Well, I brought a friend with me today to help out with the sermon. He’s a little hard to recognize, especially maybe for you way in the back. So I hope you can all see that this is Jesus, looking maybe not the way you’d expect to find him in church. He’s my plastic Jesus. Maybe some of you have heard that song, “I don’t care if it rains or freezes, long as I got my plastic Jesus riding on the dashboard of my car.”
But this is not that kind of plastic Jesus because he doesn’t have a suction cup. I think of him as roller-skate Jesus, because he’s got wheels under his sandals, and his arms are posable, limited but posable. I think of this as his “come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened” pose.
So there’s a story about how I came to have this Jesus. When I was still at the church I served before I retired, every year in the fall they had a yard sale out in the area in front of the church. And people in the parish—but also outside vendors—could buy a table. And even though it’s out in the country, it’s a fairly well-traveled road. So it was a bit of visibility for the church, too. And it was very popular in the community.
And I would walk around and try to talk to pretty much everybody who was there, just to welcome them and kind of make them aware of our community in that church. So I walked past the table of a guy who sold a lot of junk. And I saw Jesus there sitting on top of some junk behind him. I walked on by, but then I said to myself, you know what? I’ve got to have that. So I went back and I said to him, how much do you want for Jesus?
There’s a woman in another parish that I visit from time to time who asked me on one of my last visits there if I would give her a special blessing on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of her baptism. They have the custom of having blessings for birthdays and anniversaries and so on. And it seems that she asked to be blessed every year on her baptism anniversary, but this year with the zero at the end of the year it was especially meaningful to her.
And of course I did give her the blessing. But I was a little embarrassed, although I didn’t say so, because I realized that about two months earlier, I also had had the 70th anniversary of my baptism, and the day passed without my thinking of it at all. So I was impressed by how much that meant to her in an ongoing way. I’ve been thinking about my own baptism though these last two weeks as I reflected on the baptism of Jesus, and what it meant and what it means to us now.
I don’t remember my own baptism; I was an infant. But Jesus was an adult and he made his own decision to come to John, where John was baptizing on the banks of the Jordan River. And John’s baptism of course was different from ours. John says in the gospel it’s a baptism of water. It’s not the Trinitarian baptism that we celebrate: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” His baptism was a baptism of repentance and preparation. Preparation for the coming Kingdom of God, turning your life around and being ready to live in that kingdom.
There’s a painting of the infant Jesus that I’ve reflected on over these last weeks of Advent, as I pondered again the meaning of Christmas. It’s not one of your typical cow-and-donkey Nativities. There is no multitude of the heavenly host singing, “Glory to God in the highest.” This one is very, very simple. It’s a night scene, and the contrast between dark and light in the painting is quite intense. It was done by a Dutch painter about 400 years ago, and if anything comes to mind for you when you think of a Rembrandt painting—if you can imagine that contrast between dark and light—that’s what this is like.
There are only five people in this scene. First of all, there’s the baby himself. He’s at the center of the picture. He’s lying on a white cloth, underneath of which you can see a little straw. So he’s in the manger. And the strangest thing about the picture is that he himself appears to be the source of light.
Mary is holding that cloth. She’s about to swaddle him. She’s looking down at him, and she looks serene. Joseph is standing behind her, looking over her shoulder, and he’s in darkness. So he’s a little hard to see, but he looks full of joy.
Leaning over the baby in the painting are two angels. Now, we know they’re angels in this picture because you can just barely see their wings, but they really look more like teenage girls, and they’re leaning over, and they have that expression of absolute joy and delight which is so typical when we see a newborn baby.
I think that this painting really tells us three things that are important to remember when we think about the meaning of Christmas. The first is that this baby is a very typical—very ordinary, in some ways—human infant. He’s just a baby. On the other hand, he’s the Light of the World, and his light illuminates the faces of all those around him.
Poor John the Baptist, we’ve turned him into a caricature of himself. We think either of that fiery and perhaps somewhat frightening prophet that maybe some of you heard in this morning’s Gospel, or else into a funny little cartoon character with the shaggy hair and beard and shaggy brown tunic and sandals, wearing a sandwich board that says, “Repent.”
And either way, by making him something different from what I think he really is, we make him irrelevant.
John’s original mission was to call people to repentance as a way of preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ. And apparently his preaching was so powerful that crowds came out of Jerusalem and went to where he was preaching beside the Jordan River. Something in his preaching really touched their hearts.
And since we ourselves are preparing in this season of Advent for the coming of Jesus Christ, I think it’s good to think about what his message was really, and what he might have to say to us if he came back here and appeared among us today.
But first of course, we’d have to recognize him. I don’t think he’d show up in Bristol in his shaggy little tunic and sandals. At least I hope not in wintertime, but it might be hard to recognize him in skinny jeans sitting by the banks of the Delaware River.
Today’s gospel begins with what might be the most audaciously tone-deaf statement in the entire New Testament. Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, which is to say that Jesus is walking to his death. And he knows it.
Just before this, he tells his people for the third time that in Jerusalem he will be turned over to the high priests, and mocked and tortured and put to death. The very next thing is, here come James and John with their request. But actually it isn’t a request. They don’t ask a question. They just tell him what they want. Teacher, they say, we want you to do for us what we ask of you. And when he asks what they want, they say, we want to sit at your right hand and your left when you come into your glory.
It’s a little like sitting your kids down to give them some terrible news, and when you’re finished, the next thing they say is, what’s for dinner—we want you to give us something good. It doesn’t acknowledge what Jesus is going through. I can just imagine how he must’ve felt.
So I think when we look back on that scene, it’s easy for us to feel superior. Here are these people who are with Jesus day in and day out, and they just don’t get it. He’s preparing to die. They’re worrying about what their rank is going to be, who’s going to be the greatest among them.
One of the faith-based organizations that I have really admired over the years and been a volunteer with is Habitat for Humanity, the one that Jimmy Carter brought attention to by showing up on their Saturday workdays and swinging his hammer along with the other volunteers.
I’ve worked myself on a couple of Habitat projects in this area over the years ,including one I recall with the youth of Trinity Buckingham back when I was in seminary. But what I’m thinking of today even more than that work experience is the time when I was a member of the Habitat committee that met monthly. I represented my parish when all of those who were involved in Habitat came together. We met at each other’s churches which was always fascinating—there were similarities, and then again there are such differences in the different places we would go/ And we would pray together, and we learned that we pray in ways that are similar and also in other ways quite different.
But that experience of working together to solve a need was always relly rewarding, because there really is a need in this area for decent, safe, affordable housing. Of the 67 Pennsylvania counties, I’ve read that Bucks is fifth highest in cost of living. I’m safe and secure because I’ve owned my home for something like 40 years, but people tell me that these days especially the real estate market in Bucks is what they call red hot, and it makes it even harder for people of… I don’t want to say limited means because it isn’t just the minimum-wage workers who can’t afford a decent place to live, it’s people with good jobs who are struggling to meet the rents that we have in this area.
Back when COVID arrived on the scene last year, you might remember that the first advice we heard for staying healthy was all about hand-washing. You were supposed to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds whenever you came home from being outside, and definitely before you ate anything.
It’s still good advice. My parents taught me to wash my hands before meals, I taught my kids, and they’re teaching the same thing to their kids. And we do the lavabo, the ritual hand-washing before communion here. But in these COVID times, I’ll also go out to the sink in the sacristy and wash my hands with soap and water to be sure they’re really clean before I touch something that will be put into your mouths.
So it seems basic, this hand cleanliness thing, and a bit puzzling that Jesus seems to be defending his disciples’ eating with dirty hands. But to make sense of this dialogue, you have to understand that this is really a debate about religious practices. It’s not so much about cleanliness as it is about holiness. This ritual hand-washing was what the priests did before they led worship, and eventually, it was extended to ordinary people.
But it was a tradition, not something that was commanded in Scripture. And, actually, Mark exaggerates a little when he says that all Jews do this because, in fact, all Jews did not do this, which is why Jesus and the Pharisees are having this discussion. And I think it’s actually a friendly discussion, not a debate, much like we have among ourselves today about how properly to live the faith.
Back in March of 2020, when it was clear that COVID had arrived among us but no one really knew what was going to happen next, my son and his family, who were living in Philadelphia at the time, decided they didn’t want to be in the city right then. So he and his wife and their two little girls, who are 2 and 4 now, came out to live with us in New Hope. And I have to say that for us, it was a great blessing because it really gave us a chance to grow close to those kids, and to my son and his wife.
But we did especially try to find things that would engage the kids while they were with us. So at one point we decided we were going to make homemade pizza, because what kid doesn’t like pizza? And it was a good thing, making the dough and all that. But what we found was, you couldn’t get flour or yeast. It had all disappeared from the shelves. I had a little flour and some yeast that was way past its expiration date. And a friend of mine who’d gotten extra yeast in advance to bake Easter bread gave me a little, and we made do so we had our pizza. But I still think back on that explosion of bread baking. All of a sudden, everybody was making bread. Why?
Back in the days when I used to spend a lot of time in New York City–and this was way before COVID—I saw an art installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which really moved me and which has stayed with me ever since.
It was unusual. Basically, it was a large pile of candy, hard candies wrapped in very colorful foil wrappers, heaped up under a spotlight, which made the foil wrappers sparkle. And people who saw this were invited to take one of the candies. So, over the course of the day, this pile got smaller and smaller. But every morning it was replenished to total 175 pounds of candy, which supposedly is the typical weight of a healthy adult male.
The artist was a guy named Felix Gonzalez-Torres. And this piece of art didn’t have a title but it had an official subtitle, which was “A Portrait of Ross in L.A.” It was a tribute to his partner who had died of HIV-AIDS. And the diminishment of the pile was meant to suggest the diminishment of his partner’s own body as he moved through that illness.
There’s a lovely children’s story called The Velveteen Rabbit, about a little boy and his stuffed bunny. Maybe you remember it, maybe from your own childhood, or if you have kids, maybe you read it to them when they were little. It’s about how, when you love someone—and I’m talking about a love that is true, and deep, and enduring—everything about that person comes alive for you.
And I’ve been thinking about that this past week as I pondered what it is that Jesus is saying to us in this morning’s Gospel. But before I say more about that, I want to mention a few things to put this Gospel in context.