This is the 3rd Sunday of Advent and we’re more than halfway through our wait for Christmas. Today’s liturgical color is rose, hence the change in fabric on the altar today. We are more than halfway to the great feast of the Nativity and so we rejoice.
In today’s first reading, while standing on the farthest shore of the Jordan River, Isaiah says that the Coming One will give garlands of flowers to all who mourn; God’s anointed one will give them the oil of gladness and the mantle of praise. Standing closer to our side of the Jordan, Paul greets his congregation with pantote chariete, “rejoice always.” He writes those words in the 2nd person plural so that it comes out in a perfect Hoosierism: “Y’all rejoice!”
Another big change in our mood comes from the joyful anticipation that comes to us from John the Baptist. Remember him last week, all camel hair and locusts and wild honey and the in-your-face preaching about repentance? But today, even he seems to have changed. He is the one sent by God to bear witness to the Word of God, the One who is to come.
Later on in this same Gospel from John, the learned religious men are sent to interview John about who he is. No, he is not the Messiah. No, he is not Elijah. He is, in his own words, only a voice giving testimony to the work that God is doing in his time and place. The religious leaders, much like curators of an art museum, come out to John bringing with them their preconceived, time-tested portraits of what they thought Messiah should look like. They had tried to capture God’s messenger on canvas, based on the ancient writings of the prophets, to be sure, but also based on their own prejudices and expectations and immediate hopes. They had already decided that God’s Anointed One was supposed to be wearing purple, the color of royalty and power. They knew what he was supposed to look like, sitting atop a white horse with a patina of light arching above and around his head. They knew the prophecies and had likely memorized them. And yet the portrait that John unveils out there in the desert is so strange, so different and strange, they had to send a delegation out to him to compare portraits and determine whether or not John had it right.
One of the most difficult of all my undergrad classes was a course in History of World Art. I earned only two Bs in all my college years, and this was one of them. Not only did I have to memorize literally hundreds of slides of famous masterpieces, but I also had to be able towrite intelligently about the distinguishing features of the various periods of art, beginning with prehistory and ending with the works of Picasso and Dalli. It was a daunting task and while I was in that class, all of my appreciation for art was sucked into the black hole of academic analysis.
Later, when I traveled to France, some years later, I viewed thousands of paintings at the Louvre Museum. I also toured many parts of France, walked through countless cathedrals and churches, and I thanked God for that earlier class from hell. Standing in places that were, in some cases, older than the architecture of Juluius Caesar, was overwhelming and awe-inspiring. Because of that earlier class in art history, I had an understanding and appreciation for the context of the art that I encountered. I knew something of the geography, something of the political climate in which the art had been done, and in some cases, something of the artist himself or herself. The artwork was no longer something just to be appreciated on a surface aesthetic level: suddenly they were filled with layers and layers of meaning. The art history course had shown me what I would otherwise have missed. I became not only a witness to these masterworks, I was now an active participant in them.
Tonight’s readings present this question to us: What is our portrait of God? Albert Schweitzer once writes:
Jesus comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has for us. To those who obey, he reveals himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings, through which they shall pass in his fellowship, and they shall learn in their own experience Who He Is.
He comes to us as One Unknown. Each of us is on pilgrimage to God and many of us here started out in a denomination that had more answers than questions. Speaking from experience, I can assure you that much seminary training has to do with “defending the faith”, or trying to “prove” that God exists by way of intellectual proofs. Theology is, after all, about “knowing” and not about experiencing the Mystery. And yet, when we come together to break bread in Jesus’ name, when we share the bread and wine together as children of the God of Jesus, none of that intellectual stuff matters. In coming together as community, we find something that transcends formal theological training, something that needs no formal defense or rationalization . We find an encounter with something bigger than ourselves, something of the Mystery of God. At least that’s what I experience here.
Perhaps some of us have been dragging around with us some age-worn portrait of the God we once knew as small children, something we inherited from our parents, something we memorized at school, something that once seemed to be enough. This God, for all of us I suspect, was a stern grandfatherly type who lived beyond the clouds and granted our prayers when he felt like it. But today we see that the paint on that portrait has long dried and is faded and peeling. If we’re ever to come home to a feeling of connectedness to God again, we need to leave some things behind. Maybe it’s time for us to leave behind this image of God once and for all, and to step out into the present moment and allow God to reveal God’s glory to us within. In the silence, when we are completely still and conscious of our heart, we know—beyond academic proofs and theological propositions—that the same God who made the stars and sun is burning brightly within us. The Mystery is not something we are disconnected from, it is something elemental to our being.
Today’s gospel lesson from John is both joyful announcement and solemn warning: we are to realize that God’s revelation is always and everywhere coming to us, touching us and making us whole. But be alert! The advent of God comes to us in the birth of an illiterate peasant baby in the backwaters of Judea, or Churubusco, or Antwerp. The Mystery among us and within us is so delicate, so unexpected, so strange, and yes, so unspeakably ordinary, we might miss it altogether.