Kindergarten According to John

Another Sunday of Advent, another lesson from John the Baptist. John dominates the scene in Advent, and it’s not always with things we want to hear. The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called “Gaudete” Sunday, or Joy Sunday. This is why we light the pink candle on this day, as it is the color for joy. (If I owned a pink stole, I could wear it, but since I’d only use it twice a year that isn’t something I bought.)

Our readings from Zephaniah and Philippians reflect this joy. But then John joins us on this joyful occasion. And…it might seem like the joy stops. But the reading ends by saying, “with many other exhortations, he shared the good news.” Although John might seem wild, demanding, and intimidating to us, Luke tells us his message is good news. How is this good news? And for whom?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you heard of the book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? It was written by Robert Fulghum about thirty years ago. It contains a wide-ranging list of things that Fulghum learned in kindergarten that might just be great ideas for adults, too. An incomplete list:

Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Take a nap every afternoon. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. Live a balanced life—learn some and snack some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.

Of course, kindergarten doesn’t teach us all we need to know, but it sure does teach us a lot. And when I listened to John the Baptist in our reading this morning, I honestly heard more the stuff of kindergarten than the stuff of apocalypse. It’s easy to miss because it’s in the middle of John calling the people who’ve come to be baptized a brood of vipers and the threat that they might be thrown into the unquenchable fire if they’re not careful.

John is this wild man out in the desert and he’s scary and rough around the edges. But the people are listening. According to Luke, the crowds are streaming out into the wilderness to get yelled at by John. They’re not just willing, but eager to hear this fiery message. They want to live differently than they have been. They know that the way things are isn’t working so well for them. And so, they ask him: “What should we do?”

You might expect John to have a wild answer to match his personality. After all, this is a man dressed in camel’s hair and fueled by locusts. What do you think such a person might say? Give everything away! Quit your jobs, leave your families, and go live in the desert! Start a revolution!

But John’s answer is even more radical than all of that. What should we do? Share. Be fair. Don’t cheat. Don’t be a bully. It’s so simple, it’s easy to skip by it to get to the dramatic winnowing fork.

The crowds, eager for answers are told, “if you have more than enough, share with someone who needs it.” The tax-collectors, people hated for collaborating with Rome are told to be honest in their dealings. Not to quit their jobs, not to stop collecting taxes, but to do so fairly. The soldiers, members of an occupying, oppressive force, are told not to misuse their power. Not to take advantage of their positions.

And here’s what’s so radical about John’s message: faithfulness doesn’t always have to be dramatic. It doesn’t have to be heroic. John’s message of repentance, of re-examining our lives, doesn’t ask us to abandon our lives. But it does ask us to find ways to be faithful wherever we are, and whatever we do.

We’re having a baptism this morning. Fiamma is going to be brought up front and we are going to welcome her, knowing that God has loved her her whole life and that now she will be marked with Christ’s cross and sealed in the Spirit. We are going to celebrate with her the gift of baptism that we too share—the gift of forgiveness and grace and identity rooted in being God’s beloved child.

But first, we’re going to have an opportunity to do what John called the people to do. To repent. All of us, not just Fiamma’s parents or sponsors, but we will all be asked to renounce sin and evil and called to turn towards God in Christ. In her baptism, Fiamma will be joining us in our mission to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.

In baptism, God sets us free from our self-centered ways to live in love and faithfulness. Our old selves are drowned in these waters, and God raises us up as a new creation. That is a promise that we need to return to again and again. Today we hear once again that we are the Lord’s. Our past mistakes, where we’ve done wrong, the things we regret do not need to hold us back, because in Christ we receive forgiveness. We receive new beginnings. And we receive the call to live as faithful disciples.

And so we join the crowds gathered around John asking, “What should I do?” What does faithfulness look like in my life, in light of this promise of God’s grace? Because this is a promise that we are all invited into. Wherever we may be and whatever we may be doing.

In business? Conduct it fairly and with the community in mind. At home with children? Raise them to love God by loving their neighbors. Teaching? Do so with patience and hope. Looking for work or retired? Don’t underestimate the good you can do others even without a job. Studying at school? Learn everything you can and put it to work to make this world a better place. Caring for those with special needs? Remember that of such is the kingdom of heaven (and give yourself a break when it’s hard to remember). Driving a public transit bus? Do it safely and well. The list goes on and on.

Faith doesn’t have to be heroic. That mission we share at the end of the baptismal service, to share God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world? It doesn’t have to be dramatic. Sometimes the most faithful and life-giving actions happen right in the midst of our daily lives. Treating others with respect. Sharing what we have. Taking pride in what we are called to do, knowing that even the most ordinary tasks are an opportunity to serve God. We find God, and we find opportunities to be faithful in the ordinary stuff of life.

And, in all things rejoicing. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” says Paul in Philippians, “and again I say rejoice.” I love that verse, but it so often gets removed from its context. Paul is writing this while he is in prison. And he’s writing to a community that is suffering persecution. And yet he says to rejoice always. He’s not talking about any kind of fake happiness or forced cheer.

He’s talking about the knowledge that in all things we do, there is the opportunity to love and serve God. We need not fear: God has claimed us as God’s own and nothing—including our own actions—will ever take that away. So what should we do? Rejoice. Give thanks to God and together bear God’s creative and redeeming love to all the world, in all you do. Amen.

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Cleaning Up

I have a sermon this week! I saved this five different ways to make sure I didn’t lose it, and it worked! (Of course, the week I take all those precautions, nothing went wrong at all.) This is my sermon from the Second Sunday of Advent, December 9th. Every year on the Second Sunday of Advent, we encounter John the Baptist, announcing the coming of the Lord. John was announcing the very first time that adult Jesus arrived on the scene, and called people to a baptism of repentance. This year, I focused on what those preparations look like for us, 2,000 years later. We aren’t expecting Jesus to come in the flesh, but we do watch for and anticipate the ways that God is active in our lives. Enjoy!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

How do you prepare for visitors at your house? Do you clean? Maybe cook a special food, or mix up a welcoming drink? Growing up, I honestly hated when we’d have people over, because my parents would insist that the whole house had to be extra clean. Including my bedroom, which no-one ever even went in. I didn’t understand why my room should be picked up and dusted and vacuumed, when the guests were never even going to get to the second floor of the house.

But my mother would go over everything with a fine-tooth comb. Literally. She would even comb out the fringe on the rug, so that it wasn’t tangled and laid smoothly. Growing up, I thought it was really stupid, when it was all going to be ruined the second the guests came in the door, anyway.

Now, though, I get it. When we’re having people over, apart from a few very close friends, we do our best to make the house look its best. We dust in corners and crevices that don’t normally get attention. We even use the fancy attachments on the vacuum.

But it’s not just a matter of straightening up, it’s fixing things that hadn’t bothered us before. A loose towel rack, a burned-out lightbulb, the creaky door that were deemed not a big deal before, need to be fixed for guests. Suddenly the countertops are too messy, the uneven chair inadequate, the silverware too tarnished. Preparing for guests demands self-examination as much as it involves a “to-do” list. Things that we’d thought were fine no longer seem so in light of guests coming over.

When John the Baptist announces in our reading this morning, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he’s not talking about just doing some surface cleaning. John’s announcement of the coming kingdom of God demands preparation of a different kind. “Make every path straight,” he says, “every valley will be filled, every mountain made low, the rough ways made smooth.”

This is preparation that demands we look, not just at outward appearances, but truly examine ourselves and our world and see what needs to be changed, what needs to be fixed, as God’s kingdom draws closer. It is very similar to Malachi’s message, where he says that God’s coming will be like enduring refiner’s fire, and fullers’ soap. It means being changed.

John’s promise, Malachi’s promise, they are good news. We are going to be reformed, reshaped, made anew in God’s image. But these promises might also make us apprehensive. Actually, they should make us apprehensive, if we truly listen to them. Because, while the end result is good, the cleaning process might not be the most pleasant. Because it means change. It asks us to put the way things are, the way we are, under a microscope and consider what needs to be scrubbed away.

What in your life holds you back from fully being the person God created? What in our world doesn’t fully reflect the ways of God’s kingdom? When I look at my own life, there are things that I would love to have scrubbed away, and maybe it’s the same for you. Selfish thinking, pessimism, being overly critical of myself and others. But there are also things I know should change that are comfortable habits for me: perfectionism, self-righteousness, competitiveness. I’m not so eager to have all the things that hold me back scrubbed off. Because losing some of them means making myself very vulnerable.

It’s the same when we look around at our world. It’s easy to name the things that we know don’t reflect God’s ways: division, hatred, racism, hoarding of goods and resources. But for those things to be gone, it means passing through the refiner’s fire: a beautiful outcome on the other side, but not an easy or comfortable journey.

Because it requires of us change. It means that the landscape won’t look the same when we’re through. Mountains will be made low and valleys will be lifted up. That’s good news if you’re currently stuck in the valley, but for those on the mountains it sounds awfully like bad news.

But God’s kingdom isn’t going to wait for us to feel good about its arrival. And that is good news. God’s promise is sure—we will be reformed in God’s image, and it will be good. No matter how we feel about it now. No matter what we may be afraid of now. When we are refined and purified as God promises, it will be good.

John calls us to self-examination and repentance, because God’s kingdom is approaching. Jesus is approaching, and we are called to prepare the way. But it’s not up to us to make every path straight, and every mountain low. At the risk of overextending the metaphor, God is like the houseguest who comes and starts to clean and straighten up.

Have you ever had a guest like that? The one that straightens up all the magazines on the coffee table or rubs invisible smudges off your glasses? That’s God, but in the best way possible. God doesn’t wait for us to get everything in order, to get everything clean and tidy and fixed.

God bursts through our doors whether we’re ready for guests or not, and God gets to work. Your life isn’t perfect? Neither is mine. But thank goodness God isn’t waiting for that! God draws near to us, even when we’re not ready. Even in our messiest moments and ugliest situations. Because God is the guest who desires nothing so much as to help.

We haven’t solved the problems of this world yet? We haven’t healed hatred, and reconciled with one another? We haven’t made sure that all people have what they need to survive? God’s not going to wait for us to be ready. God is breaking through into this world anyway, in people and places that we might not expect—like a wild man in the wilderness. Through people on the margins. God is filling valleys and leveling mountains one shovel at a time, whether we’re ready or not.

Prepare the way of the Lord. Take a look at what needs to be cleaned. At what rough places need to be made smooth. And get ready for a houseguest who’s ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Because God is drawing near and God is at work to reform and refine us and our world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

God’s Calendar

To all those who read my sermons on this blog, I must apologize, for I have lost not one, but two sermons to the computer gods this past week. I had written two different sermons for last Sunday, as I was preaching at St. Paul’s in the morning, and at our joint Advent worship at Zion Baptist in the evening. But that morning, my computer (several computers, actually) refused to open my morning sermon, telling me it was a “corrupted file.” Even the college student I asked for help told me there was no hope.

Thankfully, the computer was willing to open the sermon for Zion Baptist, so I simply used that one for both occasions. But on Monday morning, when it came time to put it up on the blog—another corrupted file. Which left me without a blog entry for this week! Which meant a great opportunity to return to a more topical blog post, instead of just my sermon for the week.

I’m going to try to be more regular about non-sermon posting. It’s a great creative outlet for me—I love to write, and it’s always fun to write when you don’t necessarily have to (like for sermons and newsletter articles). If you have a topic you’d like hear about, let me know! Now, on to the topic for today, the liturgical year:

At St. Paul’s, we recently tried a new service for Reign of Christ Sunday. Sometimes called Christ the King Sunday, this is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, before we begin again on the First Sunday of Advent. So this year, we had a service of readings and hymns that walked us through the church year, starting in Advent and moving through each season until we reached Ordinary Time in the summer. Because of the time constraints of our service, we weren’t able to hit all of my favorite festivals, like Reformation and All Saints’, but we did cover a lot.

Often people have questions about the church year: who created it? Is it in the Bible? Isn’t it just co-opting pagan festivals? Isn’t it Catholic? The short answers are: lots of people, sort of, sort of, and yes in the “little c” sense!

The cycle of the church year is shaped by the life of Jesus, so in a lot of ways it is biblical. It marks Jesus’ birth, ministry, trial, death, and resurrection, and teaching. It has also grown over thousands of years and has been influenced by things like the natural seasons (at least for the Northern hemisphere), the festivals of pre-Christian traditions, and the holy days of the Jewish calendar. It is used by the Roman Catholic Church, but also by Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and so many more. It is something that can tie us together across denominational lines.

To me the church year is like inhaling and exhaling. It is a rhythm so deep that we often don’t notice it’s happening. We begin in darkness and hope-filled longing in Advent, then rejoicing as one, then two and three and four, and suddenly a multitude of lights fills our existence. We begin Lent in winter barrenness, watching for signs of life that overflow at Easter. Through the long summers’ green seasons, we too grow and learn about being Jesus’ disciples.

Advent in particular has always captured my imagination. It is filled with ritual: lighting the candles, singing the ancient song of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Hearing John the Baptist call upon us to prepare the way of the Lord. Longing for God’s presence to be made more real in my life and in the life of the world.

We often speak of our longing as longing for light. This makes sense in the brief, sometimes dim, winter daylight in the Northern hemisphere. Romans celebrated the Feast of the Unconquered Sun during this season, and the Celts the winter solstice bonfires. The Jewish people light he menorah during this time to celebrate the continuing light of their faith. And Christians light the four Advent candles, increasing in radiance over the dark weeks. To long for light is to long for illumination, for our true selves to be made visible. To long for light is to long for transformation, to be renewed in the refiner’s fire.

Over the centuries, Christians have celebrated three Advents: the past coming of Christ born in Bethlehem, the present coming of Christ in the sacramental meal, and the future coming of Christ at the completion of all things. As a child, I longed for the baby Jesus and for my own delight in Christmas morning. As we grow, we long for different things: God’s presence in the here and now, God’s light to illumine all creation and to lead our hearts in justice and peace.

We never enter the church’s year of grace as the same person we were twelve months ago. It is always new, and yet it is always the same. Breathe in, breath out. Let the year flow around you. Let its patterns center you as your life moves and flows. And know God rules over all our days.