I knew it was coming.
When people started arriving at St. Barnabas yesterday, I heard the grumbling about how their "mostly annual" Christmas Giveaway event, where they literally give away baby clothes, puzzles, toys, dining room sets, etc. etc., did not have the same overflow turnout as the time before. There was stuff leftover that would need to be carted away. They didn't have the long line stretching out to the road. Oh, what a miserable failure it had been...
But it wasn't.
Things had been given away. People had shown up and left with two large garbage bags full of clothes and toys. And even if they didn't have a line (we're still living in a pandemic and people just aren't interested in standing in lines with strangers), about 200 people showed up...and those 200 people left happy.
And once more, this congregation that is so small by comparison to others that I have been associated with, managed to make something happen. And it was good. And it needed to be named as such.
At Advent, we take stock of what maybe amiss in our lives, but we are not allowed to just sit there staring into the void and thinking "Woe is me. I'm so broken. The world is going to hell in a handbasket." We are to see those things with the knowledge that there is light shining through the cracks of our lives...and that light is the promise of God that is always there: we are not alone. We are loved. Clear out the clutter and see that light shining."
Let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightening,
Illumines the darkness in which we walk.
Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.
And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness,
and exclaim… in wonder… how filled with awe is this place…and we did not know it. Amen.—Shabbat Evening 1, Mishkan T’filah, 53.
When we hear the phrase, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” how many of us immediately think of the opening musical number from Godspell? If you remember the movie, the John the Baptist character has his arm wrapped around a statue in the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park in New York City as he sings out “prepare ye the way of the Lord.” And from all over the city, a ragtag motly crew of hippies in their beads, scarves and bellbottoms flock to this fountain and join the song, joyously splashing in the waters. It’s an upbeat, energetic, playful scene.
What a great way to imagine the hopefulness and excitement of this news…singing, dancing, and splashing in the water. This enthusiastic moment captures the liberating feeling of the Holy Spirit…
And it tells us a lot about John.
The Baptizer is full of the Spirit. He’s one of the important characters in the Gospels whose entire life is about heralding this “new thing” that is coming with the advent of Jesus.
So let’s take a moment to talk about John…and John’s parents Zechariah and Elizabeth…and what they might have to say to us in our world right now.
Our Evangelist for the season…Luke…is a careful and meticulous keeper of the records. All those names we heard this morning in the Gospel: those might seem to be a lot of blah-blah-blah Pilate blah-blah-blah Herod. But really what our Shakespeare of the Bible is doing here is establishing an historical time frame…and a particular set of power brokers. These are the forces of empire and status who are the polar opposites of John, the hippie back-to-the-land, prophet who eats locusts and wild honey. John was the leader of the Essenes… a group that had moved out into the wilderness in an effort to rediscover and live into what they considered a purer form of Judaism.
In Luke’s Gospel…the births of John and Jesus are both detailed and bear one striking similarity. We’ve heard the story of the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary to tell her that she will be the God bearer? Well…Gabriel appeared first to Zechariah, the priest to announce John’s birth. Here’s what happened.
It was Zechariah’s turn to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer up incense to God. He departs from the crowd that had gathered to pray and enters the sanctuary and who should be waiting for him but Gabriel. The angel tells him that his wife, Elizabeth, is going to have a son and he is to be called John.
Gabriel goes on to tell Zechariah that John will be filled with the Holy Spirit, will get the people of Israel to return to the Lord, parents and children will find each other, and the disobedient will become wise and righteous…all in preparation for the Lord.
Now…this is Advent…and Advent is a season just begging for us to engage our brains in imagination.
So put yourself in Zechariah’s shoes. You’ve entered the sanctuary expecting to perform a religious ritual you’ve done countless times before. And there’s an angel standing there telling you about this son you never thought you were going to have and that he’s going to be this prophet to lead Israel into a new era of peace.
Keep in mind both Zechariah and Elizabeth already have their A-A-R-P cards.
They know what time the early bird special is being served, so the idea that Elizabeth is going to have a child is outrageous.
So, can we really blame Zechariah for being a bit skeptical?
He says to the angel:
“Mmmm….how do I know this is true?”
And Gabriel, being a bit irritated that anyone would doubt such great news, tells him: Look, dude: I’m Gabriel. God sent me to tell you this. And since you’ve doubted me, I’m going to make you mute.
Zechariah emerges from the sanctuary and he can’t say anything. And the people gathered are like, “Whoa! Something happened to him!”
Fast forward about nine months. John is born and on the eighth day, which is the customary time for Jewish babies to be named and the male children circumcised…the people gather and ask Elizabeth: So what’s your baby’s name?
And she says: John.
And their like: John?! What sort of a name is that? There isn’t a John in your family?!
And…as happens all-too-often…the woman’s word must be wrong, so
they all turn to Zechariah to straighten this out. Zechariah takes a writing
tablet. Everyone leans into see what the old man is scribbling down. And then
there is the collective gasp as they read the from the tablet:
His Name is John.
Instantly, Zechariah’s tongue is loosed…his mouth is opened, and he simply can’t contain himself. After nine plus months of being speechless… his heart sings out:
“Baruch ata Adonai!
Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel
He has come to his people and set them free!”
His joy bursts forth…
“This was the oath that he swore to our Father Abraham
To set us free from our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear,
Holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.”
And then…turning to gaze down into this baby cradled in the arms of Elizabeth:
“You, my child, shall be called the Prophet of the Most High
For you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins.”
This canticle is so common to our Morning Prayer worship to the point that it becomes rote and may just seem like words, words, words. But this is Advent… a time to slow down and pay attention…and notice what Zechariah is proclaiming.
A new thing is coming…and his son is going to be the one to prepare the way.
We can get a sense that this whole family has been touched by the Holy Spirit: Elizabeth in her declaration of John’s name; Zechariah in his proclamation of John’s future…and John with his announcement to prepare the way for the Lord.
All against a backdrop of empire, classism, and haves and have nots. The light of peace and promise is going to break through the darkness of despair and there’s no way to stop it.
And maybe that’s the preparation we are all called to be doing at this time of Advent. Not to be a Pollyanna and say everything in the world is wonderful. But we also need to be careful to not let those things that we carry around in our hearts…worries about the world, our jobs or relationships…keep us from seeking God and noticing those signs of beauty and love that are still happening even in trying times. And naming them when they happen.
I had a great example of that this past Wednesday when I pulled into our church parking lot. I can’t tell you how grateful I was to see a bunch of cars, and then to walk into our parish hall and witness it bustling with activity…with folks laying out items for the Christmas Giveaway. There was a spirit of collaboration and co-operation as people made space for one more dining set…and arranged brightly colored baby clothing…or set up books. There was so much love that went into making our parish hall into a shopping bazaar.
The sight of those cars and that room and knowing that what we were offering to the community could bring a smile to someone else helped to sweep away some of the weight of worry that was on my mind that afternoon. Even if the turnout wasn’t huge, we made some people happy and THAT is enough!
John’s cry in the wilderness:
"Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
When doubt and despair begins to cloud our minds…remember that John is calling us to not get fixated on what is broken, but to look for love in action and proclaim it. Prepare for God’s inbreaking. Get ready. A new thing is about to happen.