Monday, December 16, 2013

John the Pointer - a sermon for Advent 3, 2013

Today is Gaudete Sunday. The name comes from the first words of the traditional Entrance Antiphon – “Rejoice: the Lord is nigh.” It is the Sunday on which we light the rose candles and today the deacon and I are wearing our rose-colored vestments, the ancient color emphasizing joy. Today as Christmas draws near, the Church emphasizes the joy in our hearts at what the birth of the Savior means for the world. The great joy of Christians is the twofold coming: the first coming in Bethlehem, God-become-man, born of Mary and the second coming in glory when his kingdom is fulfilled. The oft-repeated chorus of “Veni” (“come”) during this season echoes the prophet and establishes our desire, found also at the conclusion of the Apocalypse of John: “Come, Lord Jesus!”
But not just Gaudete Sunday, today is also known colloquially in England and Wales as “Stir Up Sunday.”  
As cooks all over England heard these words from the collect, it would remind them that they needed to hurry home – after the service, of course – to mix their batters. They needed to go home to “stir up” the batters of plum pudding and fruitcake that had been fermenting now for so many weeks. The traditional English batter would be settling in, condensing and otherwise thickening. It needed to be “stirred up” so that it could finish its work.
So I once had the pleasure of taking a slow driving tour through what became my favorite county in all of Ireland. County Donegal, in Ireland’s northwest, is a fascinating place where the sheep outnumber people at least four to one. It’s a county that boasts the world champion sheep shearer and one of the only surfing communities in the north Atlantic. Friendly people, good beer, and edible food abound. But what really stuck in my head in County Donegal were two signs. One sign said simply, “This is a sign. Please follow it.” That was all. Nothing more. Clear as mud. The second sign read: “This sign belongs here. Do not move this sign.”
Well, these signs are a bit comical and mostly because they have no real purpose. They don’t point beyond themselves to something else. They have no meaning.
John the Baptist lies deep in Herod’s prison. He is, no doubt, aware of his coming execution. Perhaps he is beginning to doubt. Does he perhaps wonder if he got it right. John was not the sort to hold back. John would never have been short of an incendiary sermons, a relentless judgment of the oppressor, and good-old-fashioned proclamation of the coming wrath of God.
But John was also always a signpost. He was also one to be pointing to the one far greater than himself – the one who was to come after him – the Messiah. If you look at ancient and medieval icons of John the Baptizer, he is usually portrayed with his index finger raised, pointing away from himself, toward Christ.
So as John sat in the depths of his dark prison, what he had heard of Jesus confused him. This Jesus wasn’t what he had expected. Jesus’ message didn’t conform to the message of repentance and wrath that lay at the heart of the prophecy of old. So he sent his disciples to Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus’ response is plain. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” In other words, Jesus is telling the John’s disciples to go back to John and tell him that they have seen the signs foretold by Isaiah. These are the signs of the “year of Jubilee” – the inauguration of the kingdom of God.
Perhaps what John has forgotten for the moment, are the different roles to be played by him and Jesus. John, we are told, is the greatest born of woman. But even the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptizer.  
You see, John is the hinge on the door. John is keeper at the gate. John is the doorman who opens the door and ushers the rest of us through. John points the way to life more glorious than what we have yet dared to expect or imagine.
John was there to thrust open the gate – to burst open the door. John was there to usher us to Jesus – to make straight the way for the Lord. John is there to show us the possibility of new life, transformed life. Not just a return to the “good old days,” but as St. Paul declares, “Glory to God whose power working in us will do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine!” It’s a brand new life that John is pointing to in Jesus.
We are so busy very busy these last days of Advent. We are setting out decorations, wrapping presents, and going to parties. All wonderful things so long as we aren’t distracted from the profound wonder of what God is birthing among us. Indeed, John points to a world transformed, the very advent of the Kingdom of God.
Isaiah’s vision is of a barren desert rejoicing and blossoming with abundance. Weak hands are strengthened; fearful hearts are given hope; waters break forth to create flowing streams in the desert. The way home through the desert is made new into a broad and straight highway.
How much do we dare hope about the gift being given us this Advent and Christmas? Are we looking for the best of what we’ve experienced before, or dare we look for more?
John the Baptizer stands among us still, pointing toward a transformative future. The great challenge facing us today is join John the Baptizer, offering our church and our world a fresh visions of a renewed and transformed world.  The Kingdom of God drawn near to all of God’s children and all of God’s creation. It is our job to point it out.
The Kingdom of God revealed in Jesus the Christ is different. It is far more than we could have even imagined. May we awaken Christmas morning to the joy of opening up that gift of life –  unexpected and more than we had dared even ask for. And thereby, through our life together, that same gift will be given not to us alone, but to the whole world.
that’s the kind of “stirring up” we can all use!

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