A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
December 11, 2016
(Isaiah 35.1-10; Song of Mary (APBA p. 9); James 5.7-10; Matthew 11.2-11)
Christianity is often called ‘The singing faith’. This is not to suggest that other faiths do not sing. It is more to highlight a prominent characteristic of church life. One thing we seem to love to do when we get together is sing.
Each generation seems to come up with their own songs. Some of them become well known. Some do not. Either way people are always singing in the church!
I visited two schools this week to speak about Christmas. At both of them I sang. For a couple of the Christmas carols everyone joined in. Sure we had the words up, but I was struck by how many people knew them. Christmas, it seems, is the singing season!
And then two of today’s readings turn out to be songs.
Isaiah sings of a coming time of gladness, joy, rejoicing, and singing. A time is coming when God will put all things right. A time of ‘healing’. A time of justice and righteousness. A time of ‘holiness’.
And so, a song rises in his heart. Surely James is right in pointing to the prophet’s ‘suffering and patience’ as an example. Isaiah, a voice for that which remained unfulfilled, could sing with joy at the vision God gave.
We also just read Mary’s Song. Again it is a song of joy and praise. As it fits into the gospel story, Mary sings before Jesus is born. Like Isaiah, Mary’s Song is penned and sung before the entirety of God’s plans are revealed. This girl sings because God she believes has, and will, fulfil this ancient promise of mercy!
Of course the Christian life is not entirely made up of spiritual highs (although these are certainly a part of it!). I say this not only from experience – after all it is also entirely biblical! How could Israel collect the Psalms – with all their breadth and range of human emotion – and then use them in communal worship – if they believed everything was about a high? Fears, doubts, anger, frustration, sadness, and disappointment all contribute to the nation’s songs sung to God.
And this is where John the Baptist comes in. Languishing in prison, the forerunner to Christ seems to be a spent force. After bravely standing up to Herod he now finds himself in chains and cut off from all that he pointed to.
And so Jesus’ forerunner sends his disciples with the question: ‘Are you the one who is to come or shall we look for another?’ Make no mistake, it is a question of doubt. Doubt in Jesus and doubt in the very ministry John has given his life for.
John, I suspect is not inclined to sing.
So Jesus points him back to Isaiah’s song – and its present fulfilment. ‘Tell John what you hear and see’. Let him know of that the blind see, the lame walk, that deaf hear, that the dead live. Make sure John knows that Isaiah’s song is coming to life!
Of course, it is speculation, but I love the thought that this message made John sing again.
I grew up under a very fine preacher named Rev’d Linton Smith. Many things he said have stayed with me. One has truly stuck. Linton advised (and indeed practiced) a response to those times we do not feel like singing, times when we, like John, find it hard to rejoice and worship: ‘Read through the Gospel of Mark. Why? Because you can get though it in one sitting!’
It is good advice – and has caused me to sing again on a number of occasions. All those God-miracles – small glimpses of God’s desire and action to put the world right. A portrait of Jesus’ incredible heart that gave of himself so freely.
In Africa there is a question that is traditionally asked of those who have lost their joy: ‘When did you stop singing?’ My mother put it a bit differently as I was growing up: ‘I know when you are happy, Mark, you sing in the shower!’
Perhaps at times it is a good question to ask ourselves: Have you stopped singing? And if you have perhaps it is time to revisit the Gospel of Mark!
So let’s sing together – simply for the glory of God!
(Song: ‘Light of the World’)