Advent Stories: Sermon for December 7, 2014

Mark 1:1-8
1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;

1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”

1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Advent2

I don’t watch a lot of movies. I really have never been good at sitting still long enough. But there is one exception: Christmas movies. Right now there is a stack of them next to our TV: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Elf, Christmas Vacation…the list goes on. And each December I probably spend more time than the rest of the year combined watching movies.

I’ve found that the same is true for others too. There’s something so special about the Christmas stories we grew up with, and even the ones we’ve come to know as adults, that they become a part of the way we celebrate the holidays.

But as much as I love them, there’s a catch…and that’s that I don’t think all of our favorite Christmas stories are really Christmas stories at all.

I’ll come back to that. But first, we have this story from Scripture about another character: John the Baptist. It’s traditional that on the second Sunday of Advent churches read about John, and about how he lived out in the wilderness where he ate locusts and wild honey, and wore camel’s hair, and shouted at people to “prepare the way of the Lord”.

So, you know, really Christmasy. He doesn’t sound like he was a lot of fun to be around. Actually, he sounds a little more like the Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge. And yet, this is in many ways exactly the text we need to read this time of the year.

Because Advent is about preparation. It is about, as John puts it, preparing the way of the Lord and making the Lord’s paths straight. And John doesn’t mean literal paths by that. He doesn’t want us to build sidewalks or pave roads. He wants us to do something much harder.

John is telling us to clear the way for God to come into our hearts and into our lives. “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make the path straight.” In other words, get ready. Make some room for God.

That can be hard to imagine during the midst of the busy run-up to Christmas. We all have things to do this time of year. Presents to buy, cookies to bake, decorations to put up, cards to send. We may be busier than ever. And now John, this guy with his camel hair, wants us to add one more thing to the list. And that’s pretty easy for him to say. His shopping list consists of only two things: locusts and honey.

But, what if he’s right? What if you and I are being asked to prepare the way of the Lord? And what if it’s not just something to do on top of everything else we do to get ready for Christmas? What if it’s the point of this whole season and nothing else really matters?

Part of how we prepare the way of the Lord in this Advent season is by reflecting on the four traditional themes of the season. Last week was “hope”. And today is “peace”. But this story about John the Baptist, this guy who is sort of out there raving in the wilderness, at first glance might not sound like it has much to do with peace at all, so you might be wondering, “why do churches read about him this week”?

I think the answer to that has to do with how we understand what “peace” means. So, how would you define peace? It is the absence of war? In one sense, yes. And I would love for us to learn how to live without war. This world has too many wars, including ones being fought right now. This year, as I’m thinking about what peace means, I’m also thinking about a friend of mine who is deployed to Afghanistan right now. And as he spends this Christmas away from his family, I’m thinking about a world in which he would never have had to go.

I believe that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, wants that kind of peace for the world. But I don’t believe peace stops there. Because peace means more than not just firing a weapon, or raising a fist. And Jesus himself showed that.

Because the child we wait for this season, the one who would be called the Prince of Peace, is also the guy who grew up to angrily flip over tables in the Temple. He didn’t believe in the kind of false peace that comes only in the absence of armed conflict. And that’s because he wanted more from us than peace without justice.

And so when Jesus walked into the Temple and saw a system of money changing and usury that manipulated the faith of people and exploited the poor, he literally turned the tables on it. And in doing so, he taught us all that real peace cannot come when some are being oppressed. Real peace only comes when every child of God is treated justly.

So, already peace is a tall order: the absence of violence, and the absence of injustice. But, what if there’s even more to it?

There is a song you may have heard: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” There’s also that prayer from St. Francis that we recited at the beginning of our service: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

What if we got absolutely serious about that? What if we decided that we ourselves were going to be the place where peace starts. And, even harder, what if we committed to creating peace within our own selves?

There’s a word that I’ve come to associate with inner peace: serenity. Reinhold Niebuhr, the well-known UCC minister and theologian, even wrote a prayer about it that you probably know: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Serenity does not mean that everything is perfect. It does not mean that things are even good or comfortable. It simply means that in the midst of everything, we have a sense of peace. And for those of us who are Christians, that means a sense of connection with our God, and with Christ, the Prince of Peace.

In that way, reading about John the Baptist on this Sunday of peace is maybe not so strange after all. Because what John is asking us to do is to get ready for God. John is saying prepare your heart, and mind for Christ’s coming. Unclutter the path that God will take, remove the obstacles you have placed there, and open yourself up to the peace that only Christ can bring.

Prepare the way of the Lord, because that’s how you find peace in yourself. And if you don’t have that peace, how can you ever except to bring it to others?

And that’s important because so much of what John the Baptist was doing out there in the wilderness was witnessing to the one who was to come. John knew he was not Christ. He knew something bigger than him was coming. Just like you and I are not Christ, but we witness to what we believe by the way we live our lives. And in Advent we prepare ourselves for the work of witnessing to God’s hope, and peace, and joy, and love, that we are asked to do all year. We prepare the way of the Lord inside of us, that we may prepare the way of the Lord in a world that so desperately needs all of those things that only Christ can bring.

And so, here’s where I want to go back to those Christmas movies and specials I talked about at the beginning. Remember how I said they weren’t really Christmas stories? I say that not because they are not Christmas-themed, but because most of them are really Advent stories. And that’s because most of them are about someone who learns to prepare the way of the Lord in their heart by making a change.

Even when everything is coming down around George Bailey, he learns to see the world through grateful eyes. Ebenezer Scrooge sees the truth about himself, becomes a compassionate and kind soul, and changes his miserly ways. Charlie Brown hears Linus recite the Christmas story, and he learns what Christmas is all about. And even the Grinch hears the Whos down in Whoville singing despite the fact he stole Christmas, and his heart grows three sizes that day.

Those are their Advent stories. Each has an Advent that prepares them for Christmas. And each arrives at Christmas day different than they were when the season of Advent started. They are, in some way, transformed. And transformation is what Advent is all about.

So what is your Advent story? How are you going to be transformed this year? How are you going to prepare and make straight the way of the Lord?

You don’t have to be visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. You don’t have to have to go to Whoville. You don’t even have to have Charlie Brown’s sad little Christmas tree. All you have to do is this: open your heart, and make a little space for the Prince of Peace. Prepare the way of the Lord, and the Lord will show you the rest. Amen.

Cruise Ship or Christ’s Ship? – Sermon for June 24, 2012

Mark 4:35-41
4:35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”

4:36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.

4:37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.

4:38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

4:39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

4:40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

4:41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

A few years ago a friend of mine who lived in Boston decided to take a quick trip to the outer tip of Cape Cod. The two aren’t that far apart, of course. At least not as the crow flies. But if you drive you have to go down the South Shore, over the backed-up bridge, and over and up the Cape again. Several hours later you’ll get there.

So my friend decided to go by boat. When they got on the ferry, the day looked pretty nice. The sea was calm. It was sunny. They’d be there soon. But once they got out in open water, things changed. The swells came up the side of the boat. It lunged through the water, dipping up and down, and her friends told her she was literally turning green.

She made it safely to the other shore, but she resolved that next time she would drive.

If they had had cars in Biblical times I’ll bet the disciples in today’s passage would have gotten to the other shore, turned around to look at Jesus, and said “next time we’re driving.”

Jesus is teaching the crowds and when he gets done he tells them that they are going to the other side. And part way across a storm kicks up. The water swamps the boat, the waves beat against it, and the disciples are not just seasick; they’re pretty sure they’re going to die.

Times like this, you want Jesus to be awake. But they look over at him, and he’s sleeping. And I’m sure they were thinking, “How can you sleep through this, Jesus?” They call out to him, “don’t you realize we are about to die? Don’t you care?”

And then Jesus wakes up. And he looks around. And he says, “Peace…be still.”

The storm goes ends. And the winds die down. And they are safe again. Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

The Scripture tells us that the disciples were filled with awe, and started to ask each other, “Who is this guy? Even the wind and sea obey him?”

Had I been there, I might not have been filled with awe about Jesus. It might have gone more like this: “Hey, buddy…while you’re asleep the rest of us are about to die, so maybe you could wake up and help us keep the water out of the boat?”

To be honest, a lot of us have moments we feel that way about Jesus. The sea gets rough, the waters of life overwhelm us, and we call out to a God who it sometimes seems might as well be sleeping. Sometimes we might feel like we are all alone on a sea, shouting, “Jesus, don’t you care?”

This passage gives me hope in times like that. Not because Jesus stilled the storm, though I’m glad he did. But because it shows me that even the disciples felt that way at times.

But more importantly, it shows me this. Even the disciples were put in situations that they didn’t know how to get out of. It shows me that Jesus sometimes does lead us to places that aren’t all the great in the moment.

I think sometimes we think that if we really believe, if we really try to be a good Christian, nothing bad will ever happen to us. I wish that that were true. The saints of the faith have lived holy lives, and yet they, like we, have often found themselves on choppy seas. And the people in our lives who most exemplify “good” sometimes are the ones who face the situations we just don’t understand.

It doesn’t feel fair. It makes us want to call out to Jesus, “Why is this happening? Are you asleep at the helm?”

But then I think again about today’s passage, about Jesus telling the disciples to get in the boat and cross the sea, and I wonder if maybe he knew what was coming. I wonder if he was preparing them for what was about to happen.

Jesus was a teacher. He used parables and metaphors and whatever was handy to teach his disciples about God and the life of faith. And I wonder if that’s what he was doing that day. He knew that life for the disciples would be full of stormy seas, and that at times they would be about to lose everything. And maybe he knew that in those moments they’d need to draw on faith from somewhere.

Have you ever noticed where Jesus is in this passage? That’s what always strikes me. Jesus isn’t back on the shore. And he’s not standing over on the opposite shore. He’s not high and dry and safe.

He’s in the boat. He’s going through the storm with the ones he loves. And in the end, being in the same boat with Jesus is what saves them.

In art work, the church is often represented metaphorically by a boat. The World Council of Churches, and international body made up of denominations from all over the world, chose not a cross, but a boat as their symbol. And during World War II the Confessing Church, the churches that opposed Hitler in Germany, used a boat as a symbol.

The boat symbolizes the church and its people being carried by God through the sometimes choppy waters of life. Even this place you’re sitting in now, this part of the sanctuary, is also called the “nave”, from the same root as naval or navy. If you think of the steep roof of a church, it looks a little like an upside down boat. There’s a reason for that. Even church architecture reminds us that we are called to journey together in the same boat as Jesus.

That’s both a blessing, and a warning. When my friend got on the boat in Boston, she knew she was going to make it to the Cape. Even when the waters got bad and she wanted to just be on dry land, she knew that by night fall she’d be eating a lobster roll and sitting by the beach.

But getting in the boat with Jesus is different. It’s not a luxury cruise ship. It’s not a quick ferry. It’s a boat that goes to places that sometimes we might not want to go. Because it’s Jesus boat. And sometimes Jesus goes into the heart of the storm. That’s his job. To be there in the roughest of waters, with the ones who need him the most. And if we want to be in the same boat as he is, that means that sometimes we will end up there with him too.

Sometimes Christians, especially in this country where we are rather comfortable, fall into the trap of thinking that the church is more of a club than anything else. We go to church on Sundays, but it doesn’t really affect us much. Or, we don’t go to church at all. We figure we can just follow Jesus as an individual, and we don’t need the community of faith. Christian belief becomes something that doesn’t really challenge us much.

But if your Christianity is not inconveniencing you a little, if you are not at times finding yourself on choppy seas because of what your faith calls you to do, you might want to check to make sure you are in the right boat back at the docks. If your faith makes no demands on your life, if it doesn’t make you make the hard choices sometimes, chances are good that you may have accidentally boarded the cruise ship, not the Christ ship.

It’s okay. God allows you to change your travel plans mid-trip.

I talked earlier about the Confessing Church in Germany. These were the Christians who refused to be a part of the puppet Reich church that Hitler had set up and instead decided that they were going to follow the Gospel. The fact they chose a ship as their symbol is a reminder to me of the sometimes very high price of being in the same boat as Jesus. Some of them died for their beliefs, and their refusal to collude with Naziism. They could have chosen smooth waters in a safe ship by simply cooperating with Hitler. But they didn’t. And the storm got bad.

But they called out. They remained faithful to the Gospel as they knew it, and, they called out to Jesus at the worst of the storm, when it must have most felt like God was asleep at the helm. And finally, the winds stopped, and the waves receded. And not only they, but nation and a world was saved. They did not do it alone, but they did it perhaps more faithfully, and with greater stakes, than any other Christians. And, ironically, all the ones who had chosen the boat with the easier waters, found that in the end their ship was the one that was destroyed.

I have no doubt that Jesus was in the boat of those confessing Christians. And I have no doubt that Jesus is in the boats of all of those who would follow Christ’s call no matter where it takes them, even if it’s into the storm. We are often tempted to pray for smooth waters and an easy passage. I can’t deny that I want that sometimes. But ironically, in the end it’s being in the boat that sails the hardest seas, the one with God at the helm, that will truly bring us peace.

May this small boat that we all now sit in find the other shore safely, but may the seas be just choppy enough that we know we are on the right boat. Amen.

“Making New Paths” – Sermon for 4 December 2011

Most of us have seen a fender bender take place in front of us before. We may have even been asked to be a witness to the accident. A police officer has asked us to remember everything that we saw, leaving nothing out, even if it seemed insignificant. And then he or she has gone and asked everyone else what they saw.
What’s interesting is that if you and I and a few other people were to see a fender bender, get separated, and then get asked what we saw, our stories wouldn’t be the same. I might remember that one driver ran a stop light. You might have seen the other driver texting. Someone might say the car was red. Another might remember where the license plates were from. And some of our stories might even conflict a little, not because any of us are lying, but because we were standing on different sides of the street or because one thing in particular caught our eye and felt so important that we remembered it.
It’s been said that the Gospels aren’t that different. There are four Gospels that we consider canonical, or a part of Holy Scripture. And each serves as a witness to the life of Christ. Each tells the story of what they saw. And they are all different. Some overlap and tell some of the same stories, but often you’ll find that a story one or two Gospels contains isn’t in the others. It’s like the witnesses to a fender bender. The parts of the story I think are most important might not even make it into yours.
Which is why John the Baptist is so interesting. Because he is there in all four Gospels. He is a part of everyone’s story. While some of the Gospel writers leave out this miracle or that parable, no one forgets John. He’s like the car that everyone saw run the red light. You can’t leave him out.
Every Advent we read about John. We read that he was the one who came first to try to tell everyone who was coming after him. He told those Gospel writers who was coming, and they couldn’t forget it.
The writer of Mark in particular didn’t forget. In fact they start the Gospel this way: “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ.” And the beginning of that good news is that God sent this messenger. This messenger who lived out in the wilderness and wore camel’s hair and ate honey and locusts. He’s the first thing that Mark talks about. Not Mary or Joseph or the manger, but this strange guy who shouts out “prepare the way of the Lord. Make God’s paths straight.
You might think that Jesus could have gotten a better PR guy. Locusts and honey and camel’s hair don’t seem like what you want people to remember about your spokesperson. You want someone polished and dynamic and exciting. Someone with powerpoint and music and a big budget. Someone who Oprah will invite on the show and say that you changed her life. Someone who will write the feel-good best sellers that fly off the shelves. Not someone who tells everyone to “repent” and to get ready for something that is about to change their life.
But God sent John. And every year about this time we remember him in Advent. We remember him as the first person to know who Jesus was and to tell people to get ready.
As a child I thought “John the Baptist” must actually be a Baptist. I figured that there was John the Baptist, Steve the Methodist, Joe the Presbyterian, etc., etc. I didn’t understand why he was called that. A more accurate name for John would be “John the Baptizer”. Because that’s what he did. He called people out to the wilderness, away from the comfort of what they knew, and to a river. And they confessed their sins, all the things that caused them pain and grief and kept them tied to the past, and he baptized them. He helped them to put all of that behind them, and to start over fresh, because someone was coming that was going to need them.
John the Baptist was the original Advent guy. He was, as Mark says, “the beginning of the Good News”. He was the one who told you that Jesus was coming, and everything was about to change. And so, you’d better get ready.
Advent is about waiting. It’s about expecting that something incredible is about to happen, and watching for the signs that are all around you.
And we hear “wait” and we probably think about being patient and passive. You might think about the Advents we knew as children where the most we could really do was shake the presents and count down the days as you opened the doors on the Advent calendar. Advent was something to be endured.
But Advent is more than a kind of calendar. It’s a time of preparation. It’s “the beginning of the good news”. It’s the time where we are called to not just passively wait, but to get ready. John tells us to prepare a path for God. And Advent is the season to do it.
But how do you prepare that path? How do you get ready for what God is about to do next? How do you say, “Come, God. Come”?
To me, Advent is more than just four weeks a year. Advent is a lot like life. If we have faith, on our best days we believe that God is going to do something incredible with God’s people, both in this world and the next. We believe that Christmas, the coming of Christ, was not a one time only event. We affirm that Christ is coming again. And we are waiting.
But God wants us to do more than just sit around and wait. We don’t live our lives just crossing days off calendars the way we might open the doors of an Advent calendar just wanting to get to December 25th. God wants us to get ready. To prepare the way of the Lord, not just during Advent, but every day of our lives.
And so we get ready. Just like we get ready for Christmas by putting up the lights, and cutting down the tree, and buying the presents, we get ready for Christ every day of our lives. Because what is coming is more incredible than anything we have ever hoped for on Christmas morning.
But how do we get ready? We get ready by making this Advent world look like we want it to look like when Christ comes again. We don’t throw up our hands and say, “Let’s wait until God changes everything.” We look around, and we see what we can do to make this world ready for Christ. And then we work together to do it.
It’s not always convenient. It’s not always comfortable. It’s not always what we want to do. Usually it takes us on a path that is nothing we would ever expect. But in the end, if we are preparing the path that we think Christ will need in this world, we will find ourselves more fulfilled than we ever will leading a passive life of faith. That’s not what Advent is all about. That’s not what the life of faith is all about.
The church I attended in college and seminary was not a place of passive people. It was a place where people looked around, saw what they thought Jesus would be doing if he came back today, and did it. They looked around their neighborhood, saw homeless folks all around, and they invited them in and fed them and gave them somewhere to sleep. They were waiting for Christ to come again, but they weren’t content to sit by and cross days off the calendar. They listened to John. They were preparing the way of the Lord right then and there.
I was thinking of them this week, as Wilmington prepares to decide what path to take and how they will prepare the way of the Lord. My little church had slowly lost members until less than fifteen folks came on Sunday. And it became clear to all of us that God was ready to do something new. God was calling us to create a new path.
That church is gone today. At least in any official sense. There are no Sunday services, the members have all gone elsewhere, and the sign out front is gone. But its legacy lives on in the form of a building that has been transformed into a residential center for those who need a hand up. Hundreds of folks in Atlanta have had their lives changed because the people of that church decided that God was calling them to take what they had and create a new path. It wasn’t the end of a church. It was, as Mark says, the beginning of the good news.
Our job in all of our life, is to be a little like John the Baptist. Without the locusts. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make a path for God. In all we do, point not to ourselves, but to the one who is to come. And be the beginning of the Good News. Because if we can be that, God will make sure that there is more Good News to come, and that the Advent, the beginning, we create will give way to the one who is yet to come. Prepare the way of the Lord. This is only the beginning…Amen.