John 1 and many more
December 14, 2014
Do you know why there is a pink candle in the Advent Wreath? It’s not because we ran out of purple ones. But the pink candle actually does have something to do with the purple ones. I’m not really much of an expert in the liturgical stuff, but I do know there is another time of the church year when purple is big. Do you know when that is? During Lent.
In the early church, and I don’t mean the early church when the Apostles were around, but in the days of the church when folk started doing things like Advent and Lent, those two seasons of the church year were pretty much the same. How many of you think of Advent as one of your favorite times of the year? Would you still think of it in the same way if we did Advent now like they did it way back when it and Lent were just about the same thing. No parties. No feasts. Fasting from just about everything including things like all the food you really liked and sex. Advent like Lent was originally conceived of as a time of repentance, brutal examination of self and others, and self-denial. No Christmas decorations or celebration of the birth of Jesus (that all had to wait until December 25).
We don’t see many hints of that during Advent, and even Lent is nothing like it used to be. But there are still vestiges of Lent around in giving up something during Lent, as compared to most everything in the old days. And there even is, at least, one church in town that won’t do weddings during Lent because you shouldn’t be doing that kind of celebrating during Lent. And the same would have been true during Advent. No weddings then, either.
It was all pretty harsh. That’s why both Advent and Lent had some breaks built into them. During Lent you don’t have to fast and abstain on Sundays. And since I am so uninformed about all of these things, added with I don’t really care, I can argue that for those who are concerned about these things that you can do weddings during Lent on Sundays, and feel okay about it.
Did you know that also during those way back days of Advent and Lent that weddings were usually performed on Sundays, anyway? I actually have a worship manual that has the wedding taking place in the offering section of the morning worship service. The couple would come forward, say their vows, be pronounced husband and wife, and go back to their pew until the worship service was over. Maybe have a little reception afterwards.
We’re talking about the time when Mary and I are eventually going to retire. Before that happens I would love to do a wedding service like that. Any volunteers? And what if you came to church and had no idea that a marriage was going to take place that day? All of the sudden James and Rebecca are saying their vows, or Amy and Jane are being declared wife and wife and they go back to their pews.
It would be so cool to do that, but we need to get back to the pink candle. The pink candle represents what Sundays used to be during Lent, a rest from the harshness. So we have the candle of hope, the candle of peace, and for the third Sunday of Advent the candle of joy. Now back in those old days they didn’t give each candle it’s own theme. That just came to be somewhere along the way. But they did have this thing where on the Third Sunday of Advent you were allowed to do joyful things. You got one day to have the parties, play the games, have the feast, watch the equivalent of the football game, visit with friends, have some alone time with your partner. You got that one day and then it was back to the preparation of your unworthy self for the birth of Jesus. That pink candle in the middle of the wreath is a vague hint of how Advent used to be.
There is something else that pink candle does for me, and maybe for some of you, too. It makes me ask how can it be? How can we think about joy when there is so much sadness? There are too many hard things going on in too many places and in too many lives. There are wars everywhere. We are even at war with the water, the earth, the sky, and all of creation. There’s Furgeson, Staten Island, Cleveland. The weak are being crushed by the rich. They’re telling us that the rich are too poor and the poor too rich. The powerful turn against the powerless. There are divisions among us everywhere. There are people we love who are going through horrendous ordeals. We see these pictures and read these stories online that just make us weep. This can be said every week during Advent. Where’s the hope, the peace, the love? What can we do?
I want us to look at one of the creation stories. Do you know how many creation stories there are in the Bible? There are actually a lot of them. The one I want us to look at this morning is from John 1. It’s such an interesting story for so many reasons. It starts out talking about the Word who, it turns out, is Jesus. “All things came into being through him…what has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people.” Then all of the sudden we are hearing not about the Word, but about John the Baptist. But what we learn about John is that he was not the big deal. He came to bear witness to the big deal, to Jesus. Now John was seen as being in the line of the prophets, and the prophets were always the big deal. But not John. He simply came to bear witness.
Where’s the hope, the peace, the joy, the love? What do we do? I wish you all could have heard Bishop Daughtry last week. Remember I left right after church to go hear this 84 year old Black preacher who was there in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, who stood at Nelson Mandela’s graveside, who held the Mothers of the children shot by the police. As he talked about all the heartache that goes on in so many places, all that changes that need to take place in our world, he said, like John the Baptist we are called to bear witness to Jesus. And he said what he didn’t mean by that was we were supposed to go around talking about Jesus, but to bear witness by being present like Jesus was present.
The Word became flesh and lived in our midst, God with us. Incarnation is about God being present. The witness we bear is to the one who is here with us, And we are called by Jesus to be with the God who is with us.
I came across a question this week that I’m going to pass on to you. It was this. What makes Jesus a Christian? With the people sitting around you take a couple or three minutes and see what answers you come up with.
For me, what makes Jesus a Christian is his trust in God. Jesus trusted that the way God calls us to live is the right way to live. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. Invite the outsider in. Tear down the walls that divide us from each other, and build new and inclusive communities. Give up on violence. Call the powerful to account. Lift up the lowly. Surrender some of your power and privilege, unless you don’t have much of either. Practice forgiveness, mercy, and compassion. Don’t live as if your life is only a matter of what you own, how much money you make, or your status. Stand tall because God loves you. Comfort the afflicted. Afflict the comfortable. Live at peace with each other and the Community of Creation. Jesus really trusted that God has a better way for us. And he trusted that God is a God of life and that life, not death, is the final word.
The creation story in John says that John was not the Light but that he came to bear witness to the light, the true light that was coming into the world. But, Jesus said this most amazing thing. John may have not been the Light, but Jesus once said this to his followers, “You are the light of the world.” That’s how we bear witness, bringing the light into the dark places of the world. It turns out that Jesus believed that the God he trusted trusts us. We read that Christ is in us, but that we are also in Christ. And the Apostle Paul really gets this when he writes about the church being the Body of Christ. We bear witness to Jesus by being who he is. The same things that make Jesus a Christian are what make us Christians.
Where’s the joy? It’s not like the folk who thought about joy, even if for only one day during Advent weren’t asking that same question. These are not the first tough times the world has experienced. We aren’t the only ones who have ever had to confront the sadness. But that pink candle, all the candles of Advent point us to something more than what we see. There are always new possibilities, new creations ahead of us. There are lots of creation stories in the Bible. At the end of the book of the Revelation we read about a new heaven and a new earth. From Isaiah 65. For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity; [e]
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
In Isaiah and Micah we read about the day when swords shall be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. There’s that creation story that begins in Job 40. And then there is this creation story in 2 Corinthians 5. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything is new.”
There are a million million creation stories. That’s where the joy comes and not for just one day. And it’s the same with hope, peace, and love. I think we do Advent better than they used to. It’s not just about us getting ready for Jesus, but us getting everything ready for Jesus. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for God. Jesus is coming, but he’s expecting us to show up too. That’s what makes us Christians. And there’s a pink candle in it for us.