Sermon: December 17, 2017

Sermon by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh

St. Luke’s, Portland

December 17, 2017; Advent 3B: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 John 1:6-8,19-28

One of the first things I did after it snowed this week was to go for a walk in Baxter woods. I love seeing the trees covered with snow and watching the rays of the early morning or late afternoon sun coming through the branches. There are a couple trees, a large White Pine and an ancient Hemlock in particular, that remind me of similar trees on my dad’s property in Michigan, trees that somehow missed being logged, trees that have stood the test of time and been silent witnesses of hundreds of years.  These, of course, pale in comparison to the great groves of the Sierras and sequoias like General Sherman, the largest living thing in the world. General Shermon is 275 feet tall and more than 2000 years old – having survived through fires, changes in climate, and human intervention, since before the time of Christ.  Trees like this give a sense of stability, of hope, not just of a past, but also of a future that will endure. With a message that our current concerns are but a momentary blip that will pass away, they are sentinels, standing in witness of something far greater than themselves. They are for me a metaphor of places like this cathedral, and the people who fill this space.

While Isaiah had never seen a Redwood, he would have understood what I am talking about. He challenged his people to be oaks of righteousness, people with a long-term perspective, people who would rebuild the ancient cities, bind up the brokenhearted, give hope to the oppressed, and let prisoners go free… all done knowing that these things are not ends in themselves but signs of something far greater still to come. Isaiah was writing at a time when the people of Israel were returning from exile to a country that had been destroyed. His message was that God was with them, that their roots were strong. He told them that their anxieties and concerns would pass and that all would not just be well, but better than they could even imagine. Like Rose Sunday, Isaiah’s words gave the people a vision of beauty and life in the wilderness. Like Rose Sunday, Isaiah’s words told them that the Kingdom God was bringing would not just be good but would be glorious.

This is the Kingdom both John the Baptist and Jesus proclaimed. John the Baptist is an intriguing character. This week a friend told me that the best way to avoid burnout is fire… and John the Baptist had a belly full of that. Like a quintessential Baptist preacher, John prepared the way by speaking the truth that needed to be heard, calling out sinners on their sin, and demanding change where change needs to occur. John the Baptist was so threatening to the power structures of his day that King Herod would eventually have him killed. John’s ministry was so successful that people thought he might be the messiah – or at least the return of a prophet.  He was clear, however, that it wasn’t about him but about Jesus, that he wasn’t trying to fix Herod’s kingdom as much as help people create and experience the Kingdom of God. John the Baptist wasn’t baptizing people and forgiving their sins to make them feel better about themselves or make their lives better. John the Baptist was preparing them to for the coming of King and a Kingdom that would make their lives and their world completely new. In his first sermon, Jesus picked up this theme by using today’s passage from Isaiah to describe his own ministry. In doing so, Jesus bridged the past with the future, built on the work of John the Baptist, and proclaimed that he, Jesus, would usher in the Kingdom that Isaiah and John had described.

The readings of Advent tell us that Christmas and that Kingdom are very much the same. Like the Kingdom of God, Christmas is both transcendent and imminent. It is in the future and in the here and now, something to still to come and something very near, even already inside our hearts, in our homes and on the streets where we live. Like the Kingdom of God, Christmas is something that would change the world forever. I wonder if those who so passionately push for the return of Christmas to the public square know that the coming of Christ is about turning that public square upside down? Do they understand the message of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)  that Jesus’ birth would begin a great reversal of society where God will scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, cast down the mighty, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty?  Though Rose Sunday typically focuses on Mary as meek and mild, ancient Christmas carols include the thorns – and blood from getting pricked by them – as reminders that this sentimental image has little connection to reality. The words that this pregnant Palestinian girl uttered to God about the first Christmas were considered so dangerous that they were banned from Evensongs in Calcutta in 1805 and from public use in Argentina in the 1970s and Guatemala in the 1980s.[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the Magnificat the passionate, wild and revolutionary song of Mary. A local pastor in Portland called Mary’s words “Jesus’ lullaby” – a song that she sung to him as a baby which became the mission statement for his life. We hear Mary’s explanation of the meaning of Christmas every Evensong. Imagine what would happen if we took them to heart.  Imagine what would happen if we who said Merry Christmas gave others Mary’s Christmas as their gift, and like Rose Sunday, showed them beauty and hope in the wildernesses of their lives. Imagine what it would be like if we could share with them a long-term perspective, that because of Christmas everything will be more than OK, that all will be well, and the future will be wonderful indeed. We would have to have the strength and stamina of an oak of righteousness to do these things, but if we did, people would begin to see that their understanding of Advent and Christmas has been far too small… and that the gift under the tree (and in the manger) is greater than they had ever thought.

[1]                 See The Magnificat as a Social Document by Susan Connelly RSJ