Scripture: Isaiah 9:1-4 & Luke 3:1-6
Originally Given at UPC of Amsterdam, NY on 12/09/2012
It is not hard to look out over the world of the past week and grow aware of the gathering darkness. Reports coming out of the Middle East are chilling. In Japan, another earthquake. In our own country is talk of fiscal cliffs and doomsday scenarios and their potential effects on the economy. It is not hard to grow aware of the gathering darkness. And maybe that is what advent is for. Both to prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus but also to take account of the need for Jesus in this world. To prepare for light to shine in darkness but also to peer into the darkness and see those who dwell. Because it isn’t enough to have Jesus appear in the form of a baby 2,000 years ago if his appearance does not shine in the world today. But to prepare, to truly take an accounting of the world and our place within it, we must repent, we must recommit, and we must see the world for how it could be in the light of Christ, not just as it is. And so, as if out of nowhere, a man appears out of the wilderness, crying, screaming, preparing.
In all of the Bible there seems no more an interesting character than that of John the Baptist. First mentioned as the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, the cousin of Jesus, we are told that simply being in the presence of Jesus made him leap in his mother’s womb. Our historical read of John is of one who was a bit odd even for his own time in the Biblical story and so it is easy to simply leave him there. We all know our fair share of odd people, including ourselves. But to ignore John’s message is to miss the importance of John the Baptist in the story of Jesus, in the coming of light into the world, in the preparation of the people for a messiah, the one who would bring a new way of being to the people of Israel and the world. John exists as one who emerges from the wilderness to be the one who prepares the way. Clothed in camel hair and feasting on locusts and honey with a lack of civility and respect for the wealthy and powerful. But more than his unconventional dress and demeanor was the way he challenged those with power, those seeking to thrive off the oppression of others, those seeking to deny a place at the table to the lowly and the meek. To them, he decried their behavior, their lifestyle, their sin. And it is easy to imagine John as an angry man and to be sure, at times, he was. But underlying his words, his actions, was a profound and abiding love for God and people.John offered a pathway to God, a manner of preparation for all those with eyes to see and ears to hear, a symbolic and literal washing of the self both of unrighteous action but also of doubt and fear. And I have to imagine that those who emerged from the Jordan River after being baptized by John were forever changed. As the water dripped off their face, as John was there to welcome them into a new life, a new way to view the world, one must have felt as if the past was forever washed down stream and what lie ahead was new and exciting.
And so into this darkness, John placed himself. In a world that had been stifled for too long by doubts and distress, by longing and waiting, by Roman occupation and religious complicity, into that world, John began the work of clearing out space for the Spirit of God to move again. And John, perhaps more than anyone else in his time, saw the world both for how it was but also how it could be. And we can see a bit of this today can’t we. Deep in our souls we can look out into the world and we know that things are not how they should be nor how they could be. In our own town we know that there are folks who need to know that someone cares, we know that there are folks who are desperate to catch a break, to find shelter, to find solace from the suffering and pain. Deep in our souls we can look out over our country and see the increasing ways in which we put up walls of separation between ourselves. The way in which we believe that some folks are somehow different from us. Deep in our souls we can look out over the world and sense that resources are not fairly divide, that many go to sleep hungry, many go to sleep without a home or a bed, many many do not know from where their next meal will come and if we have eyes to see and ears to hear we have to know that God is calling us to do better with one another, to be better for one another, to look out for those who struggle to get by and yet sometimes we are simply stuck in the darkness. Simply stuck believing that the world is how it is and nothing can be done to change it. Simply stuck believing that sin and evil get the last word, that greed is good, that looking out for our own self-interests is the only way we are going to make it. And before you know it, the old order of the world has crept into our souls, before you know it, the old order of the world has crept into our hearts and our minds, before you know it, you despair, you weep, you gnash your teeth, and before you know it, you are the person who dwells in darkness, we are the people who dwell in darkness, our world is the world that dwells in darkness and we need a light. We need hope. We need John.
As we journey down the road that ends at the manger, we ponder the manner in which God quietly slipped into creation. In a place no one would think to look, in a place so lowly that there is no way that God could emerge from there. And so it is that light begins to appear. So it is that slowly, so small that anyone could easily miss it, light emerges. So it is that out of the dirtiness and the griminess, out of the womb of a poor Jewish girl, out of the stable of cows and pigs comes light, comes hope, comes God.
And I wonder. I wonder what it means to clear out a space for God to move in my life. I wonder what it means to open up a space for God to move in the life of this church. I wonder if I am even interested in being converted and changed, of being given eyes to see those who suffer and ears to hear their cries. Do I want to be charged with reaching out to those with whom I come in contact who need to know of God’s love, God’s salvation in their lives, God’s desire for the world to be fundamentally different because to believe that God desires to make the world a fundamentally different place is to believe that that is what I’m supposed to do, what we all supposed to do, together, as a single church, a single faith, a single humanity, children of God, no more, no less. But change is never easy and change of this magnitude is hard. Change is never easy and this change asks me, asks us to risk a lot in order to reach out to those who need to know God’s love, in order to reach out to those who need to feel cared for, in order to reach out to those who struggle day-to-day. But change we must, because too much of the world remains covered in darkness and we need to shine light. Too much of the world remains shrouded in war and we need to sew seeds of peace. Too much of the world exists as it is because of hatred and loathing for the lowly and we are called to be love and to be it in abundance.
Along the road to my ordination, I had the opportunity to once be charged by my cousin who is a Presbyterian pastor down in North Carolina and after saying a few words to be, he looked at me and, quoting the southern writer Flannery O’Connor he said, “Jamie, you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you weird.” And maybe that’s just it. Maybe that is why we remember John as being such an odd character. Maybe that is why so many who we think of as Godly persons throughout history are also remembered as being counter-cultural, as existing on a different plane than the rest of us, as seeming from a different world. Because to see the world how it could be is to call into question everything one believes about the old order of the world. To see the world how it could be is to see the world of today with new eyes, to hear the world with new ears, and to see the salvation of God. And to hope.
What would it look like for us to be infected with God’s love for all people in our community? What would it look like for us to be infected with love for all God’s children in the world? What would it be to awaken every morning with a sense of hope for today, not just for ourselves but for everyone we encounter? Would we be thrust out into the streets like John, proclaiming a baptism for repentance from sin? Would we prepare for the way for God to come into this town anew? Would we see that ever valley could be smoothed out? Every mountain made low? All who walk in crooked lines to be drawn straight to God? Could we risk being thought of as odd?
One of my all time favorite works of fiction is the retelling of the gospel story by the author, Charles Dickens, called A Christmas Carol. Over the weekend, Lesley, Jameson, and I had a chance to go to a neighboring church and watch a Presbyterian pastor recite, from memory, the whole of the novel in dramatic fashion and I was reminded of the dark struggle of Ebenezer Scrooge’s character. Set in the London of the early industrial age, Scrooge slinks around the streets of London, chasing off beggars and those seeking to collect for the poor. Dismissing the Christmas spirit of his nephew with the mutter of, “Christmas, humbug.” Keeping his overworked and under paid clerk, Bob Crachit, in a cold and dimly lit office so as to save the cost of coal and oil. A life spiraling from one rotten encounter to the next, stuck in the darkness of a life without joy, without hope, without love. Until one Christmas Eve night, in which the ghost of his old partner Jacob Marley came to warn Scrooge of the peril in which his soul had been placed. Scrooge’s deeds had left him a dismal man in this life with little hope in the next but for this one visit from his old partner. And so it was that Marley was playing the role of John the Baptist. Calling out from the wilderness of the space in between humanity and God, calling on Ebenezer to repent and to be washed clean. Calling on Ebenezer to see the salvation of God. And over the course of the evening, Scrooge is taken through his past, his present, and given a glimpse of the destination of an unaltered path, until staring into the abyss of his own grave and seeing know way out, Scrooge is woken by the light of the new day, Christmas day. And as the performer last night demonstrated, Scrooge was so overjoyed, so brilliantly happy, so free of the chains of his former self that he can hardly contain himself. And people thought he had lost his mind Buying the prized goose for the Crachit family, going to his nephew’s house for Christmas dinner to the shock of everyone, and finally paying and taking care of Bob Crachit’s family. This is what it looks like to have hope. True hope. This is what it looks like to have Christ come into your life, come into your darkness, this is what it looks like when one believes them self to be dead only to find life and find it in abundance. This is what it looks like to peer out and see the salvation of God, for all people, even me.
During this Advent season, there is much about which to despair, about which to fear, about which to feel sadness while being overwhelmed by the darkness that exists both in our own lives and around the world. That’s ok, that’s ok because it means that we are taking our place with those who in ancient times waited in darkness to see a light, those who lived in the land of darkness, those who struggled, and wailed, and didn’t know if they could make it another day. On them shined light. This is not to say that there will not continue to be patches of darkness. But we are a single cloth of people, children of God, woven together that we might take turns lifting each other up, supporting one another when we fall, and always seeking to hold each other in love and prayer. Just as Jesus came to be the light of the world, so can we leave this place, not as individuals seeking to find our own salvation, but rather a unified whole, taking our light into this community and this world. We are blessed to be a blessing. Glory be to God in the highest and on Earth, peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.