Our mission is to prepare the way, just like John the Baptist!

Advent 3 – December 17, 2017
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

In the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.   AMEN.

Dr. Tom Long in his book, Shepherds and Bathrobes, tells a story that appeared years ago in the New York Times.

It was just before Christmas. David Storch, a music teacher, borrowed a copy of the score of Handel’s Messiah from the Brooklyn Public Library. For some reason, through a clerical error, the transaction was not recorded.

Afterward, there were several other requests for the score, and the library staff, unaware that it had been checked out, spent many hours searching in vain for it through the stacks.

On the day that Storch returned it, placing it on the circulation desk, he was astonished to hear the librarian spontaneously, joyously, and loudly shout, “The Messiah is here! The Messiah is back!” Every head in the library turned toward the voice, but, sadly, as the Times reported, “A few minutes later everyone went back to work.” (1)  Only a paper version of Messiah had come back to the library, not the Messiah himself.

If people had only known who was in their midst when Jesus walked the byways of Israel more than 2,000 years ago, a similar cry would have rung out--spontaneously, joyously, and loudly, “The Messiah is here! The Messiah is here!” But only a few were blessed with that critical insight. The first of these was John the Baptist, that eccentric preacher in the wilderness. You heard about this in today’s gospel. 

As we continue our preparation for our celebration of the Lord’s coming, I want to focus on these important words spoken by John to the Pharisees: “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know. . .”

What powerful words those are: “Among you stands one you do not know. . .” Who was this one that the world did not know? It was, of course, God Himself in human form.

Do you remember the story about of Robinson Crusoe? He was in a shipwreck. He was all alone, stranded on an island for days, weeks, and months. But one day, he noticed a footprint in the sand and that footprint was not his own. Immediately, Robinson Crusoe knew that he was not alone. Someone else was on that island with him.

Christmas is story of God putting his human footprint onto the sands of earth so that you and I will know that we are not alone.

“Among you stands one . . .” declares John the Baptist. Think for a few moments about the difference that the coming of Christ made in the world.

With the coming of Christ, light came into the world--the light of God’s love. That’s the way the Gospel of John describes the difference that Christ’s coming made in our world. “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

This is why churches and homes throughout the Christian world display candles and tree lights this time of year. We celebrate the light that has overcome the darkness.

 “Among you stands one . . .” When Christ came into the world, light penetrated the darkness--the light of God’s love. That’s the beautiful thing about Christmas. Love permeates every aspect of this wonderful celebration.

This is a true story from a lady named Sheryl Van Wells who told her favorite Christmas story, that happened many years ago in the life of Sheryl’s mother, Phyllis.

Phyllis grew up in a very poor but very happy family. One year, just before Christmas, Phyllis contracted diphtheria. Diphtheria was a serious and highly contagious illness, so the whole family had to be quarantined for many weeks. Every Christmas Phyllis’ mother had sold baked goods in order to buy Christmas presents for the children. But this year, due to the quarantine, her mother wasn’t allowed to sell any baked goods, so there would be no fancy gifts around the tree.

Seven-year-old Phyllis’ biggest concern was that the quarantine would keep Santa from coming to their house altogether. The poor little girl spent the weeks leading up to Christmas in a depression.

On Christmas morning, Phyllis’ father went up and brought his daughter down from her bedroom so she could see her surprise. Under the tree was the most beautiful doll Phyllis had ever seen. For years she would recall that doll as the best gift she’d ever been given.

Years later, Phyllis learned the secret of the doll’s origins. Phyllis’ mother had taken one of Phyllis’ old, ragged dolls and washed and painted it. Then she took her one and only fancy dress, the prettiest dress she owned, and cut it up to make a dress and booties for the doll. Finally, she cut off a length of her own beautiful hair and fashioned a wig for the doll. Her mother’s sacrifice, says Sheryl, resulted in a Christmas memory that will be passed down through many generations.  

My own father was born in 1900.  He lived on a big farm in Nashville, Tennessee.  He got his first long pants when he was 15.  Young boys back then work knickers that were right below the knee.  They lived in a big two-story house like a big plantation so they were by no means poor.  My dad used to tell me about his Christmas traditions.  First of all the tree was cut down on their farm and it was always a tall holly tree.  They cut it down on Christmas Eve.  After the children went to bed his mom and dad stayed up and decorated the tree with real candles.  You may realize that there were no strings of electric lights that could be purchased at Walmart.  There was no Walmart.  They went to church when he was little in a buggy pulled by horses.  It was much like the holiday greeting cards we see.  Each child in the family hung up one of their long socks on the mantel that night.  In the morning when the children came downstairs one of the most wonderful things they saw was the tree all lit up with real candles and beautiful ornaments.  Their stocking had fruit and nuts they grew on their property and a small present.  This is my dad’s top.  I brought it to vacation bible school so some of you have seen how it still spins 100 years later!  So moms and dads do not fret over the amount or the worth of the presents this year.  What you have is enough!  Let’s go back to the simpler times and enjoy time spent together.  Tell the stories of your childhood traditions so that they might be told again from one generation to another.

When Christ came into the world, a new way of living was revealed. Let me ask you a question: Is the Christian faith a belief system or is it a way of living? Now I realize that it is both, but for you, which best describes our faith--a belief system or a way of living? I hope you answered a way of living.

I believe this is a truth that explains why some people live such tepid lives. For them faith is merely a belief system. As long as they check off a few core beliefs about Jesus, then they win the grand prize, life after death. They believe the man of Galilee lived, died, and was resurrected, but they’ve never seriously considered themselves to be one of his followers. They’ve never involved themselves in seeking his kingdom here on earth. As St. Andrew, our patron saint was the first one called to follow, we ought to give thought to our own call and response.

John the Baptist had one mission in life and that was to prepare the world for the coming of Christ. Isn’t that my mission and your mission as well? I know that as your priest that should be my main responsibility‑‑to stand as John the Baptist stood and to declare that I have baptized you with water, like we just did with Charlie, but there is one who is coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

I hope Christ’s love has touched your life and that you will touch someone else’s. When Christ came into the world, the light of God’s love penetrated the darkness and a new way of living was revealed.

My prayer for you is that this spirit of generosity and love continues to spread through you and me until the day comes when God’s love blankets the Earth. AMEN.