12/11/2022 ~ Third Sunday of Advent ~ Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10 or Luke 1:46b-55; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11 ~ The Sunday in Advent on Which We Commemorate Love ~
VIDEO OF FULL SERVICE: https://vimeo.com/showcase/7960701/video/780765920
“John was in prison and heard about the works the Messiah was performing. At that point the Baptizer sent word through a disciple to ask the Rabbi, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ In reply Jesus said, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and what you see:….’” — Matthew 11:2-4.
A couple years ago at a Big Box Store I was confronted with a sign of the season: a volunteer ringing a bell. This particular volunteer clearly also thought, besides ringing a bell, a part of this gig was to sing seasonal ditties a capella.
This person did have the vocal ability to pull that off, which both surprised and impressed me. What did not impress me was the ditty chosen— Baby It’s Cold Outside by Frank Loesser. This is not, I think, a particularly appropriate choice for someone trying to raise money for those in need, no matter how entertaining the rendition might be.
Why is it less than appropriate? Loesser wrote Baby It’s Cold Outside to be sung only at private parties because he, the person who wrote it, thought it to be quite risqué, vulgar. And if you listen carefully to the lyric, it is more than a tad risqué, vulgar.
In fact, the song came to public attention only after Loesser sold the rights to MGM, the studio inserted it in a film and it became a hit. All this raises for me what are, a song writer, an occasional a writer of hymns and a theologian, serious questions.
What is so called seasonal music, really? What is the season about, really? What should we be addressing, what are we addressing and what do we address in the seasons known as Advent and Christmas, really? (Slight pause.)
Eleven years ago the composer Tom Rasely and I wrote a Christmas Carol. The title of the work is One Angel Sings. For reference, a copy is in the bulletin. I won’t ask you to sing it. The lyric, in part, reads, “One angel sings, both silent and plain.”
In terms of logic, that lyric poses another question: what does it mean when someone sings, but yet is silent? Is that not a paradox?
Since I wrote the lyric I have an explanation. The truth is you can look at the famous passage from Luke 2, the one with shepherds and angels and never find any angel who sings. The text does say one angel speaks.
The text does say a multitude of angels praise God. But the text specifically says in offering praise to God the angels speak that praise rather than sing that praise.
To be fair, is it possible the angels sing? Why yes it is. But the text doesn’t specifically say angels sing.
It does say there is a choir of angels but by definition a choir can simply be a group which does not sing. Hence, in terms of what the text says, singing angels are a figment of the imagination of artists throughout the centuries.
I put it that way because that’s likely the place from where images of angels singing emerge. So as a theologian and since Scripture does not mention angels singing, I came up with this solution (quote:): “One angel sings, both silent and plain.” (Slight pause.)
All that re-opens what is for me those same key questions: what is the season about? What should we be addressing, what are we addressing and what do we, as church— as church— in the seasons known as Advent and Christmas? Indeed, is the season about singing angels or are these seasons about something else? (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the work known as Matthew: “John was in prison and heard about the works the Messiah was performing. At that point the Baptizer sent word through a disciple to ask the Rabbi, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ In reply Jesus said, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and what you see:….’” (Slight pause.)
John is in prison— Merry Christmas. That sounds like a real Christmas tale, warm and fuzzy, a good image for the season, does it not? (Slight pause.) Here’s a peculiar but effective precept for reading Scripture: ignore the details. The details of a story in Scripture are often interesting, can be very helpful as we try to understand it and can illustrate many important points.
On the other hand, Scripture can be said to be about one thing and one thing only and it’s not the details of the stories. Scripture is about theology.
Further, the theology we find in Scripture is fairly straightforward. When we do pay attention to the theology in the text rather than the details, it can be illuminating. How? The theology we find in all of Scripture can be described in two short sentences.
Here they are: God loves us. God loves all humanity and wants to be in covenant with humanity. These simple and central themes can be found throughout Scripture. But one key to finding, to discovering these themes is you sometimes need to ignore the details.
When I say “ignore the details” please do not mis-understand me. Details enrich and enhance what we read. But if we concentrate only on the details— singing angels or jailbird John— and ignore the theological basis of Scripture, that God loves us and wants to be in covenant with humanity, we’ve missed the central message of the Bible.
Of course, we Christians believe there is one additional New Testament theme and it is found in the reading from Matthew we heard today. God loves humanity so much that what was promised by God, this office known as the Messiah, would be eventually fulfilled and that reality embodied by Jesus.
Jesus is the Messiah. The Greek word for Messiah is Christ. And because Jesus holds the office of the Christ, the very presence of Jesus reenforces the idea that God loves us and wants to be in covenant with us.
Please note: if you ignore the details of this reading— from the imprisonment of John to the praise of John offered by Jesus— this statement, that Jesus is the Christ sent because God loves and wants to be in covenant with humanity, contains the totality of the theology we hear, the totality of what this reading means. (Slight pause.)
Well, the day I heard the volunteer bell ringer who was singing at that Big Box Store I bumped into an acquaintance as I exited. We chatted for a couple of minutes.
Unfortunately, that extra time standing outside the store enabled me to hear yet two more so called seasonal selections offered by that person ringing a bell. One was Frosty the Snowman. The second was Here Comes Santa Claus. (Slight pause.)
And yes, that leads me back to the questions: what is so called seasonal music, really? And what is the season about, really?
I think Scripture is clear on that count. In our lives— daily— we need to be addressing, as does this lectionary reading, that God loves humanity and wants to be in covenant with humanity. In our lives— daily— need to be addressing, as does this lectionary reading, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, a reality which reenforces the fact that God loves us and wants to be in covenant with humanity. (Slight pause.)
I think Frosty the Snowman and Here Comes Santa Claus are fun songs but they do not speak to me about Advent or Christmas. They speak to me about our culture, nothing more, nothing less. And frankly I think most of the time our culture is not up to grappling with the covenant love found in Scripture.
So last and to reiterate something I said last week, what we commemorate in Advent— hope, peace, love and joy— are about the future, our future. We Christians always need to prepare for what will be, look toward the future.
So Christmas is not about the past. Our claim as Christians is that Christ lives, Christmas— this celebration of the birth of the Messiah— is more about the place to which God calls us now and as we move into the future than it is about what happened 2,000 years ago.
Also as Christians we are invited to know that what we celebrate in Advent and Christmastide— hope, peace, love, joy and the birth of the Messiah— are signposts meant to direct us toward both how we live our life with God now, and how we are to live our life with God in the days to come.
And how are we called to live our lives with each other? We are called to live our lives with care, with respect, with understanding and with love. Amen.
Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, 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: “Let me put my hymn writer/theologian hat back on. The chorus of One Angel Sings says the angels praise God with the words, ‘Glory to God, the Peace of God reigns’ and ‘Glory to God Whose presence is here.’ When the word ‘peace’ crops up in the New Testament it is not addressing peace as in the absence of conflict. What peace addresses in the New Testament is the reality of the real presence of God. Or as Luke has the angels put it, ‘Glory to God and on earth, peace…’ I would say the message, both in that hymn and when angels are pictured as saying it, are similar: the real presence of God is with us in the Christ. And that is what Advent and Christmas proclaim.”
BENEDICTION: Let us go in hope and in joy and in peace, for we find love in the One who has made covenant with us. And may the face of God shine upon us; may the peace of Christ rule among us; may the fire of the Spirit burn within us this day and forevermore. Amen.