December 10, 2017: May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard. Amen.
So, you all know I love Star Wars, Star Trek…well, star anything really. I am a certified geeky priest. But, one thing about Star Wars is that it begins in the middle of the story. Then you go forward, and then backward – that is, if you are watching them in the order in which they were released. It’s kinda nutty, when you think about it. You start with a story about Luke Skywalker, but end up engaging in the stuff that happened before Luke was a gleam in the eye of that “Father of the Year” Darth Vadar or Annakin Skywalker – however it is you want to think of the guy. Being that the Star Wars films have strong theological leanings, I am guessing that George Lucas, who created them, would love today’s scripture lessons.
We are in Advent, right? So, we are in a place of anticipation of the birth of Christ, yet we get a reading from the Gospel of John where John the Baptist is telling us, just like we heard last week, to get ready for the one who is to come. Let’s be clear here – when John is doing this, it is NOT in anticipation of the birth of Jesus. Jesus is just 9 months younger than his cousin John, so unless John is standing out there in diapers, this isn’t about Jesus being born. Well, of course it isn’t anyway, because the community that wrote this Gospel writes that Jesus existed for all time. Don’t forget the verses just before these: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” Like the Gospel of Mark, there is no birth story in this gospel.
Then there’s St. Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians. This is the close of this letter, the first one he wrote, so the oldest of our Christian scriptures, and he is talking about being ready for the coming of Christ. Let’s be clear again – Jesus has already lived, died, was buried, rose again, and ascended. This isn’t a text pointing to Bethlehem, but to the first century understanding of an anticipated near-time return of Christ.
And the Isaiah readings aren’t at all talking about Jesus, though we often read into Isaiah this view. Only the canticle, the Magnificat or Song of Mary, that was sung in place of the psalm today, only this text is speaking of the birth of Jesus.
Like Star Wars, these are the middle chapters so to speak pointing to the opening and the closing. So, what is with the lectionary to have these in Advent, and why should we care about them – what do they have to do with our lives? Well, because they all point to an important question, one the Jewish leaders asked of John the Baptist in the text we heard today: “Who are you?” (and no, I’m not trying to evoke memories of a song by the rock band The Who from 1978)
“Who are you?
All the texts today are asking (or answering) that question in some form or other. And we need to pay attention – perhaps now, more than ever – because if we are to ever to be all that we were born to be, all that God hopes for us and for the world – we might want to listen more closely to what these texts are saying here.
Starting with John, we get a paradox. The paradox is that John says quite clearly “it’s not about me, it’s about Him,” saying that he is but a witness to the light, and unworthy to even untie the sandals of Christ’s feet.
But Jesus, the very one he is speaking of, would say “it IS about you.” Or perhaps, about you being me, and seeing me, in the world. Jesus was always trying to tell us something about who we are – and it isn’t what we do for a living, how much money we have, whether our kids go to the best schools, or we have a big titles, or any other thing. It is about our identity as children of God, and what that means to a world in need.
Who are you?
How do we even start to answer that question? John the Baptist and Mary offer one possibility, Paul another, and Jesus answers with the words of Isaiah. John and Mary speak about our role as humble servants. Mary says “…my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” This is her answer to the moment that she discovered that she was the chosen one – the one to be Theotokos – God bearer. Her response to this wondrous gift was humility. Humility, and a recognition of God’s purpose for the world – in which the mighty are cast down, and the lowly lifted up – where the hungry are fed, and the rich are sent away empty.
John responds to his role of witness to the coming of Christ with humility too. Did he know that Jesus would enter a temple at the beginning of his ministry and read from the scrolls the words of Isaiah we heard this morning – read them and proclaim them as having been fulfilled – in him? This was Jesus’ mission statement: “The spirit of God is upon me, because [God] has anointed me; [God] has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the [God]’s favor.” This was the path to be walked – the path John was preparing, the path Jesus calls us to. It is a life of humble service.
To be clear, humility isn’t passiveness. It isn’t lessening oneself. Not at all. Humility isn’t about erasing oneself as a sacrifice of identity, but a stepping fully into that identity. Being humble shows that our strength is not drawn by what others think, but what we believe about who we are – and recognizing our place in the grand cosmos of God’s creation.
William Beebe, the naturalist, used to tell this story about Teddy Roosevelt. At Sagamore Hill, after an evening of talk, the two would go out on the lawn and search the skies for a certain spot of star-like light near the lower left-hand corner of the Great Square of Pegasus. Then Roosevelt would recite: “That is
the Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It consists of one hundred billion suns, each larger than our sun.” Then Roosevelt would grin and say, “Now I think we are small enough! Let’s go to bed.”
Roosevelt was certainly a large man – physically yes, but also in his role in society too. No one would call him weak. And yet he had the humility to understand his place in the universe, and that in turn, likely gave him a view into what matters. We too need to understand who we are in creation, because in a very real sense, creation – God’s creation – needs us to live the life we were meant to live – to know deeply the answer to that question of identity – who are you?
For that to happen, we need to come into that realization of who we are, and that leads us to Paul. Paul implores us to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” To be clear, this is not to say that a test of faith is to be happy when life has dealt a blow – not at all. The truth is joy and happiness are not the same thing. You see, as Christians, we are filled with the joy of Jesus at our baptism, but that does not mean we will always be filled with happiness. Jesus wasn’t happy all the time. He could be down right cranky on occasion, and wept bitterly at the death of his beloved Lazarus.
No, being a Christian, or any person of faith, is not a golden ticket to a smooth life ride free of tears. Not only is that not remotely possible for any human, it would mean we were not really living – risking ourselves – being a part of the world. That is not what God intends for us, and that is not the joy that St. Paul asks of us – it isn’t what joy is.
The great theologian Henri Nouwen once described the difference between joy and happiness in this way. “Joy is essential to spiritual life….[it] is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away. Joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us.”
While I love Henri Nouwen, and I find him to be an inspiring theologian and spiritual leader, this is something that hits some folks hard at this time of year, this joyful noise heard on the radios, every store we enter, the television, and yes…in our spiritual homes of the church. It can be hard to hear of this wonderful birth, if you are one who cannot have a child…or have lost your child. And yet, Nouwen is right. Paul is asking us to rejoice in our relationship with God – a relationship of unending and unconditional love – not to “put on a happy face” all the time. One is a life of deep spiritual meaning, and the other is the stuff of Disney movies – lovely, but not real.
So, we are to be humble and joyful. But, the question remains.
Who are you? How do we answer that?
Here’s the thing…it is the same answer Jesus had. Because, the spirit of God is upon each of us, because [God] has anointed us; [God] has sent us to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the [God]’s favor.”
That is who we are, because we are the body of Christ alive.
And right now, we better come to understand this truth of who we are, because there are folks out there in the world who, in their perverted view of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, are answering it for us. We must not let that happen.
As is true for Muslims, who must work to wrest their identity from those who have distorted the words of the Prophet, peace be upon him; we too must not allow those who would hate, incite violence, and support bigoted institutions and individuals to define for others what it means to be a Christian. These extremists who stand in support of a pedophile for senate, a sexual predator for president, racists marching in the streets, violence against Muslims and Jews, and deny basic rights to LGBT people are not Christians. Or to put it another way: Jesus would bake the damn cake! If you don’t know what I am talking about when I say that, than you don’t know the horror that is being committed in the name of Jesus Christ.
Who are you?
I hope by now you know…you are the light of Christ in the world. You are the one called to prepare the way – and be THE WAY! You are anointed in baptism to proclaim good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners – YOU!
This won’t be easy work. As the Anglican author C.S. Lewis once said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” That, my friends, is the truth. And for far too long, so called evangelical Christians in this country have refused to step out of their comfort zones to see the other. They have buried their faces in the bible, but are dead to the life and love of the Word. They have crucified the Christ in the refugee, the LGBT person, the immigrant, and the imprisoned. And the world has listened to them define what it means to be a Christian, because they are the loudest voices in the room. We need to be louder.
John the Baptist may have been humble, but he was really, really, loud. He wasn’t about to let others not get the message of who Jesus is, and what it means to us all. Mary was a humble servant, but she was one powerfully strong woman, willing to risk everything for everything, for God who she knew was on the side of the poor, the marginalized, the forgotten.
Who are you? Perhaps it is better asked – who are we? Because this faith of ours is something we do together. And the answer to that question is…
We are Christians – followers of Jesus Christ – part of the Jesus Movement, and all of us need to step into this identity, and call out as loudly as any wilderness wandering prophet that all people are beloved children of God, and denounce those who would defile our faith with their bigotry and hate. We are the servants today, called to shout from the highest hills, in protest marches, at the water coolers, or the editorial papers – in the halls of justice, in the darkened streets of our neighborhoods – shout in both what we say and what we do – that being a follower of Jesus Christ means humbly serving those in need, not turning your backs on them. Being part of the Jesus Movement means working for justice and peace, not beating down others, robbing the poor to pay the rich, oppressing the voiceless, or standing silent in the face of oppression.
If we do that – we will be answering loudly to the world who we are – and God will rejoice for our having claimed our identity, and for spreading the message of God’s love in the darkest reaches of this world.
In Advent, we are called to return to our roots, to await the Jesus reborn in our hearts, to walk in the darkness with our hearts set on the light – the light that is always there – the light of God’s love – the light of Christ – that shines in us. And in this space and time, in this knowledge of who we really are, the world and our place in it becomes ever so clear. And as we gaze on that image in our mind’s eye – we will be unable to do anything other than pray, rejoice, and give thanks for who we are – the anointed, the servants, the loved beyond measure – called to do far more than we can ever imagine, through the grace of Jesus Christ.
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Rev. Diana L. Wilcox
Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge
December 10, 2017
Advent 10 – Year B (Longer Advent – Advent 3 in RCL)
1st Reading – Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
2nd Reading – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Gospel – John 1:6-8,19-28
 The Heart of Henri Nouwen. His Words of Blessing. Henri Nouwen, Michael J. Christensen, Rebecca Laird. http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/search?author_first=Henri&author_last=Nouwen