Sermon–Advent Three–December 14, 2014

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Advent Three—Year B

December 14, 2014

William Bradbury


Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

C. S. Lewis was in a dark toolshed and noticed a beam of sunlight coming in through a crack at the top of the door. He spent a few moments looking AT the beam with its tiny bits of dust floating in it. Then he moved to look along the beam, out through the crack in the door where he saw green leaves of trees and 90 million miles away, the sun itself. He then meditates on the difference between looking at something and looking along it, which is to say, looking from inside it.

See “Meditation in a Toolshed” in God in the Dock

Like when we are inside love we experience a power that can overwhelm our senses and even our reason—like Romeo and Juliet, or like Kate and Leo in Titanic. But when we are a research psychologist looking AT love from the outside, we will talk about hormones, genetics, and cultural forces.

John the Baptizer comes to us today bearing witness to the light, to testify to it, so we might prepare ourselves to live inside the light and be transformed by it, instead of trying to adapt to the darkness of our world—where war, drones, systemic injustice, and torture dominate reality.

In today’s gospel some religious leaders from the capital want to know who John is and where his authority comes from.

But John doesn’t talk about himself. He testifies to what God is doing, and says, “I’m simply a voice crying in the wilderness about the coming of God in a man whose shoes I’m not worthy to untie.”

The religious leaders aren’t interested in his message, but only in whether they can discredit the messenger. Once they can do that they don’t have to pay attention to what he says, which means they won’t hear this word from God that demands a response.

This is also the strategy of the so-called new atheists who find flaws in God’s messengers so as to discredit the message.

The late journalist Christopher Hitchens was famous for attacking Mother Teresa of Calcutta, declaring her “a fanatic and a fundamentalist and a fraud”, arguing that “millions of people are much worse off because of her life”.

One wit on hearing this said, if you were dying on the streets of Calcutta who do you think is more likely to give you a cup of soup: Christopher Hitchens or Mother Theresa.

Hitchens, along with American Sam Harris, also point out the horrible things Christians have done to one another over the centuries and thereby declaring we should run as fast as we can from the light of Christ.

I have enjoyed their well-written books.  They remind us of St. Paul who said: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

But if all we do is look AT those pointing to Christ, whether John the Baptizer who commends Christ or those who reject him, and never step into the light of Christ ourselves, never look along the beam to see the Son, then we have no way of judging and knowing the truth of that light.

It’s easy it is to debunk love by looking AT it from the outside, and yet how graced we feel when we are invited inside love, where love happens to us.

In the next verse in John’s Gospel the Baptizer points at Jesus and says, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. A few chapters later he says, “he must increase but I must decrease.’

John invites us to take the plunge, not once but in every moment, and experience Christ from the inside. Baptism is the outward and visible sign of the immersion into Christ.

 But let’s face the fact that what John is proposing is quite scary:

I remember how scared I was standing as a five year old at the edge of a swimming pool in the mountains of western North Carolina at 8 o’clock in the morning being told by the swimming instructor that it was now my turn to jump into the pool. And I said, “who me?” and he said “Yes, you.”

I didn’t want to jump in, not only because I was a terrible swimmer, but also because the water, which comes from below Fontana Dam, the tallest dam east of the Mississippi, is ice cold.

This is exactly how Christian faith sometimes looks to us—ice cold. Theologian and fishing lure maker Baxter Krueger saw this as a child in his conservative Presbyterian church in Mississippi. He says before the service his daddy enjoyed talking and laughing with his buddies in the parking lot but the moment he stepped into the church the smile and the joy left his face. Somewhere along the way his father had been told that jumping into God was a cold and forbidding experience that requires shutting down parts of one’s personality.

I feel for the people I know that shut down every Christmas because the sadness that always shows up. It is indeed hard to face endless calls to be merry when your heart is aching.

I think we have been trained to hide ourselves from God because we are not convinced that God is for us. Maybe it’s the Puritan air we breathe that has taught us God is not interested in us until we are rid of our brokenness and can live more disciplined lives. We have been told we must work our way to God, instead of being told that Father, Son, and Spirit from before time are including us in the Triune fellowship. And that when the Son becomes one with humanity in the incarnation of Jesus, then all fallen humanity is now and forever united with God.

The only difference between people is the difference between those who believe this is true for them and those who do not believe it is true for them.

Krueger puts it this way: “In the dark room of our soul there shines a Christological light and in this light we glimpse possibilities for ourselves that we never dared dream. We encounter the fact that we have a future, a destiny, a glory….Now we see our life not as life at all, but as a form of sadness…we become aware of the great and terrible chasm between who we are in Christ and who we believe we are….His faithfulness to share his knowledge of the Father’s heart with us in our darkness means that we now know there is a beautiful life for us to live, and that we have not been living it.” Across All Worlds: Jesus Inside Our Darkness

The metaphor of standing on the edge of a pool falls apart when we realize we are already in God’s Triune presence and already immersed in God’s affection, and that Father, Son and Spirit, the triune God, is better than we could have ever imagined.

There is another connection between swimming and faith: in both swimming and faith, once you’re in, if you relax and trust you float, and if you struggle and don’t trust you sink.

In neither case do you leave the water or God’s love, but in learning to relax into God we find God receives both the good parts of who we are and the parts of which we are ashamed and makes us whole.

John the Baptizer says to us who imagine we are on the outside looking AT God: “Hey you, jump on in. The light is fine. This is what you were born to do.”