Sermon transcript for December 14, 2014
The Light of God
John 1:6-8; 19-28
Third Sunday of Advent – December 14, 2014
Belmont UMC -- Ken Edwards, preaching
When I was younger, I went to a Ministers Retreat in the mountains. We were given an afternoon of free time and I was invited to join two other people in a rappelling adventure in a nearby mountain. We hiked several miles through the woods to a beautiful cliff with a 150 foot drop, set up our lines and proceeded to rappel to the bottom.
What my colleagues did not tell me—because they knew of my aversion to caves—was that they planned to hike back to the top of a mountain through a cave at the bottom of the cliff. I came unprepared, with no flashlight, or spelunking gear (whatever that might be). I was not happy about this, but after rappelling off the cliff, I followed the two men into the dark cave alongside a stream and then onto a narrow ledge above the stream where we had to crawl to make passage.
My adventurous friends spied a small opening in the side of the cave wall and decided to explore this opening. They asked, “Do you want to join us or wait here?” I opted for waiting on the ledge. Without a flashlight, and with my friends disappearing into the narrow crevice with the only lights, I discovered that I was in complete darkness. At first it was peaceful and quiet, but after about 10 minutes it became unnerving. What if they did not come back? I lost my bearings and could not remember where the wall of the cave was and where the side of the ledge was. I had no idea which way was out of the cave. I began to panic. I prayed and waited. Finally, I saw a gleam of light coming toward me and I still recall the great relief I felt at the sight of this light. With light comes hope and our world is need of hope during this Advent season.
John the Baptist appears again in our Gospel text for this Sunday. In John’s Gospel he is presented as one who is not the light of God but one that points the way to the light that will shine upon the earth. He is the voice that speaks of a light that will break forth and bring hope to a world that is in darkness.
John did not have much about which to be hopeful. People were going out to him in the wilderness, going out to hear his message, to be baptized, to repent of their sins. But the political leaders did not like John or his words. Eventually he would wind up in prison and later beheaded. It was not a hopeful time for the people of Israel, but John raised their expectations about a light that would come into the world.
Even in the midst of desperate times, John said, “I have come to tell you that a light is coming to this world and that light will shine in our darkness. I am not that light, but I’m going to keep on talking about it no matter how dark things become.” (Edwards paraphrase version) John is a witness to this great light and he gives voice to the ancient words of the prophets.
Advent is about remembering the darkness, and remembering that God came to shine light on all humankind in Jesus Christ.
There is darkness in our world today. It is troubling but true; we would rather not talk about it during Advent. Some of you are troubled by grief and anxiety. While the holiday presents joy and hope to many, it is a time of accentuated grief and sadness for others. Some are living in poverty and oppression. Some have given up or lost their way. Wars continue throughout our world. There is great unrest in our nation, unrest that will continue until justice prevails. We cannot hide from the darkness of our racism and we desperately need God’s guidance.
There are those in our world who are suffering this Advent and we must not shut our eyes to the suffering. One way the church must give contemporary voice to the light and hope of the prophets is to become bearers of that same hope and light.
Several years ago a young man named David showed up at my office during Advent. He had visited the church where I served as pastor. He was timid, depressed and he felt like giving up. He had lost everything--his job and his home. He had a little gas in his car, the shelter that had become his home. I gave him some warm clothes and some money for food and gasoline. I saw him a few days later and he told me that he bought a sleeping bag with the money because he was so cold at night. There were times during that Advent that I thought we needed David as much as he needed us—he taught us so much about the meaning of the light of Christ.
One of the families of the church adopted him and assisted him in getting to a job in Arkansas. A few days before he left for his new job, I had gone down the hall of the church to get a cup of coffee and returned to my office to find two beautiful cards stuck in the wreath outside our office door. They were from David. They were Christmas cards and thank-you notes to me and to the church. David wrote, “You were the light of Christ in my darkness. Without you I would not have found my way.”
One writer says that “Christian hope does not bury its head in yuletide cheer and artificial lights, but like an Advent wreath growing brighter each week, this hope pushes its way into the brokenness of this world, clearing a path in the wilderness so the true light might burst into the darkness.” (Craig T. Kocher, Pulpit Resource, Oct-Dec 2005, p. 55)
I see the sign of God’s light and hope all around us. I see light in the love shown to Edgehill children in the Brighter Days mentoring program and in the scholarships offered to young men and women of that neighborhood through the ONE/Barnes Scholarship program—young men and women who become leaders in their community.
We are being that light through our gifts to the Christmas Miracle Offering as we imagine a world free from malaria. We have an opportunity to save many lives with these gifts.
There is light and hope in the 170 Christmas stockings for Grundy County children and in the gifts shared with our Golden Triangle Children. Grundy County is the poorest county in Tennessee and you made Christmas happen for these children.
I see light and hope in food shared with a family going through a medical crisis and in the simple and quiet gestures of love and kindness we witness around here every day. Our family has been on the receiving end of ministry during a time of grief and your love and kindness have been so generous. You brought light to the darkness of our grief.
We will be witnesses of the great message of hope and light this evening at the Feast of Lights. I can’t wait.
This is not shallow optimism and positive thinking, but a real and lasting hope that shines in the midst of darkness.
I recall hearing some friends tell of a trip to Europe and spending time in a small town. They told us of their overnights in a quaint Bed and Breakfast Inn and all the interesting people they met. On a Sunday they had walked through the village and found a beautiful church. The sign outside the church indicated that a service would be held in the evening and they decided to attend.
That night after dinner they made their way to the church and took a seat near the back. They were the first ones to arrive (visitors are often more eager than the rest of us). The sun was going down and they noticed that there were no lights above them. The church had not been wired with electricity. As other worshippers arrived they came with lanterns which they hung on hooks suspended above the pews. Everywhere a worshipper sat, there was light. The rest of the church was dark.
Everywhere we go, we take the light of God with us. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” Where are the places of darkness calling out to us to bring the light?
The prophet Isaiah said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” (9:2)
Jurgen Motmann wrote, “The message of the prophet is a message for the people, a message sent into the camps of the exiled, and into the slums of the poor. It is a word against the captains of the arms industry and the fanatics of power. If we really understood what it means, it bursts the bonds of Sunday worship. For if this message really lays hold of us, it leads us to Jesus, the liberator, and to the people who live in darkness and who are waiting for him—and for us.” (The Power)
This Advent may we hear our call to be witnesses to that light and hope that came to us in Jesus Christ. In Christ light and hope have come into our dark world.
Sermon transcript for December 7, 2014
Through Wilderness—Toward Home
Mark 1:1-8; Psalm 85-1-2; 8-13
Belmont UMC—December 7, 2014
Second Sunday of Advent
Ken Edwards, preaching
One writer imagines what would happen if John the Baptist were to set up preaching camp in the middle of the modern day shopping mall:
“Now imagine this: in comes John, right into the mall. It’s deep winter but he’s wearing sandals on his bare feet, and, yes, he’s wearing his camel’s hair coat, tied with a leather girdle. Now he strides through the double doors of the mall and comes out into the open space near the fountain, and he’s crying, ‘Repent!’
Unreal! What’s this awful man got to do with Christmas? Get him out of here, so we can get our shopping done! But wait; imagine this: John is a powerful preacher, and the adults cease their frantic shopping and start to gather round him. The teens stop their wandering to laugh, but then they find themselves listening. The children hear him and leave Santa’s line, tugging on their parents’ coats and asking questions: ‘What is he doing?’ What’s he saying?’ ‘Why is he here?’
He’s crying out: ‘Repent! Turn around! Change your lives!’
And John is such a powerful preacher that the lights, the carols, the crèches, the shopping, the seeing, even Santa’s line—all are forgotten, and the people begin to ask, ‘What shall we do?
And John says, ‘Repent, and be baptized.’ Then he begins to baptize them, right there in the beautiful mall fountain.” (by Donna Ross, other source material unknown)
On the second Sunday of Advent we always encounter John the Baptist. He is a prophet in the tradition of those Old Testament prophets, like Elijah, Jeremiah, Amos and Isaiah. He’s eccentric like those prophets. His hair is wild and uncombed, honey drips from his beard and his breath smells of crunchy locusts.
He has set up camp way out in the wilderness near the Jordan, away from Jerusalem, away from the center of religion and the center of power. But the people were going out to him—amazing really. Some have suggested that it had been 300 years since God had spoken this clearly and people were going out to the wilderness to hear.
Isaiah had predicted a messenger would come, a messenger who would make the mountains low and the valleys raised up and the path made smooth. This messenger would not draw attention to himself but to one who was to come.
John did not have all the details yet, but he pointed his boney finger toward one who would come, not with John’s cold Jordan baptism, but a Holy Spirit baptism that would usher in a whole new world, a whole new way of thinking and being. John said, “He is coming and you have to get ready!”
Every Advent we meet John the Baptist again and we are not going to get to Christmas without going head to head with John and his message to get prepared.
And so we will spend a little time in the wilderness with John. The wilderness is that barren place where our sight lines are clearer. The wilderness is that place where the sheer silence enables us to hear the beating of our own weak and fearful hearts. The wilderness is that place of knowing and perspective. The wilderness is the place where we see the truth about ourselves and even without John’ preaching, we would know that we need to change. We would know our deep need for God. We know our deep need to cry out to God for help--for forgiveness.
Frederick Niedner describes the wilderness this way, “Precisely here, however, in the wordless void, where over and over our theologies get tested, fail, and disintegrate, God meets up with us.” (Sundays and Seasons, Year B, p.7)
We might like to shut our eyes to this wilderness experience, but we only need to turn on the news and read the morning paper to know that we are a world in need of God, and that we need to repent and turn things around. We are broken and lost. We are territorial and exclusionary. We are self-interested and too self-assured. We are filled with hatred and racism.
In my undeserved privilege I do not know what it is like to live under the ugly shadows of racism, but racism is real and persistent and we must confess those times when we have been complicit in it. When I was a little boy, living in the country on a gravel road, my Mom would visit a Doctor here in the city. She never liked to travel alone so she would take me with her to the Benny Dillon building downtown. She’d give me some money to walk down the street to a lunch counter where I’d buy a piece of apple pie and a cup of coffee (I started drinking coffee when I was a toddler). I thought this was the best thing in the world, but I was completely unaware of how many Nashville citizens could not sit at that lunch counter with me because of the color of their skin.
In the wilderness let us confess our failures as human beings, failure to see each other as God sees us, failure to value and respect one another, failure to see that all people matter, and failure to see our need for God.
Here in the wilderness we might want to offer this traditional wilderness confession: “Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
We decided on the theme “Imagine Peace” for this Sunday long before Ferguson and Staten Island and today we may be wondering how we can imagine peace for a world where hatred breeds violence.
But John the Baptist is not asking us to linger long in the wilderness, wallowing in our lostness and self-pity, but he is pointing the way to the one who is to come, the one who helps us see God and know that God has a better way for us to live.
And the prophets do not invite us to stay in the wilderness forever. They invite us to move on toward a home with God, to imagine that future where truth springs up from the ground, and people put down their weapons and live in peace with one another, where war and hatred and racism are no more, where flowers bloom and bring beauty to the desert places, where water gushes up into life in the driest of places, and where justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.