3rd Sunday of Advent

December 14, 2014
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Reading 2: 
Psalm 126
Reading 3: 
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Reading 4: 
John 1:6-8, 19-28
By Bruce G. Epperly

This Lectionary Commentary was first published on December 14, 2008.


“The spirit of God is upon me, because God has appointed me to bring good news.” 
The words of the prophet Isaiah, later repeated by Jesus as he claimed his vocation as God’s messenger to the world, invite us to reflect upon our vocations in light of the Advent coming of God’s reign. I have long juxtaposed the words of Frederick Buechner and Parker Palmer in my courses in areas such as spirituality and ministry and spiritual autobiography, “listen to your life” and “let your life speak.” Today’s passages invite us to practice listening and sharing as essential practices for discovering our vocations.

Today’s readings explore the teleology of vocation. Our callings and vocations in life are grounded in our environment, DNA, family of origin, religious upbringing, past choices, and many other factors, including God’s emerging vision for our lives, but our callings and vocations always aim toward the future. Whether or not we are aware of it at the time, our growth as persons and communities is shaped by future visions and dreams, both short and long term. In the teleology of vocation, each moment has a vocation; each day, many callings; and each lifetime, many pathways, in the context of God’s Holy Adventure. Although none of us begin the day as a blank slate, preacher and parishioner alike can appreciate the words of singer/song writer Carrie Newcomer:
            The empty page
            The open book
            Redemption everywhere I look.

We do not fully choose our vocations; they emerge from the interplay of God’s call and our response in our unique and dynamic historical and communal context. Although I believe, in contrast to Rick Warren, that God does not choose the most important factors in our lives “without our input,” still God’s guidance moves through every moment, step, and yearning as we “choose our own adventures” in partnership with the Holy Adventure we call God. (For more on the nature of vocation as a holy adventure, see Bruce Epperly Holy Adventure: Forty-one Days of Audacious Living, Upper Room, 2008.)

Isaiah 61 begins with the experience of being called to speak for God to one’s community. The prophet makes the audacious claim that the “spirit of God” is the source of his [or her] vocation and that God has “anointed” him [or her] to proclaim the good news of God’s freedom for persons and the nation. The prophet’s words are countercultural and at odds with the reality the prophet’s companions are currently experiencing. They are oppressed by foreign powers; no doubt, some are imprisoned and heartbroken; others are hopeless. 

All prophetic utterance is counterfactual and countercultural in its presentation of alternative visions to the world in which we live. With Walter Brueggemann and Alfred North Whitehead, pastors preaching during Advent are challenged to affirm that God’s vision is always one step ahead of us and never reflects the world as it is. The divine dissonance is the source of the vocations of persons and communities. 

Claiming the vocations of the moment or a lifetime will transform your life. As the prophet experiences God’s inspiration and energy flowing through his [or her] life toward the community, he [or she] rejoices in the Creator’s liberating power from head to toe. “My whole being shall exult in my God; for God has clothed me with the garments of salvation.” When a community or person discovers a vision, everything changes – life is transformed, energy flows, challenges are confronted, possibilities emerge. Vocational consciousness does not insure success in the world’s terms – a small church, for example, will not necessarily grow to megachurch standing, but it may experience a divine wholeness much more expansive than the few dozen gathered for worship. It is the wholeness of being “on mission” and following God’s vision in this time, place, and community.

At this point, I must add that God’s call to the prophet and God’s call to us are not qualitatively different.  If God is omnipresent, then God’s call is both universal and personal. God’s spirit is “upon us” as well. We can, as the stories of ordinary people who were called to extraordinary things attest, do great things for God, if we are open to possibilities and willing to risk new behaviors.

Psalm 126 continues the visionary adventure. The author imagines healing for the nation and its people.  God’s restoration seems like a dream, but the author is open to whatever adventure God places before the people. The power to visualize a future enables us to take the first steps toward creative transformation despite the obvious impediments.

As we listen for God’s inspiration in our lives and our communities: What liberating future can we imagine for ourselves individually? What missional future can we imagine for our congregation? What lively and transforming future can envisage for our lives as pastors? What new images of hope can we imagine for our nation and the planet? Both the prophet Isaiah and the Psalmist challenge us to hold onto to visions of hope as lures toward growing into our vocations. And, finally, how will we let our lives and the lives of our communities speak to the world beyond ourselves?

John the Baptist embodies the teleology of vocation. Although some scholars (perhaps rightly) suggest that the gospel passage is permeated with the recognition that John is subservient to Jesus in terms of God’s revelation and presence, hierarchical thinking misses the point of this passage. A Jewish proverb notes that “When the Messiah comes, the Messiah will not ask if I was David!” The same applies to John and to us.  God is not asking us, or John the Baptist, to be Jesus, but to explore and embody our unique vocations as God’s beloved children. We can authentically fulfill our vocation by listening and responding, as did John, to God’s unique visions for our lives and communities.

John lived out his vision as Jesus’ companion and witness.  He testified to the light, so that all might believe through that light.  “The true light, which enlightens everyone” enlightened John and he let his light shine as a preacher of good news and preparation.
In Advent, we recognize both our witness to the light that has come and to the light that will come. As light bearers, we need to ask: How do we personally live our witness to the light? Do we hide our witness or will we let it shine in ways that bring justice and transformation in our communities, families, nation, and daily relationships? Filled with a sense of God’s presence and call to witness, we can sing with boldness, “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”

The author of I Thessalonians suggests a number of practices of vocational living. The author admonishes the community, individually and corporately, “do not quench the spirit.” Let your light shine, let your church be a laboratory for spiritual gifts, which nurtures vocations in young children and elder adults.

Practicing vocational living involves the interplay of spiritual formation, critical thinking, and healing action.  “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” Experiencing God’s call to vocation is grounded in a transformed mind that sees the world as full of beauty, wonder, and possibility, and connects us with the world through prayer and thanksgiving. The spiritual practices of joy, prayer, and gratitude expand our vision of possibilities and awaken us to greater experiences of energy and insight.

Vocational transformation requires theological testing. Here, we are called to think critically, whether in terms of theological reflection, scripture study, program planning, or social action. Soundness of spirit, soul, and body emerges and is nurtured by a healthy diet of prayer, relationships, reflection, and action. Realizing our vocations in life as persons and communities is a whole person enterprise, encompassing every aspect of our lives. 

Advent spirituality calls us to see all of life as vocational. The challenge for Advent is to look beyond the limitations of life and our fears for the future in order to imagine along with God new possibilities and then live out these possibilities in practices and actions that will, one step at a time, transform us and our world. Where will God call us next?  Toward what Advent adventures is the spirit leading us? Where are we being “anointed” to do great things for God and the world?

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.