sermon, 3Advent, Yr B

My friends in Christ, let’s get one Advent mystery out of the way at the outset. The pink candle. Bishop Katherine Schori told her people out in the Diocese of Nevada that they need no longer speculate about “why” the pink candle in the Advent wreath on this third Sunday. It’s there, she said, because Mary wanted a girl.
Now, far be it for me to argue with a bishop since I do work for one. The real reason for the pink candle is because pink is a color of joy…and this candle signifies that we are half-way through the Season of Advent…half-way to the birth of Jesus…a true reason to be joyful.
Today is known as “stir up” Sunday, from the first words of our collect: “Stir up your power, O Lord…” This is also the traditional time to get the Christmas pudding made in Great Britain, allowing plenty of time for the flavors to develop before it’s enjoyed on Christmas day. Traditional British pudding, near as I understand by reading recipes, is much like modern American fruitcake. When I think of fruitcake I’m reminded of Johnny Carson, who used to say that “there’s just one fruitcake, it just gets passed around and around and around…” The British put all sorts of things in their Christmas pudding…a coin (the finder would find wealth), a ring (the finder would get married), a thimble for a lucky life. Like all things, Christmas pudding evolved…an early recipe called for 2 kg of dried fruit and candied peel, 16 eggs, a pint of brandy and 2 pounds of beef kidney fat…a real taste treat, to be sure. Enough culinary exegesis…let’s move on to our Gospel for today.
I think that if the person of John the Baptizer were to walk into this sanctuary, not too many of us would want to get too close. If you recall last week’s Gospel, John lived in the wilderness and is described as being “clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist…eating locusts and wild honey.” On one of the preaching help websites, I came across a page with links to many artistic renderings of John the Baptizer through the ages, ranging from ancient sculptures to the most contemporary of icons. In almost all of the depictions John the Baptist looks like someone who hollered a lot. His clothing was the clothing of a prophet, and I wonder what he was really like. One of the most fascinating sculptures I saw was one done in wood, by the artist Donatello, from the year 1438. This carving is almost life-sized. John is depicted wearing a long camel hair covering. His feet are black with filth. His hair is disheveled and he has one crossed eye. He is raising his right hand as though he is passionately trying to make a point and in his left hand he holds a partially unraveled scroll with the Latin words “ECCE HOMO” (“behold the man”) inscribed on it.
We know very little of the person of John the Baptist. He was Jesus’ cousin. His father, Zechariah, was a priest and his mother, Elizabeth, was a descendent of Aaron, and John held the priesthood of Aaron, which gave him the authority to perform baptisms. John was born six months before Jesus and his birth was prophesied in the Old Testament in Isaiah & Malachi and foretold, to his father by the angel Gabriel. Elizabeth was old and barren, and Zechariah lost his speech over the disbelief on hearing of his wife’s pregnancy; his speech was returned at his son’s circumcision. His words are spoken as the Canticle of Zechariah on Wednesdays and Sundays in the Morning Prayer Daily Office: “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
And so our Gospel begins: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”
The person of John the Baptist is a real person in time. He is mentioned by the early Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who records his death as occurring in about the year 30. John’s saint day is June 24. He is the patron saint of those about to be baptized, as well as converts, convulsive children, drivers on motorways, epileptics, farriers, printers, tailors and bird dealers.
I should mention that the words baptism and baptist come from the Greek baptô, meaning “to dip”.
In our Gospel today John is asked three times: “Who are you?” “Are you the Messiah? Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet?” Thrice John answered “No.” When asked to explain himself he said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord’…I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
“Among you stands one whom you do not know.” This statement stuck in my craw as I prepared this sermon. It made me wish we had some bibles in the pews. The rest of the 51 verses in this first chapter of John help me to understand what is going on in this too, too brief passage. The rest of this chapter contains the baptism of Jesus and the calling of his disciples…listen to the wonderful descriptions they give to Jesus…first John the Baptist calls him “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”…and in rapid succession Jesus is called:
->Son of God
->Lamb of God
->Rabbi (which means teacher)
->Messiah (which means anointed)
->Him about whom Moses in the law
and also the prophets wrote
->Son of Joseph from Nazareth
->Son of God
->King of Israel
->Son of Man
My sisters and brothers in Christ, these are an awful lot of names and expectations for the little baby whose birth we will celebrate in two short weeks. Remember that as that little baby grew he came to understand God’s love and plan for him. Let each of us take baby steps, little one day at a time steps, as we grow in the knowledge and love of Jesus. May you wear Christ well as you celebrate Christmas this year and may his simple love fill each of you, day by day.


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