Year B; Advent 3; 12.13.2020
John 1:6-8:19-28; Psalm 91
One of the psalms suggested for the nightly compline prayers in the prayer book is Psalm 91. Those months early in the pandemic when I led compline, I almost always chose to read Psalm 91. I now consider it to be my pandemic anthem. Words that I used to pass over as a bit antiquated, I now consider essential to this pandemic anthem.
Listen to verses 3, 6 and 10.
“[God] shall deliver you from the snare of the hunter and [get this!] from the deadly pestilence.” “Deadly pestilence” is everywhere now, not just a threat to ancient Israel.
Here’s another verse, “You shall not be afraid…of the plague that stalks in the darkness…” Well, I admit. I AM afraid because it stalks our 21st Century lives right now, and, as Dr. Shah said a few weeks ago, “Take mask and distancing precautions because the virus is everywhere in Maine.”
Finally, verse 10 gives us the promise that God is with us, while the plague lurks near our dwelling. “There shall no evil happen to you, neither shall any plaque come near your dwelling.”
And so, “pestilence” and “plague” are no longer old-fashioned words written by an ancient poet for ancient worship. They are with us in 2020. But as the psalmist promises, the LORD, the Almighty, the Light of the world is ever present. And it’s to the Light of Christ that we point today, this third Sunday of Advent.
There is a 16th Century altarpiece painted by Matthias Gruenwald that was installed at the monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, Alsace, near the southern border of Germany. This monastery was a hospital that cared for victims of the plague in the early Renaissance. The altarpiece depicts Christ on the cross, full of sores from this plague. But the character that is most important in the altarpiece is the man standing next to the cross, holding out his long finger from his right hand pointing directly to the suffering Jesus who clearly knows the pain of the suffering people.
This figure is John the Baptist. In John’s Gospel, he is a witness, a testifier. In John’s gospel, he testifies to the Light. He clearly states to the officials that he is NOT the light.
John is called in the Greek, “martyria” multiple times. “martyria,” martyr, witness. His role was to answer clearly to the religious officials who came to question him about baptizing, “Who are you?” He answered who he was not. “I am not the Messiah. But there is someone who is, and to him I am pointing.”
Karl Barth was the Swiss Protestant theologian who helped author the Barmen Declaration which was a firm confession of Jesus and the Gospels against the distorted nationalist Nazi co-opting of the Church. Karl Barth kept a print of Matthias Gruenwald’s Isenheim altarpiece hanging in his study. The detail of John the Baptist pointing to Jesus on the cross was meant to remind him that he was to point to Jesus as John did.
Pointing to Jesus is a way for Jesus’ followers to witness to his light. Pointing to Jesus strengthens our own faith as we all from time-to-time grope around in the darkness, afraid that plague, pestilence and evil could defeat us.
I admit that sometimes I have felt faint in fear of “deadly pestilence” and “plague” and can’t seem to lift my arm to point to the Light. But I take heart that others shine their light on Jesus when I don’t feel like it. Like John the Baptist, they point to the Light as I follow their witness for strength, faith and courage.
I remember spending a day on a tour in Tunis the ancient North African city on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. John and I were on a Mediterranean cruise with my brother, his wife and some high school students and parents of my brother’s history classes. We spent time touring ancient nearby Carthage and walking the Roman roads. We saw many ancient little stone boxes in which infants were sacrificed to the gods. Talk about “dark” times!
Then we drove to the edge of town to a Roman ruin of a stadium. Nearly buried, the circular stadium was still visible. This stadium was where Perpetua and her Companions, noble and faithful third Century Christians, were entertainment for the Romans. They were killed in the arena by wild animals as they embraced each other and looked to heaven in prayer. Right in front of the cheering mob, they pointed to Christ while the beasts tore them up. As I entered that arena that day, I pondered their story of faith and began to size up my faith. “What kind of witness am I?” I thought to myself.
They died in the year 203 BCE. Today in my pandemic prayer room where I lead Compline on Wednesday evenings, there on my bookshelf is an icon of Perpetua and Felicity her Christian household slave, in an embrace of friendship. That’s how they died; praying and embracing each other. They are still pointing to the Light, witnessing to me all these hundreds of centuries later, the promises of Christ, the Messiah.
In these longest and darkest nights of winter, I wonder how am I witnessing to the Light of Christ? Does my life as a follower of Jesus point to him? There is much darkness in this world that discourages me and makes me feel anxious. If some days we are not able to witness to Christ’s Light, are there others we recognize in our parish, neighborhoods, families and even culture who are pointing to the Light?
Last week I ran across an article by the Associated Press that named12-year-old Keedron Bryant’s song, “I Just Wanna Live,” as song of the year for 2020. It’s a prayer from a teen-aged black youth asking God for protection. The story was reported by music editor Mesfin Fekadu who wrote this story.
He writes, “During times of turmoil and unrest, people respond differently. Some protest. Some cry. And some sing. Following the gruesome death of George Floyd, Johnetta Bryant turned to God and asked for a prayer – and the lyrics to ‘I Just Wanna Live’ were born. She asked her son Keedron…to sing the song…about being a young Black man in today’s world…”
In his rich, melodic much-more-mature-than-twelve-year-old-voice, Keedron Bryant sings the words his mother wrote about fear and hope. On YouTube, this song points to the light of God’s abiding presence to this young black man:[Listen here]
“I just wanna live.
“God protect me; just stay by my side…”
“I’m a young black man
Doin’ all that I can to stand.
I just wanna live. I just wanna live.”
This third Sunday of Advent, I wonder how our lives today point to our Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. What kind of witness will YOU be?