The Third Sunday of Advent

Date preached: 
Dec-11-2016

Third Sunday of Advent – Year A

St. Thomas Episcopal Church; Richmond, VA

Frank Castellon, Deacon

 

Dear Gracious and Loving God: We pray that we hear what you need for us to hear.

Are you ready for Christmas?

Last Thursday, at the food pantry, one of our clients asked me “Are you ready for Christmas?”

Those of you that have participated in the food pantry know that over time, our clients become our friends.  We learn about their problems… they learn about ours.  We know when someone is sick… or out of work… or there is a new birth… or a new job.  We become a family.

So the question I was asked was not of the nature of “Hello, how are you?  I am fine thank you, and you?”  It was much deeper than that.  This person really did want to know about me and my family and what Christmas was going to bring.

As I thought about that question later, I thought that the question embodies the Season of Advent.   During these four weeks, we are asked “Are you ready for Christmas?”

I do not mean “Have you put up the Christmas tree? Are the lights on the window sill?  Is the crèche up yet? Are the stockings hung on the chimney with care?  Have you bought all the presents?  Have you taken the kids to see Santa Claus?  Are the Christmas cards in the mail?  Have you decided what the menu will be on Christmas day?  When is that rehearsal for the Christmas pageant?  Is the church bulletin ready to go? 

I mean “Are you ready to go to that manger clothed in all the frailty of your humanity?  We cannot enter into that stable that is larger than the universe until we are willing to strip away many of our assumptions, our false proprieties, and our predetermined prejudices.  We need to come to that holy place to discover it, not to reaffirm that it is still there where we left it last year.

We need to come to that holy place to discover it.  To ask all of the questions that we are afraid to ask; the questions we keep hidden away in the back roads of our being because we feel guilty that we even have them.  Do we really believe that a child, born of a ‘virgin?’, in an obscure part of the world, is God Incarnate?   Do you believe that angels announced his birth?  That kings from afar paid him homage?  That when he grows up, in three short years, He will change the world?

When we are asked: “Are you ready for Christmas?”  We are asked to confront our limited humanity with all of the doubts that we have and keep hidden… lest others learn who we really are.  When we hide those doubts, those frailties, those prejudices, we hide ourselves from ourselves.  All of us need to have an advent. 

Let me tell you about one of Kelly’s advents.

Our daughter Kelly went to high school in Wheaton, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.  The Wheaton Warrenville High School had a terrific advanced placement program, and Mrs.  Lee taught AP English.  She was so good, and so many students tried to sign up for her class that the school had to have a method for choosing the students in her class.  Kelly was lucky enough to be one of her students during her senior year. 

Mrs. Lee allowed parents of the students in her class to come to her classes.  But if you were going to attend, you had to be prepared.  You had to study the lesson and come ready to participate fully in the discussions.  You were there as a student; there was no distinction based on age.  Patti and I attended sometimes.  Mrs. Lee said that her job in life was to make sure that her students knew who they were before they went to college.  And to know who you are, you need to know why you believed what you believed.  You had to examine your beliefs and confront every doubt… not to make the doubts disappear, but to let the doubts be the cornerstones of your beliefs.

Wheaton, Illinois is the home of the Billy Graham Library.  Wheaton College is a conservative, fundamentalist school.  I think you may remember that earlier this year, a professor there was castigated for saying the Muslims and Jews worshipped the same God we worshipped.

Mrs. Lee posed the following question to her class one day.  Supposed that you live in a place that is ruled by agnostics and that declaring that Jesus is the Son of God is a crime punishable by death.  Assume that you and your family… your mother and father… your brothers and sisters… everyone that means something to you is brought before the authorities.  And you are told that you are to renounce Jesus publicly and that if you do not, each member of your family would be killed one by one.  What would you do?

Kelly came crying home that day.  She heard the answer of some of her class mates that would willingly watch the murder of her family members.  She cried because she was confronted with Schindler’s Choice.

What would you do? I think I know what I would do... and it hurts…

That was one of Kelly’s advents… John had his Advent in jail.

John had emerged from that Judean desert preaching a fiery message of repentance in preparation for the coming of the Lord.  He had baptized Jesus and talked about him as one whose “sandals he was not worthy to carry”.

But he had rightly denounced the marriage of Herod Antipas to Herodias, and his growing popularity was a threat to Herod Antipas, so John was put in jail.  

John had said that the one coming after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  That his winnowing fork is in his hand and that he would gather wheat into the granary, but the chaff, he would burn with unquenchable fire.

John expected one that would overthrow the Roman rule with power; and if so, why was John still in jail?  Why had not Jesus risen against Herod Antipas and his brothers… the rulers of Israel under Rome… the descendants of the Herod that had executed all of the innocents trying to kill the baby Jesus.

John had doubts.  He was probably convinced of his impending execution.  He wondered if he had gotten it right.  But John was not one to mince words.  He confronted his doubts. He sends his disciples to Jesus and asks ‘point blank’ “Are you the one? Or, is there another coming after you?”

Jesus is fully aware that any answer he gives John will be heard by the jailers, so his answer is immersed in the Holy Scriptures.  If you know what the prophets said about the Messiah, then you ought to be able to recognize one when you see one.

Isaiah said in our reading today that “He will come to save you.  Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”  All of the prophets had proclaimed the same about the Messiah.

Jesus answer was very concrete.  ”Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Jesus is saying that things may not be working out the way that John expected them, but that in surprising ways, now and then, marvelous things are occurring.  Not only do the blind see, but those who were blind to the truth have received their sight.  Not only do the deaf hear; but those who were deaf to the good news are singing in joy   Not only do the lame walk, but those who were paralyzed with fear are receiving hope.

And best and most miraculous of all[1], go and tell John that this is not the work of one lonely Messiah, but the work of God unleashed upon this world.

It will be carried out by those who believe now and in the future,  even those at St. Thomas in Richmond.  Tell him I am the One, but that there are many others… he should look for another… and another… and another.  Tell him to look upon every face, and look for the face of God in those faces. Tell him that what is happening is as big as the kingdom… the kingdom that is here and now.

James told us today that we need to be patient.  Things may not go exactly as we expect, but the people of Jesus are at work.  God rather have imperfect people attempt to do the work… than raise perfect followers of Abraham from stones.

The ark of history is on our side. Justice will come… the judge is standing at the door… Even the prophets of old who spoke in the name of the Lord had to have patience.

If Isaiah were alive today, he would marvel at the way we can make deserts bloom, and make deaf people hear, and blind people see.  He would be astounded at the marvel of democracy.  He would ask us to have patience because as much as we have done, our vision of social justice and world peace is not yet realized.

But patience does not mean giving up hope.  Patience means perseverance… patience means “actively waiting”.

James sees Jesus as the example.  Jesus shows patience when dealing with his students.  He continues to try to explain what it means to serve… as opposed to wanting to be served.  He continues that way even today… with you and with me.

He shows us what patience is not in dealing with scribes and Pharisees… or when he tosses the money changers from the temple.  Jesus is not indulgent.  James reminds us of this by telling us to that while we wait… when we think that things are not going fast enough… or well enough… we should not grumble against one another, so that we may not be judged. 

All of us need to have an advent... some of us more than one.

As Mrs. Lee would say it, advent is the season to learn who we are… to know why we believe what we believe… to confront our human frailties… our doubts.

Who is this Jesus that you expect?

What do you expect of him?   Do you expect Jesus to fix all of your problems? Get you a raise or a better job?   Straighten out that child? Destroy cancer? Abolish domestic violence? Bring world peace?

Is He the One? Is He the One in your life?

What does Jesus expect of you?

Are you ready for Christmas?

I wish you an advent…

 



[1] Paraphrased from the Worship Workbook -  Advent Year A; published by the CSS Publishing Company, 2016

 

Frank Castellon

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