First Congregational Church
December 14, 2014
Third Sunday in Advent
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
One of my favorite stories is the one about a pastor walking down the street one day when she notices a very small boy trying to press a doorbell on a house across the street. However, the boy is very small and the doorbell is too high for him to reach.
After watching the boy’s efforts for some time, the pastor moves closer to the boy’s position. She steps smartly across the street, walks up behind the little fellow and, placing her hand kindly on the child’s shoulder leans over and gives the doorbell a solid ring. Crouching down to the child’s level, the pastor smiles benevolently and asks, “And now what, little man?” To which the boy replies, “Now we run!”
As Christians all over the globe celebrate this third Sunday in Advent, many will light a pink - or rose - candle as we did today. For a long time, the only church season was Lent, the seven weeks prior to Easter. As the season of fasting and prayer, the deep purple of banners at the time signified royalty, repentance and suffering.
People finally realized that we are a post-resurrection people, so there is joy - even amid the hard parts of life - even if it is questionable. To celebrate that, the Pope would honor a citizen with a pink rose, as a reminder of the coming joy that would be celebrated at Easter.
When whoever it was decided we should celebrate Jesus’ birth and came up with Advent - they borrowed from Lent, but tweaked some of the symbols and combined them to help children in the wait for Christmas. So old wagon wheels had 20 holes drilled for small candles plus 4 large candles that represented Sundays.
When wagon wheels became hard to get, circular wreaths of pine represented God’s unending and evergreen love and the candles were reduced to just the Sundays. But blue replaced purple, representing hope and waiting, and the rose candle replaced the Pope’s pink rose to represent joy. It was truly a different time, if a pink candle was considered a really big deal!
Our scripture passage for this morning gets almost as exciting. It wasn’t intended, but we’ve ended up with a focus on John the Baptist as we wait this Advent - from three of the four gospels. John was prophesied to come before he was born - much like his cousin Jesus. John was the foreshadower - the one who looked so much like the coming Messiah, people wondered if he wasn’t the real deal to begin with. Whether it happened when they were young, playing together at family holidays and celebrations, whether there was some sort of teaching he went through, whether it was a knowing deep inside, John understood his role as the one who broke the trail for Jesus.
John 1:19-28 NIV
19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”
21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.”
22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” 28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
Thank you, Marilyn. Like last week, the main theme of the day - joy - is blatantly missing from this lectionary scripture passage.
The more I looked at the lack of apparent “joy” in the passage, the more I saw. Looking at top news headlines, we don’t see too many with the word “joy” in them. In speaking to one of my colleagues the other day, he commented that with all the deaths in that congregation lately, a pall of grief seems to lie over the folks. For the grieving, the depressed, the financially stressed and a host of others, joy seems to be blatantly missing - from life in general.
Like so many other things, looks can be deceiving. Perhaps it comes from living with so many that have held positions of responsibility during their working lives, but I thought about John and the “joy” of not being the Messiah. Sometimes it’s good to be a follower - even if it’s as a forerunner. For the leader, there’s all the responsibility, hassle, buck-stops-here pressure. John can remind us that joy can hide in what may look rather ordinary.
There is a joy in the knowledge of having a part in the greater whole. The importance of ritual water cleansing goes back long before John and Jesus - in Hebrew and non-Hebrew cultures. The writer of the gospel of Mark tells us that John came “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” saying that the one who would come after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit.
As if to emphasis his point, John tells the priests and Levites, “among you stands one you do not know.” You can almost see the religious leaders looking around, wondering who John was talking about. One would think that the Son of the Living God - the Word of God through whom everything that exists had been made - was walking the soil of his own creation - wouldn’t common sense suggest that he’d be rather obvious?
And here we are - in the season that celebrates his appearance to us as a baby - with all the joy that those little bundles can bring - and yet like all other babies - ten fingers, ten toes, a nose and a set of lungs that probably rivaled Beverly Sills. Emmanuel: God with us.
No matter what happens, no matter how crazy or hard life can get, there is one thing that will not ever change: that Christ came and is still with us through the Holy Spirit. When we feel our lowest, our most frazzled or confused, God’s Holy Spirit is with us, in us, surrounding us with love, grace, mercy, and compassion - so that we can discover the joy that lies under all that ails us.
Joy? Joy! There is a saying: Joy is not in things; it is in us. It has been instilled in us, much like a parent sees joy in their child - at least before the child begins to explore their individuality and/or learns to talk. So as we wait for the child to be born again in our hearts, Emmanuel stands among us - as close as our breath. So let us breathe.
Good God of Promise, we thank you for giving us times to wait, even when we are impatient. Help us to find not only the lessons in those times, but the joy that lingers around them. While are grateful for giving your son, help us tune in to the joy of child-like expectation and anticipation as we look to the birth of Emmanuel. And all your children say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.