Vicar Lenny Duncan
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
Our first reading text from Isaiah, which is an integral part of the messianic claim that Jesus makes as he begins his ministry in his home synagogue, lands smack dab in the middle of this wonky Advent season. (Full disclosure: my supervisor and I moved Advent up a week so we could just have a Christmas eve on Christmas eve. If the liturgy police get a chance, tell them to stop out to Conshohocken PA and make an arrest.)
This key text has always had a place in my heart.
I would love to talk about where Christ read this scripture centuries later, in a synagogue.
He proclaimed the words of Isiah in a place of worship. The people did not appreciate it.
Jesus got push-back.
Like, they literally tried to push him back off a cliff, and what that says to our apparent lack of courage.
While I love this Isaiah text, I'll focus on this week’s gospel.
In the Gospel of John, that sneaky book that flirts with us throughout all three years of the RCL cycle, showing up and saying coy and strange things and running off again, we find the one and only John the Baptist.
As a black man in this church I can relate to this scene. I put my finger on White Supremacy in a post, or in a blog, or in a sermon and, eventually, I receive well-meaning emails or messages. I have, for the record responded to all of these, that now number in the hundreds, with kindness and love. I hardly ever provide the answer people are seeking. Much like those who approach John they are not seeking answers. They are seeking THE ANSWER.
Which if I knew I would be free.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ ”
Am I prophet? I would never have the gall to describe myself or anyone I love that way. Dear God, we kill our prophets. I am not a prophet. I am a black man preaching within a white system. People of Color are voices crying out in the wilderness. We are forced there by systems of oppression that are prevalent in our society and are eventually relived and acted out in our churches.
Don’t believe me? Just read your Advent liturgy. How much darkness to light imagery have you let slip past you because intellectually you know it’s wrong, but during this busy season it’s hard to parse out what to do? Plus, what would the worship committee think?
Guess what. The same thing will happen next year.
Now what John is pointing to? What are Black women in Alabama are pointing to?
It's the same thing I’m constantly pointing to: the power of Grace.
We're pointing to this Jesus, God made incarnate as a man of color from a backwater town, coming preaching a message of liberation and redemption that will eventually have him killed in state sanctioned murder by colonial law enforcement.
An incredible thing is about to burst forth onto the scene that will flip the world on its head. God will take a moment that should have shattered the galaxies and use at as the launching pad for the infiltration of the kingdom of God into this broken world.
We, like the priests and Levites, try fit it into our neat boxes and those who point to it. Are you Elijah, or a social justice warrior? Are you the Messiah or just a black woman trying to survive in a hostile world? Are you a prophet or just a church leader not scared if you lose your pension?
Is that grace coming? Or is it just wishful thinking?
We in advent find ourselves somewhere in this scene. We are either asking the questions with anticipation and curiosity.
Or we are screaming until our throats are raw awaiting imprisonment and execution by this world and its systems.
Either way rejoice for this:
"I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know,the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal."