Thursdays, December 6, 13, & 20 at 7:00 pm
The holiday season can stir deep emotions within each of us. We await the arrival of Christmas with joy and excitement, but we can also be filled with grief and worry. Thankfully, our God meets us wherever we are. Using the beautiful Holden Evening Prayer service, our Advent worship this year gives voice to the complex situations and emotions with which we greet the coming Messiah and ponders the reactions of those who first received the news of Jesus’ birth (Zechariah, Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds). These services acknowledge responses of fear, confusion, doubt, and curiosity, while helping us remember that the coming of Jesus promises comfort and joy for all of us.
Thursdays, December 6, 13, & 20 at 12:00 pm
The holiday season is a complicated time. Though jolly and joyous in many ways, these weeks bring many extra responsibilities that can leave us feeling overwhelmed or anxious. If you’d like to take a moment to breathe and get your spiritual bearings, swing by Starbucks at 640 Shunpike Road (across from the Shop-Rite) between 12:00 and 2:00 on one or more of the Thursdays in December to chat with Pastor Christa and connect with others who might be there too.
“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke 3:5-6
It’s that time of year. Time for all of the “best of the year” lists and rankings. Some of them generate more controversy than others. For example, there’s a lot of debate about whether the best four teams are in the college football playoffs. My family is not going to argue with Clemson being there, but I know a lot of Georgia fans who could make a case that their team got unfairly left out.
Then there’s People magazine’s “Most Intriguing People of 2018” list. You could say that “intriguing” has many meanings, but the editors still picked 25 people who fit their idea of it, from Meghan Markle to Chadwick Boseman to the teenagers from Parkland, Florida.
I enjoy comparing the year-end top ten lists for different forms of entertainment – the best movies, the best TV shows, the best books. I do a lot of reading, and yet I find at the end of the year that I have barely made a dent in those lists.
All of these lists depend on one assumption: Some things are better than others. Some teams. Some movies. Some people. There’s always a way to compare and rank.
It’s mostly in good fun, but I wonder how much it creeps into our way of seeing the world. There are already plenty of terrible powers at work to make us believe that some people are better than others. We don’t really need much help to reinforce that view.
Today’s gospel opens with a very specific naming of the people who hold positions of power when John the Baptist bursts onto the scene. You get Emperor Tiberius. Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea. King Herod. His brother Philip. Lysanias ruler of Abilene. And the list isn’t limited to political rulers tangled up with the Roman Empire. There are religious leaders here too – the high priests Annas and Caiphas.
These are not just random names. Several of them will show up later in the story. You may remember that Pontius Pilate, Annas, and Caiaphas will play a role in Jesus’ crucifixion. Their names are here to provide historical context near the beginning of Luke’s gospel, but they’re also here to remind us that the power differences in the world have consequences. People end up dead when power goes unchecked.
Against that backdrop of political and religious leaders, many of them corrupt, John the Baptist appears with words of prophetic power. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he cries, quoting from the prophet Isaiah. John and Jesus are both adults at this point, and John’s job is to get people ready for Jesus’ ministry, so it may seem strange that each year we hear from him as we are preparing for the arrival of the baby Jesus. But I appreciate that John shows up in the middle of Advent to keep us from being complacent about what God is up to.
John comes to remind us not to sentimentalize this Savior for whom we wait. It’s easy to do as we sing our Christmas carols and put up decorations. We look at the little baby in our nativity scenes, and it makes us smile because it all looks so sweet. And don’t get me wrong. It’s fine to soak up the spirit of the season. Sing your heart out. Enjoy your Christmas tree. Have some hot chocolate. These are all good things.
And as you do, remember that Jesus is coming to shake things up. The baby will grow up, and he will change everything. The imagery that John gives us today is geological: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight. and the rough ways made smooth.” But John is talking about more than mountains and valleys. John is telling us that Jesus is coming to level things out. There will no longer be power differences, with some people looking down on others. God’s salvation is for all flesh. All. No one left out.
When John shows up, he also talks about repentance as a crucial part of forgiveness. He calls us to name our sin explicitly, and what sin is more insidious than that which causes us to see some people as less valuable, less important, less worthy than others? I’ve come to believe that this sin is at the root of so many others. When we look down on people from a mountain of our own making, it becomes easier to ignore their suffering – or to be part of what causes that suffering in the first place.
On Tuesday evening – the third night of Hanukkah – I attended a Community Menorah Lighting at Temple Sinai in Summit.[i] This event took on an added significance after swastikas appeared at two local schools. Embracing the theme “No Room for Hate,” community leaders came together to condemn these acts and to call us to stand firm against the prejudice behind them.
My friend and colleague Pastor Gladys Moore from St. John’s Lutheran spoke at the event, and she said: “Tonight, we light this menorah together, because together we stand against hate and all of its evil symbols. We light this candle together, because together we must learn a new way of being the human family, a family that practices justice, loving-kindness and peace — to all people, in all places, for all time. And this requires learning.”
I appreciated Pastor Gladys’ reminder that standing firm against hatred and prejudice requires learning. Perhaps that’s one way to prepare the way in this season of Advent and long after Advent is behind us. We seek to learn about people whose backgrounds are different than our own – learn their stories, learn their histories. We can do this by reading books or by watching movies and TED talks, but we also do it by listening to people who are willing to share their experiences with us. Listening not from a mountain looking down, but from level ground, sitting beside those from whom we are learning.
Let’s not fool ourselves. God does not need the way cleared in order to break into the world. God can arrive anywhere and anytime that God wants to. It won’t be our preparation that somehow permits Jesus to be born or to return. But the preparation is good for us. It helps us focus on the good news that the valleys will be filled and the mountains made low and the rough places made smooth. No more of some people wielding power over others. No more hierarchies that keep some people trampled and others triumphant. In God’s vision of the world all the teams make the championship. All the people are the most intriguing. Everyone makes the “best of” list.
All flesh will see God’s salvation. All flesh.
To prepare the way means we live now as if that were already true – because it is. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
Luke 21:25-36 (MSG) – See passage below.
“Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!” Luke 21:28 (MSG)
[Jesus said:]25-26 “It will seem like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking.
27-28 “And then—then!—they’ll see the Son of Man welcomed in grand style—a glorious welcome! When all this starts to happen, up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!”
29-33 He told them a story. “Look at a fig tree. Any tree for that matter. When the leaves begin to show, one look tells you that summer is right around the corner. The same here—when you see these things happen, you know God’s kingdom is about here. Don’t brush this off: I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for this one, too—these things will happen. Sky and earth will wear out; my words won’t wear out.
34-36 “But be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise, spring on you suddenly like a trap, for it’s going to come on everyone, everywhere, at once. So, whatever you do, don’t go to sleep at the switch. Pray constantly that you will have the strength and wits to make it through everything that’s coming and end up on your feet before the Son of Man.”
This year more than ever before I resented the forced schedule that begins on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The advertising campaigns start much earlier than that. My inbox is overwhelmed with urgent messages saying that if I don’t act IMMEDIATELY then I will lose the chance to get THE BEST DEAL THAT EVER WAS OR EVER WILL BE. Some of them sound like thinly veiled threats.
You know the schedule. There’s Black Friday when we’re expected to show up before sunrise to claim one of the limited numbers of bargain items available in stores. That’s followed by Small Business Saturday, when we atone for all of the spending we did at the chain stores by supporting our local merchants – which is a good thing to do all of the time. Then we have Cyber Monday, when we realize that they were just kidding about Friday being the BEST DEALS EVER because now you can only get the BEST DEAL IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD if (and only if) you order online using this ONE TIME ONLY DISCOUNT CODE THAT WILL EXPIRE AT MIDNIGHT. And all of that is capped by Giving Tuesday, when I am besieged by every organization to which I have ever given any kind of donation, however small. I fully support being generous in charitable giving, but it’s a lot to take in on one day.
This year I found myself responding with a kind of stubborn resistance. I didn’t like all of the pressure. I didn’t like having the sequence of the calendar dictated so insistently. I didn’t like being flooded with e-mails urging me to spend more money.
Which brings us to Advent. Advent is a weird season. I heard someone say this week that Advent is a frank acknowledgement of Christian non-conformity.[i] And it is. When we are surrounded by frantic messages to go here and do this and buy this and be this in order to have THE PERFECT CHRISTMAS, Advent gives us permission to pause for a moment, to slow down. Advent is a season of remembering, a season of waiting, a season of watching. We remember that Jesus first came to us in a completely surprising way, as a baby born in the backwoods. We wait for the time when Jesus will come again to restore God’s creation to wholeness. And in the meantime we watch. We watch for signs of where God is showing up now, places where God is giving us hints about what that future time will be like.
Unlike human time, God’s time is not a forced march of consumerism and excess. God’s time is not even strictly linear. It invites us to see with eyes of faith how God’s promised future breaks into the here and now. Jesus gives us the image of a fig tree, but it could be any tree. When the tree is bare during the bleakest parts of winter, we trust that it will not stay that way. We know that there is new life on the horizon. Eventually we see the tiniest beginnings of leaves on the branches, but those just confirm what we already know: Our God is a God of resurrection, and new life is always showing up when and where we least expect it.
That’s why on this first Sunday of Advent we usually get an apocalyptic gospel filled with dramatic signs of that coming kingdom and all kinds of urgent messages to stay awake and alert. I especially like the language that’s used in the version that I read a few minutes ago. The Son of Man – often another name for Jesus – The Son of Man will be welcomed in grand style. “When all this starts to happen, up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!”
A bit later Jesus implores the disciples – and us – to be on the lookout: “Be on your guard,” he says. “Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping…whatever you do, don’t go to sleep at the switch.”
Stand tall with your heads high. Don’t go to sleep at the switch. We’re called to be observant, watchful. Where is God showing up in this life, in this moment? God can show up in all kinds of ways. In a conversation with a colleague beside the photocopier that helps you see that person differently. In a song on the radio, when a certain line of music strikes you in a way that you hadn’t noticed before.
God can show up while you’re driving your kids to soccer practice. Or while you’re rushing around to make breakfast in the morning. Or while you’re stuck waiting for a train that is late – again.
God can show up when you let yourself be still long enough to notice what is moving in your heart and in your spirit. Whatever it is, whether it is settled or restless, tell God about it. Tell God what is stirring within you. God always shows up to hear our prayers.
God can even show up when you’re shopping. On Friday I had a ten-minute conversation with a complete stranger in the grocery store that started when she asked me if the book she had picked out would be right for a second-grader who is an advanced reader. By the end of that ten minutes I had learned how much she misses that little girl, who is her godchild and whose family recently moved much farther away because of a new job. God shows up when we are present to each other – even when we are standing between shelves of pasta and shelves of spices.
Passages like today’s gospel are often used to frighten people. The message becomes “Get your act together or you will suffer the consequences.” And there is an element of that pressure in these apocalyptic readings. But such urgent, dramatic readings give us a chance to remember that it’s not about getting our act together in order to be saved from destruction. We have already been saved. Jesus has already done what needs to be done. Now it’s about living in a way that reflects that good news – living in a way that reflects the hope and healing that we know is coming.
Jazz composer Wayne Shorter is among the artists being recognized at this year’s Kennedy Center Honors. In a recent interview he talked about his belief that everything is connected. In that interview he gestured toward an open window on a breezy October afternoon in California and said: “There are colors we can’t see, but they’re connected to the ones we can. There’s a connection between everything.”[iii]
God’s time is full of colors we can’t yet see, but those colors are connected to the ones we can see. Let’s be careful not to miss them.
Heads up, people of God.
Don’t go to sleep at the switch.
Watch for the messiah in our midst. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]See this week’s edition of the Sermon Brainwave podcast from Working Preacher: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1076