For the last few months, one of the items on the to-do list for Centre’s trustees has been the bell that sits at the top of our steeple. There are two ways to ring the bell, and, a while back, Marc Reeves disabled the way that involves the bell actually tolling, swinging back and forth, because of some concern about whether the bell was securely in its place. Now, before I go any further, let me say something very clearly: we’ve had an expert in bells examine ours recently, and while there’s plenty of work to do, Centre’s bell is perfectly safe. It’s not going anywhere. When you leave the service this morning, you can walk through the vestibule without ducking or hurrying through just in case. Continue reading
Words matter. We live in an age that assumes the opposite. On the one hand are people who live as if words are cheap. They blabber on and on with meaningless speech, and they don’t seem to care. On the other hand are people who despair of being able to trust anyone’s words ever again. To them, words are powerless and empty. I say “on the one hand” and “on the other hand,” but really the two groups are basically the same, and really, it’s not other people but us who are the problem. We cheapen words by using them carelessly, and then, either from cynicism or having been hurt by the careless words of others, we have trouble finding much value in anything anyone says. Continue reading
We must not think even for a moment that the whole world was watching for a Savior the night Christ was born. For most people in most places on that ancient night, there was no deep mystery hanging in the air, no excited anticipation, no anxious wondering about whether this night would be the night God finally acted. Jesus’ birth was never destined to be headline news, even if there had been such things as newspapers or CNN. And no one was camping out in Bethlehem waiting for a royal announcement the way reporters and gossip columnists surrounded St. Mary’s Hospital in London last year awaiting the birth of Prince George. If you had walked into one of the great cities of Jesus’ day, Rome, say, or Athens, and said, “Something amazing is about to happen in Bethlehem, this very night,” you would have gotten the same reaction I had when I told people I was appointed to a congregation in Forest Hill: Where’s that?
Not only was almost no one watching for a Savior, hardly anyone would have believed that something so important as his birth would happen in a place like Bethlehem. Sure, we hear the reading from Micah, “As for you Bethlehem of Ephrathah,” and right away we know what the prophet is talking about. But not back then. Calling Bethlehem a city is a bit like calling Bel Air a metropolis. Nothing happened in Bethlehem; nothing had happened there for over a thousand years. If there was a bright center to the Roman Empire’s universe, Bethlehem was the planet furthest away. Even Jerusalem, the closest “big city,” was a backwater town by Roman standards. Appointing governors to Palestine was one way for the Roman emperor to rid himself of troublesome or incompetent aristocrats. The Jews weren’t the only ones who disliked Pontius Pilate.
The story of Jesus’ birth, especially to those of us who have known it all our lives, can seem so normal. Of course Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Where else would he go? Why wouldn’t there be room to stay in town no one ever visited? Where else would his mother put him except a manger? Whom are the angels supposed to tell if not the shepherds? The more we hear this story, the more it starts to sound like something that does belong on a Hallmark card. Sadly, the more “natural” the Christmas story seems, the more desensitized we become to the shocking story that the Lord of the universe took on human form as a baby born in almost total obscurity in a place virtually no one had heard of and found himself plunked down in a cow’s food dish because even the ridiculously unimportant people of Bethlehem couldn’t find room to shelter his mother in anything like human quarters. In the place of this scandal we drop our sentimental baggage of Charles Dickens, The Nutcracker, Currier and Ives, and Christmas crooners. It’s almost like we’re afraid to believe in something this strange and troubling, so instead we try to fit it in with much more manageable things like Christmas magic and the season of giving. Ironically the only scandals today are the Grinches who want to wish us “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” the Scrooges who proudly wear their bah-humbug disbelief on their sleeves instead of covering it over in Thomas Kinkade pastels, and the preachers who dare to mention the cross in a Christmas Eve service when everyone just wants to hear about the baby. We’d like our Christmas to run on autopilot, please.
Our world today isn’t all that different from the world Jesus entered two thousand years ago. Most of us still live day to day; most of us still don’t know what to expect or hope for this Christmas. Most of us do not want Christmas to be interrupted by anything or anyone. If someone told us something important, something grand, mysterious, and wonderful was about to happen, something that would shake the very foundations of our world, we’d turn our attention toward someplace like Washington D.C., New York City, or Beijing. But Christ was born in Bethlehem, away from the centers of commerce and power, on the outskirts of the margins of society. And Christ’s flesh continues to appear in unknown and unexpected places. Places less like Rome, and more like Forest Hill.
Mere bread, simple bread, and a cup of grape juice are easy enough to write off. They’re the stuff of child’s snacks. Hardly divine. Each time that we celebrate Holy Communion together, Christ’s flesh breaks into our world in the elements of bread and wine. That happens every week, right here at Centre, in Forest Hill, of all places.
Anybody can give a helping hand to someone else. Anybody can receive a small gift from another person. These things happen every day. There’s nothing special about them. Yet Christ’s flesh extends itself as the hand of a worker in our food pantry, offering a bag of groceries to a neighbor, and Christ’s flesh opens up in the hands of the person who receives the food. Christ’s flesh giving; Christ’s flesh receiving. That happens each Wednesday, right here at Centre, in Forest Hill, of all places.
People have been shaking hands for at least the last 2500 years. Millions of people shake hands every day. The cool and the germaphobes among us give fist bumps. Millenials hug everyone. It’s all perfectly ordinary. When we pass the peace as an act of worship, Christ’s flesh becomes palpable, and forgiveness becomes tangible in the embrace of fellow believers. That happens every Sunday at Centre, in Forest Hill, of all places.
Holy Communion. The Food Pantry. The peace of Christ. Centre Church. Forest Hill. Bethlehems, all. No headline news; no royal announcement; no one watching. But Christ appearing, in humble ways and lowly places, just as God promised he would do.
Perhaps you’re satisfied with the seasonal happiness of Christmas magic, with chestnuts and children and cherished moments. But if your desire has been stretched, if you yearn for something deeper, something troubling enough to require belief throughout the year, then don’t make your pilgrimage to Bethlehem a once-a-year event. Return as often as you can. Commit to living on the outskirts, at the margins, in places where strange and mysterious and disturbing things can happen, where God himself appears in the most ordinary—and therefore the most unimaginable—ways. Amen.
If this morning’s gospel reading feels a little familiar to you, well, it should. Last week we read Mark 1:1-8. The first verse of Mark 1 is about Jesus: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. But after that, the next seven verses are about John the Baptist. This week, we read from the first chapter of John’s gospel. The first chapter of John is a lot longer than the first chapter of Mark—there’s a lot going on in John 1, from an opening poem about the Word of God to the call of the first disciples. But once again we are reading a passage about John the Baptist. Now, many of you know that I use a list of readings for each week called the Revised Common Lectionary, which is put together by a large group of Christian preachers and scholars—not by me. And when I saw that this Advent two weeks in a row we would have readings about John the Baptist, I wondered why. I imagine some of you are wondering the same thing this morning: why two weeks on John the Baptist?
So I did a little investigating. As it turns out, John the Baptist is one of the most important figures in the New Testament. After all the sermons and Sunday School lessons I’ve heard, all the classes on the New Testament I’ve taken, all the books about the Bible I’ve read, and even the classes on the New Testament I’ve helped teach, I’m not sure that I knew that before this week. John the Baptist shows up in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts. By my count, he is mentioned in 8 chapters of Matthew, 5 chapters of Mark, 8 chapters of Luke, 5 chapters of John, and 4 chapters of Acts: 30 chapters in the New Testament mention John the Baptist. Only a few other New Testament figures, people like Jesus, Peter, and Paul, appear more frequently. John the Baptist is also one of the few people from the New Testament mentioned at all by non-biblical writers of the time; the 1stcentury writer and historian Josephus talks about John and his execution by Herod.
For someone so prominent in the Bible, we know surprisingly little about John the Baptist. Some scholars believe John was a member of the Essenes, a Jewish sect that lived in small communities near the Dead Sea, but no one knows for certain. He is not the same person as John, the disciple of Jesus. He did not write the gospel of John, 1st, 2nd, or 3rd John, or Revelation. He was not one of Jesus’ followers. According to Luke’s gospel, John was Jesus’ cousin. Tradition says that John was 6 months older than Jesus, so the church has celebrated John’s birthday as June 25th for centuries. John had his own disciples, some of whom become followers of Jesus in Acts. All four gospels agree that John baptized people in the Jordan River.
As you probably gathered from this morning’s gospel lesson, we’re not the first people to be confused by John. Having heard of John’s baptisms and increasing popularity, an unusual alliance of Jewish leaders sets out to investigate this strange figure. Priests and Levites, on the one hand, and Pharisees, on the other, didn’t always get along. But John has caught their attention, and they want to know who he is. They head out to the Jordan, near Bethany, find John, and start to interrogate him: Are you the Messiah? No. Elijah? No. The prophet? No. It’s almost like Rumpelstiltskin: who is John the Baptist? Will he tell ever tell them?
Of course, you and I have an advantage over the priests, Levites, and Pharisees. All they had were rumors about a man in the desert. We have John 1:6-8: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” John is a witness, and the job of a witness is to speak the truth about what he has seen. But John is a funny kind of witness, because his testimony is about something he hasn’t seen, or at least hasn’t seen all the way. In the gospel of John, the first time John the Baptist sees Jesus is in chapter 1, verse 29—the verse right after this morning’s lesson. And John dies long before Jesus is crucified or raised from the dead.
You might say that John the Baptist is the anti-Doubting Thomas. Thomas, infamously, is the disciple of Jesus who refuses to believe that Jesus has risen from the dead, “unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side” (John 20:25). Jesus tells Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29b). Blessed, in other words, are those who are less like Thomas and more like John the Baptist.
In the end, I think this is why John the Baptist shows up twice in our Advent gospel readings this year. In this season of waiting, we need the Baptist’s example of belief without seeing, of testimony given out of faith and hope rather than from sight. At this time of year there are many people who have a heard time believing that Christmas means anything more than exchanging gifts and eating lots of good food. There are others who cannot believe that words like peace and love and hope belong to a season that reminds them so painfully of loved ones who will not be present this year to celebrate. And there so many more people who, looking at the world’s troubles and sorrows, cannot believe that Jesus will one day return to make things right, if he ever came in the first place.
In Advent, in the season of waiting, in the special time of preparation for Christ’s coming, belief is not enough. We must also testify. And we must be sure to bear witness truthfully: I am not the Messiah. I am a fellow traveler, nothing more. I am not the one you have been waiting for. But I know him. I wait for him, too. I cannot save you or anyone else. But I know who can. I wait for him, too. I am not the Messiah. But I know him. I know him. I know him. And I wait for him, too.