Living Forwards Understanding Backwards (Isaiah 61:1-4,10-11; John 1:6-8,19-28)
In 1843 the Danish philosopher/theologian Soren Kirkegaard, wrote in his journal in 1843 that “…Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” There is no question that we start at the beginning of life and go to the end through it (we live forwards), but that we, often, do not understand or appreciate the meaning of things as they first happen to us, but only in later reflection. I take this to be true.
Advent is the time of waiting for God to fulfill our hope, bring us peace, lead us to joy, and infuse us with love that was captured when Jesus was born long ago. Such a meaning for the birth of this one Jewish baby was really not obvious from the beginning. Really, understanding only came much later, upon Christian reflection about that birth, as it was put in the context of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and teachings, as well as his living presence among communities of faith. You can see the process of this reflection in the Gospels of the New Testament.
These writers (and others in the New Testament) took the words of scripture they’d venerated in Jewish life, that were generalities and focused them like a laser on Jesus. There were many communities of Jesus’ followers that understood these scriptures as applying to Jesus in many and different ways. For example, Mark said nothing about Jesus’ birth. The focus of his thought was more on the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and pointed to passages in the Hebrew scriptures that Mark now saw as specified in Jesus. By the time of Matthew and Luke, pieces of the story about Jesus’ birth were being added and thought through. In the community or communities of faith served by John and his circle, latest of all, probably, the focus became tightened even more toward Jesus and the events and persons near him. As I say, Christians learned to read the old scriptures that promised new and wonderful things as focused on and interpreted through the person of Jesus.
For example, in our Old Testament Lesson, the text begins, “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me…” Who is “me” here? In the original poem it is the prophet who gave us the text who felt called by God to replace the negatives of common life with positives: To replace ashes with garlands of beautiful flowers, to soothe those who had been exhausted, with aromatic oil, to build up what had been torn down and demolished. To replace bad news with good news, to be an agent of liberty, release, and comfort. These are wonderful images, and as time wore on they were understood as too wonderful to find satisfying fulfillment, so that people began to wonder, who is the one who speaks and does these things, if not this prophet. Perhaps another prophet. And people continued their reflection and meditation on these words, and began to see in them someone who would be able to bring them to fulfillment, who became called Messiah, “anointed”. Was that wishful thinking? Perhaps. But it instilled hope and, when, in the dirty mess of life, people thought of it and got outside of themselves to bring others even a little of those positive things that the passage mentions, it brought them joy. Now, for the last 15 years I have been telling you that, in the Bible, joy is not just “happiness,” surely not “giddiness” or a case of the gospel giggles. Joy is the quiet sense of well-being that comes, in looking at the perfect mess we’ve made of things, and coming to certainty that, because, somehow God is in charge, things will be all right. It is the lift that comes when we realize that God is more interested in our being positive than negative, in being loved and loving than hated and hating, in finding and sharing comfort rather than promoting spiritual abrasion, and beautiful flowers instead of ashes in our spirits. If God is in it, it will be all right. “Whatever my lot thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well, with my soul.” That’s joy.
When Luke thought on the passage, he remembered that Jesus used this same Isaiah passage as his first sermon text in Nazareth. And when Jesus said, “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,” he really meant me. He lived forwards and understood backwards. As they have understood backwards, Christians have unpacked the Isaiah passage in all these layers. And doing the kinds of things it speaks of brings joy.
The Gospel Lesson is John’s version of what we read in Mark last Sunday about John the Baptizer. John’s account is different from the others. John the Gospel writer reflected on and remembered the Baptizer longer than any of the other Gospel writers. He chose to interweave two themes in chapter 1: “The Word made flesh,” and “A Voice crying in the wilderness”: Jesus and John the Baptist. The parts of chapter 1 we didn’t read this morning are about the “word made flesh.” We read this morning about John, the “voice that cried out in the wilderness.” John left readers no doubt that he thought John the Baptist and Jesus’ lives and missions interpreted one another.
In John 1, “(John) confessed …‘I am not the Messiah’.” He went on to deny that he was Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah either. (Though, by the way, Matthew said he was.) He further denied that he was really a prophet of any kind. John confessed that Jesus is the Lamb provided by God. John said, “I’m not the light, but came to bear witness to it.” Later on, in chapter 3, John said: “He (Jesus) must increase, I must decrease” (verse 30). That’s John’s take.
John (the evangelist and the Baptist) make a worthy point here. John the Baptizer clearly understood his people’s traditions backwards, he saw who he was and who Jesus was. As disciples of Jesus, that’s important. Disciples, of course, identify with Jesus as the Messiah, and try to be the people of the Messiah in the world. Nonetheless, it’s crucial that we understand clearly that we’re not the Messiah, Jesus is. Being the people of Jesus the Messiah can sometimes tempt us to overreach ourselves and begin to claim prerogatives and powers we do not have. We are not the Messiah. We cannot be, nor should we pretend to be. As I say, sometimes it’s a temptation to try to be the Messiah and take on all the world’s problems, and be the saviour of the world. We cannot because we are not. Like John, we must never cease to point to the one who is, and insist that we’re not.
If we return to the definition of joy as the deep and quiet assurance that it is well with our souls, then it is a good thing to remember that one reason it is so because we’re not in charge of much in this world, but God is. Can I dare say that joy comes from understanding who the Messiah is? And that we are not? Thankfully, the Messiah is more powerful than our small resources. This is true even where churches and resources have swelled to huge size, let alone for folks like us. Like John the Baptist, we are simply a voice crying, “In the wilderness make straight the way of the Lord.” May we find our assurance that God is in control to bring about good in the world, and our joy comes in getting out of ourselves and serving others .But we also need remember that, though we are dedicated to Jesus and to Jesus’ mission in our community, we cannot “just do it” alone. To experience joy we must, first, learn that following Jesus and being in mission is, primarily, about God and Jesus and us together. God with us: Immanu-el.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN