Sheepscott Community Church December 13, 2009
Isaiah 12: 2-6
Philippians 4: 4-7
Luke 3: 7-18
The Lord Is Near
I think Brie’s birthday tomorrow is a perfect parallel to this morning’s readings. You may recall that when Advent began, I mentioned to the children the one pink candle, which is pink and not marked by the purple of this season of repentance because we are half way through the season. We are called today to rejoice because we are almost there. As Cindy read from Philippians, “Rejoice!” Rejoice because the Lord is near, nearer than he was two weeks ago. Although Brie’s birthday is not until tomorrow, we rejoice with her in anticipation of that special day. It might be a good idea to have some little treat at home to mark this day of rejoicing, and to think of John the Baptist, seeing his cousin approaching, as we see the feast of Christmas approaching, and exclaim with him, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”
Don’t you get a feeling of excitement and expectation from the Gospel of Luke this morning? The people were wondering in their hearts if John might be the promised Messiah. His words, his appearance, all of it was compelling. And the people were deeply longing for the Messiah. Maybe, just maybe, this might be he. But John quickly disabused them of that notion when he said clearly, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come , the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
If anything those words built up the anticipation even more. But what or who was this Holy Spirit, they must have wondered. I can sense the excitement in the background, which was John’s as much as theirs. Imagine how he must have felt when he actually saw Jesus approaching.
In John the Evangelist’s gospel account of this same event, he writes that some priests and Levites had come out to John in the desert to ask the Baptist who he was. Immediately he says, “I am not the Christ.” Further on they ask what he does have to say about himself, and he answers in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert. ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” In that gospel, John also says that although he baptizes with water, that one whom they do not know will come after him and it is he whose sandal thongs he is not worthy to untie.
The very next day, whom should he see but Jesus approaching, and he exclaimed, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” This is who I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’” And so forth. I find myself wondering, why didn’t they recognize each other? They were cousins after all. And then I remember at our son’s wedding seeing a niece and nephew I had not seen for 20 years since they were toddlers, and if their parents had not brought them, whom I easily recognized, I would not have known who they were. So, maybe it was like that with Jesus’ parents and John’s parents: they might have gotten together only on the most important of occasions. Finally we’re left with speculation to fill in such time gaps, and we have talked before together about the lesson of the story being what matters, not the perfect alignment of facts according to our own grids of critical biblical appraisal.
Here the story is that Jesus was baptized by John, who openly said he was not the Christ, but also just as openly pointed the finger at Jesus as the one before whom he was sent.
We know what it’s like to wait in an emergency room for news of a loved one who is being worked on in one of the examining rooms. We are hoping for good news, but it could go either way. Sometimes the best outcome we pray for proves out in death, where we had hoped for healing. Some of us know what it is to hope for and anticipate a job following a layoff and a radical curtailment of available money for even groceries. We know what it is to await news of our own or our child’s application to the college he or she so badly wants to attend. If we haven’t experienced it ourselves, we know of someone, or a couple, who want a child badly and every month wait for the good news of conception or adoption.
We understand the anticipation and hope connected with these experiences, and also the disappointment at some outcomes and its resultant sadness. We also understand the reward of a hoped-for outcome and its resultant joy. We’ve all had both kinds of experiences and have learned to live with reward or disappointment with greater or lesser degrees of acquiescence.
The difference between anticipation in these human experiences that can go either way and the anticipation connected with John the Baptist and those who heard him and us ourselves as we travel through Advent approaching the feast of Christmas is that there is no disappointment at the end of the four weeks, at the end of the preparation and waiting period. Christ will come. Christ will inhabit the crib of our hearts on that night, where we have prepared for him a place of rest, a receiving blanket fashioned of repentance and desire to be new.
It is worth mentioning again, as I did last week to the children, that even though on the occasion of Christmas we mark the coming again of the Christ into the world, he is always already here, that fact made real by another of the major players in this religious drama, whom John the Baptist alluded to this morning: the Holy Spirit. Christ dwells with us through that Holy Spirit who makes us one in spite of ourselves, and in spite of our protests and our running in the other direction to get away from our fellow human beings.
The novelist Somerset Maughm’s Of Human Bondage has a wonderful paragraph in it that affected me permanently when I was a teenager, more arrogant than many. The message of the paragraph was that the character was refusing to participate in the human fray, thinking he was better and then calling that human fray coarse or something like that. The character justified his own avoidance of responsibility to be part of the whole thing by calling it coarse. That blew my hair back that day because it spoke to my condition, a condition of thinking I was better than. What a joke. I want to note that the Spirit of God can use a well-written text, an inspired poem, or piece of music or art to move us in our deepest selves into wider truth, which we may not have recognized otherwise and may have avoided for whatever reason.
The Spirit of God, that Holy Spirit, the source of all creativity, who knows us absolutely intimately, knows what our buttons are and what pushes them, what stirs us to action, what excites our passion. That Spirit, the same one whom John the Baptist alludes to in this morning’s gospel, is present in Christ to us today, right now, here in this church, in each of you, in me. That’s exciting, that’s challenging, and here’s the good news: it is true. I have never lied to you, and I would not say what I just said if I did not know it to be the truth without qualification. The Spirit of God, the same Spirit who is responsible for all of creation, whom John the Baptist speaks about, is with us today. And we are preparing to honor that one’s coming in Jesus a little less than two weeks from now.
Think about swine flu. Very contagious. Regular winter flu. Also very contagious, as are colds. This negative contagion of illness underscores how we are one and are affected by one another. Masks and gloves, washing our hands frequently during the day, drinking plenty of fluids and intaking Vitamin C notwithstanding, we cannot finally fully protect ourselves from illness. Think Howard Hughes. This Holy Spirit with whom Jesus will baptize is a positive contagion, will make us aware of how we are one, in spite of ourselves and our desire to run in the other direction from belonging. We can never outrun the Spirit because we can never not be part of the Body of Christ, regardless of fancy thinking, or despairing thinking. We can never get away from one another. Deal with it.
Often, before we can live and act under the joyful and creative influence of the Spirit, we have other work to do in the Spirit, and that is repentance. Repentance is the bedrock of Christianity, and yet conviction of sin is one of the rarest things that ever strikes a person. Repentance is the threshold of the understanding of God, of approaching God, but a person cannot truly repent on cue because true repentance is a gift of God. We come to see who we are before God: Nothing. And yet we are received with love and forgiveness. Gratitude for receiving what we could never deserve comes forth from that. The old Puritans used to pray for the gift of tears, and those tears are finally the only appropriate expression of unspeakable sorrow we have before God when convicted of sin.
Lamentation, beating of the breast, exclamations of woe, Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”––these are thoughts that might rise up out of what I am saying. I won’t discourage them because they are an oft’ neglected part of the whole picture of what it means to try to be a Christian. It is not all sweetness and light. It’s facing ourselves as we truly are. I’m not talking about the big sins of idolatry, murder, stealing, adultery, covetousness, although these can parse into our everyday lives quite easily––a sermon for another time. I am talking about our pettiness, our meanness of spirit, the withholding of a smile or a kind word when that word could shift the wind for another suffering soul. That’s what I’m talking about. The everyday stuff.
But it isn’t all breast-beating and woe either. In this season of repentance, we need only pay attention to what John the Baptist is saying in this morning’s gospel. After the opening words of threat and judgment, the people who had gathered to hear John asked with one voice, “What should we do then?” John gave them by way of reply the social gospel to share with one another. The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and food, the same.
When tax collectors and soldiers asked him specifically what they should do, he instructed them to work out their salvation by doing the job as it should be done. Let the tax collector be a good tax collector, and the soldier a good soldier. Let the boatbuilder be a good boatbuilder, the medical technician a good medical technician, the teacher a good teacher, the insurance salesman a good insurance salesman. It was and is a person’s duty to serve God where God has set that person, and it was John’s conviction that a person can best serve God in the day’s work. Very Shaker. “Hands to work, hearts to God.”
We have plenty of work to put our hands to over the next two weeks, and let us consciously remember to give our hearts to God in that work. How to do that? Just by saying so out loud or to ourselves. “I give my hand to this work, God, and my heart to you.” If you want to expand on it, extemporize, go right ahead. If you’re baking, “May each of these cookies that I make with love, bless with love all those who receive them.” Make free in your prayers. The freer we are in our gift of prayer to God, the more room we make for God’s response to us. Amen.