Sunday, December 11, 2011

Preach One: Advent 3B

Preached at St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral, Jackson, MS, and St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, Forest, MS.  I actually sang the song in the sermon and haven't been able to get it out of my head all weekend...

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

I know it is still Advent.  There is yet one candle left to light.  Shadows are yet growing longer, although lessened somewhat on this Sunday known as Gaudete, which is Latin for rejoice.  Even if we lightened our liturgical color to rose today, as many churches do, there is yet another Sunday of deep purple and blue.  Our scripture readings do not yet tell of mothers mild or mangers, only prophets, warnings, and promises.  The air is yet expectant.

It is still Advent, I know.  And while we are faithfully tending our wreaths and talking about hope at St. Andrew's Lower School, you must understand...there are nearly 500 children's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.  In Big Chapel an angel has already visited Mary at her house, and in chapel class the angel has returned with friends to give shepherds good tidings of great joy.  Handmade ornaments hang in every hallway, elves sit on every shelf, glitter covers EVERY surface, and children fill every day with cheer.

So it was that I lingered longer than I needed to in the copy room last week, because from just next door in music class came the sound of Christmas carols, and I couldn't quite tell if the singing belonged to herald angels or third graders.  They were heavenly either way.  As one song ended, though, and a new one began, I thought for a moment that they were finished caroling.  The new song was one we used to sing at summer camp as we hiked through the hills in the heat.  Children, go where I send thee.  How shall I send thee?  Well, I'm gonna send thee one by one...

And suddenly, as they sang, I realized that the song I learned at camp really did belong at Christmas.  I had never thought about it before - we just sang it to pass the time on the trails.  Well, I'm gonna send thee one by one, one for the itty bitty baby, wrapped in swaddling clothing, lying in a manger, born, born, born in Bethlehem.

It's an old spiritual, a counting song that builds on itself as you sing it, like "The Twelve Days of Christmas," so that by the end you're being sent twelve for the twelve apostles, eleven for the eleven that got into heaven, ten for the ten commandments...and so on, all sent finally for the itty bitty baby born in Bethlehem.

Advent, of course, is about the coming of that itty bitty baby; but it is also, it seems, about sending.  At least, that's what our gospel readings for the first three Sundays in Advent have been about.  On the first Sunday, Jesus spoke of when angels would be sent to gather the elect from the ends of heaven to the ends of the earth.  Last week, and today, it is John the Baptist who is sent to prepare the way of the Lord.  For that matter, next Sunday an angel will be sent to Mary, who will be sent with Joseph to Bethlehem.  Christ's coming is itself a sending...for in these last days you sent your Son to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world...

There I go again, looking a lot like Christmas when I know it is still Advent, when our gospel reading is not about Mary or Joseph but John.  There was a man sent from God, our reading begins as this evangelist picks up the story of salvation in exactly the same place Mark did last week.  Luke and Matthew also tell us about John the Baptizer, so that we have a remarkably full account of him.  We know his momma and daddy, and the circumstances of his birth.  We know what John looked like, where he lived, what he wore, what he ate.  We know what John did, how he went about preaching and baptizing and crying in the wilderness.  We know that John always had a flair for the dramatic, his passion palpable, like a child leaping in its mother's womb.

And yet, when John was questioned by priests and Levites, who came demanding to know who he was and what he had to say about himself, he told them mostly who he was not.  He was not, as some supposed, the messiah, and I suspect they were relieved, for they wouldn't have known what to make of a messiah who wore animal skins and ate bugs.  Nor was he Elijah, as others thought, whom many believed would return to announce the messiah's advent.  Nor was John a prophet, although for all the world he looked and sounded like one, shouting words like "repent" and "prepare" and making those in authority nervous.

What then?  Who are you?  What do you say about yourself? they asked.  And about himself, John answered, I am a voice.  I am a witness.  I am a testifier.  I am a preparer of the way for the One who is coming.  Who John was, by his estimation, had nothing to do with himself and everything to do with who Jesus was.  Although, by some accounts, he was not yet sure who Jesus was.

Surely they had been childhood playmates, as cousins often are.  Surely they had grown up together, gotten into mischief together, played make believe together, learned about God and faith and doubt and fear together.  By the time they stood together in the Jordan River, waist deep in the waters of baptism, John sensed there was more to Jesus than he had realized, but until then John only knew that Someone great was coming, and that nothing would ever be the same again.  He trusted that the God who sent him to prepare the way was up to something, that something wonderful was going to happen, indeed, had already happened, but we just did not know it yet.

Prepare!  Get ready!  Make straight the way of the Lord! John shouted, and in another gospel, someone asks him how.  How does one get ready to welcome the One who will come speedily to help and deliver Israel?  Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, John answered.  That's how you get ready.  Whoever has food must do likewise.  That's how you prepare.  John may not have been sure who the messiah was, but he knew what the messiah would be about, how the anointed one of God would change everything, and John wanted everyone to be prepared.

How marvelous it is to imagine that John and Jesus might have been together when, as boys, they learned the words of the prophet Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me, the prophet wrote.  His words were addressed to God's people at a time when their hope had been reduced to rubble.  They were desperately in need of a messiah, someone to help them build up the ancient ruins and repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

This building up and repairing, though, according to Isaiah, would not be about replicating in bricks and mortar what had been before.  The new community would be built on a foundation of justice and mercy.  God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the give...these would be the building blocks, stone upon stone.  The spirit-filled anointed one of God would change everything, turn the world upside-down and inside-out.  The new kingdom would be characterized not by power but love, not by darkness but light, not by ashes but garlands, not by mourning but - gaudete - rejoicing.  It would be nothing short of a revolution.  A revolution, John knew, whose time had come.

There was a man sent from God...another who, like John so very many generations before, cried out in a wilderness of injustice and devastation.  The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King preached at our own National Cathedral in March of 1968, the last Sunday sermon he delivered before his death.  Like John's message of repentance, it was a sermon he had preached many times, with increasing urgency.  In it, Dr. King recalled the familiar short story of Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep a subject of King George, III, and awoke, twenty years and a revolution later, a citizen under President George Washington.  "One of the great liabilities of life," Dr. King concluded, "is that all too many people find themselves living in a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands.  They end up sleeping through a revolution."

Jesus would not have us sleep through the revolution he has begun.  Keep awake, he instructed us at the beginning of Advent, for you do not know when the time will come.  And yet we do know, for he has come, that the time is now.  Indeed, after his baptism by John and upon reading aloud from the prophet Isaiah about the one sent from God, Jesus would say in the synagogue, Today - today - this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

Are we prepared?  For surely not even John knew how the revolution would take an unexpected turn early one morning at an empty tomb when everything changed again with the rising sun.  The evangelist tells us Jesus came to the place where his followers were hiding and said to them, 'Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.'  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit'.  So have we been Spirit-filled.  So are we anointed.  So are we sent as Christ's body to bring good news, to bind up, to proclaim release, to comfort, to provide, to give... So do we tend to the broken-hearted of the world in this season, not because it is Christmas, but because it is the only way to make sense of who we are.  "Our world is a neighborhood," wrote Dr. King.  "For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.  This is the way God's universe is made."

There was a man sent from God... And there is another, and there is another [pointing to members of the congregation].  And there is a woman sent from God.  And there is another... Just as John, Christ's forerunner, knew his whole identity to be bound up with the One who was coming, so do we, Christ's followers, know our whole identity to be bound up with the One who has come, who is coming again, who comes day after day with bountiful grace and mercy.  Indeed, this is what we will celebrate - what our Lower School is already celebrating, bless their hearts - at the great Feast of the Incarnation, how heaven and earth were bound up together in the person of Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the Spirit-filled anointed One of God, the Revolutionary.

It is still Advent, I know.  But I can't get that Christmas song out of my head.  Children go where I sent thee.  How shall I send thee?  I'm gonna send thee one by one by one by one by all of us together, and always sent where Christ himself is going before.  We are voices.  We are witnesses.  We are testifiers.  We are forerunners in a kingdom that has already come.  We are followers of an itty bitty baby who has yet to be born.  We are sent, both to prepare the way of the One who is coming and to proclaim the good news that he has already come, Emmanuel, God-with-us.  In this season, on this day,  in this Advent, who are you?  What do you have to say about yourself?  Where is God sending you?  How will you prepare the way for God's coming?  How will you proclaim the good news that God is here?  Amen.

Artwork: "Epiphany Triptych - The Baptism," by Katherin Burleson; "The Voice of One in the Wilderness," by Gwen Meharg; "Prepare the Way of the Heart," by Gwen Meharg; "Rhythm (redo)," by Brian Zahnd.

1 comment:

LaRue said...

Jennifer, thank you for your awesome sermon!

You ARE a woman, sent by God!

Christmas Blessings, on you and yours.

LaRue Owen