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John 1: 6-8, 19-28
December 11, 2011
This season of advent, our theme is “holy interruptions”. We’re paying attention to the ways that God has been breaking into our lives. We’re adjusting the receiver on our God antennas a little bit, doing some fine tuning. We’re waiting, listening, and anticipating.
There’s something funny about Advent. It seems like a bit of a trick for us to live in a culture that speeds up for Christmas, while here at church we are slowing down for advent. It seems like an impossible task, to manage both worlds. There are some Advent seasons where I feel like I’m stretched beyond what my intellect and spirit can handle. Get all those things you need for the holiday, but slow down. Finish that “to do” list, but don’t worry about it. Get it done, but let it all go.
Sometimes it is the tension of living in both worlds—the world of advent waiting, and the world of holiday bustle—that is our December challenge. So, I’m not going there this morning. I’m not going to tell you to breathe deeply, to be reflective, to listen for God. I’m not going to tell you any stories about the power of yoga help you. That was the sermon from two weeks ago.
I’m going to ask you to think about Advent completely differently this week. I want you to think about advent today as a time of action. A time to get to work, to task ourselves with the holy role of interruption.
But, first I have a confession to make. I don’t like to preach from the gospel of John. Some of us have favorite gospels. I personally like Matthew, Mark and Luke for their own reasons. Mark—the gospel we’ll be focusing on for much of 2012—is a no-frills, factual reporting of what happened. Matthew involves angels, and relies on the Jewish geneology to connect Jesus to his messianic role. Luke is written to speak more to a greek audience, and focuses on social justice and reciprocity.
Because I love the transformative power of stories, I love the first three gospels. But, John is not so much of a storyteller—at least not in the traditional biblical storytelling kind of way. He frames the world as being engaged in a cosmic struggle between a heavenly world and a world of flesh, not unlike the advent world vs. the holiday bustle. Very dichotomistic, either/or language, which I also tend to find difficult. So, when John came around in this week of advent, I was a little worried. What is there to say about John’s writing?
But, the gospel of John does engage us with a crucial—though awkwardly placed—story in the first chapter. After the beautiful poetry of John 1—“In the beginning was the word and the word was with God, and the word was God”, and “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkenss did not overcome it.”—after the most poetic introduction to any book of the Bible ever, the gospel writer does not go to talk about Jesus. The first person the gospel writer talks about is John—here called not “John the baptist”, but “John the witness.”
And what do we hear about John here? He was sent by God to testify to the light. But he was not the light. John came into the world to point to the light.
Those around John the witness couldn’t help but look at him—the man looked edgy, and subversive, and he was eating bugs and honey. The transition in the story of John is kindof jarring too. We go from thinking about the word being God, to the light shining in the darkness, and then John the witness gets plopped down in the middle of this conversation. It reminds me of the children’s book, Harold and the Purple Crayon. There’s a blank page, and then, there’s Harold on a blank page. John is plopped down in the middle of the darkness, not as a light, not as an antidote to the darkness, but as a pointer towards the light.
And then John the witness gives his testimony when asked by the priests and Levites, “who are you?” And the answer is directly from the prophet Isaiah. “I am the voice crying out in the desert—in the dark, wilderness—make straight the way of the Lord.” John the witness didn’t say anything new. He said what the prophets had been saying for hundreds of years.
Here in the season of Advent, John the witness gives us a clarifying message. Yes, we are to watch, of course we are to wait. But, we are also called to prepare the way. Make the paths straight. Point to the light.
That is a call to action. In advent. But it is also a word of comfort. We are not the light. We are not God. We just point in God’s direction. But there is a kind of action and activity happening there. While we wait for God to be fully present, while we look for God among us, we make straight. We prepare.
Perhaps this gives permission for those worker bees among us to keep at it. And, it’s a reminder for those of us who are more comfortable in the waiting and watching, that our waiting and watching are active things. It is a reminder that we need to flex both of these muscles at the same time.
The day after Thanksgiving, the city of Philadelphia handed out eviction notices to Occupy Philadelphia, notifying the residents that they had to leave their encampment at city hall by 5 pm that Sunday, or they would be removed.
The Interfaith Clergy group called on Philadelphia pastors to go to City Hall on Sunday evening, to stand as a witness and reminder that we are called to the way of peace. So, my pastor friend, Steve, and I headed downtown, each of us wearing symbols of our call and our role.
When we got there, we were relegated to the edges of the event, and that was OK. We were observers, not participants.
It so happened that the Eagles played (and lost) that night, and when the Eagles football game let out in South Philadelphia, we saw more movement around the Occupy Philadelphia encampment. Disappointed sports fans were coming up from the subway and were streaming into the square. Many were intoxicated. A few were very angry with the Occupiers.
One group of young men concerned me right away. I heard them making plans to pick a fight with the protestors, to get themselves on the news. They were convinced that by doing this, they would be hometown heroes.
I watched them scheme, and as I did, I stood up and looked directly at them. And as they moved toward the Occupiers, I continued to try to catch their eyes. And then, distracted by police activity at the other side of the square, I lost track of them.
I found the young men again, because they approached me. They were large, muscular, intoxicated guys, and I’ll be honest, I was scared of them. I forgot my own role until one of the men extended his hand to me and said,
“Sister, I don’t need forgiveness or absolution. I just need you to know that I’m about to do something you aren’t going to like. You can’t change my mind. But I’m probably going to say and do some things you don’t want me to do.”
I stuttered and stumbled over my words. “Uh. OK. Please be safe. Please be safe.”
And then, they disappeared into the crowd again.
Several minutes later, the young men returned. “We blame you for this, Sister. We couldn’t go through with it, because you were standing there … watching…waiting.”
These men weren’t much different than the protesters. These men had all been unemployed at some point during the recession. Dave, an experienced electrician, said that if the Occupy movement started last year when he was out of work, he may have been out there with them.
Steve and I listened, laughed and shared stories with these new friends. We stood on the steps of city hall with these men, between the Occupy Philadelphia protestors and the police on the street. And by our very presence, we discovered that we were pointing the way toward God.
We certainly didn’t intend to go to the protest, clothed in perverbial camel hair. We didn’t intend to be anything more than watchers. We were feeling very human that night—as waves of emotion rolled over us, emotions ranging from fear to anger to joy and laughter. Steve and I had no idea at the time, but in our standing and waiting for something to happen, we were pointing the way.
I share this story with some hesitancy, recognizing that anyone who preaches can’t make themselves the hero of their own story. So, please know that I didn’t feel like a hero that night. In fact, for much of the night, I felt pretty silly standing there. I didn’t feel godly, and I didn’t feel like I was pointing towards the light.
What I discovered standing unwittingly between the protesters and police, and what I hope you are able to hear today, is that even in our Advent watching and waiting, we have opportunities to act, to point the way to the one who does the real work of change—our God.
The more I reflect on these strange verses from the strange and incomprehensible gospel of John, the more I begin to see the importance of the presence of John the witness in the middle of the poetry of the first chapter of John. The jarring presence of John the witness reminds us that we are the created, not the creator, but that we have a role. As we wait, while we listen, we also point, we also prepare, we also make straight.
This advent season, as we practice the waiting, watching, preparing and making straight, we point to God. As we re-assess how we spend money during the holidays, as we re-evaluate the place of God in this season—this very radical, counter-cultural act of preparing for advent is an act of preparing and making straight. It is pointing to God. We aren’t saying or doing anything the prophets haven’t already said throughout time. Our very presence in our world is a holy interruption, when in our deliberate work and action, we point to God, the one who intervenes in history, breaks into our lives, and illuminates all darkness.
Thanks be to God, our Great Light. AMEN.
What can I do?