St. Martin’s Episcopal Church
by The Rev. John C. Morris
Advent 3 (December 11, 2011)
(Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11 and John 1:6-8, 19-28)
When we lived in Southern Vermont and we had become “empty nesters” (our three adult children had sprouted wings and were living elsewhere), we were happy when all of our children were able to come home for the Christmas holiday one year. While they were home, we asked them what they thought were the essential things for our family’s Christmas celebration. In other words, we asked them to fill in the blank: “It just wouldn’t be Christmas if we didn’t _______________”
They all agreed quickly that there were three essential things: (1) as we had done since they were young children, they wanted us to open up the living room couch into a bed so they could all sit on it and open their Christmas stockings, (2) they wanted to eat some of their mother’s “sticky buns” on Christmas morning, and (3) they wanted to read Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales.
How would you and your family answer that question about Christmas? What are the decorations or routines or food or music or stories that are essential to your family’s Christmas celebration?
These things are all good and wonderful, because Christmas is a time of blessed rituals, a time to carry out the familiar customs and follow the same patterns that have been built up over the years. In a rapidly changing world, it is so reassuring to have some things remain the same.
In this atmosphere of familiarity and long-established customs, the Advent season becomes a difficult time to hear the Word of God. Yet Isaiah says in the First Reading today that God is going to do a new thing, that God is going to transform the world—the oppressed will be liberated, the broken-hearted will be made whole, what lies in ruins will be rebuilt. That’s all Good News, but it means that the familiar and business-as-usual will be disrupted and even overturned. Things will not be the same. They will be different.
Then John the Baptist leaps onto the stage—a wild man, an unfamiliar and nonconformist person, an out-of-the-ordinary character that people can’t figure out. “Who are you?” they ask. They can’t fit him into any pigeonhole. So, in a time of year when we yearn for the familiar and the customary, we come face to face with this odd and intrusive character who disrupts our routines and challenges our behavior.
Bill Goettler is a faculty member at Yale Divinity School and co-pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in New Haven, Connecticut. He recently wrote about “Danny.” Danny is a man who appeared on Goettler’s porch one cold December afternoon. Danny was homeless, down on his luck, and needed some money for food. Goettler gave him a few dollars. Then as Danny was leaving, he looked at Goettler and said, “Is this the way it’s supposed to be?”
Over the years, Goettler kept encountering Danny around town. Danny’s situation had not improved. He occasionally found odd jobs to earn some money, but he was still living very much on the margins of society. Whenever Danny met Goettler, he would say, “Good morning, Reverend. Is this the way it’s supposed to be?” The question haunts Goettler.
Danny’s question is a John-the-Baptist question. It is an Advent question. Does that question haunt us?
In preparation for the celebration of the Incarnation, I am re-reading John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. This week, on page 25, these words almost jumped off the page: “In the Greco-Roman world (and especially in the Jewish homeland), an abysmal gulf separated the upper from the lower classes. On one side of that great divide were the Ruler and Governors, who together made up 1% of the population, but owned at least half of the land….On the other side were the Peasants, the vast majority of the population.”
Sound familiar? Whatever you think of the tactics of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, it is clear that the questions being raised about economic injustice in this country are John the Baptist questions. They are Advent questions. They challenge us. They make us uncomfortable. They take us out of our routines and familiar ways of doing things.
Years ago, our daughter, Rebekah, who lives in Boston, called us and was very excited. She said, “I just heard a great Knock-Knock joke and want to tell it to you!” She said, “Knock, knock.” We said, “Who’s there? “ She said, “Interrupting Cow.” We said, “Interrupt……”
She said, “MOO!”
A silly joke, and it takes a few moments to “get it,” but I think it’s quite funny because the humor is not in the punch line, but in the placement of the punch line. The punch line interrupts the usual question and surprises us. The familiar pattern of the joke is broken. Something different intrudes.
John the Baptist is an Interrupting Cow, a “Mooer.” He breaks in. He disrupts. He challenges. But his message is no joke. It is serious business.
Jesus is also an Interrupting Cow, a “Mooer.” For his first sermon, which, according to Luke was given in his hometown, he took as his text the Isaiah passage that is our First Reading today. Finishing the text, Jesus then said, “This text has come true today.” The congregation was outraged. How brazen! How arrogant! Who does he think he is? They kicked Jesus out of the assembly. They didn’t want to be challenged. They didn’t want the familiar to be disturbed.
How about us? Are we longing for a new world in which peace and justice predominate? Are we nurturing a vision of the world in which people lay down their swords and shields and study war no more? Are we prepared to change our behavior in fundamental ways so that our country is not divided between the Have-Too-Muches and the Have-Too-Littles?
The Good News is that God is at work creating that new world right now. The John the Baptist question, the Interrupting Cow question, the Advent question is: Will we join God in that work? If we do, then we are promised that we will find true meaning, real comfort, and indescribable joy. That is certainly Good News.