MESSAGE: “Gather Us In”
Text: Luke 3:7-18
Liturgist Text: Zephaniah 3:14-20
Purpose: the purpose of the message is to spiritually clear away all the distractions that prevent us from trusting God and noticing the simple signs of divine presence.
Have you ever noticed how many Christmas stories, plays, films, songs and traditions feature a search for simplicity, authenticity, or kernel of meaning? The Waltons find ‘family’ in a blizzard homecoming during the Great Depression. Little House on the Prairie celebrates Christmas with an orange and a shiny new penny. Two newlyweds in a tenement flat sacrifice their greatest treasures to buy useless gifts stuffed with love for one another in Gift of the Magi. The Grinch steals everything to do with Christmas from the Whos down in Whoville, certain it will silence their happy Christmas carol, though it doesn’t.
If I recounted all the examples housed in my Christmas memory, we might possibly exhaust them all by 10 pm, (pause), Wednesday night. Like the Lenten journey, Advent intends to practice preparation through paucity, to weave the philosophy of less is more into the spiritual journey of the season. On the day after Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday as some call it, Ash Wednesday expects elimination of snacks, libations, indulgence, and sinful intent. Everything is reduced to the bare minimum for an undistracted journey to the cross.
Similarly, Advent embraces dormancy of early winter, resting gardens, gathering darkness, and John the Baptist self-examination. Everything is reduced to a bare minimum for a journey to a stable in the little town of Bethlehem. Except, when it isn’t. Because sometimes, let’s face it, our modern practice of Christmas preparation is far from minimalist. (sing) With just twelve days ‘til Christmas, we have lots to do…twelve Christmas cards, eleven gifts for wrapping, ten songs for singing, nine decorations, eight Santa reindeer, seven plates of cookies, six Hallmark movies, five strings of blinking lights, four socks to fill, three wreaths to hang, two office parties, and a star with an evergreen tree.
I think my son was on to something when he called after Thanksgiving to ask family members to reduce the number of gifts for their children so they would not be exhausted on Christmas Day. Somewhere within the busyness, clutter, and exhaustion, there is a hillside where shepherds do nothing but keep watch over their flocks at night. “Where are you Christmas?” Hiding, in plain sight.
So let us return to the first call of Advent. Luke, the gospel writer, characterizes the message of John the Baptist as a ‘proclamation of good news.’ But listen for what that ‘good news’ consists of: “You children of snakes! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance…Even now the ax is at the root of the tree; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Not exactly dreams of sugar plums and fairies.
John’s greeting card warns of judgment, served with a side-order of counsel, “If you have two coats, give one away. If you have a job, do it with the strictest integrity. If you have power, use it sparingly to better the community, for you will be held accountable.” The Advent of John the Baptist is one of hope, but also one of fear, for there is a reckoning on the horizon. The One he proclaims, whose sandal-strap he is too unworthy to loosen, causes soldiers, priests and kings to ‘shiver in their boots.’ The risk is real, life-threatening even. How then, do we connect the dots between John the Baptist’s first century message, and God’s message today, Advent 2021?
We speak of Jesus as God’s Word made flesh. We also speak of the Bible as God’s word. But God’s word is proclaimed to us in many ways. Meister Eckhart, a thirteenth century German theologian offered such a suggestion when he wrote, “Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. If I spend enough time with the tiniest creature, even a caterpillar, I would never have to prepare another sermon. So full of God is every creature.”
In her Advent book, All Creation Waits: the Advent Mystery of New Beginnings, author Gayle Boss takes note of the way 24 different creatures, with the baby Jesus as 25th, approach winter in the preparation days of Advent. As students of God’s world, I invite you to consider the Advent witness discerned in the winter preparation of a painted turtle…
Read, pages 1-2.
I would suggest that this is the singular task of Advent—to trust the Creator, to have faith the Creator will gather us in, to anticipate the touch of God on one’s own heart, in the particular year of one’s own generation, to wait for God to act in the life-giving way God alone can, to find salvation in the miracle which may not be seen, but most assuredly is felt. Have you found your ‘bottom place in the mud?’ Below the Christmas top 40, tinsel, and Santa-land ice castle? Have you found the waiting place where all Creation holds its breath–waiting for God to act, ready for God to act, expecting God will act, certain the message will come, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord…”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!