And the Word Became Flesh -A Christmas Story

John 1:1-14

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (Read the Whole Christmas Gospel)

Sermon

And the Word became flesh.

This morning, on this feast of the nativity, we have made a long journey to be here.

Through the dark places, searching for the light. We have journeyed through Advent. We draped our sanctuary and our selves in the deep and rich blues of Advent, we let our eyes adjust to the dark until the distant starlight began to peek through the darkness. Our Advent waiting and wondering led to this moment of celebration at the birth of Christ.

We began 5 weeks ago with Jesus announcing the end of time, imploring us to Keep Awake. To open our eyes to the world around us.

We continued on with John the Baptist, who was preaching in the dark wilderness to “Prepare the way of the Lord,” the Lord who will come to straighten our crooked paths.

We then followed John to prison, to the dark night of the soul, wondering if all these promises of the Messiah were in fact true.

And finally, last week, we heard the announcement. Mary would bear a child named Jesus. And our darkness, the darkness of the entire cosmos was placed in contrast to the tiny baby growing in one young woman’s womb… and we wondered if this indeed was God’s plan to push the darkness back and keep it at bay. To bring light, THE LIGHT of GOD, into the world through a tiny baby born to insignificant people in a forgotten corner of the world.

And then last night, we walked with Joseph and Mary across country, to the town of David called Bethlehem. We submitted to the Emporer’s decree to be registered, we were denied a place to rest our heads, we squatted like refugees in animal barns, we heard the angels with the outcasts and we found out that God was indeed born into our dark world, bringing real light.

We also discovered, that this 2000 year old story is a story for 2016. That if Jesus was born into a world full of darkness back then, one where tyrants ruled, soldiers killed, people lived in fear, that certainly the darkness of our world is not too much for God. That Jesus does come into our darkness too. Messiah is born today, just as 2000 years ago.

But today, the Gospel of John pulls us back from the details of the story. John gives us the Christmas story again, but without shepherds and angels, barns and journeys, without even Mary or Jospeh.

John takes us to the heart, to the meat of the story.

And the word became flesh.

John’s story of incarnation is hardly one we could reproduce with a Sunday School pageant. John expects that we can separate the details of the story from the meaning of the story. What does it mean that the God of all creation has chosen to become incarnate?

Incarnation is one of those churchy words that pastors tend use, but that actually has a very earthy meaning.

The flower with a similar name, carnation, gets its name from its fleshy colour.

Carnivale, the South American Mardi Gras festival is related to incarnation too. The great festival where you eat all the meat in the house before fasting during lent.

And carnivore, the scientific word for meat eater.

Carne means meat.

So that church word incarnation literally means”to take on meat.”

And the Word became flesh.

The birth of Christ is the moment when God puts on the meat of humanity, the flesh of our bodies. If you want to know what God looks like, look at the people around you, look at their skin and eyes and hair. When Mary and Joseph and those Shepherds looked into the eyes, of the christ child, they would have seen there all of humanity contained in flesh.

When the disciples and the crowds heard his voice, they would have heard the voice of the God.

When the lepers and the lame and blind were touched and healed by Jesus, they would have felt the touch of God.

When the soldiers nailed feet and hands to a cross, they would have pierced the Body of Christ.

But putting on our meat isn’t just about our physical bodies.

The incarnation is also how God puts on the flesh of our humanity. The darkness of sin and suffering and death. The flesh of the human condition, of limited, fragile creation. God takes on what it means to be human, to be created, to be us.

John’s Christmas story omits all the details that we tend to think the story is all about in order to bring us to heart or the meat of the matter. God has taken on our flesh in order to bridge the unbridgeable gap between God and a fallen, broken creation. God has become one of us in order to come near to all of us.

Sure, John’s version of the Christmas story might be missing a few of the familiar parts of the story, but fleshiness of the story, of the incarnation reminds us that of all the Christmas traditions we hold this time of year, the most true of them all is the one carry on with week after week. In the Eucharist as we share in bread and wine, we partake in God’s fleshiness. And we are reminded again and again that God takes on our flesh AND we take on God’s. That God’s light and life comes near to us again and again. Given and shed for us.

And as God comes near, as God becomes incarnate, God begins to reveal the light that has been missing from our world. We begin to see just how pervasive the darkness was. We begin to see that even the smallest bit of real light coming into life through a young woman giving birth in a barn is more light than we can handle. We begin to see that God comes and comes in small space, because even the smallest light pushes the darkness away, but the darkness can never diminish even the smallest amount of light.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

As we began in Advent seeing the dark places of the world, making our way from the end of the world backwards to the beginning, to the announcement of the coming Messiah, to going with Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and with angels to shepherds, John tells us that our destination was here. Here with the Word in the beginning. Christmas is where God begins creation anew.

Christmas begins all things new, because the darkness of sin and death will no longer have hold over us. Because the old order of things has ended, and now the Christ born into flesh has come today.

Christmas according to John might not have all the details we think are normally part of the story, but John does take us to the heart, to the meat of the matter. John strips the details back to open ears to hear, our eyes to see, our hearts to know that this story of a babe being born to virgin in a stable in Bethelhem, is the story of God coming into our world, coming in order to be near to us again.

Hear John’s final line in the Christmas story once more:

Today, the Word becomes flesh and lives among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Amen.

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Not the Christmas we want but the Christmas we need

Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem… (Read the whole Christmas Gospel)

Sermon

You may be expecting a story tonight.

For the past three years, Christmas Eve has been a chance to tell the story of Christmas in a fresh way, with modern versions of the Christmas story. However, tonight will be a bit different. Rather than something that sounds like a Vinyl Cafe story (Lake Wobegon for American readers), we are going to tell and hear the Christmas story with new ears to hear and new eyes to see. As the angels said to the Shepherds:

Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people

Like a lot of the world, 2016 has been a rough year for us. Politics has been messy and ugly. We have been subjected to constant news of war and violence and terror attacks around the world. There are near daily stories about the effects of climate change. Our culture and society is having conflicts around issues of race, gender, religion, and ethnicity. We never know when there will be another mass shooting, another earthquake or hurricane or forest fire. Any moment, another celebrity death will stream across social media feeds when we least need hear it.

And here at Good Shepherd we have born the weight of more than our share of illness, tragedy and death.

So maybe for you Christmas is just the same old, same old time for family, traditions and memories this year.

But it is probably the case that for most of us, Christmas lacks a little something. It feels a little duller and subdued. The magic just isn’t quite there for all the reasons that 2016 has been so difficult.

And we think that Christmas is supposed to have that special quality, that feeling of being different than the normal and mundane things of every day life. Christmas is supposed to lift our spirits, remind us of better things, be a time for sentimentalism and warm fuzzies. It is like that Christmas Card with Mary gazing lovingly down at newborn Jesus – it should melt our hearts. It should feel like special moment when we all sing silent night to candlelight, – glowing faces all around.

But this year it hasn’t been those things. Maybe tonight was supposed to be the chance to reclaim what Christmas is supposed to be…

So here is the thing.

The Christmas story that we know, the one that goes along with silent night, kids dressed up in cute outfits, family traditions waiting at home and presents under the tree… is not exactly the real version.

At the risk of sounding like the pastor grinch…

All the nostalgia is less about Christmas than we think. In fact, all those things that we listed earlier that made 2016 such a hard year… they speak more to Christmas than we want to think about.

When we hear that familiar story from Luke that we just read… it is easy to imagine the Christmas pageant or TV version.

But the very first line of story takes us to something a little more 2016 than we might be comfortable with.

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”

We have political leaders talking about a registering certain kinds of citizens, talking about values tests and ways of sorting us into good and bad.

Mary and Joseph were part of that group that was called upon to register, because of their religion, the colour of their skin, because of where they came from – they were part of a group that those in power wanted to track and monitor.

And so, like so many migrants forced to move their homes, regardless of age, health, ability or even whether or not they were pregnant, Mary and Joseph were forced to pack up their lives and move across country.

Perhaps for the first time in decades, we have a better understanding of what the Emperor was doing by announcing a registration, and it wasn’t good.

Like the millions of refugees around the world or like so many who live in poverty on our planet, Mary and Joseph had no safe place to stay. There was no refugee camp or shanty town to go to. There was no kind soul to take pity of them. All they could find was essentially a place to squat out of necessity.

And so Mary gave birth in a stable… but not the sweet and sanitary stable that we might imagine. But probably a cold and dark cave where the animals were kept. Imagine a refugee family hiding in an abandoned building or out in the woods… none of us would consider this a good place to spend the night, let alone have a baby. But this is where the mother of God was forced to give birth.

Then once the ordeal of child birth is over, a gang of Shepherds show up. Not the cute ones wearing bathrobes that we imagine. But shepherds who were the dregs of society, more like drug dealers and addics, not good and polite neighbours bringing casseroles, not well meaning aunts who stop by the hospital with flowers. But the kind of people that most of us would cross the street to avoid…. these misfits are the ones who show us first to worship this new born child.

But just to top it all off, Jesus is born to a teenage mom with an older man looking after her and her child despite not being the baby’s father. Jesus is born into the kind of situation where would we expect child and family services to intervene and remove the child. Yet, this is the family that God chooses to care for the Messiah.
Once the baby is born and somehow the holy family has survived everything from being forced from their homes to register, travelling across country, giving birth in squalor, being visited by the riffraff of society…. Mary and Joseph are left on their own. Left in a world where they have no home, where soldiers would be looking for them soon in order to kill the baby boy, where foreign powers and corrupt kings controlled their lives, where there was no safe place to live or hide, but the only safety was to keep moving out on the open road…

Hardly sounds like Christmas, does it?

Except this is the Christmas story.

And it is important that this is the Christmas story.

Because the warm fuzzy version is not what our world needs. The traditions and carols and movies and light strung up might make us feel good, they may even bring a certain joy and hope to our dark December…. but the TV version of the Christmas story will not save the world. It will not save us from all the things we need saving from.

In fact, in a world where we can name three major tragedies just this week in the Christmas Market in Germany, the war in Aleppo and fireworks explosion Mexico, the fact that the first century world of Mary and Joseph, the world of Caesar Augustus full of registrations and soldiers and refugees and danger…. that this world of 2000 years ago is very much like our world today…

This fact means that if God can be born to a teen mom and a step dad in 1st century occupied Israel, means that surely God can be born in our world.

That Jesus is found in Christmas markets struck by tragedy.

That Jesus is born in the bombed out rubble of Aleppo.

That the holy family passes through fireworks markets while on the road.

As much as we want the magic of Christmas,

The world needs the Messiah to be born,

The Christ who is willing to go and be found in the real Christmas places.

God in Christ is willing to be born among us in order that we can see that God has come near. Near to us in the ways and places that we need most. God comes near, God joins in creation, taking on our flesh to show us that we are not left alone to sort out this crazy world. That we go into the night with God along side us, that God is facing the dangers with us, that surviving our world, that confronting sin and death is precisely where God comes to meet us.

The good news of great joy at Christmas is that the God of light and life has not left us on our own, but comes into our world to live life with us, to give the small but enduring hope found in a baby that changes the world.

2016 might not feel much like Christmas as we know it, but it just might be the closest to the first Christmas we have ever been.

The story that we tell tonight is so much bigger and so much deeper than the feelings we try to recreate time of year. The real Christmas story, the real story of Jesus’s birth in our world is about all the feelings that we don’t want to have this time of year. It is about the fact that God comes to into a world that needs joy and hope and light.

So just as those Angels proclaimed: Do not be afraid.

Do not be afraid if Christmas doesn’t feel like we think if should this year…. because it is precisely into this world of ours full of difficulty, hardship and struggle that Jesus is born. Born in the city of David, born here among us

Amen.

 

The Christmas that 2016 needs – What to preach this Christmas

For so many people around the world 2016 has not been a good year.

Ugly politics with fascist undertones are popping up around the globe. Terrorism, refugee crisis, wars causing civilian tragedies, virus outbreak causing birth defects, climate change catastrophes, racism, sexism, bigotry, social regression, the fraying of democracy in favour of fear and division… the lists of bad things in 2016 are everywhere.

Perhaps, like me you are about to stand in the pulpit on the biggest day of your church year and you need to preach to people who you may not see for another year and to those you see nearly everyday.

Or maybe you are about to go and hear a preacher tell the good news that the angels told the shepherds about. And what you need most is for that good news of great joy to be not just a 2000-year-old story but a 2016 story.

For many wanting to preach and to hear the good news, we are going to be pushing back against a world that wants to bury its head in the Christmas sand. Deep down we know that the good news simply won’t come from nostalgia and sentimentalism.

We know that the falling snow at the end of Christmas movies won’t save us from sin and death.

We know that a bumbling hero putting on a Santa suit to “save Christmas” is no salvation at all.

We know that perfectly roasted turkey, beautifully wrapped presents, and old time Christmas favourites wafting from the radio are not the things that truly encompass the spirit of the season.

And we also know that getting all the food on the table on time, dealing with racist uncles and navigating sleeping arrangements at the in-laws are mostly harmless problems compared to the real stuff going down all over the world.

For many of us, 2016 has been the result of a long build up. Or should I say a long descent back into the same darkness that engulfed the world of 1st Century Israel, the world of Mary and Joseph. No matter what anyone claims, the stability that much of our North American world saw in the 1950s and decades following is not coming back. (Plus women, people of colour, and religious minorities will definitely not agree that this was a golden period in the first place).

So what are we left to preach for Christmas 2016? What is the good news for us?

Well, strangely the good news announced to those shepherds might be more fitting than ever in 2016.

In fact, if there is good news to be found in midst of all the darkness we have lived through this year… it is the same good news found in the darkness of the year of Messiah’s birth.

And that is:

If God can be born to a teenage mother engaged to an older man who wasn’t the father of her baby…

If God can live under oppression of puppet kings and foreign empires…

If God can be subjected to forced migration and registration simply because of ethnicity, religion or skin colour…

If God can have no place to live or sleep, no healthcare to be born with, no community to support new parents other than shepherds (the drug dealers and street gangs of the day)…

If God can be forced to flee in fear from the murderous death squads of a fearful despot, and only have pagan lands to go to…

If God can somehow after all that manage to grow up to fullfill the mission of salvation and reconciliation of all things…

Then certainly the Messiah can come to save us in all of our darkness.

No political leader, no terrorist act, no pandemic virus, no celebrity death, no climate disaster, no  refugees crisis, no cyber attack, no amount of fear or hatred or bigotry is too dark or too much for Messiah to come and save us from.

2016 has only managed to show us just how badly we need to be saved… and Christmas reminds us just what form that salvation arrives in.

So to my colleagues and kindred preachers, find the good news in the One whom we know has already come into our darkest world.

To my sisters and brothers of faith seeking good news this year, know that our world is in exactly the state that moved God action, that moved God to enter our world in the first place.

In 2016, preach that Messiah has come into our darkness, and that Christmas finally brings us some light.


And if you are really stuck, here are two sets of Christmas Sermons:

A story for Christmas Part 1
A story for Christmas Part 2

Mary and Joseph in Al Zataari
Refugees Welcome – God Sent You


What is the good news for you in 2016? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Mary and Joseph of Aleppo

Matthew 1:18-25

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Read the whole passage)

The 4th Sunday of Advent is one that rolls is over to Christmas. While, this year we are in the unusual circumstance that there will be a full week between Advent 4 and Christmas Day. Next year for example, the 4th Sunday of Advent is Christmas Eve morning!

Advent then is a long as it can be with 28 days this year. And with still a week to go before Christmas, we get to sit with the story that we alway hear on the 4th Sunday a little longer than usual. The last Sunday in Advent is always the chance to hear the story of Mary’s pregnancy, and Mary and Joseph’s response to this life-changing news.

The announcement of Mary’s pregnancy by the messenger angels is always a turn from the preceding weeks of Advent, from the warnings about the end of time, from John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness and then questioning the legitimacy of the Messiah from prison. It is also movement within our Advent theme of light in the darkness, taking us from a the grand size of God’s plan to bring the Messiah into the world, into the cosmos, to come like a thief in the night, to straighten out the crooked paths, to cure the sick and raise the dead… Advent 4 is movement way from those big things, to the small space of Mary’s body, to the intimate relationship of Mary and Joseph’s engagement.

The story of Mary’s conception is a familiar one, although the version we hear today is less familiar. Rather than the Luke birth story, the beloved one we hear each Christmas that begins “in those days a decree went out from emperor Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be registered”, we hear Matthew’s version. Brief and to the point. There are no angels who appear to Mary today, but instead to Joseph. There is no visit to Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, but just a dream and a command to faithfulness.

And if you caught it at it the end, Jesus is born in Matthew’s version of the story. No shepherds or angels. No stable or manger, no pondering of Mary. No animals or drummer boy, although those aren’t in Luke’s version either. Matthew just gives us what we need to know and then picks up the expanded story with the magi, which we hear at Epiphany.

This doesn’t really sound like the story that we know, or that the carols sing about or that the made-for-TV-movies tell. It is a version of a familiar story told in an unfamiliar way. It opens our eyes anew to something we thought we knew well.

In our final advent weeks, our eyes have been opened anew to the dark places of the world. The theme of light in the darkness has reminded us that seeing the dark places is the first step in seeing the light.

One dark place more than others has been revealed to us this week. As the war in Syria intensifies, we bore witness in the news this week to the siege of Aleppo. The hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the middle have been telling their stories on social media, even giving their final goodbyes with bombs exploding in the background. Human rights organizations and NGOs have called upon the warring factions and the global community to action. And even after ceasefires are called, they are promptly broken. It is a complex and messy conflict between factions where there are no clear good guys or bad guys. Where both sides are using civilians and civilians casualties as negotiating chips.

Now after years of civil war in Syria, reports of violent conflict, millions of refugees flowing into surrounding nations and then into Europe, the rise of the Islamic State and now the indiscriminate bombings and summary execution of civilians, Syria has become the great humanitarian tragedy of the 21st century.

So what does the darkest place in our time have to do with an unmarried couple receiving news of an unexpected pregnancy 2000 years ago.

Well the world of Joseph and Mary was not that different than ours. And no, not our Canadian countryside where we imagine the holy family showing up in a homeless shelter or soup kitchen on Christmas Eve. Rather, Nazareth where Joseph decides to remains faithful to Mary despite her pregnancy is only 593 kilometres from Aleppo. The distance between here and Regina, or even closer than the distance to Minneapolis.

And like the trapped citizens of Aleppo, Mary and Joseph were ruled by a ruthless despot in King Herod, a puppet installed by virtue of his birth, much like Bashir Al Assad.  Their home had been invaded by a foreign empire in Rome, much like occupying Russians. Their world was one drawn regularly into conflict as religious zealots tried again and again to spur violent uprisings in order to overthrow the the ruling powers, much like the rebels. All too often these uprisings only result in needless civilian death. Mary and Joseph almost certainly knew what it was like to exist between violently conflicting forces, never knowing when the chaos might erupt around them.

If Mary and Joseph were to be found today, we might imagine it would be in a barn on the prairies, or a back alley in New York, or sleepy neighbourhood in Sweden or an apartment block in Beijing. But perhaps today, Mary and Joseph are in Aleppo (Jesus was born hardly a stone’s throw away after all). The unborn Christ child would be dodging bombs and bullets in a war zone.

But it isn’t just the physical location, it is location within the human condition. If we listened to the Christmas carols and made-or-TV-movies, Mary and Joseph would exist in sentiment and nostalgia. They would be characters that we play in pageants or that we put up in nativity scenes. They wouldn’t be real, they would be nice ideas or warm fuzzy feelings.

Except Mary and Joseph aren’t characters in a pageant. They are the real people chosen by the God of light who shows up in dark places. Mary is a real pregnant woman, with expanding body, morning sickness and cankles. Joseph is a real fiancé whose beloved wife-to-be is pregnant with another’s child. The holy couple are real parents simply trying to survive in an unbelievably dangerous world.

But most importantly, the promised child, the light that is placed in Mary’s womb, is a real baby, kicking and turning, readying mother and father for the reality that they will soon be responsible for a life other than their own, in a world where life is disregarded like piece of garbage.

And this is all God’s point.

This is all God’s work, to send a real baby, born to real parents, in a dark and very real place in the world…in order to be our real Messiah. Because our real sins need real saving.

Only a real Messiah can bring light to our real condition, to the sin and death of the dark places around us. While the nostalgia of carols and movies, of nativity scenes and pageants, sometimes help us to tell the story, they are not what our Advent waiting needs. They are not the version of Messiah we need.

God sends a real Messiah because our real wars and real violence and real disregard for each other needs real light. God comes into the darkest places because our detachment and avoidance of the dark places needs to be revealed. God comes into real bodies, born to real parents because this is how we all enter into the world, because the danger of life is the real risk of death. The Messiah comes in order to join with creation in the starkest, realest ways there are. To be born like we are born, to live like we live, to die like we die. All that so we can rise like Messiah’s rises.

Our dark world is not much different than the one of Mary and Joseph. We need the light as much as ever. And so that is why hear the story of God’s coming again today, and we hear it anew.

God is coming not only to a surprised couple in Nazareth, but God is coming into this world, here and now.

Coming to a prairie barn, far away from places that matter.

God is coming to the back alleys in New York.

God is coming to the sleepy suburbs of Sweden.

God is coming to apartment blocks in Beijing.

And God is coming to civilians hiding out in Aleppo.

God is coming to bring light to our dark world, Messiah is on the way to show us that war, and violence and suffering do not define us. Messiah is coming to save us from sin and death.

Today, we are about to roll over from Advent into Christ, and yet there is still a week of Advent darkness and waiting left to do. And in the darkness of our world, of places like Aleppo or closer to home, especially when things seem darker than ever… Messiah is coming with the light.

 

Lying awake in the Advent darkness

Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Read the whole passage)

The darkness persists today. We are 3 Sundays into Advent and we have been exploring the dark places of our world. Two weeks ago, Jesus implored us to Keep Awake. Keep Awake watching for the Son of Man might come like a thief in the night. Keep Awake and let your eyes adjust to the dark places of our world.

Last week, we went into the wilderness with John the Baptist, we left the lights of the city behind, the lights of society with all its problems, to go to the stark and empty wilderness. And there John preached about the coming of Messiah to straightened crooked paths. 

Today, we emerge with the followers of John the Baptist from the darkness of prison, to ask about who really is the Messiah. 

The darkness of advent that we encounter these days is not just the dark winter nights and short winter days. It is the darkness that exists all around us, the suffering and difficult places of the world. It is the darkness that seems to be falling as the world is gripped by fear and foreboding about the future. And the darkness is also the same one that we encounter when we lie awake at night and ponder the deep questions of life. The preparation and making ready of Advent has less to do with decorating trees and putting out wreaths, than with spending time in the dark to consider the deeper parts of life that are often only thought of in the darkness.

The questions that keep us up at night are often questions of identity. Who am I? What do I believe? Where am I going? Does what I am doing with my life have any meaning?

For us, as we ponder who we are and who it is that we follow and what it is that we actually believe, we are left to wonder just what it means to be members of this congregation. to be Lutherans, to be Christians, to be members of the body of Christ. 

Does believing in God and the bible and virgin births and resurrections from the dead mean that we also have to agree with those Christians with condescending and judgemental on TV? Or is it okay to have a quiet faith where we just come to church on Sunday and mind our own business the rest of the week? Should we be serving the homeless more? Knocking on neighbours doors to ask them about their Lord and Saviour? Praying more? Reading the bible more?

Confronting the darkness and the questions of Advent are the means of preparing for Messiah to come. And as our eyes adjust to the darkness, as the distractions of the light are stripped away and we see ourselves more clearly, we are left to ask questions about who we are.

Wondering about identity is at the heart of the question that John’s disciples ask today. John’s wilderness sermons have made him popular, and many have begun to follow him as if he is the Messiah, despite John’s pointing to another. But John’s wilderness preaching has also made him a threat to those in power. So King Herod has John jailed. And now in prison John is perhaps wondering if all the bold preaching he did on the banks of the river Jordan is still true from the his dark prison cell. Or perhaps his followers are wondering who they should follow now. Whether Jesus is the really the one who is come.

And while it sounds like John’s followers are asking about Jesus’ identity, their question is one about their own. Wondering about who Jesus is, is actually a question about who they are, about what they believe and about who they believe in. And like John’s followers, in the Advent darkness, with all the busyness of the life hidden from view, we can lose confidence in our identity. In the midst of darkness and uncertainty all around us, we can find it hard to see our selves as people who really believe that Jesus is the one.

And so with John followers we ask our Advent question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Is the Jesus the Messiah who is actually going to do something about the suffering of our world? About the people around us and in our community who are suffering. About the fear that is seeping into people around the globe. Is Jesus the one who is going to end wars, feed the hungry, reconcile the divided, calm the fearful and bring hope to the nations.

These days, it is hard to get behind those things.
It is hard to feel that Jesus is actually going to do any of that.

And so we wonder, who are we if we cannot see or believe that the one we follow is the one to come.

And then, just as Jesus answers John’s followers, Jesus speaks to us.

“Its not about you” Jesus says.

“It is not about whether you can believe, even in the dark”

“It is about me. It is about light that I will show you.”

Jesus says that our identity is not ours to sort out. It is not up to us to figure it out in the dark.

But rather, out of the darkness comes a light. A light born into the world from the divine. A light rooted in the Messiah. Messiah who determines our identity.

Whether Jesus is the one or not, is not the question.

But rather whether we belong to Messiah is.

And Jesus the Messiah says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see”

That the faithful gather here even in the Advent darkness.

That the word of life is spoken not just in quiet whispers, but in confession and prayer, in song and praise, in reading and preaching.

That the mercy of God is given and received, offered to all who come.

That the waters of rebirth are crashing over us day after day as we are reminded of who we are as baptized children of God.

That the bread and wine of salvation is served and shared with wild abandon, making a place for any and all at the table.

“Its not about you.” Jesus says, ‘Yet, it is all about you.”

Because just when we cannot see who we are in the darkness, God comes and enters into our very flesh, God joins with creation so that our identity is no longer found in the dark, but in the light. Because God has taken on our created-ness, we take a new identity in the Body of Christ.

And all those things that worry and nag at us from the darkness, the suffering and struggles of our neighbours, the fear and divisions of our nations, the wars and conflict of our globe…. all those things begin to be transformed by the light of Messiah.

The crooked paths are straightened, the blind see, the deaf hear, the lepers cleaned and the good news is preached to the poor all because God has become us.

The darkness of Advent is where we must begin each year. Lying awake in the dark, wondering and watching for who we are and what this all means. Asking if Jesus is the one to come, or must we wait for another.

Because it is in the darkness of Advent that light it stirred up. It is only from the darkness that we will clearly see the light, that our advent questions will lead us to One who has been here all along.

And so today, from Advent’s dark and wild places, Messiah’s coming is proclaimed… and Jesus reminds us above all,
that the light is on its way.

John the Baptist, Rejecting Society and Honest Preaching

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven 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… (Read the whole passage)

As we journey deeper into the Advent season we hear from John the Baptist. John gets to make his appearance each year on the second Sunday in Advent, preaching to us from the wilderness about the coming to the Messiah.

John’s place in the arc of Advent comes after we started with the end of time last week, as Jesus implored the disciples to Keep Awake, as the Son of Man was near. While John the Baptist appears at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we tell his story as the prelude to the story of Jesus’ birth. And that John always comes after warnings about the end of time isn’t coincidence. John’s preaching serves to re-orient us from the end times talk to the new thing about to happen with Messiah’s coming.

John is framing the beginning of the story. John is setting the stage for us. John helps us to see the world as it is and our need for Messiah to come.

The figure that John strikes is definitely that of a unique character. John is a hermit living in wilderness, living and eating off the land. The details of his clothing and food might sound funny or interesting, but they tell us something deeper about John and what he is about. John is a hermit certainly, but why? Probably because he has walked from society and the problems he sees with it. John was not always a hermit preaching in the desert, rather he was born into the priestly cast, his father Zechariah being a priest in the temple. If John had followed the plan as he was born into, he would have served in the temple making sacrifice and administrating God’s righteousness to the masses. The temple was the centre of Israel’s power and influence, the priests who served were people in positions of power. John was born into power.

But instead John walks away from all of that. And John doesn’t reject the power he inherited in birth. John could have chosen a route like his cousin Jesus who choose to hang out with the poor, sinners and tax collectors over the rich and powerful. But John walks away from it all, from rich and poor, from righteous and sinner.

John chooses the great empty wilderness instead.

And yet in a twist of irony, as John tries to leave the centres of power and privilege behind, he goes into the wilderness and finds the very people he is trying to avoid. John finds himself preaching to the masses looking for salvation, and to the religious authorities watching his every move. Despite walking away from his priestly duties in the temple, John finds himself filling the same role in the wilderness. He is leading rituals that help make people righteous – baptisms. And he is preaching from the law the prophets.

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’

Despite John’s best efforts to avoid the world of his day, the structures of power, the inequality and unfairness around him, the powerless and powerful… John finds himself addressing and naming the realities of his world. The crowds have come to him hoping for change, hoping for fixes to their difficult and suffering lives. The religious authorities have come to watch him and make sure he doesn’t cause trouble or threaten their power.

Instead, John preaches what no one wants to hear. He names the dark places of the world. He points to the brokenness and struggles of the world. He preaches that a Messiah is coming to straighten things out… which means that things are crooked. He preaches the need for repentance and forgiveness of sins… which means that people are broken. He preaches that it is not enough to rely on being Children of Abraham or Lutherans, or members of a church… which means that who we think we are will not save us.

And yet John does something unusual for someone in his position. He admits that he is not  the solution. In a turn to honest and authentic preaching and prophetic words, John says that someone else, a Messiah, is coming to straighten the world out… which means that John himself is not the one the crowds are waiting for. What an unusual thing for a popular person to admit in front of a crowd of eager people wanting to throw their devotion to a possible saviour.

John might be preaching to the problems of his day, but he could be just as well be speaking today. Much like John’s world, our world is full of desperate people who are suffering and need a change. People who are looking for the next strong man to show up and smash all the problems and make things the way they are supposed to be. Or like the religious authorities, there are those in the world who are very invested in keeping things as they are, because they are benefitting greatly at the expense of most others.

But John is naming the reality that none of us really wants to admit. And that is that the world is dark and broken and suffering. That there is so much crookedness and self-centredness and injustice that there is no way that we can fix it on our own. And John’s assessment is not a judgmental one, but a realistic one. A statement about how things just aren’t right in the world, that no matter how hard we try, something is off. We know this is not the way the world should be… but we don’t know how to do anything about it.

We can look around and see that the world isn’t as it should be. We see people we know and love being diagnosed with unfair illnesses and disease. We see our children or grandchildren being bullied at school. We see our neighbours getting laid off, or families torn apart in relationship breakups. We see that we just cannot help fighting and misunderstanding and judging and fearing each other. We turn on the news and hear about violence, corruption and tragedy.

We see all of this, and we know that this is not how the world is supposed to be. This isn’t right.  And so we get why John has just left everything behind to go live in the wilderness, a place of emptiness that might be missing the comforts of life, but hopefully is also devoid of the tragedies and suffering and conflict.
But there is something else that John tells us without words or preaching. Something about what God is up to in the dark and empty places.

John, with all his flaws and contradictions and weirdness, is doing God’s work of announcing the Good News. God is using John of all people, to tell crowds who are looking for someone else, and religious authorities who don’t want to listen, that the Messiah is on the way. God is bringing Messiah’s light to the world through John, one of the most unexpected people imaginable.

The fact that God is working in surprising and unexpected ways cannot be understated.

That God chooses flawed and contradiction filled and weird people to announce that the good news is something that we need to be reminded of.

That God is heralding the Messiah’s coming with someone like John the Baptist shows us that God is willing to use people that we might never consider for God’s mission.

That God is sending Messiah to straighten out our crooked places, to Baptize us with the Holy Spirit, to transform us and our world… and that this is happening now is the Good News.

And with this news, that the Messiah is coming to make straight paths, all the dark things that we see in our world, the sick loved ones, the struggle neighbours, the vulnerable children, the conflict and fear…. all these dark things start to have a little less weight. They are pushed back in favour of a new world, in favour of Messiah’s world. A world that we practice bringing about here, just like John in the wilderness. Look around and you will see fellow strange, weird and unique preachers and prophets to the good news. People who confess and forgiven sins. Who sing and praise God, pray and speak the word. People who baptize and are baptized, people who share in the bread and wine of life. People who bring about the Kingdom of Heaven simply by being together. Unlikely people who are God’s hands and feet in the world.

On the second Sunday in Advent, the arc of the advent story takes us from the end of time to the beginning of God’s making all things new. And Messiah cannot come sooner into our dark world. Yet, the way that God draws our eyes and our attention to this new light coming alive in world, is through John the Baptist. John the Baptist who is at one time one of the most important figures of faith and also the least likely prophet and preacher of the good news. In so many ways John the Baptist is very much like us, or we like him. Because we too are the flawed and unlikely preachers and prophets that God is using to announce the coming of the light.

God is using John and using us to speak from the wilderness, from unlikely places, to unlikely listeners, about the light that is coming into the darkness, the Messiah that is to come.

It is no wonder that we began worship today by praying:

Stir up our hearts, Lord, to prepare the way.