With thanksgiving for the theologians at Working Preacher, and our Bishop Andy Doyle, for many of the thoughts and words in this sermon. Amen.
From the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Again and again, when the people of God are in trouble and distress, tears flow. So it was in the time of Rachel, the mother of the people of Israel, whose grave lies near to Bethlehem, Rachel weeping for all her children. It was in the last days of Jerusalem before it fell to the Babylonians, when the prophet Jeremiah looked down upon the tragedy and wept.” Then Bonhoeffer quotes from Jeremiah, ’A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.’”
How are we to cope in the midst of tragedy? What are we as Christians called to do when horrible and senseless things assail us? Sandy Hook, Connecticut is a long way across the country from Pflugerville, yet our hearts break for people we don’t even know. There is little we can do to console the families of those 20 innocent, young children and their teachers. We cannot hold those mothers and fathers; we cannot cradle the grandparents, siblings and friends who are living in shock and horror right now. Yet, we can pray. And how frequently in these situations, we add, “That’s the least we can do.” From where I stand, it is one of the most important things we can do. So please, let us join with the country and the rest of the world in prayer:
Lord God: We pray to you for peace to be poured down upon Newtown and the Sandy Hook Elementary School community. As we weep with Rachel we pray for a healing balm to be given to all. For those who have died we pray that they may rest eternally with the saints in light. We pray for the first responders and for our Episcopal clergy who are there offering care and support. O God, hear our lamentation, our intercession, and our hope. Amen.
And now, I am going to preach the sermon I’d already written for today. It has a lot to say about children, so hug your kids, and let’s begin.
Are we there yet? I have no doubt that the children among us are questioning their parents frequently: How many more days is it until Christmas? We all know very well that feeling of excitement and longing that comes from the anticipation of some outstanding event in our lives. Be it a young person’s anticipation of going off to college, or an adult beginning a new career, there is a feeling deep inside that the coming event will change our lives forever.
How many of you here are parents? Perhaps you can dredge back into your memory and conjure up that feeling you had when you announced to the world that your first child was on the way. Oh, the excitement and thanks you gave when all the friends and family, and perhaps even strangers congratulated you on the impending birth! The anticipation and dreams you surely had for that child not yet born!
Now, there is something tricky about great gifts. The lessons we just heard do a marvelous job of pointing to this insight. The first two are all about rejoicing. The prophet Zephaniah sings to the people, "the King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, you shall fear disaster no more." God is going to do great things for his people. All is well; God is at hand. "Rejoice" is also the first word we hear from Philippians. Again, we are assured that the Lord is at hand, and this is a cause for great joy.
That is part of what it means to prepare for a gift. That is almost always the very first thing you say when you discover someone is expecting a child; you say, "congratulations," -- rejoice, this is wonderful news. We have all heard or said that many times.
Rejoicing is also a big part of what it means to prepare for Christmas. The good news of Advent is that God is coming to God's people -- to you and to me. God's promises are being fulfilled. And we are to wait on that promise, to believe in it, to realize it, and open ourselves fully to it. That is great cause for celebration!
Then we hear the Gospel and the image shifts. God is no longer pictured as a victorious warrior exulting over his people, but as a wrathful judge. We are standing at the River Jordan, face to face with John the Baptist at his most intense.
John doesn't say to rejoice; John calls us to repentance: metanoia is the Greek word. It literally means returning, coming back to the way of life charted by the covenant between God and Israel. Paul told the Philippians not to be anxious about anything; John tells his hearers to flee from the wrath to come. "His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
Do you know what chaff is? It’s the paper-thin husk that surrounds a kernel of wheat, the edible part of a nut and also coffee beans. John is reminding us that we need to get rid of the chaff in our lives, and focus purely on the nourishing parts of our being. Everyone in the Gospel is asking, "What shall we do? What has to change if we are to survive the great and terrible events that lie ahead?" This is a very different message from "rejoice!"
And if you think about it, that makes sense; too, that anxiety is part of our preparation and of our waiting. And it should be heard, and felt, at exactly the same moment we hear and feel the call to rejoice. For the Lord we await in Advent is a Lord who makes a difference, who changes things.
He is a Lord who offers both new life and new responsibilities, and who offers them simultaneously. If we truly receive the gift of the Christ child, we will change: the direction and the focus of our lives will shift. It just works that way.
Remember the second thing everyone (or at least everyone who has been a parent longer than 20 minutes) says when they learn that you are expecting a child? The first thing said is always, "Congratulations, we're happy for you." The second thing is always one form or another of, "Boy, are you in for it!" We are told often, and in a variety of ways, that things are going to change, that everything will be different.
"Rejoice/repent!" Those are the words that go with all great gifts. Something wonderful is going to happen; and if, after you receive that gift, you try to live the way you are living now, your life just won't work anymore. Life after such a gift is a sort of judgment on life before.
At this place of Advent, it is time to realize, to make real our place within the faith family of Abraham and seek not only to be reconciled with Jesus but also to be reconciled with the notion of right living which is plainly: to give to the poor, and to aid those who go without.
We Americans spent over 8 billion dollars on Halloween. We will spend some $504 billion to celebrate Christmas. Is it possible that the coming of God in the person of Christ might just cause us to pause and realize that "only" $10 billion would ensure clean water for every human being in the world, and $13 billion would keep everyone in the world from going hungry? Yet safety net agencies that do just this work have seen a 10% decrease in funding. Certainly these are numbers to make us pause in the face of Zacchaeus who gave away half of what he possessed to the poor. What if we lived out the charge of living for our neighbor? What if, in our repentance, our choosing to look at the world with new eyes, we saw and befriended those poor tortured souls such as Adam Lanza in Newtown, Erick Harris and Dylan Klebold in Columbine, whose hurts were so deep that they know of nothing to do but destroy others before destroying themselves? John the Baptist offers us not only a vision of a Christmastide incarnation but a transformed world reflecting the kingdom of God.
"Rejoice/repent!" This dual demand in the face of the coming of God is addressed to all of us: it is part of Advent. It is a perfect reflection of the ambiguity that permeates our vision and our experience. We await and try to prepare for the coming of a child, a child who changes everything. So Zephaniah is right: we are to rejoice, give thanks to God, and sing. And, John the Baptist is right: this wonderful gift will also come as judgment, and with a power all its own. If we take seriously the good news of Christmas, then our lives will be very different.
Think of what it would look like to live daily with the child from Bethlehem in our hearts. For both the joy he offers and the demands he makes cannot be truly ours if we remain exactly the people we are today. Think about what repentance, the redirection of our attention looks like. It is not something weird or mysterious. Repentance, generally, looks pretty much like our lives now, but with a difference.
When the crowd at the Jordan River felt this crunch of anticipation and judgment, their cry of "What then shall we do?" was met with responses designed to force them into practical decisions. "Look at who you are," John the Baptist said; "begin there." When it comes to giving, give from what you have. Don't wait until you have more, or until your offering can be of a higher quality. Start now, start with what is already there.
Practice justice where you work; build fairness and mercy into your present dealings, your current life. Don't wait until you have a job where justice is easier.
Don't wait to be somewhere else, to be doing something else, or to be someone else: begin with the road in front of you, walk that road, and so allow God to transform the life you live right now. John did not tell even the despised tax collectors or the hated and feared soldiers that they had to go somewhere else to begin. Just as being a son of Abraham was no exemption from the call to repent, so being a tax collector or a soldier was no barrier to repentance, to change. The business of repenting is much the same as rejoicing. It has to do with transforming the life we are already living.
Repent and rejoice -- in all things, with the real life we live in the real world.
Rejoice, for what is happening is wonderful.
Repent, because from now on, everything will be different. Amen.