Tag Archives: Advent

Mary’s story is a story for 2020

Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” (Read the whole passage)

Stir up your power Lord Christ and come. 

Four Candles are finally lit today, and it isn’t long until that central Christ Candle is lit. Advent, as it always, starts by talking about the end, and then giving us two weeks to hear John the Baptists’s preaching about the coming of Messiah. But isn’t until Advent 4 that we get a story the feels like it belongs to the season… or least it isn’t until this Sunday that we hear a story seems to move forward our desire to roll the calendar over to Christmas. 

But before we can bust out the carols and presents, Advent needs to give us our last reminder of what it means to wait for Messiah, a qualifier for our celebration of Christmas. 

Just in case we think the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary is a Christmas story, we are reminded today that it is an Advent story. And quite the Advent story it is. We hear this story of Gabriel and Mary and it is easy to imagine a young grade schooler wrapped in a bath robe and shawl, woodenly reading lines as she receives the news that she is pregnant. The pageant version of this story is the one we easily imagine, but certainly unlike the moment when most women find out they are pregnant. 

It is easy to imagine the young virgin, meek and mild, humbly and graciously receiving the angel’s news. It is natural to picture the made for TV Christmas movie version of the story, the version where there is no doubt that whatever tension presents itself in the story everything will turn out in the end. The idyllic nativity sets confirm this. The nostalgia laced Christmas greeting cards confirm this. 

And yet, the actual story was anything but idyllic. 

The story of Gabriel’s annunciation is a story in the real and messy world. A story that is less made for TV movie or Christmas pageant, and more real life stuff that usually happens in the privacy of our personal lives. 

When Gabriel told the young Mary that she would conceive and bear a son, it was likely not welcome news. Mary’s life plan was certainly different than this development. 

In Mary’s world, women had few options. Marriage and motherhood was the ideal, a woman’s worth was in the ability of her body to give sons to her husband. Sons to carry on their father’s lineage who would also be the retirement plan for most women, someone to care for them once their husband died. 

Yet, if a woman couldn’t provide children, or couldn’t reliably provide children that belonged to her husband because she wasn’t virgin before marriage… well that likely meant divorce and being tossed onto the streets. Pregnancy outside of marriage meant becoming a single mother living on the streets in the best case, execution by stoning at worst. 

And so as Gabriel announces this news to Mary, she is right to be much perplexed. This just about the worst thing that could happen to a young unmarried woman. Hardly the stuff we think about during the Christmas pageant. This is messy and real life. This is the kind of stuff that many of us had to deal with – life altering changes of course, 

This is kind of stuff that we know all too well in life. Things that happen to us beyond our control that change the entire course of our lives. Things like job loss, death of a loved one, separation, diagnosis of an illness or unplanned pregnancy…. 

Things like a global pandemic that changes how we live our lives to core. From how we work, shop, maintain relationships, worship and even how we celebrate Christmas. 

Things that take all we have in ourselves just to keep it together. 

Mary’s story is a real life story, a story about the messiness of life. It is a story for 2020 as much as it is a 2000 year old story.  

But Mary’s is also the story of God finding humanity in the mess, finding humanity in the struggle, finding humanity in the realness. 

Long before the angel interrupts Mary’s life plan with news of her pregnancy, Mary lived in a world where she was less of a human and more of a piece of property or livestock, where her marriage was likely arranged by her family as they were making a business deal. And of course there was the messiness of her own people and culture that was compounded by the fact that they all lived under Roman occupation. 

Yet, when the Angel first greets Mary, the Angel says, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.”

Right from the very beginning, God does something new and unexpected with Mary. God determines her worth and value before anything else. Mary is favoured by God. Not because she is a fertile body waiting to be impregnated. Not because she will bear the Messiah. But simply because she is herself. 

Greetings favoured one!

And then God gives Mary a purpose, she will be the one who will bear Messiah to the world. In a twist of irony, by choosing Mary to do the one thing that her world values her for, bear children, God takes away her cultural and social value. And instead, God imbues her with divine value. She is favoured because God has said so, and God then gives her a purpose in bearing the Messiah. God establishes her value and then gives her a purpose, opposite of the way her world works – where value is only given if one produces something considered worthy. 

Right from the beginning of the story, God is at work doing something new, transforming Mary’s life in unexpected ways. 

God is at work in Mary’s real story, her messy, struggled filled story. 

And remarkable as Mary’s real life story is, it is not special. 

Because Mary’s story is a universal story, it is our story. 

God has a way of finding us in the midst of our messy, struggled filled and very real lives too. Even as we are stuck at home, even when it feels like no one know where we are or how alone we feel. 

God finds us in the middle of real life, and breaks through all the things around us that would tell us our value, that our purpose, that life is only worth living based on what we can do in the world… 

God breaks through all the things that would tell Mary she is barely more than a thing that can be owned and that which is less than human. 

God breaks through all the things that would tell us that we are missing this year, all ways our lives have been made small and make us feel less than our true selves. 

God breaks through to us, and declares that we too are favoured. 

God breaks through and says that the Lord is with you. 

As we gather virtually, even as we pray and worship at home, God gathers us together, God reminds of words spoken to us at the beginning of our life in Christ, that still hold true today. God reminds us of the water poured on our heads, the sign of the cross that marked and sealed us to the Body of Christ. 

God reminds us that through all the messiness of life, through all the unexpected twists and turns, that we have been claimed in the waters and welcomed by Angels, divine messengers – by siblings in Christ who said to us: 

We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share:
join us in giving thanks and praise to God
and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.

Join us in bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world, just as Mary, Mary the God bearer did. 

Just as the Angel, the divine Messenger, tells Mary that she will bear a son, the son of God – that she will bear the Christ, the Christ who is the Word… 

God tells us the same. 

God declares that we are favoured, that we are marked with the cross. 

And that God us will use to bear the word, Christ who is the word, to the whole world. 

So you see, Mary’s story is not truly a pageant story or made for TV Christmas story. 

It is a real story. 

It is our story. 

Today, as Advent takes us through the final parts of the story, the ones that lead us to Christmas, we are reminded that this is a real story. A messy story. A story more like our lives this year than we really know. 

And it is real because it is the story of God’s breaking into our lives. Breaking into our mess in order to bring Messiah, the Word, the Son. 

In order for Christ to come and take flesh among us. 

So, stir up your power Lord Christ and come.

The Unmet Expectations of This Advent Season

John 1:6-8,19-28
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” (Read the whole passage)

Keep Awake!
Prepare the way of the Lord!
I am not the Messiah!

Each week of Advent seems to brings a them of waiting and preparing with it. Each week taking us closer to the coming of Messiah, even in the midst of all the darkness around us. 

We have now crossed into the back half of Advent. We started the season by hearing Jesus proclaim the end of time, to keep awake for God’s coming. Last week, we heard the beginning of the good news, we heard of Mark’s straight the point interpretation of the incarnation, the in flesh God among us. 

Today we hear the Advent twist on the story of John the Baptist. And for that we take a little detour from Mark’s gospel, to the gospel of John. John the Baptist is a familiar, if not odd, figure from the Gospels. A wild hermit preacher dressed in camel hair furs, eating locusts or giant grasshoppers for food. And for the people of ancient Israel, John fits the profile of a prophet, one sent to preach God’s message for the people.

And as John is preaching, teaching and baptizing in the desert, the authorities take notice. The priest and levites, the religious authorities send representatives to find out who this hermit preacher, this potential preacher is.

And so they ask, ‘Are you the Messiah?” A loaded question, a question about their expectations. Is John the one who has come to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven, the one who to destroy the enemies and oppressors of Israel, to establish a divine Jewish kingdom on earth. 

But John says, “I am not the Messiah”

And so they ask again, “Are you Elijah?” Is John the one who will herald the end, the one who is the precursor, the advance party, the warning shot of the Messiah. 

But John says, “I am not.”

And so they ask a third time, “Are you the prophet?” Is John the prophet like Isaiah, maybe not the one who will establish the Kingdom of Heaven, but at least establish a new, powerful, and restored-to-former-glory Israel.

But John says, “No”

The Levites, Priests went to hear John the Baptist preach on the banks of the Jordan with expectations. Expectations about who he might be and what he might bring into their world. The were worried about the disruption he might cause, the over turning the of the status quo, the systems of power that privileged a few and caused suffering for many. 

The crowds too went to hear John preach with expectations. Expectations about who he might be and what he might bring into their world. The hope and light he might reveal, the overturning of the established orders, the oppressors who kept the people under their thumbs. 

And we too might hear John with expectations today. Expectations about who he might be and what might bring into our world. Expectations that our current circumstances can be undone, that there is some quick fix for our current predicament on its way to us. 

As our community, as our world, as we hunker down for a Christmas like none before, it is hard not to be longing for things the way they used to be, for things to go back to normal, for even a little reprieve from restrictions and orders that are keeping us from the Holidays as we know them. From celebrating with family and friends as we usually do, as we have been desperate to do for months now. 

And our expectations and hopes are only pushing towards disappointment and resentment.

And here as we wait for Messiah, halfway through Advent, expectations are everywhere. And while normal Advent and Christmas expectations centre around a lack of time and energy, about family gatherings going sideways, about creating perfect memories… This year we wait for things like case numbers, test positivity and hospitalizations to drop, for vaccines to be distributed and something that looks even a little bit like normal life. 

In 2020, we come to the John, asking he is the Messiah in a world that feels, at times, not too different than the world of those people standing on the banks of the Jordan, listening to John the Baptist. We see darkness, suffering, struggle and hardship in new ways. We understand being powerless and hoping for change in new ways. We know what it means to be waiting and focused on salvation like never before. 

And we come too, wondering if John the Baptist can tell us something about dealing with all of this.  

And John says, “NO”

Instead John says, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

And that voice in the wilderness is not the Messiah. This desert preacher is not the Messiah, he is not the one who will solve our problems, he is not even the one who to whom we should be looking. John the Baptist is simply a messenger. 

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.”

But John is pointing elsewhere. 
Proclaiming another. 
Revealing someone else. 

John is here to tell the Pharisees and Scribes and crowds… here to tell us that there is another who is coming. There is one coming who will address injustice, oppression, suffering and death. There is one coming into our world who is God in flesh – God with us. And this one, this Messiah is coming to change the world in ways that we cannot imagine, who will transform us beyond our wildest expectations, who will flatten the hills of oppression, straighten the paths of injustice, fill the valleys of suffering, and grant us new life. 

This Messiah isn’t coming to give us Christmas back, to unlock our lives tomorrow.

This Messiah is not here to fix us or take our problems away and make things normal again. 

But rather, this Messiah is coming to fill our hearts, 
and bring us light. 

To light our path through the dark ways ahead.
To lead us through these difficult days with the promise of new life. 
To show us the way to the grace, mercy and love of God.

Half way through Advent, we might be focused on the things we won’t have this Christmas. 

Yet whether we see it or not, whether we realize is to not, 
the light of promise is beginning shine a little brighter. 
The darkness is being pushed away one candle, one light at a time. 

And as much as we carry expectations about a Christmas we cannot have, about a quick fix to world’s problems that won’t come on our timelines, and about the God who we wish was a great problem solver… 

we are getting to that part of the story when all our expectations are blown away.
When the unimaginable happens… 
when to an unmarried immigrant couple, 
when to a young virgin teen, 
when to the most unexpected people
a long hoped for yet unexpected Messiah is born… 

A Messiah born to save us all. 

This is what… who… John the Baptist is talking about.

Amen. 

Preparing the Way – There is No Answer in Waiting

Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
(Read the whole passage)

It has been a while hasn’t it. 

Many of you know that back on November 2nd, I was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy. I am still recovering, as the nerve in the right side of my face continues to be inflamed and refuses to send the the signals to my face muscles to do their job. 

So I have been on sick leave for a few weeks. Still sending emails and sharing worship, but this week I am trying a little more. Including a sermon. 

When you last heard from me, it was on All Saints Sunday. Now, we are into the second week of Advent. We have started a new church year which brings with it a new gospel to focus on. This is the year of Mark. 

As we begin making our way through Mark’s gospel this church year, it stands in contrast to the other gospels. Unlike the start of Matthew or Luke, Mark’s telling of the incarnation – of Jesus coming into the world – is a little different than what we might expect. 

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” 

There are no angels, pregnant virgins, shepherds or mangers. There’s no Christmas pageant using Mark’s account. No shepherds in bathrobes awkwardly delivering Mark’s dialogue. 

Mark gets straight to the point. Yet, there is a lot being said in the economy of Mark’s words. 

The good news starts now. The good news starts with this one named Jesus. And this one named Jesus is the son of God. 

Then to explain that statement about the good news and Jesus, Mark quotes from the prophet Isaiah. But Mark expects a lot of his readers, and when he quotes from Isaiah, he expects that the first line is enough for us to fill in the rest and get the picture. Fortunately for those of who haven’t memorized the 66 chapters of the book of Isaiah, we read the passage that Mark quotes just a few moments ago. 

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to her, that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2)

This passage from Isaiah comes at key moment for the people of Israel. The first 39 chapters told of the story of the exile into the Babylon, when the religious and royal class of Israel was forcibly removed from their home and sent to live in Babylon for generations. 

Yet we come into the story precisely a the moment that everything changes. The exile has ended, and Isaiah pleads with God to be gentle with God’s weary people. They have endured a lot and need the time to recover. And now begins the story of the return of God’s people to their homeland. God is no longer the wrathful God who has angrily sent the exiles away because of their sins, rather God is now the gentle saviour redeeming the tired and weary people of Israel. The exiles’ experience of God is completely transformed from this moment onwards. 

And Mark quotes Isaiah expecting that we know this story well, the story of exile and return from exile. Even more so Mark expects that we will see that he is connecting Jesus to this important moment when everything changes for the Israelites. 

Mark is saying, “Hey remember that moment when God changed everything by bringing the exiles home? Well, this Jesus is changing everything too.”

And then Mark takes another left turn, keeping us on our toes only a few lines into the story, by introducing us to John the Baptist. 

John, the rough around the edges desert preacher and prophet, who is attracting crowds and gaining the popularity of the people while drawing the ire of those in charge. John is quite the character dressed in camel hair, eating giant desert insects and preaching from a river. 

But perhaps most jarring of all in this short passage of Mark’s, is that John is quite the opposite to Isaiah. If Isaiah is pleading to God for comfort, compassion, and tenderness for God’s weary people, John is warning of the swift kick in the pants to come if they don’t repent. 

So is anyone confused by all this stuff in Mark? Good, that is the point. 

Not unlike the Israelites, we might know a little something about being tired… about being weary… we might know about longing and waiting for God… for Messiah to show up, to transform our lives. It is exhausting trying to keep the faith and have hope for the future.

More so than just about any Advent that we have lived through, we understand the waiting of the people of Israel. We know what is it to live under the thumb of a power that we are powerless against. We know what it is to hope for salvation, so live day to day until something changes, until a new world comes about, one that we simply do not know when it will arrive. 

The ways in which we labour, strive, suffering and struggle these days is not a short list. Whether we are suffering lonliness, anticipating a much reduced Christmas than ever imagined. Whether it is the threat of loss of business, jobs, income and offering. 

Whether it is stressed out health care-workers, teachers, front-line workers, parents and children. 

Whether it is families serparated by quarantines and restrictions, distances that cannot be travelled or public health orders that cannot be broken. 

Whether it is those suffering from COVID-19, contracting the illness and its hard to endue symptoms. 

Whether is families who are grieving as dozens die each day across our province. 

Take your pick. 

The list of burdens and suffering is long. It’s no wonder we feel weary. It’s no wonder we wait for God to show up in our lives and in the lives of our family, friends and neighbours. 

Here’s the thing about Advent: when waiting for Messiah becomes about things deeper than opening the little doors on advent calendars and collecting our chocolate treat, or counting the days until Christmas, it raises questions. Questions about where this Messiah that we are waiting for is in our world. Where Messiah is in our lives.

We long for the God of Isaiah to come and show us weary people some compassion and tenderness. 

We know that we need the Messiah of John the Baptist to come and give us swift kick the pants to keeps from atrophy. 

But it’s the waiting… the waiting is what we cannot abide. 

Because waiting has no answers until it is over. 

This is what John and Isaiah have in common. They are both speaking to the waiting of God’s people. Whether they are proclaiming a tender God who brings comfort or a powerful God who comes preaching repentance… they both are speaking to people who wait. To exiles whose waiting in exile is about to end, to Israelites waiting under oppression for Messiah. 

To 21st century Christians waiting for God in the midst of pandemic lockdowns. 

The promise is and has always been that Messiah is coming soon. 

As Isaiah says: 

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

    make his paths straight.

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.’”

Take you pick of burdens that cause us to wait, 

valleys or hills and mountains, 

crooked paths and rough ways, 

Messiah is coming for all it. 

For people who need the tender compassion of God, 

for people who need the swift kick in the pants. 

For people who carry the burdens of work and communities, 

Of sepearated families

Of caregivers living through hell

Of families grieving through unimaginable loss

Messiah is coming for all of that too. 

And yes, not knowing when Messiah is coming, and having to wait is the hardest part of all. 

Having live in Advent not just for 4 weeks this year but 40 weeks with no end in sight, with its questions about where God is in our world and in our lives is not easy. We want to know, how, where, when. 

But the only answer is a promise, a promise that we hear every Advent again and again.

Messiah is coming.

Messiah is coming for a world in need. 

Messiah is coming for people of faith who hate waiting 

Messiah is coming for  you and for me. 

Messiah is coming… 

Soon. 

Amen.

Not the sweet Christmas story we remember

Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. (Read the whole passage)

I want to do a short survey with you. So please, raise you hand if you have seen or experienced any of the following in the past month. As we go through, look around and take notice of the amount of hands that you see up. As we get ready for Christmas, has anyone seen:

– Throngs of people in shopping malls or other stores?

– Someone returning home from being away?

– Frustrated parents and misbehaving kids?

– People enjoying Christmas music at a concert, in store, in their car, at home or at church?

– Tired faces pushing grocery carts loaded up with food?

– A person that you could tell would be in need of basic necessities this month, or who probably cannot afford presents, or food or anything else that goes with Christmas?

– A made for TV cheesy Christmas movie that warmed your heart anyways?

– A pregnant woman?

– A starry night, snow falling, and a nice arrangement of Christmas lights?

Now, these are all fairly common experiences for this time of year. There is the mixture of stress and hard work, joy at hearing a beloved carol again, grief and sadness because a loved one is not here for Christmas, anticipation and excitement as the day gets closer.

It is the last Sunday of Advent, and we still have the blues of the season up, the Advent wreath still has one candle unlit. But the signs are showing up that Christmas is close. Music is being made ready, the poinsettias are out, and after weeks of hearing bible readings about the end of the world, or about John the Baptist, we get to finally hear about some central Christmas figures.

The experience of Christmas seems to come, with more and more pressure, each year. Often, many of us spend a month or more preparing for just a few hours of gift giving, a few meals with family and friends, a few days that are supposed to fill us with enough joy to last an entire year. We work very hard to make the Christmas experience perfect.

And so when we hear Joseph’s story today, the contrast he and Mary present does not match the ubiquitous nativity scenes and holiday playlists that pervade this time of year.

In fact, Joseph’s story is much more like all the other parts of life that we pretend don’t exist at Christmas time. The parts we don’t like or that we struggle with. The parts that are hard and frustrating, that are disappointing and painful.

Joseph isn’t the first boyfriend to find out that his girlfriend is having a baby, and Mary isn’t the first woman to find out that she is pregnant when she has no plans to be. And they will not be the last unmarried couple that will have to deal with this problem. This story is much more like real life than it is one of those Christmas movies. In fact, this story really is inconvenient for our Christmas image. Christmas should be about the cutest couple you have ever seen giving birth to most beautiful baby in the most suitable of barn stalls. It is not about poor unwed mothers, and potentially adulterous unplanned pregnancies.

And only to add to the disconnect between what we imagine Christmas to be and what Joseph’s story actually says, when Joseph finds out that Mary was pregnant, his options included stoning his wife, because she was like damaged property which must be destroyed. Another option to stay with Mary was not possible either. Joseph would either be known as the guy who got his wife pregnant before they married, or the guy whose son is not really his.

But Joseph did not choose to go that route, instead choose a more humane option. He would dismiss her quietly, which probably meant that Mary would be returned to her father, and hopefully he could get the father of Mary’s baby to pay her dowry and marry her if possible. If not, than Mary’s father would have the option to stoning Mary himself, selling her into slavery, selling her baby into slavery or if he was rich enough –which he probably wasn’t — pay for her upkeep for the rest of her life.

Not the sweet Christmas story we remember.

(Pause)

Nelly had volunteered to direct the Christmas pageant at St. David’s, or rather she was the only one who hadn’t immediately said no when asked by Father Angelo. Nelly was busy enough this Christmas, but she decided that if she was going to do it, she would do the pageant right and put forward her best effort.

On the day of the first practice, she only had half the number of people she hoped for. But she decided to make due.

To the men she gave the roles of shepherds and magi. The women would be the angels. The little kids would be the animals. But for Mary and Joseph she only had one option for each. There was gangly teenage boy named Josh who simply didn’t seem like a magi or shepherd and quiet teenage girl named Grace who was dressed like an emo goth punk. The two could not look more out of place and uncomfortable in a church.

“This will not do at all” Nelly told herself. “Maybe I can find a better looking Mary and Joseph before next week”. For that first day however, Nelly dressed up these two out of place teens, and put them next to the manger. Josh could hardly see his lines because his hair was in his eyes, and Grace’s black eyeliner was so distracting, that the angels and shepherds giggled and whispered with each other every time she spoke.

At the end of the practice, Nelly was determined that she was not going to let these unsuitable kids ruin her pageant.

(Pause)

In many ways, the story of Joseph that we hear today, unravels and upsets our vision of the Christmas story. We don’t want Christmas to be like real life, it supposed to something different, or least that is what we are told to buy each December. All the commercials and ads promise the perfect Christmas, and each year, the world opens up their wallets in the hopes that if we buy enough and work enough, this Christmas will be perfect.

But our version of Christmas is NOT God’s.

God is telling a different story at this time of year. God is telling a real story, about real people. About people who have big problems, and no easy way out. It is about poverty, about unmarried parents, about unwanted babies, about judgment and the threat of death.

(Pause)

After four weeks of practices, and lots of begging and hoping and nagging, Nelly just couldn’t get anyone else to be Mary and Joseph. Josh and Grace were going to have to be it.

The night of the pageant came, and all the cast was gathered together after the dress rehearsal. The pageant was as polished as it was going to get. The little kids were running around pretending to be the animals they were dressed as. The shepherds and Angels were drinking coffee. Josh and Grace were standing by themselves, looking a little lonely… lost even. Nelly was still frustrated about them, they read their lines woodenly, and never loud enough. And Grace refused to off her black eye liner, and Josh’s hair still covered his eyes.

It was soon showtime. Nelly announced that there was five minutes until curtain up. As Nelly stood up to go and check on the crowd, she glanced over at Josh and Grace. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as Josh reached down and grabbed Grace’s hand just for a moment, he squeezed it once and let it go. Grace looked at him and smiled. They were in this together. Josh and Grace against the world.

Nelly almost dropped her stage notes. She began to realize, that Josh and Grace were just like the real Mary and Joseph. All they had was each other, they weren’t perfect, or well suited for the role they were to play in God’s mission in the world, but they were all that God needed to work miracles.

(Pause)

Our perfect version of Christmas has never existed. As we stress and worry and prepare for the perfect Christmas, God is sending divine messengers to unmarried teens living in poverty. While we try to create perfect memories with seemingly perfect families, God is discarding the rules about pregnancy before marriage in order to send us a messiah.

God does not wait for the perfect moment to begin the work of the incarnation, the work of taking on our flesh and becoming like us. God starts in the most unexpected of places, with the most unexpected of people. With Mary and Joseph, with Josh and Grace, with you and me.

The story of Joseph shoves aside our idyllic nativity scenes, and our perfect Christmas pageant visions, in favour of a real story about real people. A story about shame, and danger and betrayal. But also a story about mercy, and compassion and grace.

For when Mary and Joseph get past the shame of pregnancy before marriage, when they get past the possibility of death for adultery, they become guardians of God’s promise.

God’s promise that cannot be re-created no matter how much shopping or baking or decorating or cheesy Christmas movie watching we do. It is God’s promise given to imperfect people, to imperfect us.

A promise whose name is God with us — Emmanuel. A promise whose name is God Saves — Jesus.

Amen.

Preparing for what we have not known or seen

GOSPEL: Matthew 3:1-12

1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.’ ” (Read the whole passage)

Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!

Invariably, every year ahead of the second Sunday in Advent, someone on social media, usually one my pastor friends will post a meme of John the Baptist. A hairy wild hermit prophet looking man who looks like he is shouting at something, with a caption that reads:

Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!

John the Baptist is a striking image during this time of year., if not an out of place one. You don’t find him in any manger scenes or on Christmas cards. He just doesn’t fit with what we normally associate with the Christmas season, and yet he is a central figure of Advent. Two of the four weeks of the season are always devoted to him and to his preaching out in the wilderness.

After we began Advent last week by talking about the end, about the end of time and God’s ends and purposes for us… which seemed like an unusual place to begin the new church year, we find ourselves in an equally unusual place for this second Sunday of Advent, heading out to the river Jordon along with the rest of crowds, going to hear if this wild prophet John the Baptist, Zachariah the temple priest’s son, has anything for us to hold on to.

The banks of the Jordan river provide an odd scene. While John himself dressed in itchy camel hair and eating wild insects off the land would have been a sight, the crowds who went out to hear him were just as interesting.

The people of 1st century Israel were people living in a world on the edge. They were a nation under occupation, the Roman Empire had the world under its thumb, including this backwater province of Israel, full of people who refused to worship in the Roman way. This world was slowly but surely crushing most people. It took everything to provide the basics of life, food, clothing and shelter. Taxes were steep and paid to the temple, the Jewish rulers, the Roman overlords, to the the crooked tax collectors and corrupt soldiers. People were restless and anxious for change, even as they clung to what little they had. And even the Empire itself was facing its own end, even if it would take centuries to crumble.

The people coming to the Jordan river were people under pressure, people being squeezed by a world that was broken and crooked. They were people looking for something to hold on to, for a return to to day when things were easier, to ethereal memories of milk and honey, to a time when they were on top.

And they were going out to John because they hoped that he would be the one to make things right, to Make Judea Great Again. But it wasn’t just the masses hungry for change that went to hear John, it was those who had power too. Those who had exploited the crisis of occupation to gain a little power and influence, to gather a few more table crumbs than their neighbours. Everyone was going to see John hoping that he was the one with the answers.

Even still they knew what he was preaching, it wasn’t as if it was a secret. He was brash and harsh, he called people names and offered scary warnings… and he wasn’t above shaming and scorning his audience. Yet they all went out anyways… they were people desperate for a fix for this world that slowly crushing the life out of them.

And so there the crowds were standing out on the banks of the Jordan, listening to wild prophet say things that no one else was saying, yet that spoke to their world in the ways that no one else was speaking.

Kind of sounds familiar doesn’t it. We have seen something like this story, only two thousand years newer… crowds frustrated with the world flocking to a charismatic speaker, thinking he has the answers.

In 2019, we understand first century Israel in ways that we couldn’t 5 or 10 or 25 years ago. We understand a world under pressure in ways that people haven’t really known for a while. We too are living in a world on the edge, a world being squeezed by broken systems of government, by the choices of foreign emperors or presidents, a world that is getting harder and harder to get by in, harder and harder to make a life in, harder and hard to have faith in.

If John the Baptist were preaching down on the banks of the Red River, we might find ourselves there too, along with the crowds.

And his words would feel like they resonate with us.

Prepare the way of the Lord – yes, we are ready for someone who is going to fix our problems.

Make his paths straight! – yes, this world is crooked and corrupt!

Wrath and repentance, axes and tree stumps, fires and chaff – yes, finally someone who is going to fix our mess.

But John hasn’t come to restore our former glory, to give us a little more of the things we are desperately holding on to, to take us back to when things were better.

You see, the thing about John and about Advent. They both point something, to someone we do not know and have not seen yet.

Of all the seasons of the the church year, Advent is one most focused on hope. On hope rooted in the actions and deeds of God still to come. In the fulfillment of God’s promises that we have yet to experience.

And John is not promising that he is the saviour, nor that he is the one who is coming to set the world right. In fact, he is clear that he is not. John is simply a herald and John is pointing to God’s promise of a new world. John’s announcing the fulfillment of God’s promise of reconciliation, God’s promise of mercy, God’s promise that the world as it is, is not what it will be. John is pointing to the light of Messiah illuminating the dark places and revealing the new thing that God is doing.

But John is also proclaiming that what is coming is something new and not yet seen, that Messiah is on the way to change the world in ways we cannot imagine.

That even as God has made the covenant with Abraham,

even as God as rescued God’s people from slavery in Egypt, even as

God sent the judges to protect and lead the people,

even as that God has given the Israelites King David and the Kingdom, even as God has sent the prophets in times of trouble,

even as God has returned them home from exile…

Even with all that God has already done, John proclaims that what God is now doing in the promised Messiah will transform all creation.

There is no going back, there is return to former glory, no holding onto to what little they have in this broken world.

This is not the path to salvation.

Messiah is coming to make the crooked and broken world straight and right. Messiah coming to cut down and away the old. Messiah is coming to burn away the chaff and gather up his wheat. Messiah is coming to baptize God’s poeple with the Holy Spirit joining them once again to the one who created them and all things.

This is what John is announcing down in the river banks to all the people of Judea and to us.

Messiah is coming to fulfill the promises of God in ways that we have not seen and do not know.

And even though it is not what the people of Judea expected to hear, nor fixing the crooked and broken thing of this world that we so desperately cling to…

The promise of Messiah is the promise we need.

It the promise proclaimed in the waters of baptism that join us once again to the Father who made us.

It is the promise given in bread and wine that transform us into the body of Christ.

It is the promise announced in the good news word spoken in our midst.

The promise of Messiah’s coming is the central promise of Advent, the promise that lays the foundation of this story of Jesus that have begun to to tell again. The promise that John the Baptist preached to those desperate crowds gathered on the river banks.

The promise that John preaches to us today.

That the crooked and broken paths and ways of this world will be made straight because the promised Messiah is on the way.