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.
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.
May 21, 2011. That was the day the world was supposed to end.
I remember it very clearly because I was in Oakland at the time vising my daughter, and Oakland is the home of Family Radio and Harold Camping, who is the man who studied the Bible very carefully and came up with that date. Family Radio spent millions to publicize it with billboards and bumper stickers, and it was all over the news while we were there.
The day came and the day went, and we’re all still here. Actually, it wasn’t the first or the last time that Camping set a date for the end of the world, for Judgment Day, and it turned out to be wrong, so God wasn’t on his page, I guess.
It’s kind of easy to make fun and to laugh, you know. You picture that old cartoon with the prophet saying repent, the end is near. But my intent really isn’t to make fun of him.
My intent is to say how easy it is to look at readings like the ones we had today, Daniel in the Old Testament, and this Gospel from Mark, and misunderstand what the message of those readings is. Jesus is talking about the terrible times ahead, and Peter, James, John, and Andrew want to know when, when is this going to happen, what are the signs.
One of the things my sisters found when they emptied my parents’ house after my mother died was a journal my father kept during his service in the Army in Europe during World War II.
It was an introduction to a much younger version of the man I knew. My father very rarely talked to us about the war, though we did know that it had something to do with the fact that he despised Spam for the rest of his days.
He was 19 years old when he was drafted in 1943. He was sent oversees in 1944, straight into Battle of the Bulge, and he started the journal midway through that terrible winter. This is how it begins:
I am going to keep this diary so that in future years I may remember more closely the day to day events of my Army career. I especially want to remember—in the days of normal living coming again in the not too distant future—the days of hell of our present existence in combat. For, as Sherman said, war really is hell—crowded with misery, discomfort, and uncertainty—uncertainty as to whether or not you’ll be alive in the next minute.
We’re living in difficult times, and that has felt especially true this past week or so.
I don’t know about you, but I feel a little beat up by all of the campaign rhetoric as we approach Tuesday’s elections. And I still feel very deeply the shock of the of the massacre last Saturday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Among other things. There are also the troubles and worries in our own lives. We all have them.
And it is so good to be here together today, to hold these things in community.
That is what we do when times are hard. Or even, for that matter, when times are good. We come together in community, to walk together through our difficult times. To cry together. To laugh and to celebrate together.
And today we are celebrating, we’re celebrating our community here.
This is All Saints Sunday. It’s the observance of the feast that commemorates all the saints, both known and unknown to us. God knows them all, of course.
One of the careers that I had before I went to seminary was publishing outdoor guidebooks, guidebooks to walking and bicycling in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I was responsible for every aspect of their production and their distribution, so ultimately I was responsible for selling them.
I had an arrangement with a book distributor that put them in faraway bookstores, and on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But when it came to the local bookstores I had to take care of that myself, even though I have never thought of myself as a natural–born salesperson. But I surprised myself.
I would drive around to bike shops and bookstores. I would get out of the car and grab a copy of each book and go in and find out who was responsible for purchasing. I would try to convince them that they really had to put these books on their shelve,s and I was successful a fair amount of the time.
So, people said to me, “I can’t believe you’re selling them. I never really thought that would be you.” What I said was, “I found out that I could never sell just any old product. I could never be a seller of widgets, but when it came to something I really believe, in I had no trouble doing that stuff.”
So, today I want to sell you something that I really believe in and I hope it’s something you believe in, too.