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Third Sunday of Advent Cycle C (2)
Humorous newspaper columnist Dave Barry once made an interesting observation: “If there really is a God, who created the entire universe with all its glories,” wrote Barry, “and He decides to deliver a message to humanity, He will not use, as his messenger, a person on cable TV with a bad hairstyle. Barry’s probably right. I certainly would not look to a TV preacher–even one with a good hairstyle–to bring me an accurate depiction of God. But I have to ask what would Dave Barry do with John the Baptist? Bad hair wouldn’t even begin to describe John’s distinctive appearance. According to Matthew’s Gospel John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. (3:4) And when he preached, he outright insulted his congregation. He called them a brood of vipers! Imagine if I began my sermon by addressing you as snakes. “Listen up, you lizards!” Obviously John never read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Author Walter Brueggemann called John the Baptist, Checkpoint John. He was referring to that famous crossing in Berlin during the days of the Cold War called Checkpoint Charlie. It was the crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin, between godless communism and glorious freedom. Brueggemann pictures John the Baptist as standing on the border between the Old and New Testaments, checking passports. “His demeanor is not unlike those border patrol people at Checkpoint Charlie,” says Brueggemann, “rude, deliberately intimidating, mostly silent and glaring.” (1)
That’s a nice image. Checkpoint John. And each Advent season we encounter this rough-hewn preacher standing at the entrance of the Advent season. In order to get to Christmas, each year we have to go through Checkpoint John, John the Baptist.
John’s message was as stark as his appearance. John was not Jesus. John was not the promised one sent from God. He said so himself. His task was to prepare the way for Jesus, the Messiah. Thus, his preaching lacked the richness and the subtleties of Jesus’ preaching. But John’s message was a powerful one. And great crowds came out into the wilderness to hear him deliver it. Given his limitations John gave the only advice he could give. But John’s words have stood the test of time. And they are important words for helping us prepare for this important season of the year.
John’s first word is “repent.” “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Harsh words, but important words. Someone has said that a sign of insanity is to keep doing as you’ve always done and expect different results. If you want to improve your life, then you will have to change your ways! In other words, repent! That’s common sense!
In his Nobel Prize-winning book, The Glass Bead Game, writer/poet/philosopher Hermann Hesse had a poem titled “Stages.” The first line reads, “There is magic in new beginnings.” And there is. There is magic in new beginnings. The sad thing is that many of us are not aware of our need for change.
Murray Elkins, a volunteer chaplain at a prison, tells about a Christmas program which was conducted in a unique setting, behind the bleak walls of a prison. Those who prepared the program were limited to what was at hand. Nothing could be carried into the prison, so creativity was an absolute must. Frayed blankets were transformed into realistic shepherds’ cloaks. White sheets were draped over would-be “angels” as well as over a smooth-shaven “Mary. “
Actually, there were some advantages to the setting. The prison yard needed no imagination to be mistaken as the barren Bethlehem hills. There were even “Roman guards” keeping watch from the walls and the watch towers.
The only snag was Baby Jesus. What could be put into the cardboard box manger to take the place of Jesus? A swaddling towel? A handmade doll? The prisoner planning committee was determined that the manger not be empty. The prisoners wanted to SEE Jesus. So, in the presence of a truly captive audience, a transfiguration occurred. As the scraggly shepherds came, as the kings knelt, as the far-from-angelic chorus sang, the smooth-shaven ‘Mary’ lifted up the child for all to see: A HANDMADE CRUCIFIX!’ Jesus not as a gentle babe, but Jesus nailed to a cross. And the carol the maximum security prisoners sang was, “Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” (2) In this instance the handmade crucifix was ideal as a symbol of the baby Jesus. These prisoners knew they needed to repent of their sins. They knew they needed to make a new beginning. The great evangelist Gypsy Lee was asked how to have a revival. He said, “Take a piece of chalk. Draw a circle on the ground. Step inside the circle and pray, “Dear Lord, please send revival inside this circle.”
Repent. That’s John’s first message to us.
John’s second word is: get in a right relationship with others. John was a persuasive preacher. After he told the people to repent and be baptized, they asked, “What should we do?” John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” Tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely–be content with your pay.” In other words, the repentance John preached was not simply about our personal indiscretions and vices. He was concerned with our relationships with others.
Our prayers this Christmas are with young women and young men on the fields of battle in Iraq, Afghanistan and in other places in the world. War is so dehumanizing, and yet there is no place on earth where God is not at work. During the Korean War, Communist forces invaded the city of Hungnam and began mass executions of Koreans who were suspected of sympathizing with the American cause. The American Navy responded to this atrocity by sending 200 ships to evacuate the refugees from Hungnam.
On December 22, 1950, Captain Leonard LaRue and his crew steered their ship, Meredith Victory, in to the Hungnam harbor. The Meredith Victory was only supposed to be delivering jet fuel, but they were immediately called into service as a refugee ship. Over 14,000 desperate Korean refugees crowded onto the ship. Captain LaRue said a silent prayer as his men pulled up the anchor and headed for South Korea. Over the next few days, the crew and passengers endured freezing temperatures. There was only enough food and water to keep them all from starving, but not enough to satisfy their hunger. They were in constant danger from enemy fire. But as they sailed for a safe port, Captain LaRue took comfort in the thought that Mary and Joseph and Jesus had also known hunger and cold and danger.
In the midst of hardship, Captain LaRue also reported a change in his men’s attitudes. They gave away their own food and clothing to the refugees. Seven babies were born on the ship, each one delivered by teams of unskilled sailors. On Christmas day 1950, the Meredith Victory landed in safe harbor. Not a single life had been lost on the voyage. Captain Leonard LaRue received high military awards from the South Korean and the U.S. government for his part in the refugee rescue.
Four years later, Captain LaRue left the military to join a Benedictine monastery, where he spent the rest of his life. In his journals, he once wrote, “The clear, unmistakable message comes to me that on that Christmastide in the bleak and bitter waters off the shore of Korea, God’s hand was at the helm of my ship.” (3) And indeed it was.
John’s first word is repent. His second word is get into a right relationship with others.
John’s third and most important word is “look to Jesus.” The impact of John’s preaching was extraordinary and the people were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, “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 . . .” He was speaking, of course, of Jesus.
John’s third word was his best one. Repentance is good and necessary, but we can carry it only so far. We can never, by our own power, correct all the imperfections that make up our character. And right relationships are important. But just because your heart is right with your neighbor does not mean that you have an overall meaning and purpose for your life. Look to Jesus. He is the only one who can fill the God-shaped void at the center of our souls.
Dr. Keith Wagner, St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Sidney, Ohio tells a wonderful story about a man named James Pierpont. Pierpont died in 1866 after living what most people would consider a life of failure. A graduate of Yale, a school his grandfather had help found, Pierpont chose education as his profession. However, he did not last. They say he was too easy on his students. And so, he turned to law, but couldn’t make a go of it. He was too generous with his clients. He published a book of poems, but he didn’t collect enough royalties to make a living. Pierpont decided to become a minister, but his positions for prohibition and against slavery got him in trouble with the influential members of his congregation. And so he tried politics. He ran for governor and for Congress, but, of course, he lost. The Civil War came. He volunteered as a chaplain. Two weeks later he quit. The task was too much of a strain on his health. Of course, he was 76 years old at the time. Finally someone found him an obscure job in the back offices of the Treasury Department in Washington and he finished out his life as a menial file clerk.
James Pierpont accomplished nothing he set out to do or be. A small memorial stone marks his grave in MountAuburn cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The words in the granite read POET PREACHER PHILOSOPHER PHILANTHROPIST.
However, in one very important sense James Pierpont was not a failure. He wrote a song, a song not about Jesus or angels or even Santa Claus. It’s a simple song about the joy of whizzing the snow in a sleigh. James Pierpont wrote “Jingle Bells”–a song that three or four hundred million people around the world will sing this Christmas season. (4)
What is there about James Pierpont’s life that speaks to me about Jesus? Just this: James Pierpont spent all his life working to make his life count. And all he experienced was failure. And then, in a bit of whimsy, he wrote a little chorus that will be sung by millions of people for generations. To me this is a glimpse of grace. You and I strive so hard to please God. But all our strivings are as nothing in God’s eyes. But then we say “yes” to the person of Jesus Christ. We open our hearts to his love, his peace, his joy–and suddenly with no effort of our own, we move from the losing side of life, to the winning side, we move from the hopeless side of life to the abundant side of life, we move from the shadows into eternal sunlight. All with a simple “yes.” It’s enough to make a person absolutely giddy.
So, this is the message from Checkpoint John, John the Baptist: Repent, get into a right relationship with others, and look to Jesus. He is our hope, our joy, our peace–at Christmas and throughout the year.
- http://www.bright.net/~coth/latebreak.htm.Walter Brueggemann & Charles Campbell, The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness (Fortress, 1996)
2. Contributed by a subscriber who found it on the Internet. Source unknown
3. “Precious Cargo” by Thomas Fleming, Guideposts, December 2002, pp. 29-32
Third Sunday of Advent Cycle C (1)
The response is the same in survey after survey: people do not like annual reviews of their jobs. After all these reviews can go in a variety of ways. On the one hand you can have a micromanager of a boss, looking over everything you do. The scrutiny you receive keeps you from doing your job well. On the other hand you can have one of those passive types who hardly say anything; it’s only at the annual review that you find out you’ve been a disappointing employee. We want to say: Just tell me what to do and leave me alone. Once I know what you want, I’ll do it!
We might be surprised in the Gospel we have today, our second view of John the Baptist this Advent: people are coming up to him and he is telling them what to do. And, most surprising, he is basically telling them to be honest and have integrity when it comes to doing their jobs. Tax collectors, who were seen as detested traitors, should only exact the tax that’s right; soldiers should not go around bullying people. If you have something you aren’t using, give it away to someone who needs it.
Wow, we say. All God wants me to do is my job. So if I’m a teacher, care for the children and teach them. If I’m a lawyer, act with integrity. If I repair things, don’t hold people over a barrel, treat them fairly. Yes, this sounds great—to simply live with integrity, I can do that!
But later on John says something that seems to push things further: I am baptizing you with water, he says; but someone greater than I is coming—and he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. It’s almost as if the Gospel is saying that we begin on one level, and then we are ready to move to another level. We begin with John’s message of integrity, but that is only to get us ready for Jesus’ message of Spirit and holiness.
After all, what happens when I try to live with integrity? Two things. First, I want to do more than this. As I start treating people fairly, as I start doing the obvious that God asks me to do, I feel I want to do more. I feel called to be something better. Secondly, as we start to live with integrity, not only do we want to do more, but we find we have to turn to God to have the grace to live with way we should, and the grace to grow even deeper into God’s life. We find ourselves turning more deeply to God’s Spirit.
In the year of Mercy, God’s forgiveness is a way to invite us further. God knows that we make mistakes, that we compromise and cut corners. But God’s love, the Spirit in our hearts, urges us not to settle for this. A half-way world is an unrealized, frustrated world. But even more, God’s Mercy calls us to look at everything we do from a different angle—how we can make our daily deeds into acts of love, compassion and openness to others? How we can radiate God’s love because everything we do is charged with the love and peace of God? It’s not just what we do, it’s how we do it, in God.
So, as Paul tells us, our kindness should be known to all. Because it’s not just our kindness, but God’s. Our trust and peace should touch all we do, because it is God working joy and peace through us. God’s coming in Advent should make us ambassadors of Advent—people who help God come into the lives of others. Our joy at seeing God come in the flesh in Jesus should lead us to treat every human being with the love that God has for them, for they have the same flesh as Jesus.
Next Paul says, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.” That is an interesting thought. Advent and Christmas are a time for gentleness–unless, of course, you’re headed for the mall. I’m kidding, of course–at least I think I am. Some people have actually broken into fights over Christmas bargains. Others have been trampled by an avalanche of eager shoppers. It’s hard to be gentle at Christmas.
I read about two nicely dressed women who were standing outside a department store a few days ago waiting for it to open. They started up a conversation. The first lady was a somewhat smug woman from New York City. She was married to a very wealthy man. The second was a rather gentle, soft-spoken woman from the South.
When the conversation centered on what they expected for Christmas, the wealthy woman started by saying, “Our first Christmas, my husband built a magnificent mansion for me.”
The lady from the South commented, “Well, bless your heart.”
The first woman continued, “Our second Christmas, my husband bought me a beautiful Mercedes-Benz.”
Again, the lady from the South commented, “Well, bless your heart.”
The first woman continued, “Then, our third Christmas, my husband bought me this exquisite diamond bracelet.”
Yet again, the Southern lady commented, “Well, bless your heart.”
The first woman then asked her companion, “What did your husband buy for your first Christmas?”
The Southern lady replied, “My husband sent me to Charm School.”
“Charm School?” the first woman said, amazed, “What on earth for?”
The Southern lady responded, “Well for example, instead of saying, ‘Who gives a darn?’ I learned to say, ‘Well, bless your heart!’” (2)
Gentleness may be a little difficult in the mad rush of this season of the year no matter where you’re from. We need to step back and reflect on the thought of the babe in a manger.
We don’t often think of the gentleness of God. But how else can we think of God at Christmastime? We know of God’s power. We know of His holiness. But how often do we think of His gentleness? Yet this same God who created the heavens and the earth became one of us. He emptied Himself and took on human form, even the form of a tiny babe. It’s a thought too amazing for us to comprehend. I love the way Mark Lowry put it in his beautiful Christmas song:
“Mary did you know . . . that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you . . .”
I particularly love the final two lines of this wondrous song:
“Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when your kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.”
How can we possibly get our minds around something like that? And yet it is part of the magic of Christmas. “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near,” writes St. Paul.
Let me give you an example of gentleness. Once there was a soldier in the Israeli army. He was on patrol in an area of occupied Palestine when he felt a rock strike him in the back, then another and another. He whirled around, his rifle ready to fire. There in front of him were several Palestinian children. They were picking up more stones to throw at him.
What was he to do? He wasn’t going to fire live ammunition at mere children, but he could not allow them to continue throwing those rocks either. Suddenly, he had an idea. He bent down and picked up three of the rocks . . . and then he began to juggle them . . . yes, juggle the rocks. The children were mesmerized and forgot about their rocks. The soldier did a few tricks, and the children laughed. Then he did a grand finale, and they applauded. He took a bow and walked away. (3)
The story could have had a different ending, couldn’t it? We’ve seen confrontations in our own land the past few years that have had far different endings. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We could have the gentleness of Christ, a gentleness that transforms anger to laughter, hatred to love. That’s the kind of gentleness Paul is urging us to adopt in our own lives.
Then he writes, “Do not be anxious about anything but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
No wonder Paul could rejoice–even while waiting in prison to learn his fate. No wonder when people oppressed him and abused him, when they beat him and said all manner of vile things about him, he could respond with a magnificent gentleness. He had learned life’s greatest secret: “Do not be anxious about anything but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
At the end of the Gospel, it sounds like Jesus would be a pretty tough boss—his winnowing fan is in his hand. Will we be chaff? Or will we be wheat? But the judgment of Jesus is quite easy and sensible: in our lives, did we try to reflect to others the love that Jesus showed us? Jesus is neither a micromanager, nor a passive, distant boss. Jesus sends his own Spirit into us, giving us his power, so he can work along with and within us—until we finally know that our baptism in water was also a baptism in his Spirit.