This is the nativity story we cherish, because it promises that God is with us, and that the often-harrowing realities of the world are not the final word. We cherish the story and come together to sing the beloved songs that re-tell and celebrate it.
But (tonight/this morning) we have heard another nativity narrative, from the community of the evangelist John. John’s beautiful and mysterious “hymn to the Word of God made flesh” has no stable, no Mary and Joseph, no angels or shepherds or star. Matthew and Luke have a story to tell, but John is all metaphor.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has said in reference to the other gospel writer who has no explicit birth story, Mark, that “he isn’t interested in baby pictures,” and we can say the same of John: he is not so much concerned with what happened in Jesus’ birth as he is with what it means.
In the hymn we have just heard that begins John’s gospel, John makes two theological claims. One was more important to the community of Jesus’ followers as the first century of the Common Era turned to the second than it probably is to us. John’s second claim speaks profoundly to us about ourselves.
The first concern John’s hymn addresses has to do with the nature of Jesus as the Christ, the presence of God embodied in the world in human flesh. Those of you who heard the teaching sermon on the Nicene Creed in November will recall that the young Church, in its first centuries, struggled mightily to figure out and understand the idea that Jesus was both human and divine. John begins his gospel addressing this very question:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us… full of grace and truth.
The God who came into the world in Jesus, in other words, was not something new, but was THE WORD itself – the very essence of God – the mind, the will, the nature and passion of God that had been present and active from creation itself. Before the birth of Jesus this presence of God was not known to humans, but in the incarnation, the eternal, dynamic reality of LOVE ITSELF became known.
John’s second claim is about the impact that the incarnation, the EMBODIMENT of God’s presence, has for us.
God’s incarnation in Jesus the Christ has the purpose of changing human possibility:
John says: “..to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” John goes on to say that those who receive and know and understand Jesus as the power of God itself can be born “not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of humans, but of God.”
In other words, because we have seen what the invisible and unknowable God looks like in a human life, because we have known the life of Jesus the Christ, we are no longer just the product of the events in OUR lives, no longer tied to the difficulties and limitations of our humanity, but are children of God as Jesus was the child of God.
The early “church fathers” – folks such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Athanasius, as well as later theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas – taught the concept of “divinization”, a process by which human beings are so transformed by grace that we come to share in God’s very nature.1
If we take this seriously, means that the Incarnation of God in Jesus is not just a one-time historical event, though it is that, but it is an event that opens up an ongoing reality in which we continue to participate, in which it is our opportunity to take up OUR part in the life of God.
In John’s nativity, there is only still silence as the Word of God, the eternal, takes on temporal flesh for one fleeting human lifetime. It is, for us, a reminder that Love came into the world to make our fragile, temporary flesh holy. It is a reminder that our fleeting time here on earth is holy, too. We can be, like Mary “bearers of the eternal Word”.
It is a radical and mysterious claim, but it is an invitation to life without fear, life lived in abundance.
In Christmas, we celebrate tidings of great joy: love has broken through again. Christ is born in us again. Love is made flesh again.
Whenever we find love, whenever we offer love, the holy is born in us again.
What if we were to really live as if God is not something “out there”, but rather, as if our own being is filled with the infinite, creative, mysterious presence we call God? What if our own deepest self is in God and God is in us?
We take part in the divine nature when we allow God’s love to affect us, to change us, to flow in and through us.
We can work at more and more consistently living each moment in a way that reflects how much of the sacred we carry within us.
In this Christmas season may we continue to explore the Incarnation of the Christ, both in a stable in Bethlehem and in our own lives, here, today; may we savor the gift that we receive in the birth of Christ.
Each day may Christ be born a little more in our thoughts, our hearts, and in our choices, that the light enkindled in us may shine ever more fully in our lives.
We are given many special characters in scripture. Men and women who were called to be saints and who lived their lives according to the spirit of righteousness. They refused the evil and chose the good, as Isaiah says in chapter 7. They modeled for us how to grapple with a challenging and sometimes disastrous world; how to look for the light of God’s countenance and how to listen for signs, some as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven. I’m not sure why Isaiah writes that we should listen for God in such a dark and lifeless place as Sheol, as it is defined as a kind of underworld. Perhaps he is suggesting that we can hear the voice of God, even in our most desperate times and places.
Last week Molly reminded us that Advent acknowledges our broken places and reassures us that God is with us, that love exists and that the light will come. Jesus sent word to John in prison that the blind and lame had been healed and that the poor had received good news. Miracles and spectacular signs!
In the Hebrew scriptures God told Moses to throw down his shepherd’s staff and it became a serpent; “don’t be afraid”, God said “grab it by the tail.” Moses grabbed it and it became a staff again. God’s omnipotence was dramatically demonstrated. The burning bush was on fire, but it was not consumed by the flames, God was present there. Last week the choir sang a beautiful setting of Mary’s Magnificat; her response to the angel Gabriel who appears to Mary in awesome glory and explains the unexplainable to her and gives her an invitation. And she says yes!
Signs of God’s presence do show up in extraordinary and ordinary places.
I like the idea that signs in modern times are less like these miraculous and spectacular wonders, and more like evidence of what God wants us to do with our lives. God breaks through into our lives too. God’s signs show up in ordinary places, less likely to be flames and visions; more likely to be a gentle reminder, a nudging, a feeling.
I am especially drawn to this passage from Mathew’s gospel about Joseph of Nazareth. These days I take great delight in watching my three adult sons become wonderful fathers. It is one of my greatest joys. I see them struggle with all the challenges and confusions of modern family life. I see that they often don’t have time to stop, look and listen, when faced with difficulty; their lives are full and it takes time and practice to slow down, to take a few deep breaths and circle back to what they know really matters. Paul reminds us in the first letter to the Romans, that we are called first and foremost to belong to Jesus Christ, to live into the grace and apostleship we have been given, however that manifests itself in our lives.
Joseph was a 1st century Jewish carpenter, who according to tradition was engaged to Mary, a young virgin. Mary appears in many gospel stories. The angel Gabriel appears to her to announce that she will bear the Christ child; she visits with her relative Elizabeth who (miraculously) will be the Mother of John the Baptist. Mary is with Jesus when the Magi come bearing gifts and she carries him through the desert on the flight to Egypt. We do not get a thorough portrait of Marys’ life, but we feel we know her intimately thru the Annunciation, the Christmas story and the Passion of Christ. Joseph is mentioned fewer times, very briefly and only in relationship to others in the gospel stories of John and Luke. The writer of Matthew’s gospel seems to feel that Joseph’s position as earthly father to Jesus is more important to explore than the other writers did. I agree with Matthew that Joseph’s story is an important one. Jesus surely needed an earthly father, God and human that he was. Jesus, like Joseph, and like all of us, would be faced with the full spectrum of human life…profound joy and unbearable agony.
Matthew’s gospel begins with a long genealogy which traces Jesus’ lineage from Abraham through David for fourteen generations, ending with ‘Jacob, the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born”. Joseph has royal lineage. Then follows the passage we hear today.
Joseph is engaged to the young girl Mary. I read that the Jewish custom at that time was that marriage was a two-step process, the first being a legal contract followed later by the bride joining her husband in his home. After the marriage contract is signed, Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant. Imagine what an overwhelming situation this must have been for Mary and Joseph. In 1st century Nazareth the stigma associated with unmarried pregnancy or adultery could lead to much disaster, everything from social disgrace to death by stoning. Joseph’s initial impulse was to break the marriage contract. I like to think that before he did anything, he did what I usually try to do when faced with trouble… he took a nap. During that nap, an angel came and told Joseph not to be afraid, that Mary’s child came from God and that the child would save us all. Joseph was a righteous man and a devout Jew, and in spite of the somewhat terrifying dream message, Joseph heard the angel and he decided to accept God’s invitation and take on the challenge of partnering with Mary and raising and protecting this mysterious infant.
Joseph the good father was there in the stable, and on the dangerous flight to Egypt. He was there in the temple, and he rejoiced with Mary at the words of Simeon and Anna. Perhaps above all, Joseph knew that he, in the end, could not protect this child. He knew, as we know, that life would sometimes be full of profound joy and sometimes life would be full of the bread of tears. Still, he listened to God-within and accepted the call to belong to Jesus Christ as we must also listen and accept.
Are we, like Joseph, listening for evidence of what God wants us to do in our lives? In this busy and (for many) challenging Christmas season, will we, like Joseph say yes to God’s invitation? Let us walk these next few steps with Joseph and Mary to the stable, listening, looking and ready to say yes.
Rose Sunday is a reference to rose color of 3rd candle in our Advent wreath. Its color is associated multiple meanings, including lightening of color in reference to Mary, whose song is one of the optional readings appointed for the day - we’ll hear a musical setting of it at the offertory - as well as reflecting anticipation of light coming into world.
Probably my favorite name for today is Stir up Sunday. It comes from the opening words of today’s collect, in which we ask God to “stir up your power… and come among us”. Tradition also holds that it’s also a reminder for cooks to “stir up” fermenting batter for their Christmas plum puddings and fruitcakes.
The other name for this third Sunday of Advent is the one I’d like to reflect on this morning. Gaudete Sunday refers to the Latin word for Rejoice, which is the first word found in a text traditionally sung on the third Sunday in Advent in the Catholic tradition, taken from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: Rejoice in the Lord always. We didn’t hear this reading this morning because our lectionary has changed, but the name hangs on.
All of these designations for the third Sunday of Advent are pretty upbeat and cheery, but calling this “Rejoice Sunday” is definitely a misnomer. The gospel we’ve heard this morning does not invite us to rejoice, but rather, shows us the picture of John, the baptizer, languishing in prison, suffering painful doubts about whether the one he has acclaimed to be the Messiah is actually the one. As we know, John was eventually beheaded by Herod.
Throughout today’s readings, we are reminded of the world’s troubles, of our need for hope, our need for redemption.
Isaiah offers a poetic vision of the world turned upside down by God’s redeeming power – or perhaps we should say – a world turned rightside up:
In Isaiah’s vision of God’s realm, all limitation and all suffering will be brought to an end:
Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened,
And the ears of the deaf unstopped;
Then shall the lame leap like a deer
And the tongue of the speechless sing for joy….
The Psalmist, as well, echoes this theme of transformation:
(God) gives justice to those who are oppressed,
And food to those who hunger.
The Lord sets the prisoners free… [and] lifts up those who are bowed down
Advent acknowledges the sorrows of our world, but promises that the light is coming.
Advent faces us with our brokenness and asks us to believe in the light. It calls us to be messengers of hope.
Over the course of the four weeks of Advent our sacred texts have been guiding us to this conclusion.
The first Sunday of Advent confronted us with Jesus’ apocalyptic vision of a world of frightening endings – the two workers in the field, the two women grinding meal, one of whom is taken and one left.
The two middle weeks of Advent – last Sunday, and today – ask us to remember prophetic ministry of John Baptizer. John and Jesus lived in a world that took apocalyptic visions seriously: they believed a final judgment was approaching and they preached readiness.
John and Jesus both recognized corruption and emptiness in world dominated by the struggle for power over others as a means of protecting self-interest. It’s an understanding of the world that we can readily understand.
Isaiah and the other prophets of Hebrew scripture AND John the baptizer utilized two images to describe he world God is working to transform, the world Jesus lived and died to redeem: the first is the world as “wilderness”, and the second is the world as “darkness”. In our own time, both of these images need rethinking.
Isaiah spoke of one “crying out in the wilderness” to “prepare the way of the Lord’”, identifying wilderness as a place of hostility, barrenness, and danger. Heather reflected on the wilderness in her sermon last week and reframed the concept for us.
“Creation is God incarnate”, she told us, and said that it’s our responsibility as followers of Jesus to ensure “that there will be a wilderness for Christ to return to.” Rather than dreaming of being saved from the wilderness, Heather advised that “One of the first steps we can take is to follow John the Baptist’s example by spending more of our time in the wilderness.”
“Darkness” is the other biblical image I’d like to reframe.“Darkness” into which the light breaks is another way of describing the reality of the world’s emptiness without God’s presence.
You’ve heard me reflect, before, that I have grown uncomfortable with equating “darkness” with the negative, as it has it has such powerful, historic racist implications. I’m not going to give you that sermon again today, but I do want to bring it back to memory, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll be happy to explain. As a substitute, let’s talk about the broken aspects of the world.
Brokenness characterizes the world in our time, and too often is within us as well: it is not just the division and violence of our common life that needs transformation, but also the crooked, rough places in our individual lives:
Our lives are full of realities that don’t invite rejoicing.
Bur here’s the thing: even as Advent acknowledges the broken and crooked places in common life and our personal lives, it promises the coming of the light and asks us, outrageously, to hope.
Over and over again we hear these messages:
Isaiah promising that God “will bind up the brokenhearted”
That the captives will find liberty
That those who mourn will have “a garland instead of ashes”, “the oil of gladness instead of mourning”
The Psalmist, likewise:
“Those who sowed in tears will reap in songs of joy”
“Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come
again with joy, shouldering the sheaves”
In this pre-Christmas season popular culture surrounds us with sights, sounds, and tastes of the holiday season. Popular culture doesn’t want to have to wait for Christmas.
The important thing about these “signs” of the season is that they point toward and offer a taste of the true joy that is possible in God’s life.
Just as gifts we give at Christmas are not about the gifts themselves, but express how much we cherish those to whom we give, the lights, music, and delicious morsels we are preparing suggest and remind us of true gifts of love and hope, EMBODIED in the birth in Bethlehem, that we can fleetingly taste but that are hard to hold onto.
Advent promises that God has come near, that God has entered into OUR world.
That despite painful realities we can’t and shouldn’t plaster over with holiday cheer – God is working to transform this broken world.
We are in a between time – after the redeeming life of Jesus, but before the work of redemption is complete.
We are waiting. But we can choose how to wait. We can wait for God to “bind up the brokenhearted” and “transform the tears” to “songs of joy”, or we can pitch in.
Who, in your life, needs a word of love that you can bring?
Our work as Jesus’ followers is to be, as John was, witnesses to the light.
The life of Jesus taught us that when we feel sorrow and hopelessness closing in, the way to break through is by reaching out to others, especially to those whose sorrows are greater than our own. To show them, through our caring, that love exists, and that we can dare to hope.
In this Advent, let us hear and believe the promises.
Let us cry out in the wilderness, bearing and lifting up the sorrows of the world, and let us see beyond them.
Let us enjoy the pleasures of the season and understand that they are signs point toward a deeper Reality.
Let us continue to reach out in love, and offer the world better visions of what can and will be.
In Jesus’ name.
John’s prophetic message called on God’s people to repent; or in other words, to turn their hearts and minds back towards God’s dream for this world. Those moved by John’s message, would partake in a ritual cleansing and recommit to God by being dipped or immersed in water. Hence his nickname as a baptizer. John was that unique kind of eccentric person, who has a way of making you feel deeply uncomfortable, and yet at the same time, you can’t quite turn away. He captivated people's senses.
Prophets often have this skill. As God’s messengers, they are called to speak to particular communities facing their own individual concerns. Yet the themes are often the same. Typically, they call on people to turn back towards God, and expect the community to collectively address social justice issues facing the wider community. In so doing, they help pave a new way for God’s dream to unfold in the world.
John the Baptist was no exception. When leaders from the religious establishment head to the wilderness to observe this unusual man, he calls them out:
You brood of vipers!*
Do you think you can be changed by simply showing up here?
It’s your life that has to change.
You can’t rely on your religious authority either.
Change your life.
Put your energies towards working for God’s dream.
Because soon another is coming, and we need to be ready.
I love John the Baptist. His eccentric fashion and speech. His ability to make us stop and stare; to make us deeply uncomfortable. Which can often trigger an unhealthy, yet natural, response within us. We often become defensive, snarky, and judgemental; sneering and ridiculing the prophet and God’s so-called ‘message’.
Right? We do this all the time. How often do prophets in our own lives challenge us to turn away from some of our current practices and back towards God’s dream for this world. We often react by feeling judged and become defensive. This is a coping mechanism to mask our deep fear of the unknown and unfamiliar. In general, when prophet calls us out, we tend not to respond by saying,
By golly, you are right.
I see the error of my ways, and I will do things differently from now on.
For that matter, how can I help with these efforts?
Instead, we tend to react by doubling down in the very beliefs and practices God is asking us to change. We seem to harden our hearts, just as Pharaoh did all those years ago.
This is both good and bad news. The bad news is this makes the prophet’s work incredibly challenging. Given the Church is called to be a prophetic voice in the world; to work tirelessly for justice and mercy, we know what this challenge feels like all too well. We know what it feels like when our progress has been stymied yet again by another act of human selfishness, greed, and/or violence. Prophetic work can be wearisome, and at times it can challenge our capacity to hope and persevere in the face of resistance.
Yet the prophet is never alone. God is always right there, inspiring the words, vision, and next steps to keep going. As the Church, we are never alone.God is with us, and we are here to engage in this work together as the body of Christ.
That is the good news, but there is even more assuring news for us to take in. The response to the prophet’s message, particularly if it is defensiveness, judgment, or argument, is valuable information that we can learn from. We can pay attention to what lives underneath those behavioral responses, and we can offer compassion. It means as the Church, we can approach the prophetic work of social justice by preaching the message to turn towards God’s dream, while at the same time coming alongside people and meeting them where they are. Instead of talking at people, we can see their fear and discomfort; we can recognize hardened hearts and offer them compassion. Because their response to the injustice we are addressing is not actually about us, even if it is directed at us, and it is fruitless to take any of it personally.
Which means for all of us who maybe had an uncomfortable moment or two at Thanksgiving about a controversial social justice issue, we don’t need to waste precious energy holding anger towards those loved ones. Instead, see the fears underneath the words and offer compassion. This doesn’t fix everything, but it helps us to do the prophetic work of social justice, while also walking the Way of Love in each of our relationships.
Now returning to our eccentric friend, John the Baptist, for a moment. John modeled for the Church that we too can prepare the way for Christ’s coming by engaging in the prophetic work of inviting people to turn back towards God’s dream and one another. One of the most important ways the Church can use our prophetic voice right now is by addressing the climate crisis.
We are in a season of unprecedented climate change. For the last few hundred years humanity has plundered the earth of every conceivable natural resource, using them for our own individual comfort and gain. As young people, we were taught by both the Church and the wider culture, that we ruled over the abundance of creation, and that we could use those resources however we saw fit. Yet humanity is one speck of God’s creation, and we were always meant to play our small part in the interconnected web of life. As the Church, we are called to the prophetic work of helping the world to wake up to the climate crisis, and to turn back towards God and begin a reconciliatory relationship with creation.
The Church was made for just such a time as this. We understand deeply that the earth is sacred; that creation is God incarnate. Like John the Baptist, the Church has a role to play in helping the wider culture turn away from the unsustainable and dangerous practices that have led to this crisis. We can be agents of change that help shift humanity’s relationship with creation from consumer to caregiver. This is how we can ready the Way; by ensuring that there will be a wilderness for Christ to return to.
Whether we think about it this way or not, the climate crisis intersects with every single social justice issue. We need to see the intersectionality of these challenges and collaborate with others to collectively be that voice crying out in the wilderness,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
The Green Team is helping our church navigate how to be prophetic caregivers of creation, but there is more we can each do all on our own. And I promise it’s not hard, and won't cost you more than a few moments each day. One of the first steps we can take is to follow John the Baptist’s example by spending more of our time in the wilderness.
I don’t mean you need to pack up your house, sell your possessions, and embark on a six month journey hiking the Appalachian Trail. Though that is also great. Nature is all around us. In the slow stretch of time at the pandemic’s onset, people shared at virtual coffee hour how they were taking more time to connect with creation. For many it was birds or flowers; for others it was walks or hands in the soil. The slowness of that season allowed us to reconnect with nature in a way that many of us had not done since childhood.
What if every day we were each to spend five more minutes appreciating God incarnate in the creation that surrounds our home and neighborhood. Maybe this means getting better acquainted with a particular tree in our yard. Maybe it is forging a relationship with a nearby squirrel, bird, rabbit, or insect. Maybe it is sitting outside in silence, simply taking in each sound, scent, and scene. How might deepening our relationship with creation help us to heal and grow?
How might it help us prepare for the coming of Christ this Advent? Amen.
*This is inspired by and adapted from the Message translation of Matthew 3:1-12
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