by the Rev. Robert C. Laird
A good friend of mine
who is both a priest and a mother of small kids
was kvetching this week
about having to decline invitations to Christmas parties
from all her daughter’s friends;
apparently, in Ann Arbor, anyway,
parents are hosting holiday parties for their children,
almost like an extra birthday party,
and it’s become an arms race;
now everyone is having them,
and the few weekends before Christmas,
which already have enough in them,
are either getting packed fuller,
like ten pounds of sugar in a five pound sack,
or people are just declining the invitations,
and feeling miserable for having to do so.
It’s not a great feeling,
one has to admit;
saying “no” isn’t any fun,
but it’s a crucial skill these days,
with so many demands on our time,
and so many things we’d like to do but can’t;
shopping and lunches and teas and bell-ringing
wrapping the presents and
oh, wait, I forgot one for old uncle What’s-his-name
and when can I fit that in
and oh! Look! Rudolph is on TV
and oh no, where did my card list go
and when is everyone arriving?
and I have to remember to buy a roast
and I can’t remember if Tommy’s new girlfriend
is allergic to shellfish or only eats shellfish,
we need a tree, and
we need some wreaths, and
I need to bake cookies, and
I need to make peanut brittle, and
where did the time go? And
it shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly, and
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night! And
time to clean everything up, and
back to the stores to return the things that didn’t fit, and
Happy New Year! And
I need a nap until February.
Sometimes, Advent feels this hectic and rushed,
and we forget what Advent or Christmas are even about,
which is Jesus.
Looking forward to Jesus’ return in glory,
and remembering Jesus’ birth in a barn in Bethlehem.
And into this hectic, unsettled, mad-capped life of ours,
we learn that there was a man named John.
In the Fourth Gospel,
John loses all pretense;
he’s not John the Baptist, or the Baptizer,
or the Son of Zechariah;
he’s just John, who came to witness.
“There was a man sent from God,
whose name was John.”
Barbara Brown Taylor,
one of the best American preachers of our time,
or indeed of any time,
imagines John doing the old table cloth trick;
you know, trying to pull the table cloth
out from under the set table without upsetting the dishes?[i]
It’s an image that we can immediately bring to mind;
often, when I’m thinking of it,
I think of the movie Ghostbusters,
in which Bill Murray tries to do the trick
in the ballroom of a hotel,
and destroys everything on the table
except for the flowers;
regardless, you know what I’m talking about.
The trick is really just a matter of inertia and friction:
you pick the heaviest tableware you can find,
which creates inertia,
and a slippery tablecloth without a hem,
which limits friction,
The John of our Gospel today,
the first human mentioned,
is doing a similar trick;
his job is to be a witness to the Light,
to go out into the world before Jesus
and tell the world that Jesus is on the way,
that Jesus is coming to save them.
But John (both the Baptist, and the person who wrote the Gospel,
and they aren’t the same person, BTW),
isn’t about the tablecloth or the plates,
or the napkins, or the glasses on the table;
in fact, John pulls on the tablecloth,
and the everything just vanishes;
there’s nothing there,
nothing to distract us, nothing to pull our focus:
it’s all gone,
which is why John can start telling us about the Light.
John was truly brilliant:
he stripped everything away,
he took away the boxes people wanted to put him into,
like when he outfoxed the authorities sent by the Pharisees;
they wanted to know who sent him,
who he was; Elijah? A prophet? The Messiah?
but John wasn’t going to bite;
he was there to proclaim Jesus’ coming,
to testify to the Light,
the Light that was coming into the world;
the Light that would shine in the darkness forever.
And that Light lived, and walked the earth,
and loved, and healed the sick,
and fed the hungry, and fought the authorities,
and was condemned to execution,
and was crucified and died,
and triumphed over death,
and saved us all;
that’s what John was preparing the way for,
for that amazing person,
for God’s own self, in Christ Jesus,
who was on the way.
John is crying out in the wilderness,
“Here comes Jesus,
and you’re supposed to live your life like Jesus
to walk more and more closely with Jesus,
and to love as he loves,
and to fight injustice as he fights injustice,
to model your life after him,”
because that is how you find ultimate fulfillment,
in following and loving and imitating Jesus.
Note what Paul writes to the Thessalonians:
Give thanks in all circumstances,
because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
We get everything we need in today’s scripture:
Jesus is on the way,
(and it is as true now as it was then;
just because we don’t know when it will happen
doesn’t mean we should doubt that it will, in fact, happen…)
Make the Lord’s path straight.
And Paul teaches us how to do that:
by rejoicing, by praying, by giving thanks.
It’s amazing how simple it is to write:
rejoice, pray, give thanks.
They’re all easy to think about, and brutally difficult to do.
even when it’s hard, even when you don’t want to;
even when you wonder how you’ll make rent,
or you worry about Ebola spreading,
or you just have to cry, because today is just too hard.
Even when you don’t want to, or don’t feel like it, rejoice.
And pray. Pray without ceasing.
There are many interpretations of what this truly means
throughout the history of Christianity;
whether it’s literal prayer without ceasing,
or whether it means give your whole life to God;
regardless, Paul is teaching the Thessalonians
that they have to pray, and pray, and PRAY.
It may be much easier for you to what I do,
and pray four times a day,
at least in the beginning;
I use a magnificent book called
“Hour by Hour,” published by Forward Movement;
it doesn’t take up an incredible amount of time,
but the time it takes is quality time,
our own selves hanging out with Jesus and with God.
And give thanks in all things:
this is easier said than done, too.
It’s easy to give thanks for the good things in our lives,
but really hard to give thanks when we are hurting,
or things could have been so much worse;
in the 2010 book The Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor,
he describes a scenario that encapsulates this exactly.
Imagine with me for a moment that you walk into a large bank.
There are 50 other people there with you.
A robber walks in and fires his weapon once.
You are shot in the right arm.
The question Achor then asks is this: do you feel lucky?[ii]
Achor writes that the response is about 70/30:
70% feel unlucky, because only one person got shot,
and it had to be me!?
30% feel lucky because it was only their right arm,
and nobody else got hurt;
imagine how much worse it could have been.
It’s human to feel unlucky in that moment,
but it’s also corrosive to our souls;
Paul is telling us today in 1 Thessalonians
that we should give thanks in all things,
even when we’re more prone to be upset,
or feel unlucky, or experience spiritual desolation,
the feeling that God is not with us
(which is all about ourselves and our perception,
since God is always with us,
whether we can feel it or not).
Paul is telling us that each of these three things—
rejoicing, praying, giving thanks—
is crucial to living a Christ-like life,
to making the Kingdom of God known on earth.
And it’s especially difficult this time of year;
there are so many things to do,
so many obligations we try to fit in;
in a season in which the Church invites us to slow down,
the world asks us to pick up the pace;
so many of us have days overfilled
like my friend who has to decide which events to attend.
But in this season,
in Advent, we hear the words of John come back again:
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make the Lord’s path straight.’”
We are called by John
to look inside ourselves,
to ready ourselves for Christ’s coming,
for the Light in the darkness,
Jesus, whom we are all called to imitate,
in rejoicing, and prayer, and giving thanks.
[i] Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown (2011-05-31). Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1, Advent through Transfiguration: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 2743-2745). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Excerpt From: Shawn Achor. “The Happiness Advantage.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/LMkez.l