13People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
You’d Better Watch Out and Wear Candles on Your Head
Stir up your power, key to our hearts,
Key of David.
Like little children we come to you today
We thank you for the saints of old
You provided what they needed.
Provide for us all that we need
Today we take a small departure from our usual Nativity characters to focus on some modern-day characters we’ve associated with the Nativity story: St. Nicholas and St. Lucy.
Like the Christmas story in popular culture, both Nicholas and Lucy have had so much myth grow up around them that it is difficult to sift through it all and get to the heart of how and why these saints became associated with the birth of Jesus the Christ.
Indeed, even our readings for today fit into the mythology around them. This story of little children coming to Jesus could easily be a story about the mall Santa and little children coming to his lap to list their Christmas presents into his ear as he lets out a “Ho, ho, ho”…
What are we doing here?
Saint Nicholas was a Bishop in modern day Turkey, and was noted for having particular sympathy for the poor.
In his native city there lived a poor nobleman who had three daughters ready to be married. But the nobleman, growing in age, couldn’t marry them off and ensure a secure future for them because he couldn’t offer a dowry. He even considered selling his daughters into prostitution to gain the necessary funds.
When Nicholas heard of this, he went by the house late at night and threw a bag containing as much gold as was needed for a dowry through the house window. For the next two nights he did the same thing, until each dowry was provided for.
St. Nicholas gained this reputation for doing good and providing gifts, and in the end he is said to provide to God a final gift, whispering, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Giving up his spirit as a gift to God.
About 100 years before St. Nicholas we find simple Lucy, a Christian persecuted before Christianity was acceptable by the Roman Empire. It is said that her mother became gravely ill and then recovered. In gratitude for this, Lucy gave away her dowry to the poor…at which time her disappointed fiancé (who was hoping for a good sum of money) turned her into the Roman authorities, exposing her as a Christian.
He knew she was a Christian because she gave of what she had to the poor in gratefulness.
The emperor Diocletian had her killed; a martyr. Barely older than a girl.
Her name, Lucia, means “light.” She became the patron saint for “light of the body,” the eyes. That’s why we find “Lucy candles” lit in home windows in these dark days. In Sweden and Norway, St. Lucy became supremely popular because they found their days in this time of the year becoming increasingly short, and it was said that St. Lucy would turn the tides and increasingly bring light back to their days…which, after the solstice, is exactly what happens.
But Lucy now is associated with the custom of wearing these Lucy candles on her head and bringing forth Swedish baked goods around the home. A cute tradition, much like sitting on Santa’s knee.
But in this all something is a little lost.
St. Nicholas was known for his generosity. Now, though, we associate this time of year and his modern incarnation with getting what we want.
In a few days people will pack historically Scandinavian churches for their Santa Lucia festivals. If you haven’t been to one, it’s a sight to behold!
But most of those people won’t step foot in a church otherwise. Lucy is connected to their national heritage…not to their faith.
What are Lutherans to do with saints?
Well, in the Lutheran tradition anyone who dies in God is a saint. As recently sainted Nelson Mandela said, “I’m not a saint unless you consider a saint to be a sinner who keeps on trying.”
That’s exactly what a saint is for Lutherans! We don’t need miracles to prove sainthood. In fact, we’re generally suspicious of miracles because true saints are humble, right? A saint is a life lived in the confidence that however we are, we live in the love of God.
But saints are meant to evoke in us a devotion toward God through a life well-lived. St. Nicholas points toward the Christ who aligns himself with the poor and the destitute when he gives the dowry for these young women.
St. Lucy points toward the Christ who heals when she, in gratitude, gives of her possessions to the poor.
They, in and of themselves, are nothing but markers. Signs. Instruments to point the way.
And we’ve flipped that all, culturally. We’ve made them ends in themselves. And we do a disservice to our spiritual lives when that happens.
What if, instead of focusing on how we get what we want in the St. Nicholas tradition, we focus on how St. Nicholas gives? This reading from Mark today invokes this thought. “Let the little children come to me,” Jesus says. You can almost imagine him sitting in a mall, allowing the children to get in line to sit on his lap.
To get? Or to learn to give?
There’s confusion there. We’ve turned St. Nicholas into a godlike character in himself. Just think,
“You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout
I’m telling you why.
Santa Claus is coming to town.”
If the moral lesson we’re trying to impose upon the generations that come after us is, “Behave well and you will get whatever you ask for” we’re doing a pretty good job.
And if we imagine that he “sees us when we’re sleeping, and knows when we’re awake. He knows if we’ve been bad or good” then these omnipresent qualities we’ve assigned to this character may, indeed provide us with confusion.
Because that sounds an awful lot like many popular depictions of God. And if I need just sit on a knee, ask for what I want, and unwrap it twenty days later, then shouldn’t it work that way with the Divine, too? Can’t I just sit on the Divine knee, ask for what I want, and get it?
Or does the God seen through Jesus act differently?
And if St. Lucy is a quaint tradition connected with my heritage, she can teach me a lot about being Scandinavian…which I’m not (and she was Italian)…but she can’t teach me anything about a faith that is willing to give of itself even though it risked death.
That is the true light her life brings: she shines as an example that sometimes when you live a life of gratitude, giving up so that others might have, you end up giving up everything.
Kind of like the Jesus story.
The Jesus story is the antidote for the moralistic thinking that says that if we’re good we’ll get what we want in the world. Jesus did everything right and still died for it. And we have the sickness of believing that the kind of living that stays within the lines is the kind of living that reaps rewards…
The Jesus story is the antidote for the thinking that holds up tradition for tradition’s sake, without any connection to the spiritual origins of the story. As theologian Jaroslav Pelikan said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
Do we have avenues that point toward a living faith? Or are we stuck in traditionalism with all of this?
I think we’ve bought into traditionalism hook, line, and sinker. Which is why we need Nicholas and Lucy to point beyond themselves, beyond the moralistic models we’ve created them to be, to the God behind it all.
St. Nicholas and St. Lucy are part of our modern Nativity story, and good parts!
But their lives are not ends in themselves. They are markers, pointers toward the God as seen through Christ; a God that they knew and loved.
Their lives were marked by giving gifts, not asking and opening gifts. Their lives were marked by risky generosity, not gluttony.
Their lives were marked by the cross, not candycanes or sleighbells or candles.
In this season we forget that, I think.
In this season of waiting, in all seasons of waiting in our lives, we can get stuck. Stuck in thinking that the things in front of us are ends in themselves. Stuck in thinking that receiving gifts and getting things and heritage, these sorts of identity markers are all there is to life.
And if you think that I’m talking about children here, I am not. That’s the stuck thinking of us adults…
And yet in this season of waiting, we have these wonderful sign-posts, these markers, that encourage us to wait with patience; the patience of a vigil where we light a candle to shine in the “candle of our bodies,” the eyes, as we wait the True Light to come.
To actively wait, not putting our generosity on hold, but giving of ourselves even as we wait, knowing that God in Christ constantly gives love and hope to a weary world.
Nicholas and Lucy can remind us of this. Isaiah, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Gabriel…they all pointed toward the future, the Christ. Nicholas and Lucy, though, point us today backward into the depths of our soul. They are saints who weren’t waiting for the Messiah, but who had been firmly rooted in the Messiah, and lived their lives there.
They are like you and me in that respect.
Nicholas and Lucy don’t teach us that “we’d better watch out” and to wear candles in our hair. That’s kitsch at best and traditionalism at worst. It’s fun to sing and it’s fun to do…but it’s not an end in itself.
No. Their lives teach us that lives rooted in Christ are lives of radical generosity…even anonymous generosity. They are lives of radical gratitude…even to the point of death.
They are lives shaped not like candy canes or sleigh bells or candles, but like crosses.
And it makes me wonder what shape my life is in.
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’[a]
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it[b] is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
The Day and Hour Unknown
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert[c]! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
Impossible Anxiety and Keeping Watch
One of the problems with doing this extended Advent and focusing on individual characters of the Nativity that we’re doing here at LMC is that we haven’t really had a chance to hear some of the texts that typically come in Advent.
Whereas the rest of the world is reading and singing and smiling about cheery things, songs of joy and peace, the church reads texts that talk about a moon darkening and about being watchful because you don’t know the hour or the day or the time…
It’s funny. The world is in blissful “lala land,” but the church is girding her loins, packing her bags, and looking out the window.
It kind of could cause some anxiety, I guess.
But, to be honest…and we should always be honest…I think the church actually has her finger on the pulse of humanity with these texts.
Because despite the happy songs, cheery faces, cherry-red noses, carols, holiday specials, and whatnot lies a deep sense of anxiety in each of us. Are we prepared for extended visitors? Have we really only three weeks until Christmas? Are our bank accounts going to hold out? Is our calendar really this full in a time when we’re supposed to be relaxing more and enjoying the holiday season?
And our kids, too, feel that anxiety that trickles down from us…and they have anxieties enough of their own what with end of semester tests and quizzes and those darn science fair projects that have to be started sooner than later, and Christmas programs, and choir concerts, and band concerts and…
Can we just get this over with?
The church, Advent, invites us in the midst of the fake cheer that the outside world tries to push on us, and in the face of the real anxiety that our own selves already feel, to stop.
Light a candle.
Not an anxious watch like “watch-out!” but with a patience that knows there is goodness on the other end of this waiting.
The goodness like a friend traveling through the night to come into our houses for a visit.
The goodness like finally feeling a sense of relief after long stints at spinning your wheels over things.
The goodness like watching bread rise knowing that it will become something delicious in the end…even though it takes time.
That is Advent.
But that waiting involves turning our worlds on their heads. It involves stopping in a season that tells you to rush. It involves letting go of the anxiety while also digging deep for true joy in this time rather than fake joy.
And it’s difficult, almost impossible. Like asking the moon to turn off its light.
Only God can do that. But it is God we’re waiting on.
So keep watch.
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
If God Tweeted
Stir up your power, Branch of Jesse,
Stretch out your message to all who long to know
For you are love
And in love you have grafted us onto that tree
Make us good bearers of that message
In the name of Love,
Any fellow tweeters out there?
I’m a terrible tweeter, btw. I don’t do it often enough to really have a following, and when I do, it’s rarely original stuff. I don’t really have the time or patience to fit my thoughts into 140 characters, I guess…
Did you know you can follow “God” on Twitter?
It’s not really God, of course, but rather some coarse person who likes to tweet in God’s name. I’m fairly certain they’re breaking the second commandment when they do that…you know, taking God’s name in vain; using God’s name uselessly. But at least they’re inventive when doing it.
Some of the tweets under God’s name aren’t fit for sermons. But some are pretty interesting, actually. Like the tweet “God” sent out on August 6th, “If you’re going through Hell, keep walking.”
Not bad advice, I’d say.
Today’s Gospel reading got me to thinking, “What if God tweeted to Mary instead of sending the Angel Gabriel?” If this story happened today, would it happen that way?
Now, I guess telling someone they’re pregnant by Twitter would be tasteless. “Fear not, Mary. God is with you! So with you, in fact, that you’re going to bear God’s image on Earth. Yup: you’re pregnant. Congratulations!”?
It might, I guess.
But see, this is the thing: tweets are one-sided. This kind of news doesn’t allow for that sort of medium.
If God tweeted to Mary with this news, I would hope it would say, “Call me. We have to talk.”
And that is, I think, why God sends the Angel Gabriel to give this news. Because Mary has a little back and forth with Gabriel. Sometimes tough news, even good-tough news, needs to be said in person.
It’s a deep truth that I think we’re all learning in this day and age with social media use in full swing. Sometimes nothing but face-to-face suffices…
Gabriel shows up in the nativity story a few times, always bringing unexpected tweets from God, and by and large the hearers get to have a little conversation back.
Zechariah couldn’t believe the news. Mary can’t believe the news. The shepherds on that fateful night can’t believe the news.
In this season of waiting, we hear from the Angel Gabriel telling Mary to “fear not.” It’s the message that Gabriel gives to start off all of God’s tweets.
And yet, “fear not” is not the message that we live with most often, is it?
In fact, I think we live with the message, “fear!” most often.
“Fear the streets of Chicago!”
“Fear the synthetic hormones in your food!”
“Fear those who are different than you!”
“Fear the terrorists at your airport!”
“Fear the angry God waiting to send you to hell and if you don’t believe the right things, it’ll happen!”
Even, perhaps, “Fear that everyone wants you to fear everything!”
In this season of waiting, and we all know waiting builds anxiety, what does it mean to have us hear Gabriel’s message of “fear not?”
What does it mean to baptize Odin today, setting him apart from this world that asks us to fear everything? How is he, then, to live?
Angels were really popular as a topic when I was a child. “Angels in the Outfield,” “Highway to Heaven,” “Touched by an Angel.”
These shows were all full of sentiment and kitsch (my apologies if you liked them). Gabriel, though, isn’t full of any of that.
Gabriel is full of a message of inconvenience that begins with “fear not.”
Think about that for a second.
We live in a world that encourages us to fear everything and anything that might be remotely different, and then they make these TV shows where these angels just relieve all sorts of pain and suffering for people. It’s like they’re saying, “The world gives you discomfort, but God relieves all that pain.”
But that’s not Gabriel’s message at all!
In fact, Gabriel’s message to Zechariah and Elizabeth, to Mary, to the Shepherds, is one of great discomfort! Their lives are upended, their evenings disturbed, their whole worldviews are shattered, and yet in the midst of that hard word, Gabriel gives God’s ultimate tweet, “Fear not!”
Fear not that things are changing!
Fear not the stranger who makes you uncomfortable, but who has something to teach you!
Fear not the inconvenience of having your worldview shifted so that something new can happen in this world.
In Advent we practice waiting. And sometimes the answers that we receive at the end of our waiting are uncomfortable. Are disruptive. Shake our worldview.
And this world around us tells us to fight against that. To fight against change. To fight against disruption. To look to God to save you from such things…
But Gabriel, God’s messenger, brings a word of disruption and tells us to fear not.
Fear not because, whether disrupted, overturned, shaken, or stirred, we are with God throughout it all.
And if you didn’t get that picture, God shows up face-to-face in Jesus to tell humanity once and for all, “Fear not.”
Fear not even the power of death. Fear not even that: the great leveler.
Because sometimes living without fear in a world that threatens you with fear all the time might lead you to places where your life or reputation or way of living is on the line; where you stand with those at the margins against powers that might harm them; where you stand against greed, fame, fortune, and the pursuit of more in a world that shoves it down your throat to the point you might choke; where you stand tall in the face of people who want you to fear others.
Jesus says, in the face of all this, in the face of the temptation to succumb to these pressures: fear not. God is with you. Emmanuel.
Odin: in your baptism, through your life, God is with you in it all. Live for justice, peace, and wholeness. Fear not the disruptions that come your way. Have your views shaken and stirred. God is with you no matter what is being birthed in your life.
People of God: God is with you in it all. Live for justice, peace, and wholeness. Fear not the disruptions that come your way. Have your views shaken and stirred. God is with you no matter what is being birthed in your life.
Gabriel, God’s messenger, isn’t the fluffy angel we’d like. But if Gabriel can be thought of as God’s tweet to a world taught to fear, it’s exactly what we need to hear.
So, what are you waiting for in this season? And what kind of anxiety is it building in you?
Well, God’s got a tweet for you…if God were on Twitter. It’s a word of hope about fear.
I think you know what it is. And remember, as Gabriel says, a “word from God will never fail.”
So fear not. Can you believe that?
In those days John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the reign of God has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
Make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sin.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “you brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I a not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Time to Ask for a Decrease
Stir up your power, King of nations
As you called St. John the Forerunner
To look for something more than himself
And prepare the way
Show us, too, that our purpose
Is more than us
But is in you.
In the name of Jesus.
I love St. John the Baptizer.
He’s got so much mystery to him.
He wears weird clothing…the original hipster before it was hip.
Our forbears called him “The Forerunner.” I love that name; “the one who came before.”
Because we are all the forerunner for someone else, right?
And we are all the recipients of those who have run before us.
We don’t know a whole lot about St. John. Luke mentions that his parents were the priest Zechariah and Elizabeth, also from a priestly line. We heard that story before.
Matthew notes that he’s the same type of prophet as Elijah, and probably like Isaiah who we heard from a few weeks ago. He’s an “old-timey” prophet…and dresses like one to boot!
Some scholars think he wasn’t Jesus’ cousin at all, but rather a rival preacher of Jesus’. The claim is that the Gospel writers made him Jesus’ kin so that rival disciples who might still be loyal to St. John, who also met an untimely death like Jesus at the hands of Herod, would become Christian.
In fact, there are some followers of St. John the Baptizer still today in Iraq. A small group who is greatly persecuted by the powers that be…and continuously shrinking.
There’s a lot of mystery around St. John the Baptizer.
We celebrate his feast day in June, right around the summer solstice where we enjoy the most daylight out of the whole year. And Jesus’ feast day (you know, December 25th?) happens to fall at the polar opposite time of year, in December, right around the winter solstice, where things are at their darkest.
I love this fact because one of John the Baptizer’s famous lines is, “I must decrease so that he (Jesus) might increase…”
John the Baptizer, the forerunner, whom we acknowledge when things are at their brightest in the spring, will be marked by decreasing sun until December where things get darkest…and then enters Jesus, and all of a sudden the sun begins to shine more and more every day.
It’s wonderful symmetry for those of us who love that sort of thing.
He is the forerunner.
And really important.
Because, I think, there are a lot of voices in this world who ask more of us. Or rather, who ask us to focus more on ourselves…increasingly so. We are a people and generation priding ourselves on personality, individuality, personal success!
I’ve had people tell me that I need to be more, to do more, to be more of a personality (as if that’s possible). I actually had someone tell me that the way to make Luther into a huge church was to just ramp up my personality to the heights it would go.
And then Rhonda would certainly leave the church, as would most of you, because that much of anyone might get butts in the pew, but would not create faith.
The “cult of the increasing individual.” That’s what we’re called to these days by many voices in the world. People think that your work asks more of you. That my work asks more of me.
In my senior year of college all of us theology students took turns preaching in weekly worship. One student was very zealous to do so, and excited, because, as he said, he “had something to say!”
At which point the whole room of theology students fell silent at such audacity. Humble Lutherans don’t speak like that…
And then one wise student piped up and said, “I don’t know. The more I have something to say, to prove, the more I think I silence Jesus…”
I must decrease so that he might increase.
Here at Luther we’ve had a lot of growth in recent years. But one of the things I hope you see yourselves doing is laying a foundation for those coming after you. You are forerunners.
It takes patience to have such a long view. In this season of Advent, one of the things I’m conscious about is the fact that immediate gratification is the bane of my existence.
The internet goes out and we have a fit…totally forgetting that 15 years ago that very phrase would cause people to scratch their heads on.
A community of faith is not to live for immediate gratification. Sure, we give because we use and enjoy the spiritual fruits and gifts ourselves.
But what foundation are we laying down for the future? For Odin, who will be baptized next Sunday? For Finn? For McKenna, baptized a few weeks ago? For Rose, yet to be born?
What foundations are we laying down for the ways that Jesus will be known in future years, ways we have yet to imagine?
It’s mysterious to think like that…but it can be helpful, and healing.
One of the most profound statements that each of us can make, I think, is “I must decrease so that he might increase.”
My claim on my own time must decrease so that I can make time for God.
My claim on my own treasure must decrease so that I lay ministry and service foundations for others to come after me.
My claim on property and opinion and being right and always being in control…
Perhaps it’s time that we all ask for a decrease.
It’s banking a bit on the mysterious to do that; to ask intentionally that we decrease a bit so that God can increasingly be known through us.
But today John the Baptizer, the Forerunner, points us in that direction.
Perhaps the parts of us that feel self-righteous and self-justified are the chaff that needs to be a burned off a bit so that the wheat God is growing in us, growing in this community of faith, growing in your families, in this neighborhood, can be harvested best.
Perhaps the irritation that we’re choosing to hold on to, perhaps the annoyance that we refuse to let diffuse, perhaps those things in our being that we complain about but secretly find comforting, need to decrease.
So that God might increase through us.
Perhaps we’ve been waiting to hear that news. Perhaps we’ve been waiting for the permission to do so.
Perhaps we’ve been waiting to have a forum to displace some things in our homes, our lives, and give them up for a refugee family that needs to be resettled, as our Advent focus allows.
We must decrease so that they might increase…and our Christ-like welcome might increase for them.
In these days of waiting, as it begins to darken so early in the day, perhaps the sun can be our guide. John the Forerunner reminds us that something always comes after us.
Have we prepared the way? Have we gotten out of the way so that something else might emerge? Have we decreased so that others, so that Christ, so that the Christ in others might increase?
By the way, it might seem like such a big thing to propose, that we might lean on the mystery that is God’s way of working through less, but remember: in the presence of Christ, more is not necessary because God has provided enough of everything.
So while it may feel like a decrease to give up your time, your treasure, your what-have-you…you’ll not lack anything.
St. John points to it.
Jesus the Christ confirms it.
So perhaps it’s time to ask for a decrease. Amen.
5In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
8Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
21Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. 22When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. 23When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
24After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion.
I’d Rather Not Say
Stir up your might,
Lord of hosts, Adonai,
Give us the ability to speak
Because in these days where waiting is hard
We need your Word, your Christ,
More than ever.
Some of you know that I was a camp counselor for many years while in college.
Every summer I’d head out East to Pennsylvania, right near Hershey, to work with youths all summer kayaking, climbing, canoeing, hiking the Adirondacks, rafting…adventure camping for the most part.
But there were some weeks where you didn’t do any of that because you were assigned to the younger group, the “Classic Camp” as it was called. And this group did classic camp activities like swimming in the pool, organized games, crafts at the craft cabin…not as exciting for us counselors, but sometimes an easier week.
And this one year I had an especially large group of boys in my cabin, 19, and they were a handful…I mean, a lot of fun.
And we were out playing a game in the field one day, early in the week, when one of the boys, a shorter kid, young in the cabin, came running up to me in that way you run up to someone when something bad is about to happen and you need to find a place to allow it, you know, to happen.
He was sick. Very sick.
“Where can I go?” he asked with worried eyes. “Well, there are trees all around; just go.” I said. Not quite camp protocol, but good in a pinch. “No,” he said, “that’s not going to work.”
And then I realized, and sent him racing back up the long main road to the shower house…a long run for a guy with little legs.
Off he went, but I had 18 other boys to tend and couldn’t leave, and so I sent a staff person to go with him.
And I waited in silence.
…and he didn’t come back. All through the game we played I waited for him. And then pool time, and we all changed…and I waited for him, knowing the staff person would bring him back when all was better.
But it wasn’t better. The staff person did come back to say that he’d locked himself in a stall in the bathroom…he hadn’t made it in time.
“Embarrassing” is a nice word to use…”devastating” is more appropriate, especially for a little guy at camp. He didn’t want to talk about it. He’d rather not say what happened. He had no control over it…sometimes the body just does what it does.
I got him to open up the stall, gathered up his clothes, and sent him to the showers while I threw the clothes in a washing machine and grabbed some shampoo for him…cause, let’s be honest, I didn’t bother with soap, shampoo is all you really need in life.
And I came back with the shampoo, and he was standing there in the water, tears running down his face, naked, and as he held out his hands to receive some shampoo from the bottle he asked me, “It’s going to be OK, right? I didn’t say anything because I was afraid…but it’s going to be OK, right?”
Yes. No matter what, it will be OK.
Today we highlight Zechariah and Elizabeth in the Nativity story as we do this extended Advent this year. We’re slowly moving through the characters. Isaiah pointed forward toward the future last week, and today Zechariah and Elizabeth give us a little prologue into the action that will be Christmas.
Zechariah the dutiful priest goes about his duties and is given this strange message that his aging wife will conceive and bare a child…and he says, “This cannot be; it is impossible.” They were doing all the right things, had followed all the rules, and still they had no children. The scripture says they were “righteous”…but no children. Zechariah couldn’t believe it could happen after all these years; it was impossible.
To which God’s message and messenger Gabriel says, “With God, all is possible.”
And Zechariah is speechless in the face of something so strange and impossible. Apparently in the face of impossibility, he’d rather not say anything, is not able to say anything…silence in place of addressing something so tough.
It’s funny; our world is good at saying some things and good at being silent on others. Often the wrong things on both accounts. And we love to be silent about things that seem like tough impossibilities. We’d just rather not say in those instances.
But perhaps we should say something, today, lest the topic stand shivering and naked in front of us gasping for assurances while we stay silent. Is it OK to talk about?
See, every year we get these texts of Mary and Elizabeth, and in the Older Testament Hannah and Sarah, and they are these miraculous birth stories of women who were infertile having a baby in their older age, or women who didn’t want a baby being given one, and we should just come out and say it: these texts are kind of hard for many. For me. For many.
They’re kind of hard in a world where infertility and miscarriage are all too common, and yet we never speak about it.
Especially in church, where we’re surrounded by these “barren wombs get babies” texts, we don’t talk about it.
And we need to talk about it even if, in many parts of religion, they’d just rather not say anything.
Because in the season of Advent, the season of waiting, we should be honest in acknowledging that sometimes the season of waiting never leaves for some families. And that’s impossibly hard.
It is always Advent…and, as a good friend and colleague with some experience with the subject said, “sometimes you can’t draw a straight line from prayers to fulfillment.” In fact, we shouldn’t try to draw such lines.
That’s the Elizabeth story.
What do we have to say about that?
My friend holds Elizabeth up as her patron saint this time of year. Who knows how Zechariah and Elizabeth have mourned over their years together that passed without children they desperately wanted.
Elizabeth, the patron saint of waiting. Of Advent.
Elizabeth’s miracle is not that she received what she wanted in a baby in her old age, as my friend pointed out to me when I talked to her about this subject this week.
Elizabeth’s miracle is that human impossibility was trumped by God’s possibility: the possibility to bring wholeness even in the midst of hurt, to bring healing even in the midst of a gaping hole, to bring a word of peace amidst deafening silence.
Zechariah’s silence can be seen, I think, to be the reaction of a world who doesn’t know what to do with this situation or how to talk about it. They’d rather stay silent, they’d rather not say, because of the impossible nature of it all.
When I saw that little naked boy standing there, shivering, scared, tears coming down his face, there was no way that I could make his situation whole. I could not take away what had happened and what hadn’t happened. I could not give him a voice through the embarrassment or fear he had.
But into his little hands I gave him a healing balm to help him through, some shampoo, and I got him a towel and wrapped him up, and I got his clothes and he got dressed, and we chatted the whole way back to the cabin about speaking up when something is amiss, and how he needn’t be embarrassed, and how I was there for him if I could be.
Is that the definition of OK, like he wanted when he was cold and shivering naked?
I don’t know.
But I know that I live in the hope that it was more OK than not being there, not talking to him, not walking with him.
Recently on Facebook there were a number of women who participated in “Capture Your Grief,” a month of women posting pictures that gave images to the pain that they’d had over miscarriages. The site was unfortunately shut down, though, because of some terrible comments that were received over images that others didn’t want to look at.
Our world is good at confusing the need for silence and the need for words. The project was cut short by terrible words, when words weren’t needed; only holy silence in the face of impossible grief. A grief that people, sometimes, don’t want to look at.
And platitudes, of course, won’t do; we might as well stay silent if we’re going to give empty words of assurance that are no more than fortune cookie slips.
Zechariah is made speechless because he doesn’t see how things could be made different. And we won’t hear anything from Elizabeth for a couple of weeks still.
But in the meantime, for those of us in Advent, for whatever Advent we’re in, for whatever we’re waiting for, what might we see here? Where is God’s hope?
Where the world speaks words of platitude, cliché, or blame, God gives holy silence. Silence to allow a thing to be what it is in the presence of the Divine…and we know that in the presence of the Divine everything, EVERYTHING, arches toward life…no matter how long the arch is…even after death.
Zechariah is silent for 9 months. Elizabeth goes into seclusion, silent in a world who had written her off.
Holy silence that arches toward life. We can sit in holy silence sometimes, trusting that God’s promise of life need not be birthed by our words, but can be birthed in our companionship.
And where the world gives deafening silence, God gives us the Word. The Gospel of John describes Jesus in this way, “In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”
And the Word, God’s Word, speaks life to questions that stand cold and naked in front of us, with hands outstretched, praying for a blessing, praying that it will be OK.
In God, all is OK. And wherever we are: clothed and happy, scared and silent, shivering and naked, we are with God. We are OK.
And sometimes, for those of us in Advent, as we approach this table of grace, we do so with cold and shivering naked spirits, holding out our hands, asking in the silence of our eyes, “Will it be OK?”
“The body of Christ, given for you.” Hear and see God’s Word spoken for you, for us.
Yes. In a world that’d rather not say anything, God has a Word of peace for you. You are OK when you are with God…and you are never apart.
And those are words we can’t not say to one another in this time of waiting.
And I just have to say it: sometimes I wish it was something different.
Sometimes I wish that God’s gift to the women in the narrative, to Sarah and Hannah, to Elizabeth and Mary, was something other than a baby.
Because it’s hard to hear, sometimes, when I know that infertility and miscarriage are all to common in our world, in our pews. And here we are surrounded by these stories of God giving babies…and surrounded by medical charts, and treatments, and diagnosis that seem to say that can’t happen or isn’t happening in some situations.
And we need to talk about it as a community of faith because, dammit, it’s hard to hear sometimes. And I know my male voice isn’t the one most needed, or the one closest to these stories. But we can’t be silent anymore; we must talk about the hope in these texts.
And the hope we find in these texts isn’t, cannot be, “just wait…it’ll happen to you.”
Because that’s not true hope. That might be my deepest wish, my hope of all hopes…but it can’t be the true hope that God gives.
Because the true hope that God gives has to move past the impossibility of human limitations to the possibility of Godly wholeness… even in the absence of our hope of hopes being fulfilled.
Zechariah’s silence in this text is so telling. It’s the silence of a world who doesn’t like to talk about these things because it makes people uncomfortable. It’s the silence of religion (funny that he’s a priest, right?) that doesn’t like to talk about such things because if God’s hope isn’t that everyone will be given a child if they want it (or, in Mary’s case, in spite of her not wanting it at that time), then…what to say?
I’ve been having lots of conversations about this topic this week.
A friend and colleague I talked to about this subject this week noted that Elizabeth is her patron saint of Advent. Elizabeth, in her old age, holding out hope. And not hope that she’ll necessarily have a baby in those impossible years of her life, but hope that God can bring wholeness in her life even if what she greatly desires cannot happen. She is called “righteous”…I think that is what that term for her means. She’s in “right relationship” with her hope.
Sometimes such a sentiment seems shallow. We are allowed to be angry about these things. It’s hurtful.
And yet, such sentiment is immeasurably deep. Because it’s the Jesus story. The story of a savior who ends up dead, and all hope is lost, and yet somehow God worked life into the mix for a world that needed it in the dark hour of the early morning of the 3rd day.
Sometimes I wish it was something different. It’s tough.
But maybe I, like Elizabeth, like my sisters who wait in Advent, like people around the world, can hold on to the hope that God provides wholeness still.
Still, still, still.
But one thing I know needs to be different: we as a church need to not shy away from this hard topic. Let’s throw away the cliches and the fortune cookie responses to infertility and miscarriage, and call a thing what it is: damnably tough.
And we cry, and hold, and wait. We wait. We wait…Advent waiting…until the world learns to speak about the impossibility like Zechariah.
We wait like Elizabeth, holding on to the hope that God provides wholeness even yet.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
3His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
10On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
A Walking Dead Advent
Stir up your wisdom,
Give us your prudence as we wait.
For we are impatient and you
You define patience in your being
So stir up your wisdom, give it to us
That we might discern between the times
And not become fatigued.
In the name of the patient one
How many of you are Walking Dead fans?
I can’t recommend the series; it’s way too violent. But I find the storyline interesting, and the acting is quite good…even for zombies.
For those of you who aren’t “dead-heads,”…that’s the new term, btw, taking the place of Grateful Dead folks…the story is that there’s been a zombie apocalypse and a small group of people have survived without being bitten or turning into zombies, and they must find a way to avoid the zombies while also finding food, shelter, clothing, and a little bit of peace.
You know: that old story.
One of the interesting things for a dork like me, though, is how the people deal with one another in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. In fact, there’s this nice back and forth between the main characters over how they will behave with one another as the whole world goes down in bloody zombie chaos.
Will they turn into monsters, become suspicious of everyone, killing without remorse, looking out only for themselves as they await some cure to this plague?
Or will they retain their humanity?
There’s this moral character, Dale, who is the voice of human compassion in the group. He advocates that they remain compassionate, remain stable, that they think their actions through, that they not “shoot first and ask questions later,” but that they ask good questions and behave together as they did when the world was not so chaotic, even as they wait for some sort of cure for this zombie madness.
Because Dale sees…as we all well know…that it is difficult to wait without changing.
Because Dale sees…as well all well know…that you don’t have to be a zombie to act like one.
Waiting can do that to you, to us; waiting is tough.
We’ve decided to do this extended Advent this year to practice “waiting” with one another well.
But it’s fake, right? Because we all know the passage of time, and Christmas 2013 has been set for hundreds of years to fall on the last Wednesday in December.
In short: we’re not truly “waiting” because we know it is coming. If we just sit here and twiddle our thumbs for the next month and a half, Christmas will arrive right on schedule.
And what are we waiting for, anyway? Presents? Trees? Carols? Insufferable family gatherings that inevitably turn us into big balls of stress where we find ourselves uttering that terrible phrase, “I need a vacation from my vacation…”?
Actually, Advent is a two-part season in the church. It’s where we wait to celebrate the birth of Jesus; yes. But it’s also the time where we, as the community of faith in this world, wait for Jesus to come again.
Where we practice waiting for Jesus to come again.
That sounds very weird in a “cultish-death-wish-Rapture-crazy” sort of way, right?
But remember, God showed up on earth the first time in a little baby. Are we so certain we know how God is showing up, now? Richard Rohr, that monk and mystic, notes that anything to be labeled as “spiritual” must have a paradoxical nature to it. That is, spiritual things must only make sense if we think about them backwards.
Advent is spiritual. It’s waiting for something that has already happened while also waiting for it to happen again. Jesus came, and we’re waiting for him to come. It’s paradoxical. It’s a deep truth.
Isaiah, our sermon text and icon for today, has something to say about this “waiting.”
The prophet Isaiah was writing and speaking to people who had been waiting a long time. If you’ll remember, the ancient Israelites were not a powerful nation. They were conquered by the Egyptians, by the Assyrians, by the Babylonians, by the Persians, by the Romans…
And Babylon was particularly bad. Babylon took over Israel and sent the best and brightest of the bunch to work in the Babylonian capital to build their buildings and manage their commerce, and be basic economic slaves.
Those of you in my Bible class have heard this all before.
And so when Persia steps in and conquers Babylon, they let all the Israelites head back to their home town, to Jerusalem. And all these people come flooding back into Jerusalem totally demoralized because they’ve just been beaten up and beaten up and conquered and conquered and…
They have nothing left. They were disconnected from their heritage, their families, and their nation. They were “free” in that way that you’re free once you lose your job or your marriage falls apart or you move to a new city with no attachments. Freedom does not always mean footloose and fancy free.
The people of Israel in their captivity were dead. Zombies. Going through the motions of life.
And Isaiah, that prophet of hope, says, “You may think you’re the walking dead! You may think that you’re nothing more than a stump, Oh nation of Israel, but do you not see the fresh green root that is springing up from your deadness?! God is doing something new here!”
And this fresh green stump will have authority, and will be filled with wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
Those of you who are perceptive will recognize those words as the very words I anoint the newly baptized with, because our prayer and trust is that in the newly baptized God is doing something new.
But there is a problem. You see, from Isaiah’s writing to Jesus’ birth 500 years went by. Sure, Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylon and freed the nation of Israel, and in some ways Isaiah may have been talking about Cyrus here.
But it wasn’t the end of the story. Their freedom didn’t bring stability. It took 500 years for Jesus to show up…and he wasn’t exactly what they were hoping for, even though he is what they needed.
That’s a prophecy that took some time to come true, and it didn’t even turn out like they wanted. That’s a zombie curse that took a long time to cure. So the question is, in that time between the promise and the end, how will they wait?
How will we wait?
This life, this Christian life, it’s not so easy. Take a look around you today. On the walls you see plastered newspaper articles from around the world of destruction, violence, sadness, and yes, some glimmers of hope and light…but are they enough to drown out the despair in the world? You see clocks up on the pillars at random, different time zones; differing times. This world is a confusing mess of it all…how long will we have to wait for there to be peace on earth?
Dare we believe that Christ is still coming, today? Dare we believe that God is going to show up on the scene again to take care of all this crap?
It’s easy to do this Christian thing for a little while and then fall away. The world doesn’t seem to be infused with as much light as we like to say it is, right? One lonely candle we light today; it couldn’t even light this room on the darkest night.
But, then again, it doesn’t have to. Because a flame is meant to be shared.
God is doing something new; do you perceive it? If you take the flame and then share it with the neighbor next to you, we become not a world waiting in darkness for God to act, but a community of people holding vigil, flames in hand, confident that God is acting.
And so we wait not in despair, but in confidence and hope.
And we have so much confidence that we dare, today, to pray over these issues in the world that need God to show up on the scene in God’s wisdom, not our own. We’ll use our own hands if we have to, because our hands are infused with that same light. Perhaps we’re the second coming in some ways for these places of crisis. But God’s wisdom is the wisdom that speaks a paradoxical word to a world obsessed with an order it’s unable to keep.
We need God’s wisdom in this world where the walking dead have taken our streets, and we dare not be changed by the voices of cynicism and apathy.
We will not be conformed to a world who has given up on the fact that God is showing up again, or is real at all. We won’t shoot first and ask questions later; we’ll ask good questions, look for signs of the godly cure already in motion.
We’ll not be zombies walking through this world. We’re children of the light, by God, and on this first day of Advent we begin the waiting…but not passively. We show we’re taking the waiting for Christ seriously by spreading that light around.
A shoot is coming from the dead stumps of this world.
Perhaps you’re under the impression that your life, your job, your church, your spirituality, your relationships, your home, your school, your city, your state, your nation, the whole world is a dead stump.
Perhaps you’re under the impression that it’d be easier to just give in to the apathy, the violence, the heartlessness.
Isaiah, that fiery prophet of old who kept vigil for a people who had no hope, isn’t going to let you do that today.
I’m not going to let you do that today.
Jesus isn’t going to let you do that today.
You know, there are some great signs out there.
One is “Jesus is Coming.” Fine. People use it as a scare tactic, but I think it can be hopeful. Because there are a lot of days when I need Jesus to show in my life. So perhaps Jesus isn’t coming in the distant future; perhaps Jesus is coming in a small way, today. God, I need that.
Another one is “Jesus has Come.” Yes. And on December 25th we’ll honor that rightly. The light shines in the darkness and now, 2000 years later, the darkness has yet to overcome it.
But there’s that other great one, “Jesus is coming…everyone look busy.” Hilarious, yes? Jesus the bossman checking in on the laborers.
But I’m going to make a slight adjustment to it. I’m going to have it say, “Jesus is coming…everyone get busy.”
Get busy holding vigil. Get busy passing that light around. Get busy lifting up these crisis in prayer and taking steps to change this world.
Because today, Advent 1, where we’ve only lit one candle, we’re remembering that this small flame, Isaiah the fiery prophet, reminds us Jesus is coming.
Perhaps in you and me. Perhaps to you, to me.
Get busy…we’re not the walking dead; we’re children of the light.