Well, as you can see, our nativity set is out. This beautiful nativity set was gifted to us several years ago by Reverend Vivian Love. And I'm so grateful to Jim Bailey from our art guild for getting it all set up for us yesterday. Thank you, Jim. And then this beautiful painting that's on the altar was created by our church member Paul Burdick, who's such a wonderful painter. And Paul gifted this to our church several years ago as well. We're so grateful for these images and depictions of the Nativity. And of course, there are so many beautiful and famous works of art over the centuries that depict the scene of Jesus's birth.
And it really gets to the heart of what this Advent season is all about. We're preparing ourselves for the birth of the light. And that's why it's so interesting that our readings for the past few weeks for Adven, haven't really been about the baby Jesus, and Mary and Joseph.
Instead, we're hearing, two weeks in a row, about John the Baptist. Now, I don't know about you, I've never seen John the Baptist in anybody's holiday display. I've never gotten a Christmas card with John the Baptist on it. I'll have to ask Peter Black. I don't know any Christmas carols that sing about John the Baptist.
So why is the church having us focus Advent on John the Baptist? Well, I told you on the first Sunday of Advent, if you remember, Advent really isn't about the birth of the baby. Baby was already born 2,000 years ago. What Advent is about is we're preparing ourselves for the coming of the Christ.
And if you think about it, John the Baptist was the very first person to proclaim that and to prepare people for the coming of this light.
Now, John, the Baptist himself, was so full of light that people actually thought that maybe he was the Messiah that had been promised to them in the Old Testament. But John assured them, as we heard this morning, that someone was coming who was even greater than he was, and he said that person was already in their midst.
And of course, that person was Jesus. Now, John, the Baptist and Jesus were contemporaries. In fact, Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist. And you may know that they were also cousins. I'm sure you are familiar with the story from Luke's Gospel, which is known as The Visitation. And in that story, Mary, Jesus's mother, is visited by her cousin Elizabeth. And both women are pregnant.
At the same time, Mary was pregnant with Jesus, and Elizabeth was pregnant with John the Baptist. And both those pregnancies were miraculous. We hear Mary's was because she was a virgin. And Elizabeth was because she was well past childbearing years. Some say Elizabeth was 90 years old when she was pregnant.
Now, all of that virgin births, 90-year-olds giving birth, that all may sound hard to believe for you. But I've told you before the stories from Scripture are not meant to be understood literally. They're meant to be understood symbolically and spiritually. You know, stories of miraculous births were not uncommon in the ancient world, and they were meant to signify someone's divinity. So the fact that both John and Jesus had these miraculous births, it was meant to signify to people that John and Jesus were divinely appointed by God to be great prophets and truth tellers in the world.
So if John and Jesus were around the same age, and they were cousins, it's most likely that they grew up together. But interestingly enough, John began his ministry way before Jesus did. You know, Jesus didn't begin his ministry until he was 30 years old, which was middle aged back then. But before Jesus was doing that, John the Baptist was already out there. He was already out there teaching and preaching and healing people. And he was getting them ready for this new way. He was leading a very big and popular social movement of change and reform.
As we heard, in our Words of Integration and Guidance this morning, which Jerry so beautifully read for us, the world during the time of John and Jesus was one that was badly broken. It was one that was held upside-down by the people at the top – the powerful, the wealthy. And these people were not held accountable for their actions.
And we obviously know that there was so much injustice and people's basic human rights were being ignored. The Bible is full of stories like that. If you read the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New Testament, they're stories about communities of people who are being oppressed, oppressed by an oppressive political regime, or by repressive religious authorities.
And we read in the Bible that these communities resisted these regimes and authorities. It's why the late Christian writer, Rachel Held Evans, who passed away in 2019, wrote that the Bible is literature for the resistance. The Bible is literature for the resistance. So before Jesus even gets on the scene, John the Baptist is already out there getting people to resist and to rise up.
And we know he was rebellious in many ways. I remember one of my seminary professors saying that he wasn't sure what kind of car Jesus would be driving if he was around today. But he was pretty sure that John the Baptist would be riding a Harley, because that's who he was. He was out there in the wilderness. He was barefoot. He was wearing burlap sacks. He was eating locusts and honey. And he was becoming popular, leading this social uprising of people.
And that was so dangerous to the powers that be that we know John the Baptist was beheaded at the bequest of King Herod. Now, if the Bible is literature – and it is, it uses literary devices, like symbolism and metaphor, and it also uses foreshadowing – John the Baptist foreshadows the story of Jesus. They were both miraculous births. They both grew up to become prophets. They both lead popular social movements. They were both arrested. And they were both killed.
Now, Jesus was actually more dangerous to the powers that be than John was, because you see, John was on the fringes. John was wearing the sackcloth, and eating bugs, and he was leading this group of the marginalized.
But Jesus was more respectable. Jesus was teaching and preaching in the villages in the towns. He was not on the outskirts, but right in the center of town. Jesus was in the synagogues, in the temples. And the group of people that Jesus was leading wasn't just the marginalized, but respectable people as well.
And where John baptized people with water, we hear Jesus was going to baptize people with fire, was going to light a fire under people and lead a revolution.
So what were John the Baptist and Jesus doing, that was so threatening to the powers that be, that they needed to be killed? Well, they were leading a new movement, they were saying, a new kingdom is on its way, people. And we're going to make way for this new world order, a world in which those at the top are going to be brought down, a world in which the last are going to be first.
And you can see why that was threatening to the powers that be, my friends. If we truly are to call ourselves Christians, followers of the way of John the Baptist and Jesus, we have to do what they did. We have to make way for this new world order. But we have to have courage to do so. Because it's gonna put us in danger.
Not only were John and Jesus killed, we know there were many early Christian martyrs, and even 20th century ones like Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero, people who were killed for speaking truth. It's why the late Jesuit priest, Father Daniel Barrigan said, “If you want to follow the way of Jesus, you better look good on wood.”
Okay. Now, I know we don't want to hear that. We would much rather sit in the comfort and safety of our pews and worship Jesus from afar, rather than go out in the world and do as he did, but that is our calling as Christians.
Now what in the world does all this have to do with Advent?
Well, that's what the season of Advent is about. We are preparing for the Way, the Way of the Lord. This new way of living, this new way of loving and being. We are preparing for the coming of the kin-dom, a world of hope and peace and joy and love, which the four Advent candles represent.
So today, we're lighting the candle for Joy. And you may say, Pastor Sal, what is so joyful about all this? I mean, what is so joyful, 2,000 years after Jesus? Our world is still broken. It's still being held upside-down by the rich and the powerful. There's still so much injustice, what's joyful about that?
Well scripture tells us “Do not be dismayed by the ways of the world, for a light shines in the darkness.” Just in my lifetime alone, I have so much that gives me hope and joy. Think about it. In the long history of humanity, just in our lifetimes alone, that short window of human history, we've seen women's rights and civil rights and gay rights and transgender rights.
It hasn't been easy. And we still have a long way to go. But the truth tellers who came before us, the truth tellers in this room, you have made way for the Way. That's why we are celebrating it with great joy. Because we're saying the kin-dom of heaven is on its way. It is at hand. It is near, so rejoice. We are the ones that we've been waiting for.
As I told you last Sunday, Jesus isn't going to come back and make this happen. The light is born in us. So this Advent season, my friends, let us prepare for that coming of the light within us. Let us make way for the Way and let every heart prepare Him room.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
by Rev. Kathryn M. Matthew, UCC Pastor
There are undoubtedly many folks in our pews this week who are beginning to wonder about this whole season of Advent. The contrast between the tenor of our lectionary readings and the mood of the holidays is stark: the baby is already in the manger of many Nativity sets, the decorations are already hung, and Christmas carols are in the air. Why, then, is the church making us listen (two weeks in a row!) to stories about John the Baptist? This wide-eyed preacher in the wilderness boldly proclaimed a message of challenge and exhortation. In his day, the powers-that-be had arranged a world based on empire, with those at the top grabbing the lion's share of power and material wealth for themselves. However, it wasn't just the Roman Empire that experienced his wrath, but the religious institutions also felt the sting of John's rebuke, for things were all out-of-whack, they had gone awry, or, as Richard Swanson so evocatively puts it, the world was being held "upside-down" by the ones on top. John calls the people to prepare for what they had been waiting for all these years: that change was coming, that the Light was on its way. And, to prepare for its arrival, John gives the people simple instructions: "Don’t hoard. Share with one another. Be fair. Don’t fight. Be kind to one another.” The heart of his message is that basic goodness and justice will knock the supports out from under every upside-down, oppressive structure and system that we've built. Many of us today are overwhelmed by the magnitude of world events which seem as large and powerful to us as the Roman Empire must have seemed to Jewish peasants. John's sermon about personal generosity and social justice should call each and every one of us today to prepare ourselves for the new world that is on its way. That is the hope that sustains us, the vision toward which we work, and the good news which we proclaim. Is it no wonder then that we live in joy, as well?
What did you think?