Understanding the Language

December 9, 2018

Series: December 2018

Category: Advent - Peace

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Luke 3:1-6

1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

'Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.

5Every valley shall be filled,

and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,

and the rough ways made smooth;

6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"



           My wife has brought a tradition into our family this time of year.  We go to the library and stock up on all kinds of Christmas books to read with our son.  We read plenty that retell the birth story of Jesus, often from the perspective of one of the animals.  Often, it’s birds.  Christmas is apparently for the birds.  Sorry, I couldn’t resist.  We also read books that don’t address the biblical narrative directly, but very much bring the spirit of it to life.  It’s sort of like hearing the Christmas message in a new language.  I have a few of these here today:

          There’s Why Christmas Trees Aren’t Perfect (and you don’t need to write these down; remember the sermons are always posted right outside the door and on the web).  In this one, a tree strives to be perfect that it might be chosen for the queen’s tree, but through harboring other animals in the cold winter starts to succumb to what it sees as a number of imperfections.  The queen does choose the tree, however, because in these traces of hospitality and caring, the queen sees the love of Christ exemplified. 

          There’s Merry Christmas Davy, a lovely tale about a rabbit who learns the importance of being good and kind, helping others, and most of all sharing.  Nestled in his den in the dead of winter, Davy sees a bird hopping through the snow looking for something to eat.  Moved with compassion Davy shares some of the family’s food with the bird.  Well, Davy quickly has similar encounters with the other animals, deer, pigs and so forth.  Pretty soon Davy’s own family has very little food to get them through the winter.  Davy’s parents can hardly scold him since he’s simply done what they’ve taught him.  So, the rabbit family resigns to rationing their way through the winter.  Then there’s a knock at the door and all the animals have come to return the favor, not only with food, but with promises to teach the rabbit family the best places to find it in the spring—the deer a bundle of wheat and a promise to show them the wheat field, the pig apples and promise of apple trees, the birds the berry bushes.

          There’s The Snow Angel, which features two mice who encounter a Christmas angel, which is really a wild goose, which I just love because I don’t know if you know, but in the Celtic tradition the wild goose is the symbol for the Holy Spirit.  The goose in The Snow Angel is exhausted and weakened, having flown off course.  The mice nourish it with fresh food and nurse it back to health.  Once strong enough, its wings sparkle with glory as it rises up to take off and leaves cascading to the ground feathers which the mice gather and use for their beds.  Each night as they lie down, they feel like they are sleeping on the clouds and perhaps remember their visit from their “angel.”

          Reading these books is not just a cozy tradition to enjoy as a family, though it is that.  In its own way, it’s a form of resisting all the other messages of Christmas as we spoke about last week and as you all are all aware, the unnecessary frenzy of the season.  This little ritual is a refrain of what is important.  Ritualize what is important and refuse to ritualize, best you can, what is not.  This past Tuesday evening, while I’m sure some were scrambling around to do their shopping and what not—and I know that’s part of it—I came out of Bible in the library to a candle lit Findlay Hall and two dozen people doing mindful, prayerful yoga, nourishing their bodies and souls, experiencing a kind of care that feels in sync with God’s desire.  Ritualize and participate in what is important.  Best you can, avoid what is not.  How you get ready for Christmas matters, which is why we have the season of Advent.

          Today’s gospel reading is all about how you get ready to receive Christ, the divine presence and manifestation in the flesh.  It starts innocuously sounding enough:  “1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Lk. 3:1-2).”  This is not just meaningless context.  The Bible employs an enormous economy with its words—you might wish your preacher did the same—it doesn’t just say things for the sake of saying them, and context is never meaningless.  What do these names tell you, Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod and so on?  These are instruments of the empire, cogs in a machine that rules ruthlessly as empires do.  They rule, as the Christ story will illuminate, in stark contrast to the way God reigns in Christ.  It is into that context that John announces Jesus is coming.

          Now, how does John say to get ready?  You know these words, playing off Isaiah’s prophecy,

make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,

and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,

and the rough ways made smooth; (or as Martin Luther King used to say it, “the rough places made plain.”)

           Do you know to what all that imagery is referring?  It’s how you level out a road for a king’s procession.  It’s filling potholes, widening, and straightening out curves enough to handle a large contingent of travelers.  This is literally “paving the way” for Christ.  John is making it quite clear who this Christ is by showing what type of preparations are appropriate to make. 

          How well do we know how to get ready, and how clear are we about the one it is for whom we are waiting?  The Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio, who teaches a Villanova University, suggests it’s not so much that we have a lot of work to do in order to prepare to receive Christ, but rather we have a lot of awakening to do, a lot of awareness to foster.  She says Christians often see Advent as a time of waiting and preparing for what isn’t here but is coming.  Yet as we all know, Christ has already come, and even acknowledging the hope of some return, Delio suggests we are to be tending to and training our awareness to recognizing what is already here.  Christ, the divine presence, God’s manifestation in flesh, is here now. 

          Christ is here.  If we believe that, then to parrot the native saying, “We are the ones we are waiting for.”  As Delio puts it, we are waiting for ourselves to wake up to the reality of God’s presence and help bring God’s gifts, God’s generosity into the world.  Of course as you awaken, you realize the world already exudes the generosity of God.  We are taught axioms such as “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” in our culture because that is what we value most in our culture.  However, food does grow on trees, oxygen rich air does come out of trees, the materials that build our homes do come from trees.  God’s gifts and generous ways are all around us.  We have to wake to them and participate in their generosity.  Delio has a wonderful image for this time of year.  We are the ones in the manger, she says, waiting to wake up and grow up into a new consciousness.[1] 

           It is helpful, perhaps, that we celebrate Advent when a least in this part of the world the days grow shorter and nights longer.  I don’t mean that for all the light in the darkness imagery so customarily associated with the season.  The binary between dark and light, black and white, good and evil is more problematic than helpful these days.  What’s helpful to reflect upon is what’s possible in night time.  Lutheran Nadia Bolz-Weber, author and founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, writes talks about one of the peculiarities of the lectionary texts assigned to the season of Advent in the church.  We mentioned this last week.  A lot of the gospel readings are apocalyptic in nature, with strange warnings, as she reminds us, of two being in the field and one will be taken and one will stay, and of the Lord coming “like a thief in the night.” 

          Through these strange images, Bolz-Weber concludes ultimately what we need this time of year is indeed some holy thievery.  As opposed to seeing this time as when we acquire things—the culture’s view—for Bolz-Weber it can be a time when we are rid of things not only that we don’t need, but things that are holding us back.  She says maybe we need a holy thief to come in the night and take off our hands, our hearts.  Rather than making Christmas lists for Santa that we would like him to bring us, she suggests we make Advent lists where we pray for what Jesus might come and abscond with.  She gives her own examples of body image issues, self-absorption, an obsession with being worthy, owning far too many pairs shoes.[2]  What would your list be?  What would ours be, things that hold us back from growing into a higher consciousness (in Christ)?  Sometimes, as we have said before, we have to rid before we receive, we have to unlearn before we can learn.

          One some level, Advent is about learning.  There’s one more children’s book I want to mention, The Message of the Birds.  Our copy was given us by a clergy-couple family with whom we are friends.  It begins with an owl telling the story of the birth of the Christ child and the message Jesus was bringing to the world.  To the birds this sounded like a beautiful song, and yet they lament they don’t hear that song anymore.  The reply is the people do not listen, but it’s more than that.  One of the birds, a lark, suggests it’s not just that people don’t listen, they have forgotten the language of the divine song. 

            Advent is about trying to learn the language in the midst of a context dominated by other tongues, those of Tiberius, Pilate, and Herod.  Like any new language, it is best learned by children before their ears are closed off.  We can take it as good news, then, Ilia Delio’s image that we are the ones in the manger, when we are most able to learn the language of God.  We can learn with young ears this time of year.  The birds proceed to teach the children the song.  How do you teach a language?  Don’t overthink it.  One word at a time.  That’s all they’ve communicated by the end of the book, but it’s shared in every imaginable language:  shanti, 平和 (heiwa), ειρήνη,  salaam, shalom, pax, peace.  It may be the second candle of Advent, but it is God’s first word to us.  I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised to find it here, in The Message of the Birds, since Christmas is for the birds, for the people, for the whole creation.  Amen. 

[1] These reflections of Ileo Delio’s come from a video on https://www.theworkofthepeople.com/

[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber’s comments may be found at the same site.