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Sermon for December 17, 2023 – Third Sunday of Advent

Program Transcript

Advent – Joy

In the tender embrace of Advent, we find ourselves on the cusp of a wondrous journey. Like the first light of dawn, joy begins to illuminate our hearts.

In Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, we hear the prophet’s voice, a herald of good news to the oppressed, a proclamation of liberty to the captives, and the promise of joy for those who mourn.

We witness the human experience, where joy and sorrow intermingle, where we long for a deeper sense of purpose and meaning.

Advent reminds us that joy is not a fleeting emotion, but a wellspring that flows from the heart of God, reaching out to touch our lives.

Isaiah’s words speak of transformation, of beauty rising from ashes, of joy blossoming in unexpected places. It’s a promise of renewal and hope.

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
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
Isaiah 61:1-3 (NRSVUE)

During this Advent season, let us open our hearts to the joy that comes from selfless giving, from being present for one another, from finding purpose in the service of others.

In this season of Advent, may joy be our guiding light, filling our hearts with hope and our spirits with praise.

Like stars in the night sky, may our joy shine brightly, a testament to the light that has come into the world.


Psalm 126:1-6 • Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 • 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 • John 1:6-8, 19-28

Each week of Advent, we will include a brief Advent service to accompany the lighting of a candle in the Advent wreath.

Third Sunday of Advent – Rose Candle

We relight the first candles of the Advent wreath – the candle of HOPE and the candle of PEACE. Now we light the third candle of Advent. This is the candle of JOY. As the coming of Jesus, our Savior, draws nearer, our joy builds with our anticipation of his birth. From the Book of Isaiah we read the words of our Lord:

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 and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

For I, the Lord, love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my whole being shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 NRSVUE)

God did bring righteousness and praise to us in the form of his Son, Jesus.

Let us pray:

We joyfully praise you, O Lord, for the fulfillment of your promise of a Savior and what that means in our lives. Thank you for the gift of salvation through the birth of your Son, Jesus. Create us anew as we wait, and help us see your glory as you fill our lives with your living Spirit. Amen.

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, and our theme for this week is called to share good news. Our call to worship Psalm recalls God’s promises kept, and it asks for restoration again. Isaiah 61 prophesies of Jesus’ anointing and role to “bring good news to the oppressed.” 1 Thessalonians offers wise practices for life and then reminds readers that it isn’t by our efforts, but that “The one who calls you is faithful…and will do this.” Our sermon text from John 1 reminds us that we play an important part in proclaiming Jesus Christ to the world, and we’ll think about how we might accomplish that in our postmodern society.

Expert Witnesses

John 1:6-8, 19-28 (NRSVUE)

Witnesses play a significant role in getting to the truth of any court case. But sometimes in the excitement of a trial, witnesses and lawyers can convey what they know in an unclear and funny way. Listen to these quoted examples:

Lawyer: “How old is your son, the one living with you?
Witness: “Thirty-eight or thirty-five, I can’t remember which.”
Lawyer: “How long has he lived with you?”
Witness: “Forty-five years.”

Lawyer: “Now, Mrs. Johnson, how was your first marriage terminated?”
Witness: “By death.”
Lawyer: “And by whose death was it terminated?”

Lawyer: “What is your date of birth?”
Witness: “July 15th.”
Lawyer: “What year?”
Witness: “Every year.”

Lawyer: “What gear were you in at the moment of impact?”
Witness: “Gucci sweats and Reeboks.”

Lawyer: “Can you describe what the person who attacked you looked like?”
Witness: “No. He was wearing a mask.”
Lawyer: “What was he wearing under the mask?”
Witness: “Er…his face.”

Lawyer: “What was the first thing your husband said to you when he woke that morning?”
Witness: “He said, ‘Where am I, Cathy?’”
lawyer: “And why did that upset you?”
Witness: “My name is Susan.”

As we can see from these humorous examples, witnesses can sometimes offer an unclear description of what they know to be true, leaving those they’re trying to convince in the dark. Our sermon text today has a lot to say about witnessing and light and why we’re called to share the Good News of the Incarnation. Let’s read John 1:6-8, 19-28. [Read sermon text.]

Important keywords of John’s gospel and the context for John 1:6-8, 19-28

Barclay’s Commentary points out that “life and light are two of the great basic words on which the Fourth Gospel is built.” In the context of our assigned sermon text, we read this from John 1:1-5, noticing how light and life are linked:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overtake it. (John 1:1-5, NRSVUE)

Another key word in John’s gospel is “darkness,” which appears seven times. At times, this darkness seems to refer to evil deeds that are often hidden, but some passages indicate that this could include a willful ignorance. John also uses the idea of dark and darkness to convey a feeling of uncertainty, such as when the disciples had taken their boat across the lake without Jesus in John 6:16-17:

When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. (John 6:17, NRSVUE)

In this passage, the sea became rough, and the disciples were afraid. When they saw Jesus walking on the water toward them, they were terrified until he spoke to reassure them of his presence. Another example where dark or darkness conveys uncertainty and fear includes John 20:1 where Mary Magdalene came to the tomb on the first day of the week. John’s use of contrast with the concepts of darkness vs. light and life helps us understand what Jesus’ impact on human beings can be.

Another key word of John’s gospel is “witness,” and throughout his gospel, John offers eight examples of a witness to Jesus as the Son of God:

  • The witness of the Father (John 5:37)
  • The witness of Jesus himself (John 8:18)
  • The witness of Jesus’ works (John 5:36)
  • The witness of scriptures about Jesus (John 5:39)
  • The witness of John the Baptist (John 1:7-8)
  • The witness of those who interacted with Jesus (John 4:39, 9:25, 12:17)
  • The witness of Jesus’ disciples (John 15:27)
  • The witness of the Holy Spirit (John 15:26,)

John’s witness (John 1:6-8, 19-28)

Our sermon text begins with John the Baptist, who was “a witness to testify to the light” (v. 8). As the passage moves forward, we see that priests and Levites were interrogating John to figure out who he was (v. 19). The typical orthodoxy was a little suspicious of John. By his lineage, he was a priest, but he did not behave as priests and Levites were expected to behave, and then add his clothing of camel’s hair and strange diet, and people weren’t sure what to think. They thought John could be the Messiah (v. 20), Elijah (v. 21), or a promised prophet brought back to life, such as Isaiah or Jeremiah (v. 21), but John denied all of these. Instead, he hearkened back to the prophet Isaiah’s words in Isaiah 40:3:

 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3, NRSVUE)

John wanted to make clear that he was someone directing people to Jesus, encouraging them to be aware and watchful. John was the moon reflecting the sun, in this case, the Son of God. Jesus said, “I am.” John said, “I am not.” John was a voice in the wilderness preparing people, identifying himself by saying who he was in connection with Jesus by pointing out who and what he was not.

From there, the Pharisees wanted to know why he was baptizing if he wasn’t the Messiah, Elijah, or a promised prophet. If John had been one of these three, there might have been scriptural precedent for baptism, such as Isaiah 52:15, Ezekiel 36:25, and Zechariah 13:1. Baptism, however, was for converts to the Jewish faith, not for Israelites who understood their need. By baptizing Jews, John was implying that to prepare for the coming Messiah, even Jews needed to be cleansed to be ready, despite their law keeping efforts.

Homiletics Professor and Political Theologian Jan Schnell Rippentrop summarizes John’s answers this way:

  • Explains who he is not (v. 19-22).
  • References a familiar Hebrew text that tells something about his vocation (v. 23).
  • Acknowledges his limitations (i.e., his water baptism vs. the One coming who is more worthy – v. 26-27).

Why our witness is important

Sometimes witnessing in today’s world is called “giving your testimony,” or sharing your story about how God has been involved in your life. Stories are an effective way to educate and inspire others because they communicate what’s important to us through emotions. They connect with the listeners’ hearts, and that’s where transformation occurs.

Rippentrop suggests that we can use these three methods as we witness for Jesus:

  • “I am not [fill in the blank].”
  • “This scripture will tell you something about what I do: [fill in scripture].”
  • “If you really want to know what I’m about, you’d have to know that I do this: [fill in the blank].”

Harvard professor Marshall Ganz developed a framework for these impactful stories: the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now. Rippentrop contextualizes the framework for Christians like this:

  • The story of self: What God has done with me/ How I have known God?
  • The story of us: What God does with us/ How we have known God?
  • The story of now: What God is up to now?

As we continue through Advent, today’s sermon text offers the opportunity for us to consider our own stories as witnesses of the Incarnation’s outcomes and preparation for the Second Coming. We are called to share the good news of Jesus, the Light and Life of the world. As the familiar carol encourages us, we’re to “go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go, tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born.” We are expert witnesses who can testify of God’s loving kindness to those with whom we have a relationship as well as those who might ask about the hope we rely upon to live.

Call to Action: This week, think about your testimony, and if it would be a story of self, us, or now as defined by Ganz’s framework. Consider how your witness in the form of story might encourage someone you know well, and if it seems appropriate and timely, share your story.

For Reference:

God in the Neighborhood w/ Winn Collier W3

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December 17 — Third Sunday of Advent
John 1:6-8; 9-28, “God in the Neighborhood”

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Program Transcript

God in the Neighborhood w/ Winn Collier W3

Anthony: Let’s transition to our third pericope of the month. It’s John 1:6-8, 19-28. It’s a Revised Common Lectionary passage for the third Sunday of Advent on December 17.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but he confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why, then, are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

When it states the true light enlightens everyone, according to verse 8, let’s use our Christian imagination. Enliven and enlighten us to consider what in actuality that means.

Winn: Yeah. Isn’t that a stunning line? Enlighten everyone. I don’t know that I know what all that means, but I think there’s some hints. I think it’s really striking that it doesn’t say shine a light in front of them. It doesn’t say make some light available to them. It actually says enlighten everyone.

This light is shining into the human soul, into the human person, and that this light is from God through Jesus Christ. So, I think there’s two things we have to say at the same time.

One is every human person—and this is what we would expect going all the way back to the Genesis story, where if you breathe, you breathe because the breath of God has been breathed into this whole idea. And again, there’s some shades to it and there’s some metaphor here that has some scriptural resonance. But this overdone way of talking about humanity, which is this guiding idea of separation, that we are far from God, and that’s not true.

If we breathe, God is closer than our breath. The psalmist talks about how we stand, the whole earth is filled with the glory of God. If you are standing or sitting anywhere on the globe at this very moment, you are literally held up by the glory of God, the love of God.

And so, God is never far. It’s a delusion and it’s a lie. The same one who from the beginning, the tempter’s great evil was in telling lies about God, and we’ve often consented and gone along with that.

God is very near, and God in the person of Jesus Christ has enlightened everyone. And this light, though, is no vague spiritual light. It’s no self-manifested light by our ever-increasing levels of consciousness. This is the light of revelation of Jesus Christ, that this light of God will not break into the human heart unless in the person of Jesus Christ, it breaks in.

And that’s exactly what has happened, John tells us, is that in the person of Jesus Christ, the light of God has broken into the human heart, every human person. Which opens up just a million places of wonder and sadness. The sorrow is how much more ridiculous is it, chaotic to run away from God?

So, all this is to say is that each one of us encounters the light of God in Jesus Christ. And we don’t just encounter it external to us, but it’s actually by the Spirit of God through the risen Christ is actually breaking into our heart.

And it is this Jesus who is our light. And so, to run away from Jesus, to resist Jesus is to resist our true home, our true being, our true future.

And it’s a stunning thing to think that in each place of human sorrow—even those of us who think we’re very far from God, even as those of us who don’t believe in God, even those in our life that we worry, and we have such perhaps fear for even because they just seem like they’re drifting away—that there is no person whom Jesus hasn’t broken in for.

There is no person who is outside the scope of Jesus’ love. There is no person who is so powerful that they are able to resist every bit of Jesus’ light and love because it is already broken in.

And so, the invitation then is to receive it. To receive it. To stop resisting it. To come home, to just say yes to love. And if this is the posture of Jesus towards every person, this is also the posture of Jesus’ people toward every person.

Anthony: Amen. That’s where it gets highly practical, right? The way that we view our neighbor. The way that we love our enemies. And may we, Lord, point to truth as it is. I’m looking at verse 16 right now, Wynn, and it talks about a God who doesn’t give us the scraps off his table. It’s from his fullness we’ve all received grace upon grace! He doesn’t withhold. He is not separated from you.

And so often our declaration of the gospel sounds like an “if” proposition. If you do this, God will do that. Quid pro quo. That’s not what we see revealed in Jesus Christ, right? He is the first word and the last word in that way. Hallelujah. Praise God. I don’t know how a Christian could not be enamored with the declaration of John 1:14.

And Eugene Peterson in The Message wrote, “The word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” It’s just a simple but staggering pronouncement. And you talk about earthy spirituality, right? So, for you personally, why does the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ captivate you?

Winn: It’s the whole story. It’s what all of creation groaned for. It is everything that gives us our hope. This light that has broken into humanity and into every human person and every place of horror and sorrow is precisely because Jesus Christ reveals to us and actually makes it so that God never stays outside our troubles.

And that in Jesus Christ, I actually know for the very first time what it means to be human, what it means to be alive. What it means to be made in God’s image, why I have been drawn into the truest and widest story of the universe. Why my life has meaning. Why those I love, and I am awake in the middle of the night fearful for, why there is no moment when those ones I love are ever abandoned.

There is no place of despair that is ever, ever outside the reach and the scope and the active work of Christ’s mercy. And that all of this is because God, as I understand it, has always from the beginning, before the beginning of human time, has always intended to unite humanity to God. So, I don’t understand the incarnation as a sort of plan B, just a reaction to human sinfulness.

I think the way the story played out obviously was not God’s first intention. My understanding is God’s intention was always to draw humanity into the triune life and that this is part of what it means to be God, is to give oneself for the good of others and to draw others into this never ending sphere of divine love.

So what other story is there?

Anthony: Jesus said, when the Son of Man is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself. And it’s humbling to have a share in that participation, right? To proclaim the truth of who Jesus is.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • The opening remarks show how witnessing can be misconstrued and misinterpreted. We’re human, after all. How can we make sure our communication is clear and appropriate for the setting when we decide to share our testimony? In other words, how can we know it’s the right time to share our testimony, and how can we make sure our message connects with the heart in a thoughtful way?
  • John’s gospel uses the keyword “witness” to establish Jesus as the Son of God by setting up various witnesses, such as the witness of the Father, the witness of Jesus himself, the witness of Jesus’ works, etc. Why do you think that the theme of witness is an important one in John’s gospel? And how do you see the other important keywords (i.e., light, life, and darkness) connected with the idea of witnessing for Jesus as the Son of God?
  • Our theme for this week is “Called to Share the Good News,” and the sermon offers ideas for shaping your story of God’s involvement in your life. Can you share your brief story of self, your story of us, or your story of now that conveys the emotions you’ve experienced from your relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

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