Sunday, December 28, 2008

Our Call in Every Season

Ecclesiastes 3: 1-14

What were you doing a year ago? What were you thinking, hoping? Did you know that Hillary Clinton would not recover from coming in third in the Iowa caucuses, even though she would come very, very close? Did you think that Barack Obama's victory there was the first of many? Did you know that Mike Huckabee would end up not winning the nomination, even though he did win Iowa?

Did you know that the New England Patriots would actually remain undefeated in the regular season and playoffs, only to lose the Super Bowl?

Did you ever think that the winner of the World Series wouldn't be the Yankees, the Red Sox? Did you EVER think that the two teams that played in the World Series would be the Phillies and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays?

Did you know that Center Moreland would, in late spring, become the final spiritual home of a girl named Aimee, whose mother moved her back from Arizona so that she could pass away among family and friends?

Did you know that there would be friends we would have at the beginning of 2008 that we would lose during the course of the year? That there would be people we know who would be very sick and not die, and there would be others who we would be surprised to lose?

No, and I didn't either.

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.

Ecclesiastes is one of the oldest books of the Bible. It is generally less read than other books because from a Christian perspective, from a Christo-centric worldview, it's hard to know what to do with it. There is no clear claim of providence, no pre-figuring of Christ as the culmination of divine intervention in human history. Oh, to be sure, God is present in Ecclesiastes, but not Jesus. So Christians in general do not look at it the same way we look at, say, Isaiah, or even the apocalyptic passages in Daniel or Ezekiel.
But I could suggest to you that Ecclesiastes is of great value to all who respect God, Christians included. Though the author (who might be King Solomon, but is also thought to be an author assuming Solomon's persona) writes in a resigned style, almost as if he is speaking during a great dinner with friends, he is what one commentator calls an "Idol buster", smashing in the course of the book the idols of "money, sex, power, position, human wisdom, even our attempts to become righteous." All that is left at the end, according to the author, who names himself Quoheleth, comes in the twelfth chapter, when he writes that we are to "fear God, and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone."

Everything else is vanity. All that we expect from the world, all that we hope, all that we believe. All is smoke.

I recently finished reading David McCullough's biography of John Adams, and while our second President was ambitious to serve and to be of note as a young man, by the time he had served as a member of Congress and been abroad as an ambassador, he was quite happy to stay home for the rest of his life in Quincy, Massachusetts, farming and reading, being a husband to Abigail, and practicing law. His talents kept him being called back into public service, and he was glad to serve, but he had grown out of his young man's ambitions.

What Quoheleth tells us in Ecclesiastes is that God is the one who gives and takes away, and the simplest, best life is one where our gifts and graces are put to God's use, dedicated to God's purpose, rather than taken as gifts that we are given with which to gather wealth, fame or status.

We who gather here are Christians. We declare that Jesus Christ is our personal savior, and that his death on the cross is a choosing to die for us, and that he was redeemed in that act by God by his resurrection. For Jesus, life was indeed a living out of that summation from Ecclesiastes chapter 12, which was to fear God, keep his commandments, and for that to be the whole duty of everyone. His life is a model for us of how a life lived with God at its center will not want for excitement or fulfillment.

So, this coming year, you can count on there being some things that will surprise. There will be world events which will shock us, sadden us, and others that will make us happy. People around us will suffer misfortune. Others will find good fortune. Sometimes they will be the same person. There will be births. There will be deaths. Gas prices will rise and fall. Everything will change, and nothing will, and we will again not be equipped to be able to predict the difference. But if we greet the year without panic, seeing anti-Christs around every corner, but instead seek to serve God, seek him when it is hard and when it is easy, to reach out to the last and the least and the lost, and to lift each other up in prayer and in regard, we will attach ourselves to what is truly eternal and unchanging, and will weather any storm that comes.

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. Expect change in the coming year, and hold fast to God and to Christ.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Eulogy for Aimee Dickey


Aimee L. Dickey, 12, of Scranton , died Friday at Hospice Community Care, Dunmore, after a courageous battle with inoperable brainstem glioma.

Born July 22, 1996 , in Kingston , daughter of Annette Nardelli McKeon, Scranton , and Thomas Dickey, El Mirage , Arizona , she was a seventh-grade student at West Scranton Middle School and a member of Centermoreland United Methodist Church .

Aimee was a special and loving daughter, sister, granddaughter, niece and friend who enjoyed cheerleading, go-kart racing and arts and crafts. She had a special love for her animals. She will be sadly missed by her loving family and friends.

Also surviving are two brothers, Robert McKeon II and wife, Jessica, Pittston; and Travis Dickey and wife, Jennifer, Iowa; three sisters, Jennifer McKeon, Pittston; Jessica Dickey, Louisiana; Sara Seabolt and husband, Eric, Iowa; her maternal grandfather and step-grandmother: Anthony and Rita Nardelli, Scranton; her paternal grandparents, Ken and Shirley Dickey, Arizona; aunts and uncles, Theresa Harrity and husband, Roy, Scranton; Michael Nardelli and wife, Diane, Scranton; Steven Nardelli, New York; Kenlyn Winters and husband, Jerry, Arizona; and Timothy Dickey and wife, Shannon, South Dakota; nieces, nephews and cousins.

She was also preceded in death by her maternal grandmother, Madelyn Nardelli.

Amy liked to flip me off. She found it endlessly amusing, and once she found out that I was not offended by it, she did it a lot. Her mom would be a little offended, but when she would see that I wasn't, she was more OK with it, though I think it still troubled her.

She was a twelve year old girl, and she could very well have had about her the image issues that most twelve year olds, girls and boys, have. I'm sure there were kids at her school that said that she looked weird. She couldn't speak well, which many kids might have found frightening, and they may have covered that fright with insults. I never did hear Aimee talk about that pain, and she was bold as brass about not hiding herself, no matter how she looked, or felt, or whether her trach tube was in or not. She was bold, in a way which in this valley's isn't perhaps accepted, but wonderful nonetheless.

I never knew Aimee when she didn't have cancer. When I first met her, at Dottie Kupstas' house in the spring of 2008, she was already having trouble walking, and her speech was slurred. I never heard Aimee's normal voice. She was diagnosed with her glioma at the end of September 2007, and they had moved back from Arizona in February. I never knew Aimee when she didn't have cancer, but if she didn't fall ill, it is also pretty true that I wouldn't have known her or her family at all.

When a child becomes ill, the questions we all have about death rise up in our throats like shouts, rather than the whispers we normally hear at the death of one who has lived a long time. We want to know why; we want God to explain to us, in great detail, why a child has to suffer. Some of us may even blame God for what happened to Aimee. We may say, in order to make ourselves better, that God needed her back in heaven.

I believe that God is never short of grace, never short of an angel. Giving children cancer is not the work of the Lord. The God who created us, who called us good, and has loved us even when we are not good, is not in the business of causing pain and suffering to his people, and especially not to his children. Aimee's suffering is not the work of the Lord. The Work of the Lord is his constant presence in our lives, though good and bad; through pain, though joy, though life and certainly through illness. His work is in keeping his spark lit within us, until the time when it is clear that it is time to relieve our suffering. Then, like a campfire, God draws the spark back toward himself, and takes it back and makes it part of himself again. Aimee, or the spark that we know as Aimee, is now once again within and a part of God.

For almost all of those who have had near-death experiences, one thing that is in common for most of the stories they have told is that there is a light that shines forth, a warming, comforting, welcoming light. Aimee told Annette, just not too long ago, that she is in that light all the time, and that she was just not ready to walk into it yet. She was just not ready to trade perishability for imperishability. There were things she wanted to do- she wanted to go to school, she wanted to be confirmed, and she wanted go to Harrisburg with Kevin (this is Kevin Murphy, who had just been elected her local Pa State Representative) to speak on behalf of childhood cancer sufferers, and increase the visibility of this group of children. But the time finally came a week and three hours ago, and she has now joined what we, left behind on earth, call the church triumphant. She has gone to a place where her pain is over, her swollen face has returned to its original shape, and her eyes have regained that mischievous glint. The relationships that she had here on earth are now placed in their best light, and she is able to love everyone without reservation, no matter how troubled, mean, abusive or neglectful they may be here on earth. What she sees best, out the window of that dwelling place that God has built just for her, are the sparks that God has placed within each of us, those tiny flames that are his own spirit that resides in everyone's heart.

She was sure, in a way which is specific only to those who are twelve, that there was a God, and that God loved her. She had experienced his love, she had seen his light, and she had about her, even in the midst of the pain, and the embarrassment, and the sheer boredom and frustration she felt at not being able to drive a go kart, or to cheer, or even in the end to speak without signing, the certainly of knowing where she was going next. Let us be assured by her certainty. Let us know, as she did, what's next when our spark is drawn back to the home fire.

Monday, December 22, 2008

We Have Heard Angels Come from the High Realms of Glory

Matthew 1: 18-25

Advent 4

Why is it that you only really see images of angels at Christmas? Yes, it is true that some people believe in guardian angels, or use angel cards to help them focus their positive energy each morning, but for the most part, we see the images of angels really come out at Christmas. How many people have angels on their Christmas tree? How many have them at the top?

So, I got curious. I've never really thought about it, but angels are everywhere in scripture. I've always just taken them for granted. But think about it--what are the three guys that Abraham entertains in his tent? Angels. What are the two who go to Lot, and are set upon by the mob in Sodom? Angels. Who comes to try to kill Moses at one bizarre point in Exodus? Angels. Who does God make his bet with over Job? An angel. Who does Jacob wrestle with? Could be an angel, though scripture isn't clear.

Who is it that frees Paul and the other apostles from prison? An Angel. When the devil (who is himself an angel in some accounts, though probably not the ha-Satan from Job) comes to tempt Jesus, he tempts Jesus to call upon the powers of heaven to protect him, saying the angels will not let him dash his foot against a stone. Who are the guys in the tomb, telling Mary and everyone else who goes in what has happened? Angels.

They're everywhere in scripture, I just kind of read right past them. There are a lot of people who have studied them, however. The Catholic Church has a ranking of angels that is four levels high. When you hear the term "Heavenly Host", they are referring to the multitude of angels in heaven, almost like they are an army. Outside of the Protestant Canon, there are stories in the Bible that claim angelic help in the reclaiming of Israel from the Greeks.

If you are to believe scripture on this point, the evidence is clear that there's a whole other world behind out senses, one closer to God, we assume, and that there are these inhabitants of that world that can do things we can't, and their job, as far as it applies to us, is to bring messages to us from God. They are heavenly messengers. When Scripture peeks into that world, in Ezekiel, and Revelation, and Daniel, they are everywhere. They circle the throne of God, praising him constantly. The come to earth in great armies, called hosts, to save Israel from its enemies.

The role of Angels in the story of the birth of Jesus, though, is where we think of them the most.

When you think of the story of the birth of Jesus, whichever story you want to look at either from Luke and Matthew (John and Mark do not have birth stories), both versions have angels. In Luke, an angel appears to Zechariah, announcing to him that he and Elizabeth were going to have a child, and that their child would "make ready the paths of the Lord". Six months later, that same angel, Gabriel, goes to Mary and tells her that she is going to bear a son, and his name will be Jesus, and he will reign over the house of Jacob (in other words, Israel) forever. Also in Luke, an angel appears to the shepherds, telling them of the birth of the child in Bethlehem. Following that, a great choir of Angels appears, and they sing Glory to God, in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors." Well, that's the NRSV Bible version. Anyone who has sung in choirs has probably sung at some point Handel's Messiah, and because of that, this particular line only sounds right when it's sung:

Glory to God!
Glory to God!
Glory to God in the highest!
and peace, on earth.

If you look at Matthew's version, and angel appears to Joseph in a dream and convinces him not to divorce Mary because she's pregnant. Instead, he is to take Mary as wife and raise the boy as if he is his own. After Jesus is born, an angel tells Joseph to run away to Egypt, to protect Jesus against Herod. An angel then tells Joseph when to go back, after Herod dies.

Angels are everywhere. The Bible dictionary I used for this sermon has an entry on angels that is 6 full pages long, plus parts of two others. They are mentioned in the Bible a lot.

They are everywhere doing the will of God. They are members of the world that God inhabits, and so we think of them as special beings, somehow a little better than us. In Hebrews, Jesus is said to have been made "a little lower than the angels" for a little while.

So, why am I doing this lecture on the proofs of angels on the fourth Sunday of Advent, three days before Christmas? In the great tradition of preaching professors everywhere, how am I going to answer the question of "So What?"

The four Sundays of Advent represent four Sundays of Preparation. We speak of John the Baptist as the announcer of the coming of Christ. We talked about how Jesus would change from divine being to human being. We talked about Mary's acceptance of the role God has given her, and who Jesus was coming for and through. Angels are God's messengers. When matters of great import are coming, it is angels who bring the word.

Do angels bring ordinary human beings messages today, messages that are perhaps not as important as "greetings favored one?" Do they come down and, as I read once in a Readers' Digest, save people from accidents? I don't know. There is a rather large body of evidence that would suggest that it is so. We sing of angels from the realms of glory, we sing of angels we can hear, even though they are on high, sweetly singing over the plains.

From what study I've done this week on angels, however one thing is clear. If one shows up and tells you that something is going to happen, you can sure trust that it is true, and you can also trust that it is a VERY BIG DEAL. Angels are the messengers of God. If one shows up, pay attention.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Luke 1: 39-56

Advent 3

39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

Mary has already been told that she will conceive and bear a son, and the angel Gabriel has told her who this son will be, that he will have a kingdom that will have no end. The angel has also told her that her cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant, and Mary probably knows that this is more work of the Lord, because she knows how old her cousin Elizabeth is.

41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

This is certainly not your usual greeting by an older woman to a younger one. There is perhaps a span of 60 years between them, and yet, when Mary appears, Elizabeth gives her a greeting that is reverent and joyful, which most days would be very odd for an older lady greeting a girl.

Now Mary, who has already had an angel visit, and has now become pregnant by divine means, hears from Elizabeth that Elizabeth's baby has started kicking like crazy upon hearing Mary's voice. The last line of Elizabeth is the most important, though. The wonders upon wonders continue. "And blessed is she who believed that there would be fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." Zechariah, Elizabeth's husband and the one person in this story with any status at all, didn't believe, and now, in this point of the story, he has been struck speechless, not to utter another word for three more months, until John is born and about to be named. Mary, however, does believe, and has figured out what all these things that have happened to her, means.

46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

If Mary were living today, and was indeed a typical girl of her age, she might very well have texted OMG to her friends. It means "O My God", the electronic equivalent of "Omigod", in Valley girl-speak. Except she would actually be meaning the "my God" part. Mary knows who she is. She knows that she is a young girl who lives in a country occupied by foreigners. She knows that she is often in danger, and that her life is not worth much. In her culture, she's destined for early marriage, as she was already entering into when the angel came, being engaged to Joseph. The plan for her ,as for so many of her friends, was to have kids, hopefully lots of them, to be dependent on her husband for income, unless she can create a few crafts for sale in the market, and to die at a very young age. She knows that her cousin, Elizabeth, is an old woman, who has already passed her years of usefulness by those standards, and the fact that she never gave birth to any children sets her very low on the hierarchy of their culture. Surely there were women who walked by Elizabeth in the market and made that tsk-tsk sound in pity at her wasted life.

But God has other plans. From these two people, who exist on the bottom rung of life, far from power or prestige or honor, come the fulfillment of prophecy and the coming of the Kingdom of the Lord. God did not choose to break into the world through the riding of a great white horse into Rome, shining sword in hand, to clean house. God chose to enter the world as the Christ through a human being, as a human being. And God did not choose to be born by the daughter or one of the wives of the Roman Emperor, or even by the wife of Herod, but he chose to come to us through an unmarried young girl, and the one who would announce his coming came not from royalty, or status, but from what we would call a crone. And by doing so, God announces not just that he is in the world, but that all people in his world are important. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

This son that she is about to have is coming for all. It takes time for people to understand this all part--Even after Jesus has died and been resurrected, and has returned to heaven, it takes Peter's baptism of the Roman soldier Cornelius and the following great meeting in Jerusalem for the followers of Christ to understand just what all really means.

Because Elizabeth believes, The announcement of the Lord comes. Because Mary believes, the Lord domes. Because they agree, their world changes. Because they agreed then, and believed, our world still changes. Though our belief in God's lifting up the lowly and casting down the rich, oppression lives in fear. Through the acting of God in human history by the acceptance of two marginalized members of a minority population, we know that Christ will live, and die, for all. Through our belief in the gifts that this child, the Christ, who will be named Jesus, will bring for us, we will be saved.

OMG, indeed.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Same Mind as Jesus

John 1:1-5, 10-18
Philippians 2: 5-11

At the beginning of the movie A River Runs Through It, an elderly narrator is setting up the story of his family by explaining how and where he grew up. It's Robert Redfords' voice, but the words are the words of Norman Maclean. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister in Missoula, MT, and his father was an avid fly fisherman. On Sundays, he would walk with his two sons, including the author, down the Big Blackfoot River to unwind between services. The scene is of the minister picking up a rock out of the river that had circular markings on it. It was a sedimentary rock, and the marking were where rain had fallen and struck the mud, which became rock without those shapes ever having been washed out or rubbed off.

The author remembers his father saying that those rocks were half a billion years old, but beneath those rocks, even older than that, are the words of God. And if you listen closely, you can still hear that voice. So, he told them to listen. And if they're old enough and wise enough, someday they would hear.

It the world that most of us live in, this is crazy talk. Below the rocks are more rocks, then the crust, and below that is the mantle, and then the core of the earth. Most of us live in a world where the only things that are real are those we can sense--hear, touch, feel, measure, taste, see. It's hard to believe in God, because we can't see God. It's hard to believe that Jesus died for us, and some of us just don't buy it. Even more don't really believe that Jesus was dead and rose again.

But I think that Norman Maclean's father was aware of another type of truth. I've read the book and I've seen the movie, but it wasn't until recently that I really heard those first five minutes of so of the movie. Beneath the rocks are the words of God. O course he isn't talking in terms of the laws of geology, of deposits of rock beneath other deposits of rock generally being older, though in a sense, he's right there, too. What he is saying is that he understands it when John writes that
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

Everything came into being through the Word, John says. Just in the same way that a tailor stands behind his or her work, and there was a person who sews before there are clothes, the word was in the beginning. Beneath the creation, lies the creator. Beneath the object lies the maker.

Maclean's father encouraged the boys to listen for the voice of God, and stood next to a river to do so. A beautiful river in a very beautiful part of Montana. God can indeed be seen in nature, in the beauty of the rocks, the rivers, the deserts and the oceans. God's power can be seen in thunderstorms. But God's love is hard to see by using only that evidence. God does provide out of that bounty, but the fullness of God's love can't be fully, unless we widen the story.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

To understand God's power and grace and beauty, we have around us many proofs. To understand god's love, we have something else; Jesus Christ. In Jesus the Christ, we have both the proof and the pudding. Jesus, according to John, came to us so that we might understand God fully. Not everyone gets him, even today. Even some of those in the church still hope to understand. We have a man, Jesus, yes. Born a baby, grown through a human life, died the way a human dies--by the heart stopping, the lungs ceasing to pump air.

But we also have the Christ. We also have the Word, who has inserted itself into the world through extraordinary means. . . .though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
The Word came to us not in his full glory , and power, like some great colossus, a Cloverfield monster, so that we might see him and be terrified, but instead, he came in the way we could understand best; in the way that we came. This is what it means in Philippians when it says that he;
. . . emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death. . .

He came as a baby. He came as something that without love, either dies or grows in a malformed way. He came to us in a way that would of course take time to develop, but in this time, he also had the opportunity to convince us more solidly than merely showing great power and majesty.

Because the Christ came to us, to be with us, in our world, as a human being who lived as we did, a living breathing human being named Jesus, with all of the inherent separations, distractions and limitations that we have, what we learn is more than just that God created the world and it was good. We would have known that just by observing the earth and all its bounty. Through Jesus, we learn that God loves us in a very active, directed way. But it was how Jesus lived that teaches us that we can return that love directly. We can overcome those separations, distractions, and limitations, and be connected to God the way Jesus was. Perhaps not as deeply, to be sure, but his ways to connect with God are our ways; meditation, prayer, craving silence and solitude, time with friends and family, teaching and learning, and of course living a life of grace and generosity.

It's perhaps too sassy to say "if he could do it, so can we", but in a very real sense, he provides our model.

When John tells us to let our minds be of the same mind as Christ Jesus, this is what he means. Jesus was bedrock sure of God's love; so sure, in fact, that trusting God with his very life in Jerusalem wasn't a bet in his mind, though he may or may not have known the outcome. We can trust in God, too, and though we may not see what's coming, whatever it will be will be somehow good. Not nice, not pleasant, not superficially enjoyable, always, but good.

To let our minds be of the same mind of Christ Jesus is to understand that below the rocks, below the trees, below the rivers and the oceans, below the deer and the turkeys, below the asphalt and the car tires and the foundations of our houses and buildings, lies the Word of God. It is our bedrock, as it was his. So listen closely, and if you are wise enough, you might hear those words.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

Mark 1:1-8

Advent 1

When I was a child, my father was a choir conductor at a high school. He would also do musicals. I remember him doing the Sound of Music, and I remember seeing the posters of shows like Oklahoma. One year, he did Godspell. This is a musical that was written in the late 60’s early 70’s, and the premise is that a bunch of Hippie type characters recreate, loosely the parables of Jesus, taken from the Gospel of Matthew. The movie was somewhat different, but the gist of it was the same, amid locations in New York City.

The character of John the Baptist in my dad’s play was played by a dark haired guy with one of those beefy 70’s moustaches. Now remember, I was 8 or 9, and these were big adult 17 year olds. The theatre would go dark, and he would sneak into the back of the dark theatre. Then there would be a spotlight pointed to the left aisle, and this character would, in a loud voice, go BAAAA! BAAAAA! BA-BA-BA-BA!, mimicking the sound of a shofar, the musical instrument made of horn that is used to announce great religious events. And then he would sing:

Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord;
Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

This would be followed by the lights coming up, and all the cast coming onto the stage, singing along to those words, and the show would proceed from there. Those were the only words to the song.

I can’t read about John the Baptist without thinking of that kid, that faux-shofar sound, and that song.

John the Baptist is hugely important to the story of the coming Christ. Here is what we know.

John was Jesus’ second cousin. His mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary were cousins, and when Mary, the unwed teenage mother, clears out of town for a while, she goes to Elizabeth. As Mary comes close to Elizabeth, Elizabeth feels her baby, six months farther along or so, give a mighty kick, which she phrases as him “leaping in the womb”, and this is the first awareness of John as the forerunner of Jesus—first out of the womb, he knows what’s coming right behind him.
John grows up to be a prophet, unlike what anyone has seen in a long time. When John’s birth is announced to his parents, they are told that he is not to “drink wine or strong drink”, which is the same thing said to Samson’s parents in Judges. Samson was what is called a Nazirite, and Numbers tells us that a Nazirite is not to touch anything relating to a grapevine, and he or she isn’t to cut their hair, and they are not to come near a dead body. They are a symbol of greater dedication to God, and John takes this further, wearing camel’s hair clothing and eating honey and locusts. In other words, grasshoppers.

He goes into the country, to the area of the river Jordan near where Elijah ascended into heaven, and preaches repentance—getting ready for what is coming soon. John may have known who that was going to be, or not, which is the source of his resistance to baptizing Jesus in some of the gospel accounts.

He also hears, or doesn’t hear, the voice from heaven that says “This is my Son, the beloved in whom I am well pleased”.

John is present, more than anything else in our Bibles, as the one who announces that the Lord is coming again, and returning as was promised. His role is to announce and to be an announcement. Is he Elijah? He denies it, but he is set up to fulfill all that. Here’s what one commentator says:

“the parallels between john and Elijah are significant, . . .It is no accident that John identified himself this way, or that his followers regarded him as Elijah, since traditions spoke of Elijah’s return, to avert the wrath of God an to lead Israel to repentance.

In what we call the Old Testament, a passage from the prophet Malachi says it pretty plainly;

“Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”

The first week of Advent is the week of announcement. Jesus is coming. Two thousand years ago, Jesus came. There may or may not be more John the Baptists coming, there may or may not be any announcements about Jesus return to us or to a future generation. We believe, as Christians, that these prophecies have been fulfilled, and despite some teachings, we will not know when Jesus returns again.

The only announcement of Jesus’ coming that will arrive now is the one that we give. It is up to us to announce that Jesus, born two thousand years ago, God into flesh, is now born into the hearts of those who believe. We are John the Baptist. We are the announcement of Emmanuel—God is with us. We don’t have to wear hair shirts, and we don’t have to eat grasshoppers and honey, but we, as the followers of a physically invisible Lord, do have to live differently so that He can be announced.

When we celebrate Advent, it highlights that we are in a but of a mixed up world. We are celebrating a season of anticipation for something that has already happened. We are calling attention to a past story, two thousand years old, in order to point to the fact that in our spirits, that birth happens every day.

We are the announcement. We are the shofar call. We are the people set aside and sent forth to announce that God is with us. We are John the Baptists.

Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,
Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.