December 17, 2017

3rd Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126

John 1:6-28


When I was still a student studying theology, I had to learn three ancient languages: Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic. Of all the three, Hebrew was my favourite. It was the simplest of all three languages, perhaps because it was older than the other two so it was less refined. But with Hebrew, you have to read from right to left and the original words do not even have vowels. It was only a later development that people put marks on the words to indicate how each word was supposed to be pronounced.

But unlike Greek or English, Hebrew does not have tenses: the rules in a language that indicate time in a word or sentence. All European languages, including Greek and English, are quite similar in that in these languages, time is well defined. Using these languages, we know exactly what time that a speaker talks about in his speech or an author refers to in his writing. For example, when I say, “I went,” you know immediately that the event happened in the past and when I say, “I will go,” you know that the event will happen in the future.

This is one of the difficulties that a person who grew up in a place like Asia has when he/she learns a European language like Greek or English. There are no tenses in Asian languages, at least the ones that I know of like Indonesian or Mandarin. You have to guess the time by putting the sentence into its proper context.

The same with Hebrew. There are no past, present, or future tenses in Hebrew that can help a reader to tell the time that an author was referring to.

That is why reading a text written in Hebrew can be quite challenging. Psalm 126 is one of those texts. There is no clear indication of the exact time that the author of the Psalm was referring to. When did Israel’s prosperity begin to be restored? Had the people of Israel been liberated or were they still waiting for the liberation? Were they still dreaming and yearning, or were their dreams had become a reality?

Perhaps instead of seeing the uncertainty of time in the text as a literary problem, we see it as the Psalm’s message for us today. Perhaps Psalm 126 invites us to that place where time -especially time as a linear progress that moves from the past to the present to the future - has lost its significance. Perhaps Psalm 126 invites us to that place when the past, present, and future permeate one another. Perhaps Psalm 126 invites us the place where the yearning of the past, the hope for the future, and the reality in the present fill one another’s space.

Indeed, it takes the genius mind of someone like Albert Einstein’s to discover that, in the universe that God creates, time is not a permanent fixture. For Einstein, time is relative and it can vary depending on our speed in space. In his theory, time is the fourth dimension of the universe and, under his general theory of relativity, time can be bent by gravity!

This is mind-blowing stuff (literally, my mind feels like it’s going to explode every time I try to understand Einstein’s theory!) But does the theory not explain what the Hebrews, in their intuition, somehow knew that, in God’s universe, time was not set in stone. The Hebrews knew that God moved from the past to the present to the future and, in God, the past, present, and future were no boundaries that could not be crossed.

Is this not what Christmas is all about? Is Christmas not the time when the history of God’s love and salvation for God’s people in the past, and the hope and yearning for God’s future become our reality today? Is Christmas not the time when eternity punctures our limited time here on earth and heaven touches our mundane life in the world?

The permeability of time appears again in our passage from the book of Isaiah. Once again, the passage was written in Hebrew and time is not clearly defined in the text. Who actually said these poetic words and who were his/her audience?

Whatever the text’s original historical context of the passage, the message itself is timeless. Many generations after it was written, Luke told us in his Gospel that Jesus read this passage to mark the beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:16-21). By doing that, Jesus took the role of the first person in the poem in Isaiah. He proclaimed that his mission was the mission of the person referred to in Isaiah; the mission to bring good news to the poor, heal the broken, release the captives, defeat evil, and comfort those who mourn. This mission was no longer a mission of someone in a distant past or a mission for someone who will come in the future; the mission was Jesus’ mission and, as such, it is our mission as well. Christmas is the time when heaven touches the earth. To celebrate Christmas thus is to join Jesus in his mission to bring his heavenly healing to a broken world.

Indeed, we are all called to follow in the footsteps of John the Baptist. In today’s world, we define our value in the society by claiming who we are, what we can do, what we have achieved, where we come from, etc. Not John. He claimed his place in the world by proclaiming who he was not. When asked about his identity by the Jewish religious establishments, he said, “I’m not the Messiah, or the great prophet Elijah, or the prophet who was believed to return at the end of time. I’m none of these great figures.”

So who was John? He was a witness, a man pointing other people to the true light. He was the voice that prepared the way for the coming of a man who was greater than him or anyone else.

The Greek word for witness is martyría and the Greek word for testify is martyréo. The words came from the legal terms in the Greek world where the punishment for someone who gave false testimony in court was death. A witness was thus someone who put his/her own life at risk to testify about something.[1] As Jesus’ witness, John put his life at risk by testifying about the great light that came into the darkness of the world. No, John was not the light. He testified about the light. He brought other people to the light. He pointed other people to Christ in which the yearning of the people in the past and the hope for the future were fulfilled.

Indeed, friends, we are all called to be witnesses of this great light that came into darkness on Christmas day. We are called to testify to the great light that penetrates the darkness in which many people still live today.

In our Advent Bible Study, people who joined the study discussed about things that they could do to witness the light whose arrival we celebrate this Christmas. These people then made the commitment to do these things this season of Advent.

Some people made the commitment to support our service men and women who are serving overseas this Christmas, away from their family. Some people made the commitment to continue their support for people who would spend their Christmas in the prison. Others made a commitment to invite people in their neighborhood to their home this Christmas.

One person made a special commitment. He wanted to bear witness to the light of Christ by telling his neighborhood about the real story of Christmas. He is concerned that the story of Jesus’ birth has often been put aside in today’s Christmas parade or in the Christmas decorations that people put in their homes. So he wanted to retell the story of Jesus’ birth by decorating his house with nativity-themed lights. He found the lights display on the internet and it was sent to him within 10 days from China. It maybe simple, but I think, in his own way, he has testified to the light whose arrival we celebrate this Christmas.

Indeed, sometimes the thing that makes the most significant change in someone’s life is the simplest of things. On Christmas Day 1949, Reverend Frank Byatt of Victoria placed an empty bowl on the table during Christmas meal. He then asked his guests to fill the bowl with gifts to support the refugees who had escaped the horrors of WWII. His action evolved into what we now know as the Christmas Bowl, a tradition that unites thousands of churches in Australia every year. Last year, around 1800 churches from 19 denominations participated in the Christmas Bowl, joining hands to serve the weakest amongst us in the world.

Friends, Christmas is the time when heaven meets the earth; when the memory of God’s providence and the yearning and hope for a better future become a reality in the present time; when time on earth ‘collapsed’ and replaced by a glimpse of eternity.

What can we do in this season of preparation to make it a reality? We don’t have to start with anything fancy. God can use the simplest of things to change a soul somewhere in a corner of this world. Amen.

Toby Keva

[1] Mark Allan Powell, Commentary on John 1:6-8, 19-28, (December 14 2014)