Animals on stage already, MARY, JOSEPH AND DONKEY IN CORNER, INNKEEPER READY
OPENING HYMN (CONGREGATION): THE ANGEL GABRIEL FROM HEAVEN CAME
Animals on stage already, MARY, JOSEPH AND DONKEY IN CORNER, INNKEEPER READY
Advent is a meaningful time of expectation and preparation. We often look for a transcendent expression of this season. Last week we had the opportunity to have a Confirmation class with two neighbouring Lutheran, and one Anglican, Confirmation groups. It was a rich ride home as I listened to questions upon questions about the incarnation and the Jesus of history. Thoughtful examinations from the minds of 12-14 year olds. These were Advent questions. These were Advent youth reaching into their own understanding for a deeper meaning. It brought back some wonderful memories of my own youth and the questions that went along with that period of life–some that have stayed with me into these later years. That is the earthy, incarnate, nature of our faith as Lutheran Christians. It really isn’t that new.
I listened to a conversation on CBC between three high school students and a mother of seven from 1968. The same timeframe that picture represents from the archives of the congregation that I now serve. It is a fascinating expression of asking the age old question: Has Christmas lost its meaning? CBC Radio suggests the question is almost as old as the season itself. Listen to it for yourself: Watching Christmas Debates http://www.cbc.ca/player/AudioMobile/Rewind/ID/2422670867/
Don’t get frustrated with the youth and young adults in your midst who are asking these sorts of questions. Thank God that they are asking them. And also remember that they are honest questions that need to be asked if we take this Season of Advent, and our faith, seriously.
Happy Advent and Merry Christmas…if it has any meaning for you:-)
When I was young, we lived half the country away from my grand parents. In December, we would wait for their Christmas package to arrive – with variously wrapped parcels. Usually consisting of something sweet to eat and something to wear. Thinking about those days, it was not so much the fact that presents were inside – it was the arrival of this very personal form of communication, these small mementos that my grandparents had chosen for us – this sense of linked community, and underneath it all, love.
For those of us of a certain age, this is how we will remember important news coming: in the mail. The university acceptance—Santa’s letter—correspondence from the war—a friend’s handwritten note of shared grief. Someday, in the not so distant future, we will all be able to say that we remember the day when mail came to the door.
As you know, this week, in the middle of a season when everyone is awaiting the arrival of various snail mail envelopes and packages, in which, let’s be honest, these days we like things just fine as they are, and tradition is trending – Canada Post goes and makes a game-changing announcement. To save money, the crown corporation will phase out the mailman, and the mailbox. A long tradition that first tied communities, and then made the world a smaller place, will move on.
Now most of us probably don’t think of the mail all that much – and many of you already have PO Boxes as I learned this week writing Christmas Cards – but there is something reassuring about the thump of mail coming through the parsonage slot, even if it is a bill. Those days are about to end. The change is coming.
That’s the job of John the Baptist in our Advent story: to break the news, the change is coming. He doesn’t do it gently and he doesn’t ease into it. In a way, Canada Post stole a page from him, and just up and announced the end of mailboxes. John is loud, and wild-eyed, and not particularly gentle. He is definitely not subtle. His is the news meant to upend a society as people understood it. And he broke it the only way he knew how.
Change doesn’t always work that way: sometimes, it’s more of a creep, if never less of a shock. We are going along, and one day, we look in the mirror and we don’t recognize the face staring back at us. It was happening all along, but we just never noticed before. In our relationships, we make do, or make excuses, until one day, we can’t escape the truth we were trying all along not to see.
Life keeps moving along, while we aren’t paying attention. Until suddenly the mailbox, whose loose door or rusty sides we always planned on fixing, is gone, a tradition whose time has passed, its usefulness expired.
That’s why John the Baptist is perhaps one of the most important characters in our Christmas journey, even though we always write him out of the narrative by Christmas Eve. Maybe we need him around especially then, when the wait is over, and the presents are open, and life goes back to as it was. But that’s not when he comes to us. As his father, Zachariah, was told in a vision from an angel, his son would “usher in the advent” of the Lord.
That’s the message delivered to Zachariah in a temple one day, according to Luke, where it was his turn, as the chosen priest, to burn incense and give blessings. Zachariah, and his wife, Elizabeth were too old to have kids, but John came along and surprised them – as bold and brash a change as any pair of people might imagine.
It was such a shock to Zachariah, in fact, that until John was born, he didn’t speak and couldn’t hear. Not the first time God told a man to zip it. After all, when you are bringing about big change, you might want to change the messenger – so it’s always seemed especially fitting just as Mary names Jesus, so did Elizabeth give her son the name John, upending the old tradition about the father’s role in the naming ceremony.
Back in the temple, the Angel tells Zachariah that his son will “teach the disobedient the wisdom that makes people just.” And what is the wisdom that change teaches? To get ready. To be prepared. To open our eyes to the way the world is changing. To let go of the ways in which the world should not remain the same. That is a true form of wisdom: To be ever watchful.
That is the teaching of John. He’s a bit of a mystery to us – born in the hill country of Judah, and then spending years in the wilderness of Judea, until he arrives back on the scene, wild-eyed and roughly dressed, warning everyone to get ready for some mysterious saviour.
This month the cover of the Canada Lutheran Magazine posed the question that John would have asked us: Christmas – what is it to you? The options on the cover included: family, presents, food and faith. But John was not about the answers. He was the one who asked the question – and who forced the people in society to ask their own questions. What did they want to be different? What did they value? What were they neglecting? Were they ready – truly ready – for change?
All of us, I am sure, have something we would like to do better, some relationship we would like to repair, some creaky mailbox that needs our attention. John’s role for us at this time is to usher in the beginning of that change, to prepare the way for steps to come. And to jar us awake to new possibilities.
Nelson Mandela, who passed away this week, was a man of many names. His parents called him Rolihlahla, which to mean to pull the branch out of tree. He became Nelson to his teachers at the Methodist missionary school he attended. When he went underground in the 1960’s, the press called him the Black Pimpernel. In prison, on Robben Island, he was known as Mdala. But according to the Globe and Mail’s obituary, the one he like was Madiba, the name given by his clan, a name previously carried by a legendary chief.
Nelson Mandela was a legend. He was a rare leader who stuck to his convictions, who spoke for healing when others would have sought vengeance. A man who spent long years in a tiny cell and came out larger than life, wiser, more savvy. We don’t see many like him.
He was a human being who carried many of the fiery traits of John the Baptist. And went on to live, publicly and determinedly, the gospel of Jesus. That is a journey not many of us make. But he was, indeed a legend. Although we had all known he was sick, that time was coming, when his death was announced Thursday evening, I felt almost inexplicably sad. Perhaps that’s because, many days, I feel I have few examples like him to reveal to my kids, to be inspirations for them of a good and faithful and truly heroic life.
You all know that I am great fan of John the Baptist – his wild ways, his unfiltered speech, the refusal to speak anything but the truth. He is fierce in a way that is impossible not to admire. He is making way for Jesus, as he says himself, but his work is far more important than public relations. John the Baptist, though his ways are difficult and controversial, is our slap awake. To get ready, to sense a change in the wind, and be on guard for it.
As a young man, Nelson Mandela imaged he might become a civil servant, until he was arrested for participating in a student protest. Apartheid, as we knew, turned him into a revolutionary. When he was captured and charged for treason, and faced with execution, he was not cowed: he gave a four-hour speech that has been often quoted since, speaking of a free society in which all persons live in harmony with equal opportunity. “It is an ideal,” he said, “for which I hope to life for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” He was spared death: instead the court sentenced him to hard labour in prison for life.
But something happened in prison, that can only happen, I think, to the most remarkable people. Nelson Mandela became less like John the Baptist, more like the one whose arrival he heralded. He befriended his guards, learning to speak their language. He taught his fellow inmates to read. When he emerged from prison, as one obituary said, he had chosen to be servant not master to the people of South Africa. Of course, we know, where that long journey took him: to becoming his country’s first black president.
When read from the 11th chapter of Isaiah, which is describing a messiah who will come to bring justice, it is easy to find the imprint of Nelson Mandela, who came to see clearly what his country needed, and set aside what he himself might have personally sought. That reading speaks of “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counseling and might, the spirit of knowledge and might.” Mandela went into prison a wolf, and walked out to live with the lambs, rather than devour them. Can’t you see him also woven through our psalms: a leader who sought to heal his country by bringing people together, and urging them to find common causes and leave behind a painful past. Our psalmist writes:
6Let him come down like rain upon | the mown field,
like showers that wa- | ter the earth.
7In his time may the | righteous flourish;
and let there be an abundance of peace till the moon shall | be no more.
In the end, Nelson Mandela lived a long, brilliant life. We grieve his loss, and sense his absence, because we seek his replacement and come up short. Perhaps, setting the history aside, his example of leadership – his journey through it, his ability to see clearly and adjust his path accordingly, to be fierce when needed and conciliatory when necessary – is the nuance we need to pass on to the next generation. Few leaders can claim the best parts of John the Baptist and the finest traits of Jesus. But that is the making of legend, however many names he carries. And it is this sustaining hope, of what might yet be possible – and who might yet come – that should truly stir out hearts at Advent.