tensions can mount, a sense of defeat or bewilderment can emerge as one wanders through the wilderness seeking a path of clarity and focus – the way to resolve and peace. 

You may remember the Israelites wandered for 40 years in the wilderness. Reminding us that sometimes resolve takes a long, long time. But we already know that as well – you have likely experienced similar periods of your life. It’s a very important aspect of our lives to be mindful of and invites our deeper reflection if we are ever going to see the light that is coming – our Messianic hope as it were, who will bring clarity and resolve to our uncertainty and guide us safely home. 

It strikes me that we are living in this liminal space of uncertainty right now. We realize how challenging wilderness can be – as we live clinging to hope for a better tomorrow. And that may rob us of our joy. 

Whether our attention is focused on the issues of our world – for example, our apparent insistence that war and violence are the only means to peace, or on our planet that continues to choke in toxicity as it heats up more and more every year, or the political divisions that seemingly threaten any chance of civil discourse and possibly the demise of our democracy which has been the basis of the American experiment. 

Or when we think of our church – whether it’s Keawala’i or almost any congregation for that matter. We might become understandably concerned as we deal with the fact that we are losing ground. Our numbers are dwindling – both in members and dollars leaving us all to wonder and worry in this wilderness – where is it all going and what is our kuleana for the future. 

Or perhaps we are pondering our own life situation at a pivotal moment when we come to a fork in the road and must determine what is the best way forward. Where are we being called? Come to think of it, that’s where we all are right now. The calling of a new pastor is an exciting time in the life of a congregation, but it is also fraught with innumerable unknowns. You have them, Pastor Gary has them, and I do as well. Not a one of us really knows what’s next? But will we allow that uncertainty to rob us of our joy?

  All of these circumstances of life remind us what it means to live in liminal space – a wilderness of sorts.  But the interesting thing about that space and of that time – while it may feel like the most precarious place to be, it is also the strongest. The limina in a home is the doorway – the lintels and doorposts are extremely strong and support the wider structure. It is from that place that we gain a unique perspective. It is from the limina – that we draw upon all our experience from the past as we gaze into an uncertain future. But we need not do that in fear. No! That would not allow us to get anywhere and WOULD rob us of our joy. Hereʻs where our faith comes in. 

You see, it’s in the “wilderness,” IF we live in hope – and IF we are grounded in peace – that we just might hear the voice of God. It’s a voice that comes from within – as we look outward and hear the cries of humanity – the needs of our day – to which we must respond. 

It is to this place that I invite you to spend these precious days of Advent. As we lean into the coming of Messiah’s light yet again. As the hopes and fears of all the years are met in the gift of God – it’s there that we may realize the strength that is also given even in times of uncertainty. That’s when we will experience joy. 

There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty in our midst today. There are many unknowns that we have yet to figure out. It does us little good to sit and stew and worry about tomorrow and the next day and the one after that. Because God is already there. Our task is to draw upon what we know as we depend on the guiding hand of God to walk with us into the future.

Weeping may last for the night, the psalmist reminds us. In our wilderness all may seem hopeless – but be assured God is fully present, even there — and JOY comes – in the morning. 


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