Sunday, December 13, 2020

Third Sunday in Advent

"Candle of Mālama"

Pastor Scott Landis

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 & John 1:6-8, 19-28

As you listened to the words from the two scripture passages today you may have thought to yourself, “haven’t I heard those words before or recently?” The answer is – yes. Today’s gospel is very similar to Mark’s version which was read last week – with some additions. Its focus is on John the Baptizer whose primary role was to announce and point the way toward the long-awaited Messiah – Jesus. Jesus came to be baptized by John and then – following a period of temptation – began his public ministry.

The passage from Isaiah contains the words that Jesus read when he began his ministry. These words were the essence of his very first sermon delivered in his hometown of Nazareth. Words his listeners initially applauded, as they said under their breath, “well bless his heart – such a nice young man.” But, that sentiment didn’t last very long when he challenged them with his concluding statements. Good sermons typically do that – that is, they comfort those who are challenged while challenging the comfortable. [Pause]

These words from Isaiah are important words of salvation, hospitality, and care for those living in tremendous need. It was believed by the Jews that their Messiah would one day come and do all these things for a hurting and broken people – those challenged by life circumstances.

The historical context is critical for a fuller understanding.

Isaiah addressed those whose situation was one of utter devastation. Their city lay in ruins. Their temple, destroyed. They could not gather and worship as they were used to doing. And they felt hopeless. [Pause] You may know the feeling.

I have never experienced the devastation of a personal house fire (and hope I never will), but I know folks who have. When they returned to what WAS their home, they describe an incredible feeling of emptiness – of total loss – the emotions are overwhelming. Insurance can replace the physical damage, but it cannot take away the sting of lost keepsakes, pictures, that favorite blanket, hat, or dress. It’s all gone, as is the sense of the wholeness and security previously known. Those who have lost everything understand these words from Isaiah, as well as the longing for hope that seemed unfathomable in that moment.

The hope that was offered in this passage is in reference to the year of Jubilee – which occurred once every 50 years. In the year of Jubilee, all debt was erased, slaves were granted freedom, and people rested from their work. In the year of jubilee even the land got a year off as all tilling ceased. This was done in order to allow for restoration, healing, and wholeness for all things.

But Isaiah took this concept a step further in this passage by recognizing the need to care for those in mourning. Much like the victims of a house fire’s total destruction, God knew it was important to restore not only the physical needs of the people, but it was equally important to care for the emotional devastation as well. God’s mālama, God’s complete and total care for the people is described in some of the most beautiful poetry in the Hebrew Bible. Where God is said to:

Comfort all who mourn.
To provide a “garland” instead of ashes.
The oil of gladness instead of mourning.
The mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

This describes the God who sees our distress, our pain, our mourning – and in the spirit of mālama reaches out to those in need and offers comfort in the most beautiful ways. [Pause]

As I said to folks the other day, it took my moving to Hawai`i to really appreciate this passage in ways I had never experienced or understood before. Allow me to explain. In Hebrew culture, when a person is in mourning – which lasts for a prescribed period of time – the mourner would initially cover his/her head with ashes. They may clothe themselves in sackcloth and even tear their garments to demonstrate openly their grief, but ashes would be worn to indicate to all others that they were in their period of mourning.

We experience this, in part, as we receive ashes in the solemn observance know as Ash Wednesday. Ashes are imposed on our foreheads as we hear those haunting words, “From dust you have come – and to dust you shall return” and we are reminded of our mortality as we remember the final days of Jesus’ life. And then we enter the long season of repentance we call Lent – a time of reflection – a time of darkness – and a time to wait for the hope we experience in the celebration of the resurrection on Easter.

Isaiah reminds the mourner – that a garland will replace their ashes. That’s when it dawned on me. In Hawai`i we know the garland as a lei – placed over the head of one – typically to be honored and offered aloha, but I wonder whether we might think of it also as an expression of mālama? I think this biblical imagery is perfect for this graceful act.

The garland or lei is given to the mourner as an expression of comfort AND as a reminder that God is here. Hope is on the horizon. No matter our despair, no matter our grief, no matter how bad our current situation, God’s mālama can overcome any obstacle and bring us healing comfort and peace.

And the beautiful thing about this is that YOU may be the perfect instrument to do just that on God’s behalf, bringing mālama to someone in need. [Pause]

It’s easy to forget, during the long and worrisome days of this pandemic, just how much we have going for us. For the most part, we on-island have been spared much of the illness and death we have seen and read about in other areas of our world – including our own mainland. We have the blessing of experiencing the gift of living outdoors every day. We receive the warmth of the sun each day, the beautiful surroundings of nature – both mountains and ocean, and warm breezes to provide constantly renewing fresh air. Indeed, we are blessed to be here.

So, perhaps, our kuleana is to be instruments of God’s mālama to those living in fear – to those mourning – to those who have lost or are losing hope.

Having said that, I remind you, of our gospel lesson. Remember, the way that we offer hope, our mālama, will be different for each one of us. John’s role was not to BE the light, but to point toward the light. He came to bear witness to the light. Your way of offering mālama to another will likely be very different than what feels right to me.

But each one of us, in reaching out, we point toward or witness with our lives – the good news – the hope – the love and comfort – the garland, the oil of gladness, the mantle of praise – that we have received through God in Jesus the Christ. [Pause]

The season of Advent is quickly drawing to a close. In just a few days we will celebrate Messiah’s birth – a light that shines bringing hope into our darkness. Might we be the ones to point toward the light? How might you be a witness to the light and be vessels of God’s mālama? In these next few moments of silence. Allow God to speak to you. How might God be calling you to be comfort, hope, peace to those in need today? How might you be a garland – a lei – upon the ashes of those who mourn?


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