An invitation so unexpected,
a messenger so insistent,
we accepted, in spite of ourselves.
We arrive, and delight answers.
We are anointed with laughter
and clothed with wonder.
Joy is our banquet, and mercy our song.
Every heart is fragranced
by a dazzling, holy love.
Spirits are bathed and bright,
voices share glad tidings, good news.
We dance the steps of innocence and wisdom,
and love this life again.
These gifts so unexpected, a giver so insistent,
we accept, in spite of ourselves.
(Joy Is Our Banquet, by Keri K. Wehlander,
pgs. 79-80, The United Church Publishing House, 1996)
I’ll begin with a story and ask you to use your imagination…
“Imagine that we are going to a huge concert hall, packed to the doors with eager and excited music-lovers. We all have our programs in hand, waiting for the thunderous music to begin. We know what it ought to sound like. This will be music for a battle, for a victory, thunder and lightening and explosions of wonderful noise. The concert manager comes on stage and declares in ringing tones that the famous musician has arrived. He gets us all on our feet, to welcome with an ovation the man who is going to fulfill all our expectations.
As we stand there eagerly, a small figure comes on the stage. He doesn’t look at all like what we expected. He is carrying, not a conductor’s baton, to bring the orchestra to life, but a small flute. As we watch, shocked into silence, he plays, gently and softly, a tune quite different to what we had imagined. But, as we listen, we start to hear familiar themes played in a new way. The music is haunting and fragile, winging its way into our imaginations and hopes and transforming them. And, as it reaches its close, the orchestra responds with a new version of the music we had been expecting all along.” (Matthew for Everyone, by Thomas Wright, Seasons of the Spirit, January 2005)
Like the concert manager,Isaiah’s words are insistent and challenging, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord… His words are also encouraging and promising, “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together…”.
Mark’s account is no less stirring with John the baptizer fulfilling Isaiah’s role as the zealous and persistent messenger proclaiming the Lord’s imminent arrival. John is passionate and convincing. He intrigues people and offers them hope from the bondage and hardship of their lives. John’s ministry is gaining momentum and people from all over the countryside and the city of Jerusalem are lining up to be baptized. But, John makes it abundantly clear that he is not the long awaited messiah who will liberate their people. Borrowing from the imagery that I used earlier of a crowded concert hall, we might say that John the baptizer is the concert manager. He is revving up the people, getting them excited about the real star of the show – the one who will change people’s lives and set them free. John says that the one who the people are waiting for will come after him and is “more powerful”. John tells people that he baptizes with water but the long-awaited One will baptize with the Holy Spirit.
The Jewish people had waited a very long time for a messiah – a saviour who would set their people free. They expected the messiah to be a warrior king who would vanquish their enemies through violent revolution and liberate their people in a burst of military glory.
Instead, Jesus provided a revolution of the heart. He embodied a compelling way of peace and justice borne not of military might but actualized through persistent actions that revealed God’s commonwealth on earth. Little by little, people began to recognize that Emmanuel, God-with-us, had arrived in human form. His power was God’s own pure love that healed and freed wounded souls and gave voice, confidence, and hope to oppressed people everywhere.
Theologian and author, John Dominic Crossan, says that,
“once you announce that something has begun (in this case, God’s kingdom), you must be able to show something. And Jesus…would have accepted that challenge by saying: Come and see how our communities live. Come and see how God-in-us and we-in-God are transforming the world. Come and see how surprised we are at the way God is actually doing it! (The Resurrection of Jesus, pg. 180)
This is what the Gospel of Mark calls, “the good news of Jesus Christ…” (Mark 1:1) Mark says that, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near…believe in the good news.’ ”(Mark 1:14)
Two thousand years later we still celebrate the good news of Jesus Christ. In our celebration we are not blind to the troubles of the world and we know there is more work to be done. As followers of the Way of Jesus we know that our best hope is to continue to emulate Christ’s actions as closely as possible. This ministry requires a stubborn and persistent hope that does not give up. This work of faith draws strength from the belief that God’s intention for the world is peace, justice and fullness of life for all people. Jesus’ life and ministry is a constant reminder that each one of us has the ability to love deeply and to show by word and action God’s love for the world. Together, with people of faith around the world, it is possible that one day God’s peace will replace the tyrannies of wealth and power that oppress and dominate much of our world.
I am personally heartened by Jesus’ words of encouragement, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. (John 14:1) …I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage… (John 16:32-33) Peace be with you. As God has sent me, so I send you. …Receive the Holy Spirit… (John 21-22)
My heart is also warmed and my courage increased through the wise and peaceful actions of others in our world. In this Advent season I give thanks for: warm smiles and hugs on a cold day; generous acts of sharing with others; the ability to take stock of what is important in life and the opportunity to rededicate ourselves anew to following Christ’s way of peace, hope and love.
I’ll close with poetic words of wisdom from a 21st century prophet. This prophet was a child who was wise beyond his years. He left the world a legacy of poetry written with heartfelt love and gratitude. The author’s name is Mattie Stepanek. The poem is called, December Prayer:
No matter who you are,
Say a prayer this season.
No matter what your faith,
Say a prayer this season.
No matter how you celebrate,
Say a prayer this season.
There are so many ways
To celebrate faiths,
There are so many faiths
To celebrate life.
No matter who,
No matter what
No matter how…
Let’s say a prayer
Together, for peace.
Journey Through Heartsongs by Mattie Stepanek
May these words of wisdom be brought to life in our lives this day and in the days to come. Amen