Back in the 1970s, the local priest in a community of farmers and fishermen in the Solentiname Islands of Nicaragua did a Bible study every week instead of a sermon. He was there to keep things on track, but he let the people of Solentiname speak for themselves.
These were simple people—some of them couldn’t read—but they took to heart the teaching of the man from Galilee who did most of his own preaching to very simple people two thousand years ago.
The priest was a man named Ernesto Cardinal, a poet who later served as minister of culture in Nicaragua, and he was so impressed by these discussions that he began to take notes on them, and later to record and transcribe them, and he turned them into a book called The Gospel in Solentiname.
It’s a very moving book. These people heard the Gospel message, and they got it. When they listened to the verses that we ourselves heard today, they knew Jesus was speaking to them when he said,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
I wonder if in years to come, what happened that day in Cana of Galilee became the stuff of family stories to be told over and over again. I wonder if that unnamed couple entertained their children with imitations of the expression on the steward’s face when he tasted the excellent wine that, for some reason, had been saved until well into the wedding celebration. Or whether the couple spoke to themselves and to others about what an honor it was that Jesus himself had come to their wedding and performed his first miracle there to save the day for them. It would have been a social disaster to run out of wine at the wedding. Very embarrassing to the bridegroom and to his family, and probably even worse for the servants who were responsible for making sure that there was enough wine to go around.
We don’t know. We don’t know how many people knew, at the time, that there had been a miracle. The servants who had poured the water and then ladled out the wine, they did know. The steward didn’t know, but word must have spread, and we hear that after this miracle of abundance—a hundred and twenty or a hundred and eighty gallons of excellent wine—after this, the word spread, and the disciples did believe.
We had a thing that happened at my own wedding forty years ago in New Hope which did become the stuff of a family story, which is why I thought of that. Our disaster, or potential disaster, happened when the caterer didn’t show up.
I was only three weeks old when I was baptized, so naturally I don’t remember the event. It’s not surprising, although when you think about it, it’s kind of strange to have no real recollection of something so momentous, something that really set a course for my life. I have the pictures, I have a certificate, and that’s about it. But I look back on it and I know that a lot of my identity was formed in that moment, and you can see that in all of the details of that day.
There’s a picture of me with my godparents. My godmother was my mother’s cousin. My mother was an only child, and so this cousin was the closest thing she had to a sister. My godmother had had a baby who was two months older than I am, and he was my buddy in the early years of our lives.
My godfather was my father’s uncle. He was someone who was known in our family for his humility and also for his personal holiness. He was very devout. He was really a good guy, and since my dad’s dad had died when he was a little boy, I think he was sort of a father figure to my father also.
Every year at Christmas we stand at the creche in awe and wonder and poder again what it means to say that we believe that God came into our world as an ordinary, helpless, human baby.
It has so many ramifications. You should never run out of ideas for Christmas sermons. It harkens back to that most beloved of Bible verses, John 3:16: “God so loved the world … “ God sent Jesus, God sent the Son into the world. It speaks of a love that is so enormous that it can’t be contained. It overflows into Creation, and it overflows into this great act of love in Jesus.
It says to us that all of creation is holy. That the earth is holy. That it’s a sacrament of the presence of God. It says that God is with us in the most profound way, that we’re never alone, that God is with us in our joys and in our sorrows. And I talked last night about Mary theotokos—the idea of Mary as the Christ-bearer. This morning I did bring the Christmas card from the diocese. I’ll let you pass this around.
Way back when I was a young newspaper reporter, I worked for an editor who just loved human interest stories. Those are the ones that show the human face behind the headlines. They’re stories about real people the readers can identify with. A good human interest story helps us to understand the world we live in and very often it can also help us to understand something about ourselves and the kind of people we want to be.
People love a good human interest story, and the story told in the Christmas gospels is one of the best human interest stories ever told. No matter how many times we hear it, it still has the power to fill us with hope and expectation. It’s a story about a family making it through a tough situation. It’s a story about love. And it’s a story about a baby—and who doesn’t love a baby? One part of why we love it is that it promises to satisfy some of our deepest human longings: Those longings for peace and love, for the beauty and promise of new life, and ultimately for the redeeming of all human brokenness. It’s a wonderful story partly because of the way it fills us with hope.
And the Christmas story has the power to pull us right in to a personally. It calls us to remember all the times that we’ve heard it before, to remember where we were and how we felt and who we heard it with. And those memories often make us feel both glad and sad.
There’s a woman named Madeleine L’Engle who was a writer whose work dealt with spiritual topics, sometimes explicitly and sometimes by way of fantasy. She happens to be an Episcopalian, and she’s probably best known for a book called A Wrinkle in Time, which was made into a movie by Disney earlier this year. Chris and I went to see it. It’s a great story, but not necessarily a great movie, in my opinion. But my favorite thing that she wrote is a short poem that comes back to me at this time every year, and I find myself thinking about it all over again. It’s called “After Annunciation,” and it goes like this:
This is the irrational season when love blooms bright and wild. Had Mary been filled with reason there’d have been no room for the child.[i]
Mary said yes. It was not the rational thing to do. We’ve spoken in our Advent study group about how difficult it must have been, to be a young, unwed, pregnant teenager in that society where pregnancy outside of marriage a terrible thing. And where she was betrothed to someone who knew it wasn’t his. And yet despite this difficulty, she said yes.
So this is the fourth Sunday of Advent. We light the fourth candle on the Advent wreath. This is the Mary candle. We’ve lit the candles for the patriarchs, prophets, John the Baptist, and now, finally, Mary. It’s a sort of a trip through salvation history. It’s a listing of people who were faithful to God, who heard God’s promises and lived them, and who served both to point to the coming of the Messiah but also pointed out the shortcomings of their own society.
When I was about 10 years old I had a coat that I still remember really clearly. I’m pretty sure that my grandmother made it for me, because she was still making a lot of my clothes at that point, my good clothes, anyway. It was a lovely tan color, and it was really soft. And technically I don’t believe this was accurate, but I called it my camel hair coat, and it colored my perception of John the Baptist for a long time. I thought, “We have something in common. We both have camel hair.” I think, technically, it should just have been called a camel coat, because it was an imitation. In modern times a camel hair coat is a luxury item. It’s made from the soft undercoat of the camel, which you wouldn’t think of as an animal with soft hair, but it is, it’s very soft. And a coat that’s camel hair, real camel hair, would go for hundreds of dollars.
John’s garment of camel hair was not a luxury item. This would have been a sort of an outer cliaj, and it would have been made from the coarse outer hair of the camel. It’s what peasants in that region might have worn, but more significantly for John the Baptist, it’s what a prophet would wear, it’s what Elijah the Prophet wore. And this reference is supposed to point out to us that John is a prophet. He’s following the great tradition of the prophets of the Old Testament, and he’s a sort of a bridge from the Old Testament to the New. He’s carrying on this tradition, pointing to the coming of the Messiah.
So, today we light the third candle on the Advent Wreath. It’s the candle for John the Baptist. Every year in Advent, on the second and third Sundays, we hear about John the Baptist. He is so important to this season. His basic message, “Repent and prepare for the coming of Christ”—that is the essential theme of the season of Advent. So, John is a really important character and his message comes right down to us.
Today, the second Sunday of Advent, we light the second candle on the Advent wreath, the one that’s meant to remind us of the prophets, according to one old church tradition. And we hear in the Gospel the beginning of the public ministry of John the Baptist in the wilderness. John was sort of a bridge figure from those Old Testament prophets to the New Testament. He picks up their message and he points to Jesus. So half of today’s Gospel is actually a quote from Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight His paths.”
We remember the prophets in the two prayers we said at the beginning of the service: the candle-lighting prayer, and the collect for the day. We pray for grace to hear the message of the prophets, to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus into our hearts and into the world. To be ready so that we might be able to greet his coming with joy.
Especially in this season, when we think of the prophets, we remember those familiar verses that point to the coming of a Messiah. The first-century Christians poured over those texts as they were struggling to understand exactly what the coming of this Jesus Christ meant, and how to interpret it. Many of these prophetic texts are quoted in the New Testament. So they’re familiar to us because we hear them in church—in our readings, and our hymns—and outside of music in music like that great piece, Handel’s Messiah, which is performed secularly, but certainly is a religious composition. Maybe if you’re a Messiah fan, when I read, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” and when I got to the “every valley” part, maybe you heard that beautiful tenor air. I know I did in my head. Luckily for you, I didn’t burst into song.
These texts are so familiar to us. “A virgin shall conceive a child,” and, “A little child shall lead them.” “A child is born to us. A son is given to us.” They’re so familiar that we tend to think that the writings of the prophets were all about predicting the Messiah. And in fact, that’s just one of three things we remember them for.
We had a house full of company over the long Thanksgiving weekend, which is why I wasn’t here last Sunday. I wasn’t out looking for another job. Father Ditterline was kind enough to cover so I could concentrate on being with my family, and it was a real joy to have both of my children at home, including my daughter who lives in California and, of course, it was a joy to have our granddaughter at our house for several days. Her language skills are just exploding these days, and she has a lot to say about everything.
She just turned two at the beginning of November, but I wouldn’t call her a terrible two—although we did notice that if there’s something she wants, she does think she has to have it right away. She does not like to wait.
Waiting isn’t easy for two-year-olds, and to tell you the truth, it isn’t always easy for us adults, either. I don’t like waiting in lines in stores, I don’t like waiting in traffic. And not too long ago, I spent more than 30 minutes sitting in a doctor’s examining room, and I can tell you that I did not appreciate that at all.
So today in church we begin an entire season devoted to waiting, the season of Advent, and the funny thing is that I really love it. I think that Advent might be my favorite season of the church year. I cherish the peace and quiet that comes to us just as the whole world is ramping up for Christmas. I love that contrast of Advent, the fact that it’s not a commercial holiday even though as a society, it seems, we just can’t wait. We can’t wait for Christmas.