Well, my friends, we have made it. We have come to the critical juncture in our Advent journey, the point we have all been anticipating. We have put up all the decorations in the church, we have planned out the general scheme for the next few weeks, and the schedules are being finalized as we prepared for the great festival of Christmas Day. We have read again about the arrival of John the Baptist, the voice crying out in the wilderness. We are humming along to Christmas carols and already beginning to eat things we know we should not. But finally, we are here. Finally, we are doing what we eagerly looked forward to when this all started. For today we lit the pink candle on the Advent Wreath. Pretty exciting, right? Right there in the midst of all the blue colors there is this one pink candle and every year we light it on the 3rd Sunday of Advent and every year we wonder why. Why is it a different color? Every year we forget all about it and just move on until it comes up again next year, and then we play this out all over again. But not this year. This year we are going to answer the question once and for all. We are going to understand why there is a pink candle and why it is a wonderful reminder for us. And perhaps we might even learn to celebrate the “pink candle moments” of our lives.
Now, I do not want to get too nerded-out on Church history and practice, but the story of Advent is very much associated with the story of Lent. The season of Lent predates the season of Advent, and it is a special time of preparation, a time of reflective repentance as we prepare for a great celebration. The forty days of Lent build up to the celebration of our Lord’s victory over death and the grave and the four weeks of Advent build up to the celebration of our Lord’s birth. Admittedly, we lose a little bit of the call for repentance with all the festive decorations and the Christmas tree and the lights and such, but the texts we have been reading still call for repentance. John the Baptist calls the people a brood of vipers and demands they bear fruit in keeping with repentance. This is in anticipation of the arrival of the One who rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, the One who will bring down the mighty and exalt the lowly.
While the call for repentance is a regular part of the life of the children of God, while you ought to think on your sin and give thanks for the mercy of God every moment of every day of your life, this special seasonal focus is given parameters. Those who have gone before us, those who have handed-on the faith to us knew full well it cannot all be doom and gloom. It cannot always hold the crushing blow of the Law that reveals your sin. This will most likely drive you to utter despair and probably out of the Church all together. No, there must be something more. There must be the proclamation of hope. There must be joy amid all the sadness, assurance in the midst of doubt and fear. We must celebrate the light in the darkness. So, in the long season of Lent there was a Sunday which functioned as a reprieve. It was called Laetare Sunday. Laetare is Latin for “rejoice.” Consequently, Advent follows suit, and this day is a day for joy during all the repentance and preparation. It is joy for the promises that have been made, joy for the gifts that have been given. A pink candle in the middle of all the blue as we mourn our sins, but as those with real and lasting hope.
Think, if you will, of the unfolding story of our Lord’s advent. John the Baptist prepares the way. He calls for repentance and directs the grieving hearts to the coming Christ. He is the one who will baptize Him in the Jordan, the one who sees the heavens torn open and the Spirit of God descending on Him. He is the one who points to Jesus and declares, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Jesus arrives. He comes and begins to do great and mighty deeds. He comes and teaches with authority. He drives out demon and heals the sick. All the while, John, the great forerunner, is rotting away in prison.
So, what does John do? He is in prison as Jesus is doing His thing, and he begins to have some second thoughts about all this, some doubts. The Messiah he prepared the way for does not seem to be too concerned with his current plight. He is beginning to wonder if the Jesus that arrived is really the Jesus he wants. So, he sends a few of his disciples to go and ask our Lord a very pointed question. “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Now, our Lord’s reply is substantial. It gets to the heart of what John is wondering. Jesus does not ignore the request. He makes it crystal clear exactly who He is. “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me” (Luke 7:22-23).
What Jesus lists are not simply the miracles He is performing. It is a list found in various passages from the Old Testament, mostly from Isaiah, which declare what the Holy One of God will do. And here is the kicker, that last line, “The poor have good news preached to them,” the very next phrase from Isaiah 61:1 is he will, “Proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” This is what John was looking for. But instead of quoting that last line, Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.” In other words, He is telling John exactly who He is while making it clear He does not bend to the whims and temporal passions of man. This is the One who is to come, and His purpose is not to set John free from prison. He is not just a miracle worker, a bread king, one who caters to our needs and makes our lives ones of joy and ease. No, just as John called others to repentance so now, he is called to repent.
John was longing for the prison doors to come tumbling down like the walls of Jericho. After all, he is the great forerunner of the Son of God. Why would he be allowed to wallow away in prison? Why would he face such struggle and sorrow and uncertainty? No doubt, John wanted victory, power, and glory. He wanted Jesus to do the big stuff, to demonstrate His authority. Instead, during his fears and uncertainty he receives what we might call a “pink candle moment.” Someone said to me the other day that the one thing John does, which serves as a great reminder for all of us, is he actually brings his concerns, his doubts, and his fears to the Lord. He goes to the source. The identity of the Son of God is confirmed, which means the promises are sure, hope continues to grow, and even in the midst of a prison cell there can be joy.
Jesus then talks about who John was, about his identity. What did they go out to the wilderness to see? Was this some sort of side show attraction, some novelty by which to amuse themselves? No, this was a prophet. More than a prophet, he was the one who prepared the way for the arrival of our Lord. Then Jesus says to us, “Among those born of women none is greater than John” (Luke 7:28). He is the greatest. He proclaims the Law and calls for your repentance. He highlights how you are sinners and by nature are outside the Kingdom of God. Then he points you to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The greatness of John the Baptist is not in himself but in the One he introduces to the world.
But as great as he is, as pivotal as his role was, Jesus then says, “The one who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.” The least in the Kingdom; the sinner, the broken, the fearful, the hesitant, the doubt filled, the rampant sinners consumed by guilt, the one who confesses their sins, the one who returns to them over and again, the one filled with anger and self-righteousness, and the one who ought to fall prostrate before our Lord and beg daily for forgiveness. That one, that one lights a pink candle, the baptized and greater than the Baptist. So, in the midst of your sin, in the midst of your prison there is cause for joy. For you are called the children of God, forgiven, and cleansed by the Lamb.