Christmas Day Homily

Click here to read John 1:1-14.

The brilliance of Christmas is so concentrated, the miracle of the Incarnation so extreme that those who witness the glory of it, glory as of a father’s only son, are struck by profound awe. What is it about that newborn that inspires worship and wonder in the hardest of hearts? “John Shaw tells what it was all about through the eyes of a child:

“She was five, sure of the facts, and recited them with slow solemnity, convinced every word was revelation. She said, “They were so poor they had only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to eat and they went a long way from home without getting lost. The lady rode a donkey, the man walked, and the baby was inside the lady. They had to stay in a stable with an ox and an ass (hee hee), but the Three Rich Men found them because a star lighted the roof. Shepherds came and you could pet the sheep but not feed them. Then the baby was borned. And do you know what he was?” Her quarter eyes inflated to silver dollars. “The baby was God.” And she jumped in the air, whirled around, dove into the sofa and buried her head under the cushion, which it the only proper response to the Good News of the Incarnation.”

Almost the only proper response. “Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem,” Isaiah decrees. “Sing to the Lord a new song, sing to the Lord, all the earth,” intones the Psalmist. As for John? He simply sings, recording the ancient Christian canticle proclaiming that the Word became flesh and dwelled among us. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The invocation to the Gospel of John is one part birth narrative—proclaiming the eternal being of the Word that became flesh in the person of Christ Jesus—and three parts hymn.

The birth of Christ provokes hope, joy, and a whole lot of singing. With a little help from the angels on high, who crafted the first Christmas carols on the first Noel, Christians have been singing in response to the miracle of Incarnation for millennia. Christmas hymns are among the most beautiful of all sacred music. They capture the sheer marvel of God’s grace and truth embodied in the Christ child. It is no wonder that so many of us contend with tears when we hear the first strains of Silent Night.

When I was a teenager, I experienced strong waves of doubt as I struggled to find my place as a child of God. Christmas, in particular, became a difficult holiday. The bleak midwinter days dampened my spirit, and joy of the season eluded me. I was dissatisfied with a purely commercial and secular Christmas, but my heart just wasn’t ready to meet Christ in the manger. In the midst of my fear and doubt, I began a meager but holy tradition, alone in my bedroom after the Christmas Eve festivities had ended. I would sing, quietly, every single Christmas carol I could remember. I began with O Come O Come Emmanuel, that Advent hymn of mournful praise. All the verses of Silent Night. As many as my memory could conjure of Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Joy to the World. Away in a Manger. When I forgot the words, I would simply hum, carrying the tune just a shade above a whisper. Those midnight canticles, sung from a place of deep craving for connection with the Source of Life, were my first stirrings of genuine worship.

It is no mere coincidence that music is one of the few means we have to respond adequately to the gift of the Christ-child. Singing is an incarnational practice. When we join with the shepherds and angels in singing Glory to God in the Highest, we participate in the drama of the Incarnation, giving new voice to the Eternal Word. The renowned Church musician and theologian Don Saliers writes that “Where people sing of God, an embodied theology—a way of living and thinking about life in relationship to God—is formed and expressed. Through this practice, music lends its power to all the other practices that shape and express who we are… Singing, we give testimony of our beliefs, we shape communities by rhythm and pitch, and we welcome Mary and Joseph to the stable on Christmas Eve.”

By singing our way through the feast of Christmas, we commit our very breath to a joyful and vital task: worshipping the Word who pervaded the sphere of flesh to show us a light than cannot be overcome by darkness. As Christina Rosetti wrote in her beautiful rumination on Christ’s nativity, “Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, Love Divine; Love was born at Christmas; Star and angels gave the sign.” Love was born at Christmas, God’s unconditional love that insists that we are all children of God, the giver of life. This is such good news, it cannot be expressed in the monotone of simple speech. The real proclamation of the grace and truth of the Christ-child on this and every day is embodied in our hearty songs of praise. Good Christian friends, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice, for Christ is born today!

Christmas Eve Homily

Click here to read Isaiah 9:2-7, and here to read Luke 2:1-20.

Christmastime is a delight for the senses. There are dear friends to embrace. There are plates full of peanut butter cookies crowned with chocolate kisses to devour, and neighborhoods decked with twinkling lights. There are the sounds of children giggling as they shred the paper that stands between them and the package from Grandma. There are the soaring Christmas carols, the jangling bells, the sticky peppermint canes, and the itchy warmth of new socks. And my personal favorite: the sweet-potato casserole my friend Rosamond bakes. It is clearly a dessert, but on Christmas it counts as a vegetable. Christmastime is a feast of rejoicing, a banquet of joy that rends the dreariness of the darkest nights of the year.

In the midst of this, there is a child. The child is born into painfully spare circumstances, into the darkest of all nights. His mother endured contractions on the back of a donkey, and after the 90 mile journey to Bethlehem mandated by a cruel and oppressive regime, there was nowhere but a barn to complete her labor. As we imagine the nativity, we can’t ignore that the scent permeating the air around the manger is not sweet with sugar and mint, but heavy with the smell of manure. And while we like to envision this baby asleep, serenely cradled in his mother’s arms, he surely spends his fare share of time bawling like the newborn he is. If we happened upon a birth like this today, a labor fulfilled in the filth of an alley or garage, our eyes would smart with tears, and we would murmur, “Such a shame, such a tragedy.”

And so a miracle unfolds in the guise of an ordinary misfortune. The delicate membrane that segregates heaven from earth is torn asunder, pierced by an infant’s cry.

The angels are singing, reminding us that this baby is God’s response to our hope, that this is the child promised to frustrate the darkness with divine light. The shepherds are on their way, sprinting toward the star. The angels convert their terror into jubilation, with a message of Good News that never fails to quicken the pulse of believers: this child is God enfleshed, the Holy of Holies born as a human child. The Prince of Peace, born in a land at war. The only hope for a hopeless people.

I imagine that Mary greets the shepherds’ intrusion of praise with a tired amazement. So this is how it shall be.

The angels summon us to receive this child as a gift. But there is nothing harder than learning how to receive. Receiving this child means admitting our utter weakness, our total poverty. To call a helpless infant our Savior is to confess that we need to be saved, that we are desperate enough to hang our hopes on a newborn whose eyes are so immature that he cannot yet make out his father’s face. It is humbling to kneel before a tiny baby and call him King. But how much more humbling is it for the baby, who is the very Son of God?

We cannot forget why God transgressed the boundary between heaven and earth to show up in the person of Jesus. Perhaps the only aspect of the Christian faith that is more likely to be lost in a fog of familiarity than the birth of Christ is the reason for his birth: God loves us. Oh, how trite that can sound, if we don’t ponder in our hearts what that really means. God loves us, with unconditional, passionate, creative love. God desires to embrace this wayward Creation so ardently that he startles the universe by showing up cradled in a feeding troff.

We have spent the last four weeks remodeling our hearts to make room for this child, and preparing our homes for the celebrations that honor his birth. We knew he was coming all along; the season of Advent is much more than a “season of Make-Believe… a wink-wink, nudge-nudge approach to experiencing the story of our faith.” Our anticipation for the Christ-child’s birth is more nuanced than that. In the weeks before Christmas, we rehearse the hope of the prophets. We pray for a lasting peace. We contemplate the terrific joy of Mary. And we revel in the gift of God’s brilliant love. Just as Mary knew she would bear the child after nine months of pregnancy, we knew we would gather on this night and sing of his holiness. The joy of Christmas is inevitable, for a Savior was born to us in the city of David, long ago.

Advent isn’t about pretending we don’t know that the baby will grow into a man named Jesus, who will teach us how to live and move and have our being in divine light. No. Advent molds our hearts into sentinels, watchmen charged with the work of waiting and hoping for God’s next move. Advent names the darkness in which we live. It gives us permission to consider the dark night of Creation’s soul in which the light of Christ appears. It readies us for a more authentic Christmas elation: joy that is wrought from the fires of sorrow, praise that is coaxed from the flames of lamentation.

On Christmas Eve, we stand in the thin and holy space between history and the future. Everything is different after that First Noel. The impossibility of lasting peace and goodwill among all of God’s people is abruptly made possible. The reconciliation of God and his people is determined by God’s waylaying love, love that is distilled and embodied within the person of Jesus Christ, who is our King, our Savior, our Brother, and our Friend.

We know full well that the work begun in that manger is not yet complete. Christmas is, for the time being, a feast of light juxtaposed with darkness. We brighten our sanctuary with candles, but the night persists beyond these walls. Though we wipe our tears away to join in the yuletide celebration, we are still a people who mourn. Though we have seen the light of God’s love and been utterly transformed by it, we are still a people who walk in darkness. Heaven and nature sing, but God’s beloved creation is still ravaged by violence and death.

Mary has suffered her last contractions and rallied for one final push, but the final cadence of our redemption has not yet been delivered. The Son of God came to earth, preaching of an everlasting Kingdom. And all of Creation is still groaning in labor for the nativity of that peaceable realm. The promise of incarnation—the gift of Christmas—is the assurance that soon and very soon, God’s will shall be done on earth as it is done in heaven.

Our Christmas merriment – with all its joyful visions and melodies and aromas – is but a hint of the feast we will experience when God’s fierce and radical plan for reconciliation is fulfilled. Tonight we revel in the foretaste of what it to come. The extravagance of Christmas—the home cooking, the laughter, the generosity—these are but reverberations of the Kingdom of God. On this night, we experience a sliver of what it shall be like when the consequences of the Incarnation are fully aglow.

The success of God’s plan to redeem Creation through the Christ-child is a foregone conclusion. The light that perforates the darkness on the first Christmas night will overcome the darkness. The wonders of God’s zealous love are chasing the shadows of sin and death away, even in this year saturated by grief.

And so in the company of shepherds and angels, we sing. In the face of sorrow, we sing of joy as scandalous as the incarnation. In the shadow of war, we sing of peace as lasting as the North Star. We glorify and praise God for all we have heard and seen, for we have witnessed the hopes and fears of all the years converge in a swaddled bundle of blood and bones and skin. Thanks be to God!


The Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18th

Aside from the iconic portraits of Mary holding the baby Jesus that grace the walls of countless art museums, the scene in which the angel Gabriel announces the conception of Jesus through the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit is among the most well-known of all scriptural stories. Our gospel lesson today is one that has been visited and revisited abundantly, as preachers and painters alike delight in the mystery of the incarnation.

The particulars of this scene are almost dangerously familiar to us, familiar enough that we could forget that something really odd is going on. Mary, the painfully young girl betrothed to a man named Joseph, receives a visitation from a very special guest—an angel of the Lord. Only Gabriel isn’t some touchy-feely angel who would be at home on a TV movie. Gabriel scares the living daylights out of Mary, though it isn’t his arrival or appearance that sets Mary shivering with fear, but his words. “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you!”

What’s so fearsome about being favored? What’s so perplexing about an assurance of the Lord’s presence? If you’re an ordinary girl like Mary, with ordinary hopes and ordinary dreams, a girl who never expected to receive a visit from an angel, Gabriel’s words are more than a little nerve-racking. Mary was bright enough to figure out that this angel wasn’t simply out for an evening stroll. His visit had an intimate and ominous purpose, and she sensibly pondered what on earth it might be.

The kind of greeting Gabriel brings is a troublesome one indeed. Even though he encourages Mary not to fear, the content of his revelation is enough to terrify kings, let alone an unmarried peasant girl. Mary is not only going to have a Son. She is going to conceive and bear the Son of the Most High. It goes without saying that Mary’s perplexity must have reached a fever pitch at this point.

Many artistic depictions of the annunciation fail to capture Mary’s fear and confusion during her encounter with the angel Gabriel. Rather, an expression of serene acceptance is painted on Mary’s face. I don’t understand this impulse to erase Mary’s perplexity from the picture. After all, many of us are perplexed by this scene, and by the miraculous birth it reveals.

This angel, appearing out of nowhere with sweet talk about her favored stature with God, presented her with the impossible. A girl doesn’t need a comprehensive grasp on biology to know where babies come from. Mary asks the most rational, logical, obvious question when faced with this divine mystery: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

Gabriel’s answer is anything but rational, logical, or obvious. He draws Mary—and perhaps even us—into God’s mysterious and miraculous ways. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” And as if it weren’t enough to wrap our minds around one miracle, Gabriel continues, “And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.” The punchline of the angel’s revelation appeals not to reason but to faith: “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

And with that, Mary delivers her big line, her humble assent to participate in God’s radical plan to change history. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

“For nothing will be impossible with God.” Gabriel’s words are one part explanation and two parts gentle reminder of what Mary was already supposed to know. Mary has lived her life within the Jewish community, a people whose fundamental identity is related to their covenantal relationship with God. She knew the stories of the great deeds God had done for her ancestors. But there is a big difference between believing that God has done something astounding a long time ago and believing that God is doing something astounding right here and right now.

Perhaps Mary had joined her people in hoping for a new king to sit in the throne of David and to reign over the house of Jacob forever. But hoping for a Messiah and conceiving a Messiah are altogether different things. Trusting in God’s power and being overshadowed by that power are worlds apart. Yet Gabriel’s reminder of God’s unshakable power enabled Mary to move from “How can this be?” to “let it be.”

The angel’s words to Mary are the same words God whispers to all of us. “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.” We have a hard time believing this. We think God’s favor is reserved for those who are more faithful, more knowledgeable, more holy. No matter that God has a long history of showing up on the doorsteps of ordinary folk. We think our part in God’s work is marginal— and in a lot of ways, we want to keep it that way. Few people wholeheartedly welcome the intrusion of angels in their lives. We are creatures of habit, and nothing disrupts our plans like an announcement from God.

Little annunciations are happening every hour, every moment. Our persistent and loving God continues to tap on our shoulders, reminding us that our lives are intended to be part of a greater plan. God is present, greeting us as favored ones through the bread and the cup of communion. God is present, calming our fears through the gift of prayer. God is present, inviting us to join Mary in the work of incarnation. God is doing something new, here and now, and we are called to be participants – makers of peace, bearers of hope, witnesses to justice, and vessels of love.

Mary was presented with an impossibility, an impossibility made possible not only by God’s glory, but also by her willingness to let the miracle pierce her perplexity and find its way to her womb. She pondered, she questioned, she let the troublesome message sink in, and then she surrendered her whole being to God’s scandalous plan. Her resounding “yes” to God’s plan set the impossible in motion.

We, too, are presented with an impossibility. We, too, are invited to allow the Christ-child to be born in us, to surrender ourselves to the power of the Most High God for whom nothing is impossible. We don’t have the luxury of thinking this God only did fancy tricks in the past. God is right here among us, asking us to dance. “In this divine dance we are all dancing,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “God may lead but it is entirely up to us whether we will follow. Just because God sends an angel to invite one girl onto the dance floor is no guarantee she will say yes. Just because God sends us a prophet to tell us how life on earth can be more like life in heaven does not mean any of us will quit our day job to make it so. God acts. Then it is our turn. God responds to us. Then it is our turn again.”

God has called you. Listen. Ponder. Ask, “how can this be?” as you contemplate what on earth God could want with little old you. Let the miracle of the incarnation peel away the edges of your fiercest defenses. And then join in the great dance of Christmas, welcoming Christ into the deepest and most hidden parts of your soul, the part that is already singing, “Let it be. Let it be. Let it be with me, according to your word.”


Sunday, December 11: Through the Lens of the Magnificat

This sermon was listed at Textweek, a lectionary resource site.

Click here to read Isaiah 61:1-11, and here to read Luke 1:39-56.
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If a preacher isn’t honest, he or she shouldn’t be preaching. I need to start today by telling you how very hard it is for me to preach into the joy of Advent today.

Last week, Bill shared during our time of joys and concerns that four members of the Christian Peacemakers Team were abducted in Iraq. The Peacemakers are in Iraq because they believe that the mandate to proclaim the Gospel of repentance, salvation and reconciliation includes a strengthened Biblical peace witness. They believe that faithfulness to what Jesus taught and modeled calls Christians to more active peacemaking. They believe that a renewed commitment to the Gospel of Peace calls Christians to new forms of public witness which may include nonviolent direct action.

Tom Fox is one of the men abducted by Swords of Righteousness. In May of this year he wrote about the mission of the Christian Peacemakers Team in Iraq, writing, “We are throwing ourselves open to the possibility of God’s grace bringing some rays of light to the shadowy landscape that is Iraq. We are letting ourselves be guided by something that is beyond rational, intellectual analysis. Gardens beneath which flow rivers can again be the dwelling place for the people of Iraq. Everyone whose government and corporations are playing a role in this land needs to throw open the book of their heart. They need to let their Light run before them as they bring redemption to those in power who are seeking to rule from a place of fear, violence and shadows. That truly would be the highest achievement.”

As I write this, Tom and his coworkers are still alive. The people at Swords of Righteousness are threatening to kill the four peacemakers on Saturday, December 10th. Even still, the headquarters of the Christian Peacemakers Team have released a statement saying that “While we believe the action of kidnapping is wrong, we do not condemn you as people. We recognize the humanity in each person, and respect it very much. This includes you, our colleagues, and all people.” Men and women who volunteer as members of Christian Peacemakers Teams make a commitment to reject violence, even if violence is done to them. They covenant to stand firm against evil, and they swear not to dehumanize their persecutors.

As you can imagine, the work of the Christian Peacemakers Team is controversial. And perhaps no one despises the mission and method of the Peacekeepers Team more than Rush Limbaugh. On his November 29th radio broadcast, Limbaugh said that he liked that this is happening to Tom Fox, James Loney, Harmeet Singh Sooden, and Norman Kember. "Here's why I like it… any time a bunch of people that walk around with their head in the sand practicing a bunch of irresponsible, idiotic theory confront reality, I'm kind of happy about it, because I'm eager for people to see reality, change their minds if necessary, and have things sized up.” I listened to a recording of this broadcast—I had to hear these hateful words come out of Rush Limbaugh’s mouth to believe that he really said them. And now I cannot get them out of my head. They infuriate me and distract me from my prayers for the peacemakers.

Only Rush Limbaugh might have been right about one thing. He called prophetic Christianity a bunch of irresponsible, idiotic theory. According to the standards of the world, Christianity is irresponsible and idiotic. And it is in our most idiotic doctrines that I finally weave my way back to a place where hope is real, peace is possible, and joy is in the air.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary sings. Here is a girl who is unmarried and impoverished, and who has recently been visited by an angel with a very peculiar message. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” Mary had every reason to run screaming from this angel, every cause to consider him an Angel of Darkness, not a messenger of the Lord. For having a child out of wedlock, she could be stoned for adultery. At the very least, she could be rejected by Joseph, her parents, her village. She could spend the rest of her days in even deeper poverty, struggling to keep herself and her child fed outside the safety of a marriage and community.

But she doesn’t reject God’s ridiculous plan to inhabit her womb. She hurries to see her cousin Elizabeth and breaks into song: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (NRSV)

This great hymn of praise has empowered the oppressed and unnerved oppressors for millennia. Mary, who knows our Creator so intimately she carries the Son of God, sings of a God who reaches down and touches the pain of his people. This God lifts up the victims of economic poverty and political violence and draws them into his gentle arms, the way a mother hen gathers her chicks beneath her wings. And this God sends the proud packing. The powerful and corrupt kings who are fluent in the ways of violence and domination are deposed. The rich, who have hoarded the stuff of Creation for their own purposes, are sent away with nothing to show for their greed.

Now let’s get back to our irresponsible and idiotic faith. Instances of Christian foolishness are really adding up. As Christians, we believe in a divine incarnation—that God took human form in the person of Jesus. What’s more, we believe that a young virgin in a Podunk town in Israel carried this Son of God to term. In these Advent weeks, we prepare to hear the wild and glorious story again: that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords made himself at home in swaddling clothes in a manger. And this baby King’s mother tells us what the incarnation means: things are going to change. Oppression will give way to justice. Tears will flow into rivers of laughter. The high and mighty will be humbled, and a poor, unmarried mother will give birth to a Savior.

At the time that Mary sings her revolutionary anthem, though, nothing has yet changed on the surface, for God’s time is not akin to our own. She claims that God has brought down the powerful from their thrones—but the Roman Empire continues to dominate the Israelites in their own land. She professes that God has filled the hungry with good things—but famine still plagues the peoples of the earth. How can Mary’s very soul be bursting with glimmering joy when there is so much reason to tremble with fear and quake with sorrow?

It’s irresponsible. It’s idiotic. And yet every word of Mary’s delirious rejoicing is true. The magnification of God that emanates from Mary’s soul, that jeweled core of each human, is deeply, radically, eternally truthful.

The joy of Christmas is all about trusting God’s promise to redeem creation, and Mary’s song reveals the ultimate meaning of the incarnation that is growing within the space of her womb. With the birth of this child—or, more accurately, the conception of this child by the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit—the course of human history is transformed, altered drastically for the better. Things are not right—this much we are sure of. We believe that God created the world to be a garden of praise and life, not a den of pain and death.

It isn’t right that bodies deteriorate and die. Women shouldn’t be widowed. Young girls shouldn’t be killed in senseless car accidents. Neighborhoods shouldn’t be ruled by guns. Buildings shouldn’t be felled by terrorists. Nations shouldn’t quarrel with bombs. Lakes shouldn’t be polluted by toxins. But God is moving, and a pregnant young girl bears witness to the glory at hand. A beautiful change is in gestation, and the final triumph of life over death is inevitable.

Centuries before Mary revealed the great works of the Mighty One in her bold canticle, the prophet Isaiah issued a divine clarion call: “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he 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 Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion-- to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” (NRSV)

In Isaiah’s words, we find the same unabated rejoicing in the work of our God. Now we have the fact of oppression, the excruciating pain of broken hearts; Isaiah declares the advent of good news and the binding up of wounds. Now we have captives and prisoners— Isaiah affirms that our four brothers in Iraq and all persons unjustly jailed shall be liberated. Now there is talk of God’s anger with his creation, but Isaiah announces that the year of the Lord’s favor is at hand. Now men and women are racked with tears of mourning—Isaiah prophecies that they shall be adorned with garments of celebration. Now we are faint with fear and despair, but Isaiah proclaims that we shall be reborn under the happy weight of the mantle of praise.

The child developing within Mary, who causes John the Baptist to jump for joy within his mother’s womb, will grow into a King whose reign is everlasting. And the words he will use to illuminate his holy mission at the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel of Luke are these words of Isaiah. He is the anointed one. He has been sent to bring good news; indeed, he is the good news. Everything is going to change, all because God is enfolded into a human being. Intervention by incarnation.

It may be irresponsible and idiotic to trust the impassioned words of the virgin and the prophet. But blessed are they who are made fools for Christ!

The same spirit of God that came upon Isaiah and overshadowed Mary still moves among us today. The light is bright now, though we are still living in the darkness. Now we pray fervently for wars to cease and captives to be liberated; now we petition anxiously for beloved ones to survive another round of chemotherapy and another barrage of tests. And even now we rejoice, for through the lens of the Magnificat, everything looks very different. Let us join our souls with Mary’s to magnify the Lord. Stand and sing, friends. The Son of God is on the way!

Sunday, December 4th: In the Wilderness

Click here to read Isaiah 41:1-11, and click here to read Mark 1:1-8.

Aside from Jesus, who is obviously supposed to be every Christian’s favorite biblical character, my favorite person in the bible is John the Baptist.

Good old John doesn’t make it into many Christmas decorations. He is just too weird, too wild. He is one of those biblical characters who is described so vividly you can almost smell him, and given his reputation for roughing it in the desert, he probably didn’t smell very good.

John the Baptist plays an extraordinarily important role in the gospel. He is the one with the bullhorn, loudly proclaiming that God is about to do something altogether new.

And boy, does this guy know how to get peoples’ attention.

John the Baptist did not abide by the social mores of his day. He wore funny clothing, ate locusts and wild honey. He called people out of the safety of their towns and cities into the dangerous wilderness, and he beseeched them to repent of their sins and be dunked in the river Jordan.

Do you ever wonder how he managed to draw such crowds? So far as we know, he didn’t teach like Jesus or preach like Paul. He didn’t even claim to be anything special; he told his disciples that he was nothing compared to the one he foreshadowed. Not even worthy to untie his shoelaces.

Why do people listen to this kind of messenger? It is no wonder John the Baptist doesn’t loom large in our Christmas decorations—I can’t imagine receiving a Christmas card with his hairy mug on the front.

Yet the people flocked to him. They listened to his wild-eyed preaching, and they heard good news. According to St. Mark, the ministry of John the Baptist launched the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

What John proclaimed was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He called people out into the desert to change their lives, and to receive the waters of baptism as a sign of their transformation.

Is it really good news to hear that you have to change? Is it good news to be told by a locust-eating prophet that you’re living your life all wrong, and you need to exchange your old life for a new one—out in the wilderness, of all places—and get your hair completely wet in the process?

It’s good news all right.

When Ben and I were in Big Sur a few years ago, we hiked past a church group that had gathered in the wilderness by a river to perform baptisms. We stood above the group, on a cliff overlooking the river. We could hear their singing—joyful, passionate Spanish hymns. And we could see the believers descending into the emerald waters, eyes closed and arms crossed. The pastor baptized them in Spanish, and each emerged out of the river, newborn. I tried not to stare—it felt rude to watch this intimate ritual. But joy simply reverberated from those people. One young man came out of the water with a huge grin on his face. He lifted up his arms in a triumphant and celebratory pose, reveling in God’s love and the love of his community. That young man was born again, born into a life of discipleship and filled with an extraordinary peace.

The word spoken by the prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament scripture this morning is comfort. Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God.”

Leave it to our gracious and creative God to offer that comfort through a messenger like John, leading people out into the desert to die to sin in the waters of the river Jordan. The message of John is anything but comfortable—but God’s comfort isn’t always comfortable.

I am still making my way through the Chronicles of Narnia, and the images and stories of C.S. Lewis’ Christian allegories are vivid in my mind. In the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a whiney and unpleasant boy named Eustace gets dragged into Narnia with his cousins, Lucy and Edmund. Eustace isn’t charmed by the fantastical characters of Narnia. He wants King Caspian to take him to the British Consul, pronto. When the adventures take Eustace and his traveling companions to an island, Eustace decides he would rather sulk off by himself than contribute to the labor needed to set up camp. He finds himself in a dead dragon’s lair, and ends up happily perched on the treasures the dragon had been protecting. He falls asleep thinking “dragonish” thoughts—dreaming greedy dreams about his new riches. When he awakens, he discovers his dragonish thoughts have turned him into—you guessed it—a dragon. He is immediately sorrowful, immediately filled with regret and loneliness. He realizes that his greed has turned him into a monster, set apart from other human beings. Having recognized how crummy he had been behaving, Eustace wants to change. He tries his hardest to be a kind dragon, and offers his newfound, dragonish strength and skills to help his traveling companions. After a couple days of this, Eustace the Dragon has a dream. In the dream, Aslan, the Lion who represents Christ, comes to him. He leads him to a pool of water, and tells him he needs to bathe, but that first he must remove his clothes. Eustace does his best to molt his dragon skin. But it doesn’t seem to be enough for Aslan. Eustace later explains to his cousin Edmund, “Then the lion said -- but I don't know if it spoke -- 'You will have to let me undress you.' I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.

"The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…

…Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off -- just as I thought I'd done it myself the other three times, only they hadn't hurt -- and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me -- I didn't like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I'd no skin on -- and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found … I'd turned into a boy again."

It is in baptism that the two prophetic messages we ponder on the second Sunday of Advent converge in a perfect harmony: the Comfort promised by the prophet Isaiah, and the repentance preached by John the Baptist. Just as it hurt when Aslan tore into the dragon skin that caged poor Eustace, it hurts to submit ourselves to the hard work of repentance. Looking at one’s face reflected on the baptismal pool isn’t comfortable. Before God, we have to admit our weaknesses, our meanness, our hypocrisy, our utter brokenness. And we have to let our old selves drown in the water. But then we emerge from that watery grave, renewed and reborn. Ready for anything—even the very Son of God. This, sisters and brothers, is real comfort. Real comfort, and real good news.


The First Sunday of Advent: Hope!

Isaiah 60:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence-- 2as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil-- to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 8Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Mark 13:24-37

24 ‘But in those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

26Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ (NRSV)


Outside the walls of this sanctuary, Christmas is already here. No matter that we hadn’t even gotten to Thanksgiving when the Christmas Bells started Jingling on the pop radio stations. No matter that Santa Claus won’t be breezing down the chimney for another four weeks. We are awash in a sea of red and green, immersed in a yuletide of hectic joy. Christmas is here.

Or is it?

C.S. Lewis said that “The Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable joy. But it does not begin with joy, but rather in despair. And it is no good trying to reach the joy without first going through the despair.”

I guess despair doesn’t sell enough video games. Because outside the walls of this sanctuary, something very strange is happening, and it happens every year. It is more akin to the masquerade of Halloween than the hard road to Bethlehem. It is a big game of make-believe, and it is a game with a high price tag, literally and figuratively.

The world around us seems to be saying, “Let’s pretend. Let’s pretend that there is nothing to cause us despair. Let’s pretend that everything will be okay if we get just get some new stuff, sing a few happy songs, and make appearances at a the holiday parties.” I’ve heard the December frenzy called “Eggnogging our way to bliss.”

Only there is no bliss at the bottom of the mug of eggnog. False cheer is a poor substitute for genuine joy. False cheer cannot grapple with truth, cannot observe reality. False cheer simply hopes that despair will disintegrate without ever acknowledging that it exists.

No wonder the church isn’t always a very popular place to hang out. Christians don’t have the option to ignore suffering and pretend that the world is peachy keen. The narrative of our faith boldly wrestles with death and despair. And the Season of Advent is no exception. The scriptures we read today are as far from false cheer as you can get.

As William Willimon writes, “The world wants Christmas jingles and the church sings a lament! The world has visions of sugar plums dancing in its head and the church sees only angry Jews standing by the fence, wailing toward heaven.”

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence-- 2as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil-- to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” Isaiah howls a lamentation to a God who seems absent.

His cry emerged out of a deep disappointment. The Israelites had returned from exile. The thing that they had hoped for had come to pass, only instead of experiencing a lasting shalom, Israel still found itself in a messy and troublesome world. Isaiah looks around for the great and glorious God of the past and just doesn’t see him. He sees the Israelites languishing yet again, and yearns for a bombastic mountaintop experience of the divine to draw the people of God back into relationship with him once and for all.

The timbre of Isaiah’s impassioned cry is all too familiar to us this year. We have heard echoes of his despair, we have murmured the same bewildered anguish. Where was God during the tsunami, the hurricanes, the earthquakes? Where was God when the people of the Gulf went into exile, rushing inland as the waters nipped at their heels? Where was God when family tensions reached a fever pitch, and relationships were broken?

We do not honor the gift of life if we pretend that we do not have reasons to mourn. We turn human existence into a farce if we ignore the depth of our sorrow.

But this is not a choice between sorrow and false cheer. The prophet Isaiah moves through his people’s despair – not around it, but through it. He traverses the path of despair to a curious hope—the hope that recognizes that we have run out of hope. The hope that only sprouts when we finally recognize that we cannot save ourselves: not with a credit card, not with a drink, not with a memory of a happier day. The only hope worth its weight in tears.

So within these walls it is not yet Christmas. Instead of turning the volume up and plugging the twinkling lights in, we pace ourselves. We add one wavering light to our wreath each week. Even though the radio plays jolly songs about St. Nick, our carols are tempered with anticipation until Christmas Eve.

Why go to all this bother? We know where the plot goes. We know a child will be born. And still we refuse to celebrate prematurely. We have the unrest of Isaiah in our blood. We know that we wait for a God who has been here before and will be here again. The scriptures of our ancestors bear witness to his faithfulness. We ourselves have seen glimmers of his glory and heard whispers of his presence.

So we fumble through this time in awkward anticipation. Yes, we wait for the child to be born in Bethlehem. But there is more to our anticipation than rehearsal. We wait for a new movement of Christ, a time when the Kingdom of God blooms like a fig tree, finally bearing fruit after the long winter. The hope we cultivate is necessarily rooted in the recognition that the world is broken. God’s good creation is damaged. And all our business here on earth happens in the in-between. Christ has come – but he has not yet come again. The fig tree is planted – but it has not yet born fruit. We are in between doubt and faith, repentance and rejoicing. Is it any wonder that Isaiah’s words, braided with equal parts hope and despair, anticipation and lamentation, are the Advent carol the church selects as our seasonal kick-in-the-pants?

This double-edged anticipation refuses to let us sentimentalize Mary’s pregnancy. We can’t simply coo over the expected baby Jesus, because for now, we are immersed in the darkness that preceded his birth and foreshadows his return.

“The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,” Jesus proclaims in the Gospel of Mark. “the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

26Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

The church chooses to tune out the chaotic artificial light that marks this season so that we will recognize the light of Christ when he comes. The church recognizes that a world without Christ is a world with a darkened sun and a shadowed moon.

By wrestling with the strange and angry words of the biblical prophets, we prepare ourselves for the unspeakable joy of incarnation, of Emmanuel, and plant our hopes ever deeper in God’s promise to redeem the whole of Creation.

So we wait. And hope. Our lives are shaped by this hope. We may live in the interim, after Act 1, but before the fulfillment of the heavenly theater. But as Christians we live in hope, we live into God’s extravagant promises. This time between isn’t always comfortable. Indeed, it is downright devastating sometimes, to look around our world and see God’s beloved children rebelling, suffering, and despairing. We must simply stay awake, keep our eyes wide open not with dread, but with honest expectation that is fluent in lamentation and celebration alike.

This anticipation is not as fun as false cheer, but when unspeakable joy covers the ends of earth to the ends of heaven, what a Christmas feast that will be. Amen.