Will you join me in prayer: Gracious God quiet the monsters within our souls which only serve to block us from receiving your divine gift of love and peace. Amen.
Sometimes finding the words to share with all of you is not an easy task. Sometimes words fail to come. Even through careful prayer and contemplation, a curtain seems to be drawn separating what is meant to be shared as prompted by the Spirit, and what lurks on the opposite side provoked by the world’s affairs. I suppose most of this dry spell has been created by my own resistance to speak once again about John the Baptist and the whirlwind of craziness that surrounds his mission and ministry. But nevertheless, you all have come to hear about keeping the faith, and recognizing God in the midst of the busyness of the season and your lives. And what do you know… there in that place, the words can be found. As we continue our Advent waiting, consider these words from Pastor, teacher, and Author, Renita Weems:
To find what you’re looking for right smack in the midst of life’s clutter is a miracle of grace. It is the story of losing something you couldn’t bear to lose and finding more than what you lost.
How fitting, John’s audience consisted of people who were lost. Who lived on the margins and sought to be found. In his day, the powers-that-be had arranged a world based on empire, with those at the top grabbing – through force and greed – the lion's share of power and material wealth for themselves (imagine that!). It wasn't just the Roman Empire and their puppets that experienced his wrath, but the religious institutions as well felt the sting of John's rebuke. John's message about the forgiveness of sins and being baptized in a river made the Temple and its elaborate systems run by powerful priests sound rather unnecessary. The priests, including those listed when John first appears, couldn't have greeted his preaching with enthusiasm, because the people on top, whether religious or political leaders, "abused their position to increase the debt load on the people of the land. The abuse of position and power for profit is nothing that we have invented ourselves.
The people who truly needed to hear the crazy talk from a wild man were those who found more than what they had lost through John’s message. You see, John wasn’t a stranger heralding a stranger. He was family preaching to those who were willing to go into the wilderness to hear the message of how to help the people who needed hope. Renita Weems goes on to say:
I have lost my faith a thousand times, only to find it nine-hundred and ninety-nine times. Belief in mystery has diminished and reappeared repeatedly throughout the journey. I wonder whether God is as weary of me as I am sometimes of my own soul. As frightening as it is to lose one’s way on a journey one started out on confident of the route ahead, there is also something challenging about starting over, however ludicrous that may sound, of having the courage to experience the divine once more as though it were the first time.
What is in the Baptist’s familiar message that touches you today? How has experiencing the craziness of Luke’s Gospel changed you? How has it challenged you to experience God as if it were the first time? Perhaps we need to go back to the beginning of John’s life in order for us to answer these questions. We need to re-experience John’s miraculous birth, because, like his cousin, John too was announced by the angels. Born to ‘well past it’ parents at a time when unspeakable joy was so inviting.
In the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we are told of the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth and their struggles and triumphs, sorrows to joy. Their baby, John, is seen by his father Zechariah as the one who will prepare the way for Jesus, the "mighty savior", the ultimate Righteous Peace in the world which God has graciously sent, and so the role of this tiny child is crucial to our own history. John is then the connection between our "small" lives and the "larger" events of history. Luke’s Gospel vibrates equally with the personal dreams, hopes and fears of ordinary people. Every story matters and makes a difference. Zechariah and Elizabeth experienced the most remarkable thing happening to them personally, but they looked at their little baby, and saw God's promises kept for their whole people, past and present, and even more wonders to unfold in the story of God at work in a world so corrupted. John’s message of repentance is not for the elite and powerful as much as it is for the marginalized and ordinary. John’s message is not for those who build up fear and hatred as much as it is for those who look beyond appearances to see a loving heart inside. Educator and Author, Michael Rose prophetically professes:
Love always precedes repentance. Divine love is a catalyst for our turning, our healing. Where fear and threat may gain our compliance, love captures our heart. It changes the heavy burden of the 'have-to's' of imposed obedience to the 'get-to's,' a joyful response to the genuine love of God."
The scriptures for today, point to such truth and love, such a seemingly impossible dream for us this Advent: that enemies might become friends that emptiness might become fruitfulness that the earth might be healed and the world might know peace. Perhaps not so impossible, for every light that breaks through, every blessing that heals our heart and gives us hope, every newborn baby that reminds us of the newness of God's tender mercies each morning, is an Advent kind of experience, a taste of what is yet to come, of sign of what the Divine is hiding.
The passage from Zephaniah read during the lighting of the Advent Candle, celebrates the dawn of a new day, a day of restoration in which even God is singing. The captives of Israel are free; and the exiled are returning home. The prophet celebrates the joy of homecoming, and the celebration of a people’s healing. Yet, this homecoming celebration involves the painful awareness of what has been and the tragedy of what it means to be a family in exile. Past pain can’t be denied. It is the time we put aside our differences as a people and celebrate our diversity as a gift from God and not as a platform for hatred. And the prophet Isaiah promises that “with joy you will draw from the waters of salvation.” The prophet experiences joy with God’s loving presence. God has done glorious things after a time of trial and is bringing healing and liberation to the people. Loving joy is the only response to God’s faithful wisdom.
Listen to the words Paul spoke to the young Christians of Philippi as taken from Eugene Peterson’s, The Message:
Celebrate God all day, every day, I mean revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you are on their side, working with them and not against them. Help them see that the Master is about to arrive. He could show up any minute! Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray.
In Philippians, Paul counsels the community to “Revel…Rejoice in God always.” Writing from prison, Paul identifies joy with an ongoing presence of God’s love. God is near to us, as near as our heartbeat. Theologian and Pastor, Bruce Epperly claims:
Paul wrote to these Christians from the inconvenience of a jail cell, but with his mind set on the larger picture. His hope is in the One from whom no human actions can separate us. His hope is in a holy interdependence, a providential presence, that moves through every event, patiently and faithfully bringing forth the best even from difficult situations.
All of these passages from scripture point to spiritual practices that keep God’s providence before us in every situation. And then… Here’s Johnny in the middle of nowhere dripping wet and shouting out the simple practices we still today can continue: be honest, be kind, and work hard. Reminds me of the Golden Rule… we know as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!”
The other evening I went to Hershey Medical Center to check in on some folks who are near and dear to us here at Christ Church. As I was navigating through the corridors, I came across a poster on the Golden Rule. It was boldly positioned directly in front of the Medical Center’s Interfaith Chapel. This poster not only promoted how we view it’s message in Christianity, but represented: Native American, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Native American. When researching on-line, I discovered another depiction similar to a peace pole of the poster representing 13 religions. This poster and its message of honesty and kindness, permanently hangs in the United Nations. It also can be seen in the hallways of many colleges and universities, and hospitals. The Golden Rule poster is a colorful and inspiring multi-faith poster focusing on the Rule not just as a moral ideal for relationships between people, but also for relationships among nations, cultures, and religions. But as we know… this takes hard work to achieve.
My friends, we may look at our second week of hearing about John the Baptist and cringe… but his message of the three simple faith practices of honesty, kindness and hard work among and with each other is needed today more than ever. John asks us; how recognizable are we as followers of Jesus? Walter Brueggemann makes John's message sound clear and simple, however unwelcome it might be to the powerful, the comfortable, the elite in a world, a culture, a nation, like ours. He says:
Advent is concrete, and it concerns neighbor stuff." To be good neighbors, we need to spend Advent not in composing lists of what we want, or what we'll buy for those who already have an
excess of goods, but in "rethinking the contrast…between 'multi-coat people' and 'no-coat people. Instead of a nice little charity gesture, we should consider the "R" word, "redistribution.” In other words, giving more than what's left over after we have far more than we need or can use.
The words for this message may have been hard for me to compose, but in the end, what kept finding me was the word story. I want us all to find the meaning of our own lives, our own narratives in God's larger story. How do we do that, and how does the church and the story it tells in every age help us with this lifelong task?
So many sitting in our pews are struggling to make peace within their own families before they can think about grappling with the challenges that face us in the larger community. The world around us once again worries about violence and war within too many places in which we live. And some would lead us to believe that we should accept living in fear of each other. Individually, so many of us live with illness, poverty, and addiction. We may have relationships that are painfully difficult. We may struggle with depression, anxiety, and worries over financial problems. Our children cause us concern and our parents need our care. Forces more powerful than we are, and yet forces in which we participate, pollute the air, the water, and the earth that our grandchildren will need. The world seems like a hot mess much of the time.
And yet, we gather in church, together in a time of fear and, like those of the ancient and crazy prophets living under the heel of the surrounding Empires, we know that we, too, are children of promise, and that God has not forgotten us. We hear the story of God's love and light breaking over us. In this place and in the midst of this people, we listen for the story again, we wait in the darkness together, we gather our strength, renew our courage, and feast upon Divine mercy so that we can go back out into the world and be light and love for those who, like us, long to find the way to the path of righteous peace. John is family… he is our family and what family is not without its own share of crazy? We hear his message again today to remind us that he is also the catalyst for the Miracle of Grace. Amen.