The Second Sunday of Advent – December 6, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Today I have two songs running through my head. ‘Jolly old St Nicholas, lean your ear this way…’ is competing with ‘On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry.’ Because today is the second Sunday of Advent, and we’re starting in our gospel readings to hear about John the Baptist preparing the way for the coming Messiah; and today, December 6, is also the Feast of St Nicholas. So I’ve been wondering: what might St Nicholas and John the Baptist have in common?
To start with the more popular one, St Nicholas: on this day in many countries, children leave out their shoes for the magical St Nicholas to fill with gifts, and special cookies are baked in his honor. But Nicholas was a real person, a Bishop of the city of Myra in modern-day Turkey. He was an early signer of the Nicene Creed, the statement of faith we say every Sunday in church, and famously slapped the heretic Arius in the face at the council that produced that creed. The Emperor Constantine threw him into jail for this public assault, but a miraculous visitation from Mary and Joseph freed him from prison and he was reinstated as bishop. According to legend – as our St Cecilia and High School Choirs know from singing Benjamin Britten’s cantata – he predicted and then calmed a fierce storm at sea while traveling to the Holy Land, so he became the patron saint of sailors. He raised from the dead three children who had been killed and butchered for meat during a famine, and so he became the patron saint of children. And he secretly threw bags of gold coins into a poor man’s house to provide dowries for his daughters, so he became a saint noted for gift giving – St Nicholas, in Dutch Sinterklaas, and in English, Santa Claus.
Nicholas was fierce and uncompromising advocate for truth and righteousness; a deeply generous giver; a profoundly faithful follower of Christ. But somewhere along the way he became fat and started wearing a red suit, and that unpleasantness about the Nicene Creed was all forgotten. Who would want to sit on the lap of someone who might slap you for heresy?
So now for John the Baptist. His feast day falls in June, celebrating his nativity, so summer folk customs and bonfires celebrate that day. His birth was nearly as miraculous as that of Jesus, and his coming was spoken about in the prophets. He received God’s word in the wilderness and in the midst of a time of oppression and occupation, he preached that word anyway. He called people to prepare their hearts and minds for God’s coming. He knew his own call, knew when to step aside and point to Jesus as Messiah, saying, ‘He must increase; I must decrease.’ Because he made his own clothes out of animal skins, he is the patron saint of tailors. Because he made straight the way of the Lord, he is the patron saint of masons. And because he spoke of Jesus as the Lamb of God, he is the patron saint of shepherds.
But somewhere along the way we mostly remember John the Baptist for eating locusts and wearing hairy clothes and being a prophet of doom. John is relegated to weirdness, and forgotten as soon as the season of Advent recedes every year.
So what do Nicholas and John have in common? Well, mostly that we don’t pay much attention to them anymore. Not to the actual person and what they had to say, anyway. Maybe that’s all too off-putting.
Advent is a funny time, isn’t it? Our scriptures are full of strong words of hope and stories of fierce characters who speak hard truths to people of all time. The season is full of themes of darkness and light, power and powerlessness, loss and healing. But in popular culture and even sometimes in church we take away the fierceness and the power and make it softer and easier to swallow. We smooth out the edges and focus on the sweet legends instead of the harder truths.
The problem is that in doing so, we lose what we most need. Think of how the gospel story unfolds: it all takes place on a small stage, a minor place among marginal people. How unnoticed and unnoticeable it was when it happened: a baby born to poor people without money for proper shelter, in a backwater colony of the Roman Empire. A wild-eyed man preaching to a few hundred people on the banks of a muddy river. A wandering teacher and healer attracting ragtags and misfits; a charismatic leader dying a shameful death on a cross, just like thousands of others at the time.
And to make that small-potatoes quality that much starker, the gospel writer Luke reminds us of all the big important things that were going on at the same time. In today’s gospel: ‘In 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, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.’ Similar to how the more familiar Nativity reading begins: ‘In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria…’ Big important power players on the world stage; small, no-account people on the gospel stage.
Big important power players, yes, but not exactly inspiring leaders of faith. Tiberius and Pilate and Caiaphas and Quirinius were leaders of systems of oppression, authorities of the Roman occupying empire, of the religious oligarchy, of bloody military force. They were aristocrats and power-mongers, the wealthy few who lived off the slavery and poverty of many. The whole system they ruled over depended upon the oppression of people both in their empire and beyond. Society was rigidly divided into the haves and the have-nots, and violence both deliberate and random pervaded the day. Familiar? Yes, a little.
It is little wonder that John the Baptist had to go away, out into the wilderness to hear the word of God. But the word of God did come to him there. The Word of God came to him, and to small, no-account people kind of like us. Right in the midst of all that system of violence and bloodshed and degradation, the Word of God came. As it comes still, even now, even as we grieve another act of mass violence and our leaders argue the politics of selling assault weapons in retail stores. Even as world powers debate minor changes to our economies that may still be too small to stave off climate change. Even as too many lack the basics of food, shelter, education, and clean water, while liberals and conservatives argue about whose fault it all is. It sounds like time for us all to go out into the wilderness, I say.
The signs of God’s kingdom can be subtle. Next to the signs of disorder and chaos, of worldly power and politics, they can be very hard to notice. The world can look all dark when we’re not used to looking for the light. It’s like trying to make out details of a picture or read a book when the lights are off. We’re accustomed to valuing the big things over the little things. Mass shootings and war loom larger than small acts of kindness. The words of our leaders seem like they must be important, even when they don’t really lead anywhere. The dark things in our own lives loom large too – the frightening diagnosis, uncertain employment, the loneliness and isolation that can come even more at this time of year.
Perhaps this season of Advent can be our wilderness. Time to spend in silence, listening to what the word of God might be in this day for us. Time to spend with fierce and uncompromising people, the ones who call a spade a spade. Time to reach out to the lost and the hungry, and ask others to care for us too.
We need to hear the word of God. We need the light. Not just because it makes us feel better, but because we ourselves are meant to be agents of that light here in this world. It is easy for us to feel too small and insignificant to make any difference, and like all the forces of darkness are too great. But the light of God’s kingdom isn’t always big and grand and blazing at first – sometimes it is just the littlest act of truth-telling or kindness that sets in motion the sweeping change. We do what we can as children of the light, however small that might seem. And the light we offer meets up with the light of others, part of the greater Light that shines in the darkness – and the darkness does not overcome it.
In the midst of what is big and powerful and set against the forces of good there is the power of the kingdom of God, small as a mustard seed and ready to grow and take over. That is the true story of this season. May we see that light, and show it to others, this week and always. Amen.