READINGS: 12/05/2021 ~ Second Sunday of Advent ~ The Sunday on Which the Christian Virtue of Peace Is Celebrated ~ Baruch 5:1-9 or Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6 ~ Communion Sunday ~ VIDEO OF THE FULL SERVICE – NOTE THERE ARE OCCASIONAL SOUND ISSUES: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RURrZcdwvk.
Outside the Box?
“John went through the entire region of the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins;…” — Luke 3:3
Most of you know I am technically retired. After serving as an Associate Pastor in Waldo County at a five church cooperative— I know, that sounds very Methodist, a five church cooperative— I spent 23 years in the New York Conference. Then I moved back to Maine. Next, the pandemic hit. I had expected to supply preach some but things shut down.
Before I was in Waldo County, while I was still in Seminary, I did supply preach. In 2 years, 104 weeks, I preached 47 times— just short of half of the possible Sundays.
I recite this history to explain that, since I became a preacher, I have not heard a lot of other pastors preach. When you’re preaching you’re not hearing the other pastors.
Once I did hear a sermon offered by a good friend. The essence of the sermon illustration used was that some people think inside the box; some people think outside the box. The recommendation made was for churches to strive to think outside the box, something we’ve probably all learned a lot about since March of last year.
Later I said to my friend, “You’ve fully explained my life situation with one sermon. Some people think inside the box; others think outside the box. My take is, ‘Box? There’s a box? Why was I not told?’” (Slight pause.)
I need to be clear. Thinking either inside or outside the box can be useful, wanted, warranted at times. And I may present an image which says inside the box— male, older, Caucasian. Please don’t be fooled. I’m a theater person.
For theater people, outside the box is a given. We know about what outside the box is about— stretching. Can it be risky? Yes. However, I doubt that growth ever really happens without some stretching, without some risk taking. (Slight pause.)
And this is what we hear in Luke. “John went through the entire region of the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins;…” (Slight pause.)
With all those not easy to pronounce names in this reading— and Mr. Rose did a good job with that— with all those not easy to pronounce names in this reading what’s this writer doing? Offering historical context and it’s not the first time.
This is the more famous passage which gives historical context: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” (Slight pause.)
It is often said Luke was written for, to and about the poor, the outcast. The story of shepherds is not meant to depict a peaceful, pastoral scene. Shepherding was a hardscrabble, marginal, risky way of life, with nothing attractive or peaceful about it. Indeed, shepherds were considered the lowest of the low, outcast.
So, in these passages with historical context this writer is drawing a contrast. How? By telling us who was in charge in the world, who did and who did not have a hardscrabble, marginal, risky existence.
And who appears in this context? First the shepherds who are outcast. Then the Baptist, who shouts on Jordan’s shore, the one about whom it can readily be said, ‘this one is an outcast from respectable society and someone who does not care about boxes.’
John, however, can and does tell us about what a relationship with God looks like. And a relationship with God is about God Who clearly wants to be in relationship with humanity— with everyone— with those not in charge and with those in charge.
Why is it clear God wants to be in relationship with all humanity? John claims God starts this relationship with forgiveness. We are forgiven before we do anything. Further, we do not have to do anything to be forgiven. We have been offered this because of unconditional love.
Put another way, God starts with a premise: we are trusted. We are trusted with each other’s being, trusted to love one another, trusted to be stewards of God’s world.
John also says we are invited to repentance. Repentance is not about remorse, about feeling sorry. Repentance is when we turn around, turn away from where we humans are aimed and turn and aim toward God. Repentance is when we strive to walk in the ways of God, live life filled with hope, with peace, with love, with joy.
So, when we hear this proclamation about repentance and forgiveness these are not what popular culture says they are about— remorse, sorrow, mercy. And that brings me back to the juxtaposition the writer of Luke presents to us in laying out context.
Luke asks who is in charge of society? Who runs the world? Luke then holds up the power brokers and contrasts that reality with those who are outcast. (Slight pause.)
I think this is a given. Those who are in control— or rather those who think they are in control— are generally quite comfortable inside the box.
Indeed, those in control tend to use bywords. We’ve all heard them. Don’t upset the apple cart. Don’t make waves— inside the box thinking. (Slight pause.)
What is outside the box thinking? Everyone counts. All people are included. Go ahead— eat apples off the cart. Let’s splash some water— waves can be fun.
So yes, doing what’s new, what’s different, working outside the box, means taking risks. And my experience says the only way to fail is to refuse to take risks.
And what’s my experience? You remember I mentioned that five church cooperative? These were poor churches in a very rural area, five towns spread across 40 miles.
But they thought outside the box, took a risk. Each church had its own budget. Then together they formed a separate budget and unifying in that way, despite the distance, they had the where-with-all to hire two pastors— thinking outside the box.
This is also to say the preaching of the Baptizer is not about any kind of ethereal, pie in the sky stuff. Turning toward God needs to be real, practical, substantive and risky.
Perhaps that’s why so many have a hard time with repentance, turning toward God. How much of a hard time? People turn it into something it is not, remorse, feeling sorry.
And what happens with that ‘we are all forgiven’ stuff? People are not comfortable with free gifts. What do you mean we don’t owe God something for this gift? No, we don’t. (Slight pause.)
So, this is the Sunday of Advent when we celebrate peace. Biblical peace is not the absence of conflict. Biblical peace— the peace of God— refers to the real presence of God. Biblical peace says God is with us even when there is conflict, even in the midst of violence.
And yes, that is what Christmas is really about: the real presence of God. The birth of the Christ send this message: God is with us, God walks with us. Indeed, this idea that God is with us often makes people really, really uncomfortable.
Why do I say that? Do me a favor. Go shopping at this time of year and you see displays of trees, ornaments, electronics, cookware— you name it— and signs which say ‘Merry Christmas,’ ‘Happy Holidays.’ But let me know if you see any signs which say, “God is with us.” (Slight pause.)
So, let us celebrate Advent with hope, peace, love and joy. Hope, peace, love and joy can be found when we realize the real risk we take in our life is to ignore God is with us, God is present to us. Of course, that God is with us and present to us is the message of the Baptizer. It is the message of Advent. It is the message of… Christmas. God… is… with… us. Amen.
Congregational Church of South Freeport, South Freeport, Maine
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Secular culture makes every effort it can to take over the church culture. After all, secular culture turns the birth of the Messiah, the in-breaking of God, into a buying spree while at the same time claiming there is a war on Christmas. Whose staffing the war? The sellers? The buyers? After all, when we the last time you heard somebody wish you a blessed Advent filled with all the hope, peace, love, joy because God is present to us? Clearly there is no war on Christmas. There is a war on Advent.”
BENEDICTION: Let us be present to one another as we go from this place. Let us share our gifts, our hopes, our memories, our pain and our joy. Let us go in joy for God knows every fiber of our being. Let us go in hope for God reveals to us, daily, that we are a part of God’s new creation. Let us go in love, for we rest assured, by Christ, Jesus, that the love of God is steadfast. Let us go in peace for God is with us. Amen.