Listen to our service and sermon below:
I had it in my head that I had plenty of time to get ready for Christmas this year. With Thanksgiving happening so early, it just seemed like we had more time. But somehow, here we are, 16 days until Christmas, and I’m so behind in my preparations.
We had the students over for a Christmas party this past Wednesday, and I’d intended to have our whole house decorated and ready. Instead, we had half the lights on the tree and no other decorations on it, and about half the house decorated. But I did manage to get our little nativity scene set up. That’s really the most important part, though, right?
I love nativity sets. I love how the great and complex theological concept of the incarnation of God in human flesh can be so compellingly captured in just a few very familiar figures. A full set can have many characters – the central three, of course, but also sheep and shepherds, cows and donkeys, wise men, camels. But you don’t have to have all of that, of course. Even just a tiny set with just three figures – Mary, Joseph, and the baby in the manger – points to the story in a way that can go straight to our hearts.
Our Advent Scriptures tell a story every single year of a figure who never makes it into even our largest nativity scenes. Luke devotes as much space to this person’s story as he does to the story of the nativity. But no one ever makes a nativity set that includes John the Baptist. Shepherds, animals, and wise men crowd around the manger, but the prophet in his camel hair stands alone. He isn’t part of the nativity story, but the wisdom of the Church through the ages has insisted that he be a part of our Christmas preparations. He is always part of the story in December.
But he doesn’t really fit with what we think this season is supposed to be about. John the Baptist just doesn’t give us that warm, nostalgic feeling we love to embrace at this time of year. We think of his message as harsh and difficult. We like to gather inside in the warmth around the light and sing of silver bells and Christmas trees and chestnuts roasting, and he’s out there in the wilderness shouting about sin and repentance. And are there any two words we resist as much as these: sin, and repentance? At this time of year, we want gift-giving, not talk of sin. We want merry-making, not calls to repentance. We want good news, but John’s message sounds so barbed and prickly.
And it’s true – he is not as cuddly or as compelling as the baby we want to celebrate. But beneath all our nostalgia and all our activity, isn’t what we are really seeking this: wonder, peace, joy, hope, wholeness, some kind of salvation? And the truth is, these belong not only to the babe in the manger but also to the baptizer in the wilderness. The truth is, if we want to reallybe prepared for Christmas, his is the voice we have to hear first.
So Luke sets the scene by naming the powers that are in place at the time. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” There are seven rulers named – five of them political, two of them religious. Big powers, huge names, at the time, and Luke sounds them off like a drumbeat: Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, Caiaphas. The emperor, the governor, a ruler, a ruler, a ruler, high priest, high priest. Boom, boom, boom, boom. And then? The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.
Here in John’s story is already the hint of the incarnation. God’s Word will come, not in the great and booming and seemingly triumphant powers – not in political power, not in economic power, not in religious power. These are not the powers that will trump all. The outrageous claim of Luke’s gospel is that God’s Word comes to us in the weak and the small, in the lowly and at the margins, in a manger and in the wild. And it will come in you and me, too, if we let it.
The drumbeat of the rulers thunders and against all these is only this one voice in the wilderness, John. But in that one voice is the very Word of God. And that Word, according to Isaiah, will fill the valleys, and raze the mountains and hills. It will straighten crooked places and make rough places smooth. It will change the world. And all fleshshall see the salvation of God.
And just as in the story of the baby in Bethlehem, the power of God’s incarnation beats within John’s story, too. God’s power is made particular in one man, in one time, in one place. Bypassing the emperor, the governor, the rulers, and even the priests, God announces good news to the world through a lone voice crying in the wilderness. And the power of God will radiate out from this one voice, beyond Galilee, beyond Judea, beyond the Empire. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God. Everyone will receive. Salvation, the good news of God, is for all.The redemption is universal.
This is not barbs and prickles. This is good news. And the crowds flockedto it. They flocked to John as he cried out.
I wonder if they were scared. He was calling the people to repent, which is another word for turn, turn around, turn away. He was calling them to turn from the dark toward the light, from fear towards peace, from sin towards salvation. He was calling them to turnfrom anything that was holding them back from God’s goodness. He was calling them to change their lives. I wonder if they were scared.
If we are honest, there are things in our lives that we need to turn from. There are changes I need to make in my life – aren’t there changes you need to make? Changes we need to make, in order to more fully receive God’s love and live God’s love and bear God’s love in the world. These changes we need to make? You don’t have to call it repentance from sin, if that’s what’s holding you back. Truth be told, not everything we need to change, not everything we need to let go of isa sin. There are just some things we thought were absolutely essential for our happiness, or our identity, or even our survival, that are actually getting in the way of our opening our lives more completely to God. There are things in our lives, in our habits, in our thinking, that stand in the way of trust and hope and love and joy.
It’s scary to think of letting go of what we’ve grown so attached to. It’s scary to think of turning from things we’ve come to think of as essential. But the word John uses is not one of fear but of invitation: Prepare. Prepare the way of the Lord. And here is how we get ready: we take time to do the kind of preparation that matters most, to be honest, to take stock of our lives, to get real with ourselves before God, and to make a choice to turn, in whatever ways we need. Turn away from toxic attitudes and behaviors. Turn away from trying to make old broken ways work. Consider how habit is ruling our lives, instead of intention. Think about how we speak to the people we love. Think about how we speak to ourselves – the messages we let play in our own heads. Think about anything in our lives that is just false. Think about what apologies need to be made. To prepare is to look at this, to look at our lives – how we think, how we speak, how we act, how we treat people, how we fool ourselves, how we try to fool others, what we cling to, what we think we haveto have. Examine it all. And then make a choice. Turn away from the things we know we need to leave behind.
Maybe you thought you had more time to get ready, to get your life in order. But nowis the time! Now is the time to prepare. Now is the time to try to get clear.
A few years ago, cartoonist Matthew Inman, who draws the online comic strip The Oatmeal, created a comic that was different from his usual work, in that it was not funny. But it became one of his most popular. I talked about it in a sermon not long after it first came out, and maybe you remember it. I have remained completely captivated by it.
Inman told the story of a flight in June, 1947, from Calcutta to New York, on which an engine stopped working, which caused another engine to overheat, which caused a fire, which caused a panic.
As the plane pitched down in the dark, the co-pilot left the cockpit to go back to the main cabin to help with the passengers. He sat down with a woman who was alone. He told her that everything was going to be okay, even as he watched the engine continue to burn and ultimately fall from the wing. He told her this, knowing that the plane was going to crash.
The plane crashed into the Syrian desert, and fourteen people were killed instantly. But the co-pilot survived, and went back into the burning plane to pull survivors from the wreckage. The plane burned all night. The next morning, when rescuers didn’t come, the co-pilot took charge, and eventually got the survivors to a village, where they all were rescued.
The crash changed him. He didn’t want to be a pilot anymore; he wanted to do something different with his life. He resigned from Pan Am to pursue a career in writing, and, ultimately, television. His name was Gene Roddenberry, and he created Star Trek.
Matthew Inman said he didn’t tell the story as an ode to Roddenberry. He said,
This story is intended to remind you that our journeys are short. Roddenberry saw life’s ephemeral nature lit up against a backdrop of stars. He saw that we are all passengers pitching downward into the night. He saw that we’re all helpless. So get up, and help someone.
The crash was a clarifying, purifying experience for Roddenberry. It changed him, because he let it change him. He let it turn him from his old life towards a new life. He let it make him more purely what he was meant to be, and it moved him to offer to the world what good was uniquely his to give.
What needs to change in your life?
You don’t need a plane crash to make that change. John just says, Turn. Prepare. Get ready. Open your heart. Open your life. Because God is coming. God is at the threshold. God is waiting to be born anew in your life. God is ready to break into your life, with liberation and healing, with goodness and love, with well-being and salvation.
We might not have as much time as we had thought, to do what we thought we were going to do. But we have now. And now is the time. To turn.