I remember when I was still working, sitting at our nurses station early one evening. We had a curved mirror on the wall, up high, so could look down the hall when the electronic doors opened and see who was coming into the unit. Except for shift changes, our ICU was open 24/7 and we were used to visitors at all hours. On this night, at about 2130 the doors swung open. I looked up at the mirror and saw a little girl of about 8 and an elderly lady walk in. I recognized the woman; her husband was a patient of mine and the little girl was one of his grandchildren. The little girl skipped ahead of her grandmother and popped into my patient’s room. He was reading the newspaper. “Grandpa,” she exclaimed, “Make a noise like a frog! Pleeeease!” He looked up from his paper and asked, “Why should I do that, little one?” She said, “Oh Grandpa! Grandma said that when you croaked, we’re going to Disneyland!!!”
My friends in Christ, today we continue our Advent journey. Year A in our liturgical calendar finds most of our readings from Matthew, so a bit about his Gospel. Matthew, along with Mark and Luke are synoptic Gospels; they contain much of the same information, in parallel, but not in the same places chronologically. Matthew follows the life of Jesus, as we know it, and starts with a genealogy of Christ from Abraham to Joseph. Matthew was written between the years 65 and 80; some think it may have been written as early in the AD 50s, and that it was written in Antioch, Syria. Who wrote the Gospel is under scrutiny, but the historian Eusebius , in his fascinating work Church History, quotes Bishop Papias of Hierapolis, who claims that Mathew did write this Gospel. Eusebius’ book is public domain and if anyone is a church nerd, I highly recommend it. Matthew was a tax collector and early church tradition claims that after Matthew completed his Gospel, he moved east to evangelize India.
Our Gospel readings through the four weeks of Advent are like peeling the layers of an onion…we meet characters and get closer and closer each passing week to this baby God with skin on. That peeling of layers actually begins in the Old Testament, with the major and minor prophets. They write, sometimes in metaphor and sometimes precisely to the word, pointing to that place in space and time and geography where God comes down to show us what God’s love is like.
Today we meet that last prophet: Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist. When I look at the Gospel stories I like to close my eyes and imagine. I want to smell the smells of that time…I want to hear what they hear, to see and taste and touch and smell that story. Sometimes I go to images of the story or characters in it to help me understand. One of the images I came across is in your prayers of the people. It’s a modern drawing of John the Baptist, perhaps scetched at John’s local Red Locust restaurant. He’s got that locust on his plate, ready to peel and dip in his cup of warm wild honey. The image, obviously, is an attempt at humor. Some people think it’s funny, and some people don’t.
I did find some amazing artwork about John the Baptist. The image the struck me the most, and is still with me, is a life-sized wood carving of the Baptist done by the Italian artist Donatello in the 1300s. John is filthy. He is disheveled, unkempt, and grotesque. He is bare-foot, has that heavy camel shirt on, appears almost cross-eyed. He holds a scroll with the Latin words ECCE HOMO -behold the man- written on it. John looks insane. I wonder what would happen if the front doors of Trinity were to burst open and we would be confronted with John in person…coming down the aisle with a walking stick, surrounded by locusts, smelling of dirt, sweat, and honey, shouting to us: “YOU BROOD OF VIPERS! REPENT! MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD! HIS AX IS SHARP AND YOU MAY BURN!!!”
Please know and understand, my dear friends in Christ: John was a prophet. Despite his appearance and demeanor he came announcing the birth of someone that he felt he wasn’t worthy to even be around…someone bringing a new baptismal fire…from the Holy Spirit.
John was also an evangelist. Russ, Nila, Linda, Larry, this ornery deacon and each and every one of you are evangelists, too. We don’t come with an ax. We don’t come with screaming. We don’t come with anger. We don’t come making people fear God. As we prepare for Advent, ask yourselves: “What kind of evangelist am I?” Am I an angry, hurt evangelist? How do I treat those among me? What am I doing to show others the love of the lil baby coming so so soon?
This coming week, we celebrate the feast day of Thomas Merton. He was a famous, well-loved RC Priest and monk and author. Please listen to his quiet reflection written for this Second Sunday of Advent: “This is the day that you shall hear and hate the voice of His beloved servant. This is the day your scrutiny shall fear a terrible and peaceful angel, dressed in skins, knowing it is your greedy eyes, not his, that die of hunger. For God has known and loved him, from his mother’s womb, remembering his name, filling his life with grace, teaching him prophecy and wisdom, to burn before the Face of Christ, name Him and vanish, like a proclamation.”
My dear friends in Christ, Advent is a hushed time, a quiet time, a waiting time. So soon, too soon, not soon enough, we will worship together, hushed in this quiet, candle-lit church. We started our journey, our preparation, a week ago. We wait, we pray, we hope. In this time, may our hearts and minds and voices united, here at Trinity Parish, be prepared to receive Christ the baby. May we be an example of God’s love and joy to those who do not know Christ. Remember, as evangelists, we may be the only Christian some people may see. As Paul says so elegantly writes in our epistle today: “May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing, so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
To that, my friends, let the church say AMEN.