Sunday, December 23, 2018

Advent IV

Luke 1
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!’

Well, it’s the fourth Sunday of Advent, and I expect you’re a little curious about what you missed while you were busy enjoying yourself.

Between the White Gift service (including some very impressive kings), and the choir cantata, there were a number of readings that could have been addressed from this space, but were sadly missed. I’m not suggesting you went home thinking ‘the choir was great this morning, but what about that reading from Zephaniah? When’s the the next time Zephaniah will come up at all? And who’s Zephaniah anyway?’

And that’s just the beginning. We missed readings from Baruch and Malachi too—it was going to be a minor prophet festival of Bible books that most of us would struggle to find. Trade tip if you’re ever asked to teach Sunday School: ask the kids to find Baruch, Malachi, and Zephaniah, then kick back until it’s time for cookies.

There is, however, more to Zephaniah than a name that’s fun to say. It’s the counterpoint to Advent three’s trip to the River Jordan. Zephaniah promises that the Lord will take away judgments from you, “renew you in his love,” and exult over you will loud singing. Meanwhile, down by the river, John the Baptist said this:

"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

Preachers love John the Baptist. We’re yelling, but we’re not really yelling. And if the preacher is indeed faced with a brood of vipers (not here, of course) then the preacher gets to say ‘John said it, not me!’ He’s an essential ingredient to the Advent story, that remarkable mix of recrimination and hope that helps us prepare for tomorrow night. But John’s just getting started:

"I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

And just in case you missed it, we’re the chaff. But I want you to be chaff in context. Everyday since Halloween you have been confronted with society’s version of preparation: perfect homes, perfect children, perfect gifts—music to make you spend faster and feel good doing it—and the abiding sense that you deserve the best. That’s Advent out there. In here, we’re on a different path. We recognize that it’s not a season of joy for everyone. We understand that to make room for Jesus in our hearts we need to put a few things away or throw them out altogether. We only deserve what God promises to give us— and for that we have the minor prophets. And that brings us to Baruch:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven. For God will give you evermore the name, "Righteous Peace, Godly Glory."

Saint Augustine said “By loving me, God, you made me lovable.” God will take away the wardrobe of woe, and give us the robe of righteousness instead. We will be crowned with glory, and God will give us a new name, "Righteous Peace, Godly Glory." It’s the most Advent of names, and it would be the perfect bridge to angels and shepherds, but we’re not there yet. Advent has a couple more things to show us, so it’s back to the readings.

If you were here on Advent One, you will recall that I suggested that all of Advent can be summed up in a single verse, 1 Thessalonians 3.13:

May [the Lord] strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

The journey through Advent is meant to strengthen us, to allow us to become upright and holy in God’s presence, and to be ready when Jesus comes with all the saints. And it’s this last part that deserves a second look. Who are these saints that will return with Christ? The answer, of course, is somewhere else in Paul.

And your pew Bible doesn’t want you to struggle, so the very title given to the passage we’re looking for spells out the answer, found at Colossians 3: “Living as Those Made Alive in Christ.” It’s a headline that more-or-less sums up the entirety of the Christian hope, and then Paul explains:

For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

In other words, we are the ‘holy ones’ that will return with Christ in glory, even as we struggle to wait for his return. At baptism, you put on Christ, your life became hidden in Christ, and when he returns we shall return with him. Now some of you may not be ready for all this biblical paradox before lunch, but it defines who we are: redeemed sinners, saints in light, dead to sin and alive in Christ. As we wait for Christ we wait for ourselves, our true selves, or as St. Paul says, “you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” (Col 3.10)

The final act of Advent leaves behind Baruch, Malachi, and Zephaniah, John’s eccentricity and Paul’s brilliance, my sin and your sin and the world’s sin and focuses instead on a relationship between two remarkable women: Mary and Elizabeth. And since I’ve clouded your heads with all these other readings, let me remind you of the reading Joyce shared:

In a loud voice Elizabeth exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you, Mary, among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!’

Luke has shared that remarkable moment when Jesus in utero and John in utero greet each other, a portent of their bond, and another sign of the age to come. But that would be literally leaping ahead, because this encounter is about two cousins, one the new Sarah, given a child in her old age, and her young relative, overcome by the Holy Spirit and destined to be the mother our Lord.

It was my friend Jeff who reminded me that underneath the veneer of the miraculous—leaping babies and words of blessing—is the story of what we used to call “a young girl in trouble.” This older cousin would have a far greater sense of how young people generally find themselves in these situations, and how society will judge, and how her own reaction to Mary will define how the wider family is perceived.

But that’s not what happens. Luke creates two more minor prophets for our edification and comfort. This is not a story about scandal or family shame, but about two prophets willing to listen to God and echo God’s word for us. It is about Elizabeth’s willingness to open her door to Mary and open her heart to the Spirit, knowing that God makes all things new.

And once again, we find the heart of Advent, just as we are set to say goodbye to this season of preparation and hope. We are the saints in light, called to open our doors and hearts to those who speak for God. To see Christ in others, to see Christ in those who may be carrying Christ within them. And to give thanks: that we have room on our hearts for Jesus, the Word made flesh, who has come and will come again. Amen.


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