Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
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.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
John 1:6-8, 19-28
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.
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,’ ”
as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “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.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Who are you?
This is a big question. That is a tough question. That is a question that would require a ton of thought to answer it openly, honestly and in some depth.
You know, when a church congregation, in the Presbyterian Church in Canada, becomes vacant, because their previous minister has taken a call somewhere else, or has retired, or has gone on disability or died….
The church congregation goes about a process of seeking the right candidate to fulfill the position of minister or pastor among us…
It starts with a search committee. And the first thing that search committee does is do a congregational profile.
In other words, they answer the question: Who are we?
That profile includes things like numbers of people in the congregation, number of children in Church School, programs and committees at the church, what the surrounding community is like, some paragraphs on what is important for the church and its ministry and the gifts they would like to see in their new minister.
And then they gather in profiles of prospective ministers. And those profiles are the ministers answering the question: “Who are you?”
The search committee narrows down the candidates and tries to pick two or three or four to explore more deeply with an interview, and maybe recorded sermons. Then it is usually narrowed down to one person who is invited to preach the call and further interviews take place.
The minister comes and is trying to determine who the church is… and the congregation is trying to determine who the minister is…
But…. But…and it is a big But…. My experience is that just like when people date… neither side is completely honest…
They are trying to sell themselves.
Congregations say: Look at us… we are good… you want to be with us…
Ministers say: look at me… I am pretty good… you want me to be your minister…
Most of the time, ministers and congregations don’t particularly mean to be dishonest, or hiding things, but the reality is that the whole process is pretty romanticized and just like star-crossed lovers who think the other is going to be their soulmate and fulfill them…
…it is easy for ministers and congregations to think that the other will fulfill them…
I have heard it said explicitly and implicitly when search committees and congregations appear at presbytery…
“This is the minister who is going to turn us around and save us and get us going in the right direction.”
I have been the minister who thought or said: ‘this is the congregation where great things are going to happen and I will fit in well and they will treat me right and they have God’s will foremost in their thoughts…
But the reality is that ministers are not saviours… and congregations are not perfect either…
And when the minister and congregation get married, so to speak, and the call goes through and the minister comes…. Then the minister and the congregation begin to see each other’s flaws.
They begin to see each other for who they really are?
For some minister/congregational relationships it can be a rude awakening.
For quite a few of us, it has been a long, long time since we were in the dating game, and you went out on a date and you were trying to have fun, but you were trying to get to know who that person was, and maybe you remember what it was like to find out that the person you thought was so dreamy, was actually more of a nightmare.
But you have had that experience of getting to know people in other parts of your life.
And I, and probably you too, know personally about being let down, or being betrayed, or stabbed in the back, or trusting in someone we should not have trusted in.
Sometimes we find out what somebody’s true colours are and we don’t like it.
But the question remains. Who are you? What are your true colours?
What are you really like with all your masks stripped away and your defenses down? Kind? Selfish? Encouraging? Humorous? Spontaneous? Controlled? Vulgar? Wise? Naïve? Wordly?
What is your real story? Fiona and I have been watching this Netflix series about a Nurse Practitioner who has moved to really small rural California community up in the mountains away from the big city. She doesn’t tell anyone her story, of a stillbirth and the death of her husband. And yet, that is a huge part of who she is, her identity and what motivates her.
There is a reason to keep it quiet and probably a good reason, but the viewer can see that this is a huge part of who she is. But as yet it is still mostly a secret to others.
Today the scriptures all have this theme of identity.
In the Isaiah passage of scripture it is about “Who the Messiah is… what the Christ is about…”
And what does it say about the identity of the Messiah.
The Messiah is spirit-filled.
The Messiah brings good news to the poor.
The Messiah heals the broken-hearted.
The Messiah announces release to captives and freedom to the imprisoned.
The Messiah comforts those who mourn.
The Messiah give joy and gladness instead of grief…. Praise instead of sorrow.
If you read the whole bible you can get the whole backstory of the Messiah. The Messiah comes from a people who were chosen. Chosen doesn’t mean better. It means they were chosen to show the world what it means to live in harmony with the divine.
However the back story shows that they didn’t always live in harmony with the divine.
This chosen people were enslaved at one time and God won their freedom and led them through the wilderness to a promised land…
…but the reality was that these chosen people often copied the ways of the oppressors and sometimes ended up playing the same power games and oppressing their own people with rules, regulations, accusations, prejudice, hierarchies, and expectations that instead of leading people to God, put barriers up and kept people from God.
…and the Messiah… the Christ was not about freeing the chosen people from the oppressors, as much as here to set all people free from oppression and setting them free to be their true selves., and to open and honest relationships of love with each other and with the divine…
And then our gospel lesson is about John. In John’s gospel John is not nicknamed the Baptist, because in John’s gospel the focus on John the Baptist is not of John as Baptizer, but of John as a witness.
John’s identity is this. John is not about himself. John points to the light. He witnesses to the truth. He shows people the way to get to the one who is love itself.
He is humble, truth seeking, and out for the best for others, not himself. A true servant of the Messiah.
It is pretty countercultural, in a world that like to brag and say: ‘look at me.”
Even when John is in the wilderness, even when he is poor, even when he is put in prison, even when he has doubts about Jesus, even when he doesn’t understand the methods of Jesus…
…he still always is himself… and points to truth and light.
John the Baptist would be killed for truth-telling and for his witness, for calling people to repent, and to be good and to turn away from selfishness and evil.
There’s a whole lot of people who have Messiah complexes, who think of themselves as the end all and be all. There’s a whole lot of people who think a lot of themselves.
And yet there are those who have Messiah complexes for good reasons too, who try to save the world on the front lines of medicine, or who are trying to right all the injustices of the world, or who take on the system and try to change it to make the world better for blacks, or aboriginals or other minorities…
And so, in our first couple of passages of scripture there is a whole lot for us to ponder as we consider our identity.
Do we point the way to love, to truth, and to the divine? Can we park out egos and humble ourselves and serve others?
And while we are not the Messiah, and maybe we should not set our sights too high in saving the world, could we learn something from the Messiah.
Could we be good news to those who are poor or marginalized? Could we be a healing presence? Could we comfort the broken-hearted? Could we bring joy instead of grief?
John’s identity was about being a witness to Jesus, a witness to love, light and truth. Could we witness to Jesus by being good news, by being caring, by being inclusive, by being just?
The thing about identity is that it is not fixed. The bible is full of stories, resplendent with stories of people who changed, whose identity changed as they met God or Jesus.
And the simple truth is, that if you want to be more than you are, if you want to be more loving, more caring, most just, more helpful, more forgiving…
If you want your identity to be more Christlike, then spend time with Jesus.
But there is one other story today of identity and witness and we read a bit of the story of Mary.
Most of us know how the angel appeared to her. Most of us know of her trip to Nazareth with her husband Joseph and the birth of Jesus in a barn. We know of Mary, and many of know how she has been venerated in history by many.
But her back story is that of a culture that did not embrace women or treat them equally.
Mary was a woman. Probably a young woman when Jesus was born. Almost certainly a teenager. Most girls were betrothed and then married not long after they were physically able to have children.
Jewish culture was very patriarchal, as were many cultures. We still haven’t left it yet.
Jewish men didn’t talk to women in public, even their wives. Women weren’t allowed to attend worship.
Women were not allowed to read the Torah, the scriptures. Women were not given a formal education like men.
So, don’t you see how crazy it is when Mary sings a song of praise about God and this Messiah she is carrying.
She, who is not allowed into worship, worships God.
She, who is not allowed to read scripture writes scripture.
She, who was not equal to a man, is the one who carries the future of all humankind.
Listen again to what Mary says, and think about what is means for girls and women. I am going to add some words so you can see what it might mean for girls and women.
God has scattered the proud men in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful men from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly girls and women;
God has filled the hungry women with good things,
and sent the rich men away empty.
God has helped all of Israel, not just the men
in remembrance of God’s mercy,
according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to all his descendants, both men and women, forever.”
How often have I as a minister used that text to refer to the poor and not thought about the plight of women.
But the reality is that the women comprise the majority of the poor.
70% of the world’s 1.3 billion poor are women;
66% of the world’s illiterate people are women;
80% of the world’s refugees are women and children;
I recently read an excerpt from a lecture by Kathy Galloway. Kathy Galloway is an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland, and was the first woman elected leader of the Iona Community.
The lecture of which I read an excerpt was entitled “Communicating Gender.”
In it she tells a story of Jan, a member of the Iona community who went to the West Bank as an Ecumenical Accompanier. The point of the Accompanier Program is to send people to monitor and report human rights violations, help protect the people through non-violent presence. Israeli forces are much less likely to hurt people if it means hurting British people, American people, Canadian people, or European people. So, their very presence is a mitigating factor.
Anyway, Jan went to visit a family, a Bedouin family who live on the wrong side of the Wall. A huge triple fenced barrier was built by Israel for protection and has cut several miles into the West bank, and in this case cut off this Bedouin family’s house from work and school and the rest of the town where they buy groceries and have friends.
Jan saw two teenaged girls in the house. They used to go to school by passing through the wall every day, but the father had stopped them from going to school, because every day they went through the wall Israeli soldiers would make them take of their headgear, and roughly search them putting their hands all over their bodies.
So, the father had stopped them from going through the wall. No school, no friends.
So, they asked if Jan had a cell phone. They borrowed it and immediately called their friends.
Jan used the phone to take pictures of the place and the family and, to relate the story back to the Iona community, where Kathy Galloway received the email about this story.
When Kathy opened up the email a trojan virus had gained access to the email, and so the story and the photos were accompanied by pornographic images.
And Kathy thought this curious juxtaposition of women’s stories, Jan, the peace activist, the Muslim school-aged girls pawed by the soldiers, unable to go to school, and the women in the pornographic images, turned into commodities for sale…
That they were a kind of paradigm of the gendered experience.
That we still live in a patriarchal world that uses women and mistreats them and doesn’t treat them as equals, and that violence against women in this world is legion.
And while we have come a long way in the western world and millions of women have political and civil rights not heard of a hundred years ago, there is still a long way to go. And even in the western world, women often only get to avail themselves of their rights when they are wealthy enough.
Even this pandemic, it has been pointed out, has set women back years in the struggle for equality. There are articles in the BBC, CTV, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Forbes and many other news agencies about how women were disproportionately affected by job loss. Issues of child care are affecting women more. Women work more in the service industries where job losses were more severe.
And one of the problems is that when we are talking about issues of discrimination or racial prejudice, or rights for the poor, or national child care plan, there is the problem of invisibility.
Governments and the powerful often do not want to focus on these issues and they try to keep public awareness off these issues.
It is hard to give someone a cup of cold water if you don’t know they are thirsty.
That is why totalitarian states silence poets and artists and journalists who often raise awareness of the forgotten and the invisible.
The Japanese-American theologian Kosuke Koyama has written:
Grace cannot function in a world of invisibility. Yet in our world, the rulers try to make invisible the alien, the orphan, the hungry and thirsty, the sick and imprisoned. This is violence. Their bodies must remain visible. There is a connection between invisibility and violence. People, because of the image of God they embody, must remain seen. Faith, hope and love are not vital except in what is seen. Religion seems to raise up the invisible and despise what is visible. But it is the ‘see, hear, touch’ gospel that can nurture the hope which is free from deception.
So, Mary not only witnesses to the Christ who sets people free. She not only points to Jesus, she points to one half of the world, the feminine half of the world, who were and still are often, the invisible victims, whom Christ came to set free.
Obviously, Mary points to others as well where there is not a level playing field, where God wants to exalt the valleys and bring down the mountains and make a straight way for all to come to God, and experience God’s love, justice, equality and mercy…
But today I thought it was important to talk about women, and Mary’s witness to the equality of women.
And I know as a man, I don’t know what it is like to be a woman.
But I think that I want to highlight today two things we can do as followers of Jesus.
The first is to point to Jesus. The first is to be a witness for Jesus and I think we witness for Jesus when we let Jesus live in us. When we are good news for the poor and marginalized… When we are a healing presence… When we bring joy instead of grief, peace instead of violence, when we help people be free to be themselves.
And the second is to witness to the invisible. It is to point to those whom society has left out, whom society treats unfairly, whom society violates by thinking they are not worthy or not important enough.
So, who are you? What is your identity? Whom do you point to? Whom do you elevate and lift up? Whom do you put down? Where is your wilderness? Who is invisible to you?
Because today someone comes, and asks you if you will be a witness to Jesus.
Because today someone comes, and asks you if you are willing to serve others and point to light and truth.
Today someone comes and asks you if you will be good news to the marginalized.
Today someone comes and asks you if you will make the invisible visible.
Today someone comes and asks you if you will be Mary too, and let Christ be born in you?