In this the third week of Advent, John the Baptist seems to be taking the spotlight again. Last week’s gospel expounded on John’s mission, and then this week we hear the story once again. John was the prophet who was preparing the way for the arrival of the Promised One. John was calling the people to repentance (a turning or rejection of the old ways), and he baptized with water as an outward sign of that inward change. This week though, the drama heightens a bit, and John is identifying himself clearly as the one who was NOT the Messiah. In this narrative, John is pointing clearly to Jesus as the Promised One of God, by preparing the way for the One whose mission is the salvation of all. The crafters of the lectionary chose the perfect Old Testament reading to compliment today’s Gospel. It is interesting to note that the Old Testament reading from Isaiah is the one Jesus chose to inaugurate his earthly ministry. “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.” In the synagogue, Jesus read from this scroll and declared to all present, that its reading was being fulfilled that day. God’s promises were being fulfilled in Jesus Christ and there are vivid examples of it throughout Jesus’ ministry. Whether it was a blind man, a woman with a blood condition, a leper, or a wealthy person struggling for meaning, Jesus was and is in the business of releasing people from the bondage of a common human problem; identity crisis. In the midst of this struggle, we live in hope that God will deliver us, but sometimes we might ask, from what. All of us share a common journey, which sometimes is fraught with joy and celebration and sometimes with doubt, fear, and pain but, our salvation journey begins when we become a new people, when the old becomes new, when the former us, begins to emerge as the potential new. We are restored, reconciled, and made whole, when we come to know through the Spirit who we really, are and whose we really are. The oppressed, brokenhearted, captive and prisoners are anyone who is captive to anything that keeps us from communion with God and each other, from our identity as Children of God and sisters and brothers, saved by grace. When we come to know that we are set free. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he was about the work of setting captives free. Jesus once met a rich man who came seeking the kingdom of God. He followed all the laws and yet, Jesus said there was one thing missing. Jesus said, “sell whaearly have, give it to the poor and then follow Him.” The challenge for the man had nothing to do with any notion that money or wealth is in itself, something evil. The problem was that his wealth served as a stumbling block to his salvation. The one thing that became the god of his life was his wealth because it defined who he was, it influenced all his choices, and it prevented him from fully loving his neighbor. The rich man needed to be set free. There are other prisons in which we can be held captive. Whether it is an addiction, an excessive luxury, a career, debt, or even an unhealthy relationship, we are all can be in bondage to something. We all have something in our lives that competes for our affection, that wrestles for our time, that wars against our service to God and each other; we all have idols. Sometimes that which holds us in bondage, is the least obvious to us. There was a young teenager who played guitar in large church’s praise band. He practiced with the group every week and rehearsed at home all the time. It was as if the band took over his every thought and purpose. His obsession with this ministry was a bit overwhelming for his friends and family too. When the older kids graduated from high school, the group had to disband. Soon our teenage friend stopped going to church, he fell out of touch with his fellow musicians, and his spiritual life suffered. We may know folks like this, we may even be like him in some ways. The question with which we might wrestle is, “are there things in our life that can become an idol, despite the fact it is for good?” Idols can be so subtle that even a ministry can have a power over us, and hold us in a prison of an estrangement from God and others. It is this kind of estrangement that John the Baptist was proclaiming would come to an end, when we accept our identity in Jesus Christ. It was the baptism of repentance that would be fulfilled in the one who would baptize with the Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that calls us to turn to God and turn away from that which stands between us and God, and each other in Christ, yet we still struggle. We can begin to recognize the idols in our lives, because they become that with which we are identified. In other words, we define ourselves by that to which we pay homage. Like the rich man Jesus met or the young teenager who played guitar, these two folk’s entire identity was bound up in something other than Christ. For disciples, we through our baptism in Christ we are marked as Christ’s own forever. We are marked, stamped, certified, and signified as a disciple of Our Lord, but not merely as individuals. Our uniqueness joins with the character of the communion of saints and we are now Children of God. Our individuality is broadened into community. Our self is beyond mere country, political party, social class, gender, individual need or any other social label. As such, our worship, our homage, our focus, our very lives are now free because we are no longer captive to the old “me,” but immersed into a new “we” in Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” By letting go and allowing the Spirit to work in us, we are participating in the Kingdom in which we are made new, in which we have a new name, into which we grow in a deeper love and commitment to Jesus Christ. . We, the oppressed, brokenhearted, captives, and prisoners are receiving good news, we are being bound together in Christ, we are receiving liberty from our idols, and we are being released from our prisons of estrangement. In Jesus Christ, we are free and in Jesus Christ, we are recipients of the Lord’s favor and not just for us, but for all of creation.
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