Advent 4C: Holy Welcome

Advent 4C: Holy Welcome

Luke 1:39-55

By: The Rev. Lori Walke

Luke presents the story of Jesus as a combination of history and biography. He sets out to give an “orderly account,” committed to telling the story of Jesus in such a way that makes all things clear. Luke’s attempt at capturing the story of Jesus in fullness walks the line other ancient historiography does, “marked by the paradox of two or more less competing interests – veracity (the attempt to depict events that actually happened) and narrative (the attempt to set events within a coherent, meaningful series, the presentation of which accords privilege to causation and teleology).”[i]  It is an opportunity for us to say, “We don’t know if this is exactly how it happened, but we know that this story is true.”

The narrative element of Luke’s writing invites readers to engage the story with imagination rooted in the text. This can be a delightful task when the text includes angels, which happens quite a bit in the opening chapters of Luke. As we read the lectionary pericope this Sunday, we just miss the appearance of one. We enter the narrative while the wonderful glow from the angel who announced Mary’s pregnancy to her is still fading.

If we are reading from Mary’s perspective, it may not have been so wonderful. An unwed pregnant woman was not a good thing to be in her time. Joseph, her fiancé, had a couple of choices. He could have her stoned or he could walk away leaving her with a newborn and no income. Neither option would have been good for Mary.

And then there is the actual pregnancy to consider. Any pregnancy can be difficult, but teenage pregnancy is particularly hard. Beyond what scholars can tell us about the social and historical context of the text, we know this because we know the obstacles and risks teen mothers face today. The preacher might take time to look at teen pregnancy and birth rates in their state and/or community along with available resources to localize the situation for the congregation. We cannot help but wonder how things would have worked out for Mary if she had been an unwed teenage mother in our time – would she still have been shunned, uninsured, and with less access to maternal healthcare?

After the announcement of Mary’s pregnancy, we usually just skip to the Magnificat. The angel leaves and then Mary starts singing, right? But Luke says there is more to the story. Perhaps the most overlooked element of the Magnificat is when it appears in the story. Mary does not burst into song when Gabriel shows up. She does not start humming the tune when the angel tells her The Plan. She does not shout from the rooftop as Gabriel exits. She barely clears her throat.

When the angel disappears, Mary has a panic attack. This is not in the text, but read between the lines. It happens in the little empty space between verses 38 and 39 where we’ve added the title Mary Visits Elizabeth. Immediately after the angel flits away, Mary packs her bags and leaves town. “In those days, Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.” She is scared. She doesn’t know what to do. She is in trouble. She’s a pregnant teenager without any support. So she runs, hoping that her cousin Elizabeth will keep her from getting stoned or shamed to death.

The moment that Mary crosses the threshold of Elizabeth’s house, everything changes. The first thing Elizabeth does when Mary shows up at her door is to bless her with holy words of welcome: “Welcome, dear one. Welcome. Come and stay for while.” She called Mary blessed. Blessed. And then, then it is that Mary sings about being lifted up, about mercy.

When does Mary sing the Magnificat? When does she find her voice? When is she convinced that everything is going to be okay? After she gets help, when she finds refuge, in the wake of being welcomed and embraced. Mary’s Magnificat, which follows in verses 46-55, is made possible because Elizabeth’s welcome helped Mary find her footing. And we cannot separate Jesus’ life and ministry from the woman who raised him with the words, “he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” on her lips.

This pericope is the linchpin of the story. The Good News is Elizabeth’s response to a scared, pregnant teenager who doesn’t have the resources to take care of herself. This is when everything turns, where the story of Jesus pivots in the right direction. The key ingredient is holy words of welcome.  

And now it is our work to continue the story. What welcome is the church speaking today?

[i] Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke (p. 15). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.

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The Rev. Lori Walke

The Rev. Lori Walke, J.D., is associate minister of Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ and a graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law, Phillips Theological Seminary, and Oklahoma State University.

 

 

Advent 3C: The Way Things Are is Not How They Have To Be

Advent 3C: The Way Things Are is Not How They Have To Be

Luke 3:7-18

By: The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

I’ve recently entered a fun part of my vocational journey. It seemed as if my 20s were spent in endless preparation—an advent that felt like it would never end. I was learning and teaching and practicing, but all of it was done in a liminal space due to the educational programs in which I was enrolled. I was a full-time student and only part-time everything else. And now, in my thirties, I have entered into a new space—one with a full-time job that is in line with my vocational call and professional goals, and so my time is spent less thinking about “someday,” and more spent honing in on who I am and what I have to offer. In short, my eternal relationship with advent has come to an end.

Or has it?

You see, in my role as a college chaplain at a small liberal art college that does not presume religious faith of any kind, I have been forced to articulate a vision for my role’s existence. In 2018, if a college is not specifically faith-based, why have a minister at all? It’s a question I myself wrestle with, but when I read this account of John the Baptist, I find a kindred spirit in vocational call.

As I have been articulating just what this vocational call is, recently my message of a misplaced pastor in a secular setting has been this: The way things are now is not how they have to be. It seems to me that this is John’s message as well.

In the first several verses, John calls the gathered group to repentance.[1] In the right context, such requests for accountability and changed living can be a message of hope. When we are caught in patterns of sin, particularly when they are causing us pain, offering a way out suggests that the way things are now is not how they have to be. We can be different. We do not have to bear bad fruit. We can do something to heal the world.

But how?

John responds to the “how” question with practical tips. He says that whoever has two coats should share with someone who has none, which suggests that we are all responsible for generosity. The willingness to share what we have is not only demanded of the rich, but of anyone who has what someone else does not.

Following this, John addresses two professions that at the time held the potential to be abused by exploiting others. John’s admonishments here are not as much about the professions themselves as they are about the condemnation of exploitation. Combined with the verses immediately before, we see that John is advocating for the social and economic care of each person in the community. There is not indictment of the poor themselves, but instead, the conviction and responsibility is placed on those who take and keep from those who do not have. Again, the way things are now (exploitation and inequality) is not how they have to be.

In the final verses, John points to someone who is coming whose presence is a purifying fire that burns away the sins of the world—injustice, exploitation, inequality, hoarding resources, abuse. The way things are now is not how they have to be. And perhaps this is my call as a chaplain who works with religious and non-religious students alike: not only to remind people over and over that the way things are is not how they have to be, but also to work with them to figure out ways that they can participate in the social transformation. And perhaps my call, like John, is not to do this for my own sake, but to point the way to one who comes who is much greater than that which we do accomplish in the meantime. We pare down our closets and share our food now, knowing that we are preparing the way for more and more. We are changing the world. And more is coming.

“So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Amen.

[1] It should be noted here that in Matthew’s version of the story, John specifically calls out religious leaders. In that passage and in this one, I encourage my fellow Christian ministers to take care not to perpetuate the idea that religious people of the time, specifically Jews, were any more of a problem than religious people of this time, including Christians. Even with the best of intentions, this interpretation has bolstered anti-Semitism by instilling in Christian congregants the idea that early and current Jews are less than Christians in practice or belief. Obviously Christian doctrine about other religious traditions vary widely across denomination, but anti-Semitism itself has violent consequences, and particularly after the Tree of Life shooting October 27, 2018, Christian preachers should exercise discernment about the impact of their words.

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The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram serves as the Director of Religious Life and Chaplain of Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. She grew up in non-denominational evangelical land and is now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She earned a BA from Anderson University, a Master of Theological Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, and a PhD in Religion and Psychological Studies from the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology. Her areas of interest include education, practical theology, and escaping overthinking by baking, crafting, and watching TV.

 

Advent 2(C): The Word of God in the Wilderness

Advent 2(C): The Word of God in the Wilderness

Luke 3:1-6

By: The Rev. Andrew Hege

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

Just to be clear: this is no small, trivial act. From this moment of revelation emerges a prophetic ministry that sets all things in motion, proclaiming the time that is soon at hand, a mission of preparing the way for the One who is to come. Saint Luke’s detailed location of this event as a moment in time is much more than an obsessive attention to detail.

The specificity of the time and place defines the enormous significance of this occasion. It is not a moment to be overlooked, but a time and place worthy of note.

After all, the word of God coming to someone, to anyone, in the wilderness of all places, was no ordinary occurrence. There had been hundreds of years of silence. Generation after generation had been born, lived, and died since the people of God had been in the presence of a prophet, one who had received a word from on high.

John’s message was rooted in the words of his predecessor, the great prophet Isaiah. In the days of old, the prophet cried aloud to make ready and prepare the way of the Lord, to straighten the paths that had grown crooked and smooth that which had been made rough. All of this was to serve that single purpose – that “all flesh shall see the salvation of our God.”

The word of God came to John, and a prophet was in their midst. The message of God’s abiding and redeeming love was being made known anew.

Let’s be honest: in our own time, prophets are many. Their messages are even more numerous and varied. Silence is not common. Some of our prophets claim to speak a word from God, while others boldly claim a message that is all their own. Some shout loudly on street corners and across airwaves, while others seek a more subtle transmission. There is no shortage of prophets in our midst.

For us, followers of Jesus in this day and this time, the careful work of discernment is all the more challenging. Who and where are the prophets who truly speak a word from God?

This passage from Saint Luke’s Gospel issues an important clue into where we might best look: to the wilderness. The word of God came to John in the wilderness. God’s good news emerges on the fringes and at the margins, far from the seats of power and privilege. In the places that appear so bare and desolate, absent of the presence of anything that is holy, the prophetic word of the living God is made real.

Where are such wilderness prophets today? A few ideas…

Perhaps we need to go to a literal wilderness, to the desert Southwest of these United States, where families arrive at our nation’s border, day after day, in search of sanctuary. Fleeing violence and fear, in search of safety and peace, these children of God—men, women, and children—arrive with little more than the clothes they are wearing. From the wilderness of tents and detention centers, what word might they speak to us this Advent season?

Perhaps we need not venture far from home to find ourselves deep in the wilderness. In the neglected and overlooked neighborhood of our own city, the wilderness might look like the parking lot of the market with a ‘check cashing center.’ Inside, the individual who is struggling to make ends meet, agonizing over which bill can be paid this month, is the recipient of a loan that may never be repaid, bearing a rate of interest so high that it renders them enslaved. What word from God might emerge in just such a wilderness?

Perhaps we need only look at the wilderness of our own faith community to discover a fresh word in this season of anticipation and expectation. In the pew sits the mother whose family does not look like every other family, the forgotten widower who wonders if he has been noticed, the child who has been told she is not enough. The wilderness of experience, rather than location, is no less desolate, no less isolation. What word from the Holy One might they proclaim to us as we prepare to welcome the Christ child into our hearts and souls?

These are prophets, each and every one, testifying to the truth from the wildernesses that call to us, people of the Jesus Way, here and now.

To ask the question of where and who the prophets of our place and time might be emerging, we do well to remember that, in ancient days, the word of God appeared in the most unlikely of places, in the wilderness, to the man named John. In the wilderness of our own days, in this year, 2018, may a good word from God be heard anew, and may we have the grace and power to share it, that all shall see and hear and know the salvation of our God.

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The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

The Rev. Andrew J. Hege serves as the Assistant to the Rector at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Andrew is an ardent golfer, occasional runner, and an avid reader of historical fiction. Ordained a priest in January 2015, Andrew is married to Amanda Schroeder Hege.

 

Advent 1C: Same Old Story

Advent 1C: Same Old Story

Luke 21:25-36

By: Casey Cross

If you have eyes, ears, and/or any kind of awareness of your surroundings, you might be like me right now. Angry. Heartbroken. On the verge of hopelessness. What the heck is wrong with our country – the (not so) United States of America? What the heck is wrong with our world? How have we grown so far from simple acts of stewardship and care for our earth and neighbor? Why are we stuck arguing over lawful rights versus human rights? You know what makes it feel worse? THIS IS NOTHING NEW. Humans seem to be really good at being awful to each other. You know how I know that? Because in today’s text, Jesus is talking about the same stuff thousands of years ago.

In some ways, this text almost makes sense. I mean, I’m writing this with Halloween only a few days away. Grappling with our present racist-misogynist-socio-economic-political situation seems an apt way to experience a serious House of Horrors. Only this isn’t something we can walk away from with a shuddering laugh, this is our real life.

I can also see this text making sense in another way. Jesus is in the last days of his life, stirring stuff up and preaching truth to power. In context, we would be reading this passage with sunglasses to shade us from the gleam of impending resurrection – Easter is coming. Yeah, we know bad stuff is going to happen, but Easter will too.

However, neither of those reasons really fit for now and they aren’t meant to. This passage is not for Holy Week, but for the first Sunday of Advent. Remember? Advent? The time when we get all excited for Christmas and sparkly decorations and family (maybe) and good food and PRESENTS… and… Oh yeah! Cute baby Jesus is born too.

Wait.

By entering Advent with Jesus who is entering his last days in Jerusalem, we get to sit with his words in a new way. We get to read these words with honest eyes that aren’t shaded by anything other than the crappy stuff happening in our lives that we brought with us as we read the text.

Oh. And maybe that’s the point. The crappy stuff doesn’t change. Humans need a lot of help. But this is when the Son of Man appears. (Jeez. Do you know how many times Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man? Yeah, it’s his favorite way to speak in the first person.) There will be signs… distress… fear and foreboding… No, this isn’t about the so-called “end times.” This is about today. This moment. All is not lost. When we are the most distressed, the kingdom of God draws near.

Jesus speaks to his listeners then as he speaks to us today. Be aware, on guard, expectant. Do not let the shock-and-awe horror show of the 24/7 news cycle weigh us down into the pit of despair where all we can count on is immediate gratification and addictive coping mechanisms. Stand. Stand up and raise your heads with faith in the words of Jesus that will never pass away. Stand firm with faith in the ever-lasting, redemptive love of our Savior who chose to be with us in the worst of times, as a vulnerable, naked, poor baby. Jesus doesn’t promise an escape from the pain, fear, and awfulness of the world. Jesus promises to live through it, with us. We aren’t in this alone. God is with us, Emmanuel.

This is the true challenge of faith. Can we stand to face the injustices and pain of the world? Can we respond with faithfulness, loving God, self, and neighbor as Jesus taught us, rather than freeze in fear?

The secondary challenge of faith is remembering that it does not belong to a single one of us, but to all of us – the Body of Christ. This faith is ours. We are not alone because we stand together, bound by our faith, called by our God to be caretakers of our world and each other. We can cry, we can lament, we can fear. These are our human, God-given emotions. God also gave us the capacity to act in response. So as we cry out, let us stand together and act out the ways Jesus taught us to live.

Here are just two responses to distressful, horrific times. While these may or may not be explicitly about faith, I find that they exemplify the gifts of faith in action. Just as humans are good at being awful to each other, we are even better at lifting each other up.

The first example comes from Michael Moore, written in February of 2017.

This morning I have been pondering a nearly forgotten lesson I learned in high school music. Sometimes in band or choir, music requires players or singers to hold a note longer than they actually can hold a note. In those cases, we were taught to mindfully stagger when we took a breath so the sound appeared uninterrupted. Everyone got to breathe, and the music stayed strong and vibrant. Yesterday, I read an article that suggested the administration’s litany of bad executive orders (more expected on LGBTQ next week) is a way of giving us “protest fatigue” – we will literally lose our will to continue the fight in the face of the onslaught of negative action. Let’s remember MUSIC. Take a breath. The rest of the chorus will sing. The rest of the band will play. Rejoin so others can breathe. Together, we can sustain a very long, beautiful song for a very, very long time. You don’t have to do it all, but you must add your voice to the song.

The second example is entitled, “Inscription of Hope” by Z. Randall Stroope. It was based on words found scrawled on a cellar wall by Jews hiding from the Nazis in Cologne, Germany during the second World War. https://youtu.be/GAFzjjFdcYE

I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
And I believe in love
even when there’s no one there
And I believe in God
even when he is silent
I believe through any trial there is always a way.
But sometimes in this suffering and hopeless despair
My heart cries for shelter
and to know someone’s there
But a voice rises within me saying “hold on my child”
I’ll give you strength
I’ll give you hope
Just stay a little while
May there someday be sunshine
May there someday be happiness
May there someday be love
May there someday be peace.

 

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Casey Cross

Casey Cross serves as Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church in Eagle, Idaho. You can find her singing along to Spotify, reading books, listening to books, writing stuff, laughing a lot, walking her dog, cooking with her husband, and loving life in Idaho. If you liked this, you can check out more of her writing at http://caseykcross.wordpress.com

Advent 4(B): Everyday Annunciations

Advent 4(B): Everyday Annunciations

Luke 1:26-38

The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

Several years ago I came across Denise Levertov’s stunning poem, Annunciation. You can read the full poem here. Her portrayal of Mary struck a deep chord in me, mostly because the vision of Mary that I was raised with was very different. In the circles I grew up in, Mary’s name was synonymous with the “ideal woman”—one who was soft-spoken, submissive, meek. In all the Sunday school lessons on the Nativity or studies about women of the Bible, never did I resonate with Mary as a model for my own womanhood, perhaps because I tend to be headstrong, opinionated, independent. Far from the “ideal,” I had little hope of ever being like Mary. Meek obedience wasn’t for me.

But to think of Mary as a model of “unparalleled courage” is far more intriguing. There really was nothing special about Mary, nothing to mark her as particularly worthy of God’s notice or favor. In fact, she was rather ordinary—a young girl about to be married to a mere carpenter, living in an insignificant town in a backwater province. Nothing about her life suggested that she would play an integral role in God’s plan for salvation. Yet Mary’s very ordinariness, rather than being a discouragement, is encouraging. Luke’s Gospel is distinct in its insistence that God invites ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Few people can live up to an “ideal,” but everyone can make a choice. Mary’s courage, her choice to say yes to God’s call, opened her to a life utterly illumined by God’s grace.

God’s grace in Mary’s life was a strange kind of blessing. Gabriel greets her as “highly favored” and yet, by our standards, her life is anything but. None of the goals we associate with favor—namely, social stature and wealth—came her way. Instead, she faced shame, dishonor, and public disgrace as she bore a child out of wedlock (Mt. 1:19). As a child, Simeon warns her that Jesus will bring judgment and division, and that a sword will pierce her own soul, too—she too will know the pain of rejection and division (Lk. 2:34-35). She will be forced to flee her home and live as a refugee (Mt. 2:13-23). She bears the gossip and stigma of speculations about Jesus’s mental sanity as he begins his ministry (Mk. 3:21). Ultimately, she will see her son executed as a criminal (Jn. 19). But, as R. Alan Culpepper so aptly reminds us, “acceptability, prosperity, and comfort have never been the essence of God’s blessing.” Were they so, Mary may have despaired. Her life was not marked by these things. The promise of the great king to come did not turn out as Mary may have initially expected. But over and over again we see the same courage that marked her first “yes” as she steadfastly faces disruption, discouragement, and pain throughout her life. She trusts in God’s promise. Her obedience stems from that trust, and her blessing came from the fellowship shared with God as a partner in God’s mission of redemption.

Levertov’s question makes me wonder: Aren’t there annunciations of one sort or another in most lives? Moments when roads of light and storm open from darkness in a man or woman? Moments when God invites us to partner in God’s mission of redemption, to partner in building up God’s kingdom? The poet suggests that more often those moments are turned away from in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair and with relief. Ordinary lives continue. But I wonder: is ordinary life not the place where we see the greatest courage at work?

I think of the people who embody the courage of Mary, who embody the hope and trust in God’s promise of redemption despite the everyday suffering of life that would seem to belay that promise. I think of the survivor of sexual assault who refuses to give in to despair at the horror she has lived through and instead asks what she can do to minister to others. I think of the young adult who lives her days lobbying for refugee relief and support, despite overwhelming odds against her cause. I think of the man who lost his job, ended up on the streets, wound up in prison, and as a last ditch effort went to a nonprofit hiring agency where he discovered ordinary people who reminded him that he was valuable, a person of great worth, and how he now works every day to bring the same hope to others in the situation he found himself in. I think of the wives, husbands, sons, and daughters who care every day for loved ones experiencing illness and disease, for whom there is no cure in sight, who give the gift of dignity at the end of life. I think of the social workers, and teachers, and guardians ad litem who give their time, effort, and energy to care and advocate for children who have no one who cares for them. I think of all those who offer their time and ability to take care of the “least of these.” I think of the people in our congregations who are willing to risk entering into relationship with someone who is completely unlike them, in order to share the love of God. I think of ordinary people who are willing to obey God’s claim on their lives, who say yes to the seemingly impossible, who open themselves to a life utterly illumined and undergirded by God’s own grace.

There are annunciations of one sort or another in most lives. The grace of God, and the ability to partner with God, is offered to us in everyday moments, in everyday situations. Like Mary, we are each offered the choice integral to humanness. May we be as courageous as Mary in our response to God’s call: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

 

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The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is Priest-in-Charge of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. Her greatest joy as a priest is walking with people who seek and follow Christ in deep relationship with each other. Chana believes that God’s grace is extended to all, and that nothing is impossible when we truly seek and attend to God’s call to us! In her spare time, Chana can be found dancing Lindy Hop and teaching basic swing, enjoying conversation and caffeine at a coffee house, or exploring local attractions and foodie hangouts. Chana, her husband, TJ, and their two dogs, Molly and Momo, live in Wilmington.

Advent 3(B): Something to Rejoice About

Advent 3(B): Something to Rejoice About

John 1:6-8; 19-28

By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

Writing this just after Halloween, I can’t help but think that John the Baptist is the original David S. Pumpkins: you feel like you should know who he is and why he’s here, but, along with the Pharisees, you’re kind of in the weeds on John T. Baptist. Is he the Messiah? No. Is he Elijah? Nah. Is he some kind of prophet you just can’t place…? Nope. He’s his own thing.

Indeed, John denies being a prophet, but as a hermit living in the wilderness (v. 23) who embraced an ascetic lifestyle and was sent by God (v. 6), he bears the marks of archetypical prophethood. If you look like a prophet, sound like a prophet, and smell like a prophet (the camel’s hair get up mentioned in Mark had to be a little rank)…. you’re a prophet.

So why does John deny it? Why is he so evasive, especially given that this is the gospel most explicit about his successor’s identity? And why are the Pharisees sending a committee of priests and Levites to vet this guy?

Prophets in ancient Judaism had great importance; as the mouthpiece of God, much attention was focused on them and their message (often times to their detriment; remember Elijah running for his life?). John, of course, wanted the attention focused on Jesus.

But I wonder whether he might also have realized that Jesus was going to break the mold; that he was announcing not just another mouthpiece delivering messages from a higher power, but rather the Messiah (3:28), the Son of God (1:34) who embodies divine love and grace in his very person. God’s new way of being in the world wasn’t going to be like anything the Pharisees had expected; refusing to play into their preconceived categories, as Jesus would later repeatedly do, might have been John’s way of signaling that this was a whole different ballgame.

Prophets also challenged those in power by condemning the way political and religious leaders and the people in their charge were behaving. The Pharisees’ questioning of John shows the institutional elite trying to get a handle on this outsider whose following threatened their authority. Though we don’t hear much about its contents in this gospel, John’s message must have resonated with people; they flocked from the city to be baptized by him.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about baptism. In ancient Judaism, tvilah – immersion in naturally sourced water for purification purposes – was quite common, particularly after coming into contact with a dead body, blood, or other uncleanliness; it was also used when someone converted to Judaism. In both cases, it indicated that the one who had been immersed could now participate fully in the life of the faith community.

There’s lots of good symbolism here – spiritual cleansing, new beginnings, etc. – that fits the synoptic gospel accounts describing John as proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But in this gospel, John has a different agenda: he is baptizing “that [Jesus] might be revealed to Israel.” (1:31) Baptism, then, is no holy rite focused on ritual purification, but rather a spiritual version of  “build it and they” – or rather he – “will come.”

This approach is emphasized in verse 33, where we hear echoes of the prophet Samuel passing in front of each of Jesse’s sons to discern whom he should anoint as king. John, too, is looking for divine confirmation: “‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” Jesus is the fruit of that same tree of Jesse – the son of David; the ultimate Anointed One.

Perhaps surprisingly, John continues baptizing even after Jesus has begun his own baptismal ministry. (3:22) But when his disciples confront him about it, John uses it as another opportunity to clarify that Jesus is the star attraction, that Jesus “must increase” while John “must decrease.” (3:30)

Later, John is described essentially as the best man at Jesus’ wedding to Israel. (3:29) We’ve all heard a best man focus his toast a little too much on himself while everyone awkwardly waits for it to be over; but not on John the Baptist’s watch! Everything John says and does turns the spotlight on Jesus.

To wit, there’s the bit of prologue included in today’s lectionary passage: John “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” (1:7-8)

This is, of course, the gospel of John’s underlying message: everything points to Jesus. The gospel writer’s main concern is to convince us that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, and to help us begin to apprehend the mystical, cosmic significance of that role.

Even so, I hope John’s motive for baptizing struck you as odd.

Odd because we are used to experiencing baptism as a moment centered on the believer: it’s their official entrance into the body of the church, when they receive fully the grace and new life God has bestowed on everyone who believes. All eyes are on the one being baptized: the name of the baptized person, inscribed in large font, is the focal point of the certificate we sign, and we hold a celebratory reception, complete with flowers and personalized cake commemorating the occasion.

But what if baptism looked more in line with John the Baptist’s M.O.: baptism that points not to us, but to Jesus?

I have a rather higher anthropology-to-christology ratio than this proposition suggests. Yet the idea of baptism not as an event that glorifies us, but rather as a sort of spiritual dragnet meant to help us find the Messiah fits perfectly with Advent. It is, after all, the liturgical season during which all signs point to Jesus.
If you’re inclined to preach a sermon about keeping Christ in Christmas, here’s your entry point. But we can go broader than that – and deeper. What does it mean to recognize that we’re not the light, but that we’re meant to witness to it? How do we keep from being the self-centered best man at a party that’s not about us? How do we avoid the pull to perform; to enjoy accolades more than service; to be concerned with optics and success more than substance; to center ourselves around our own agendas rather than God’s inbreaking presence? We as humans (and particularly as clergy) all face these temptations.

In chapter three, John’s disciples want to know what’s up with this Jesus guy horning in on John’s territory. John replies with the bridegroom imagery, which, despite my earlier comment about awkward toasts, is deeply moving: “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled.” (3:29)

The main event, the One whose presence thrills us with the kind of profound happiness we feel at seeing our best friend happily married, has arrived. For a moment, we forget our own agendas and lose ourselves in joy. As we celebrate Gaudete Sunday, that is true reason to rejoice.

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The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is the pastor at Park Avenue Congregational Church UCC in Arlington, Massachusetts. A self-proclaimed thriftvangelist, her ideal day involves an outdoor run; some good thrift shopping; a dance party with her 3-year-old; and cooking something stupidly easy and delicious for dinner with her husband, Chris.

Advent 2(B): A Wierdo Appears in the Desert

A Weirdo Appears in the Desert

Mark 1:1-8

By: Jerrod McCormack

I was a pastor in the United Methodist Church for many years. In all of those years I can’t begin to tell you how many times this passage or one very similar to it popped up in the lectionary. Suffice it to say that I have preached this text so many times that the first question that came to my mind was, “how in the world will I find some new word to share from this?” One of the things that stood out to me while I was reflecting on this passage is the ring of the prophetic voice in the midst of God’s people.

There’s no time for pleasantries or background in Mark’s characteristic style. He just jumps right in with a simple one sentence introduction: “This is the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) Mark admits that the purpose of his relating these stories is so that we too might know the good news of Jesus Christ whom Mark is convinced is the Son of God… But then the first story Mark tells us isn’t specifically about Jesus. It’s about a John the Baptist, the messenger who prepares the way for the messiah.

John the Baptist is a very interesting character in the narrative of Jesus’s ministry. Mostly because John is a total weirdo. We meet John in the wilderness wearing clothes made of camels hair and eating locusts and wild honey. He is an ascetic. That means that he practices a radical level of self-discipline and denial. That has led some scholars to wonder whether he belonged to an ancient community of religious, i.e. monastics. His practice of monk-like rigor makes him even more of a weirdo in our day and culture. Self-discipline and denial are not popular Google searches. The rigorous and devout life that John leads also brings this gospel into connection with the ancient prophets of Israel.

Like those prophets of old, John calls the people to return to the Lord by receiving a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4) And we are told that people came from all around the surrounding region to be baptized and to confess their sins. The prophetic role has often been associated with calling people to return to God. I am reminded of the many voices that called Israel back from idolatry and waywardness to return to the God their ancestors knew. The prophet Isaiah speaks to the wayward Israelites saying,

“Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;

for the Lord has spoken:

I reared children and brought them up,

but they have rebelled against me.

The ox knows its owner,

and the donkey its master’s crib;

but Israel does not know,

my people do not understand.” (Isaiah 1:2-3)

Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah have all lived into the prophetic role and have called God’s people back to relationship with God. The prophetic role is one that speaks truth to a people who have strayed from the ways of God or from their responsibilities in the world. It is almost impossible to separate the prophetic call to repentance from the call to a more just, caring, and whole society because our inner spiritual lives shape the way we interact with the world and the way we interact with the world shapes our inner spiritual lives. Jesus says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7:14-15) It is from the overflow of God’s goodness in our hearts that we construct this new kingdom of Jesus in the world.

John appears in the desert calling the people of the day and us as well to receive the baptism of repentance that we might live into a new vision of what God is doing in the present age. John takes a remarkably humble position as he describes the one who is coming. He says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John points us towards Jesus as the one who comes after who will baptize his followers not with water but with the Holy Spirit and it points us towards the second role of the prophet and that is to proclaim a truth that the world has yet to realize.

Walter Brueggemann calls this the Prophetic Imagination. In his book bearing the same title he says, “The alternative consciousness is to be nurtured on the one hand, [and] serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness…[and] to live in fervent anticipation of the newness that God has promised and will surely give.” Brueggemann further acknowledges that the role of the prophetic imagination is to energize the community with the promise of a new vision and a new place to which God’s people can move.[1]  Moving towards a new vision is exactly what Advent is all about. It is about acknowledging all that God has done before, accepting our waywardness, and yearning to move boldly into the new kingdom that comes to light in Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and his coming again.

Jesus gives us a common vision into which both liberal and conservative can move together. Our tendency to sometimes forget that for the sake of our own ideology. We are all working towards that day when, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) We are invited to be the prophetic voice to the world decrying that which is wrong, acknowledging and uplifting that which is good and right and true. Just as John prepared the way of the Lord we too get to participate in preparing the world to receive the messiah once again. We do it every day in our interactions with each other and the world. Advent invites us to participate in the prophetic task and speak truth to power.

[1] Walter Brueggemann. Prophetic Imagination: Revised Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).

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Jerrod McCormack

Jerrod McCormack is the Youth Leader at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is also a Spiritual Care Provider for the Alberta Health Services. He earned an A.Sc. in Pre-Medical Studies from Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tennessee, a B.Sc. in Biology from Tennessee Wesleyan College, Athens, Tennessee, and a Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky. He is married to Ali and in their spare time they love to drive through the rockies and stop for random photo opportunities.