Last week I went with others to see the icons at
Bob Jones University museum and the Greek Orthodox church in , Greenville SC. Icons are holy pictures used as an aid to prayer in the Eastern Orthodox church. Icons are full of symbols; everything has a meaning. I’ve brought a few reproduction icons - in the parish house. Where we have an altar rail the Greek church has a wall of large icons in the Byzantine style. John the Baptist is shown with wings.
Wings are for angels. Angels are messengers of God and John is also pictured with wings to remind us that John was a messenger – the Greek word is martyrion from which we get “martyr” – witness. John “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”
This Advent in the two weeks we have before Christmas, I invite you to be like John the Baptist, witnesses to the light. We’ve all walked in physical darkness, and we know that it doesn’t take much light to be able to see. Many of us have experienced spiritual darkness, the heaviness of despair, and we know first hand about the light of the love of God in Jesus Christ that has come to us in that spiritual darkness.
John was a witness that the light of the world had come in Jesus Christ. We are witnesses to the light of Christ that has come to us. We know ourselves to be forgiven sinners, set free from the natural guilt and shame that comes when we sin against God and others, set free from the compulsion to keep on doing what didn’t work then and won’t work now, set free to be able to receive and give the love that God shares with us in family and friends, set free to love and serve God and one another.
Our task is to own our experience, to rejoice in it, and to be ready to share it as God gives us opportunity. The world is hungry to hear good news; we wait eagerly to hear that we are loved, that our sins are forgiven, that God has “graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.”
I spoke last week about Isaiah’s word to the returning exiles from
. Today’s Old Testament reading continues the word of the Lord, “Comfort, comfort ye my people.” The returning exiles were rightly depressed when they thought of the amount of work they faced to restore after generations of abandonment and neglect land and city and destroyed temple. Their fathers had been taken captive into exile. They were free, free to struggle and conflict and hard work. Babylon
The Lord promises them comfort – comfort in the old meaning – “with strength.” When I talk with couples before weddings I remind them that the vow to love and comfort means comfort as strengthening one another. And in a society of conflict and easy divorce I spent some time asking couples to tell me how they plan to live out their vows to honor one another, “and forsaking all others, be faithful.”
God gives us comfort - strength, spiritual strength that comes like physical strength – with sweat and discomfort. God gives us gladness instead of mourning, “praise instead of a faith spirit.” And God promises his justice. The exiles had to deal with squatters had moved in on the lands of the returning exiles; their family houses had been looted, and recovery of the stolen goods was not easy. But the word of the Lord says, “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.”
It took a long time, but God’s everlasting covenant was made. In the death of Jesus the penalty for the sin of the world was paid. In the resurrection of Jesus new life is offered to all who will receive it in him. We are among those who have accepted that new life. We sealed our covenant in Baptism and we renew it today in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. “We remember his death. We proclaim his resurrection. We await his coming in glory.’
The people did not see the wings of John the Baptist. They were invisible and we know of them only in the picture. People can’t see our wings either, but we’re as called as John was to be witnesses and messengers in our time. May God grant us the invisible wings and the grace of his Holy Spirit to be effective witnesses to his love and grace in the next two weeks.
As John Keble wrote in the hymn “New every morning,” “God help us, this and every day, To live more nearly as we pray.”