Sermon by the Rev. Abby VanderBrug on Sunday, December 6, 2020.
Parents, grandparents, kids, and many parishioners all look forward to the day when fuzzy sheep ears, shepherd staffs, and babies wrapped in swaddling clothes come marching in the front doors of our 10am service. And I do too, it could be my favorite day all year.
This year, just like everything else will be a little different. This year we made a movie! When I sat down to think about what a pageant would like as a movie, I had to think “how does this story start?” which can be a hard decision to make, as each Gospel tells the story differently.
Traditionally, in a Christmas pageant, we use the first chapters of Luke’s Gospel to tell the story. It’s opening scene is angels whispering in Mary’s ear and evolves with the widest cast of characters, the shepherds, the kings, innkeepers. Spoiler alert: this is the one we used again this year.
But it’s not the way that all the other Gospels tell the story.
If Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth were a movie, it’s opening scene would be a small child sitting on her grandfather’s knee as he recited the 25 generations of people that all connected Jesus back to Abraham.
If John’s Gospel, well no one ever uses this one, because John’s gospel starts with “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.” So maybe the movie would open with some images of outer space.
In Mark’s Gospel, the one that we read today, the opening scene would be a tumbleweed, rolling across a barren landscape. Que in some John Whayne music. Then, off in the distance, we see a bedoin sheep farmer carrying a staff and a flock of scrawny sheep following him over some hills. Move to close up of the shepherd as he shouts, “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” across the vast expanse. It is much too long of a title, but there’s nothing else going on, so why not? His voice fills the hills and valleys of the landscape. There is an echo, but no reply.
Finally, two characters enter the scene, wearing tunics, carrying fabric bags on their back, scarves across their faces to keep the stinging sand off their skin, and beaten up sandals. They are moving with haste, not out for a walk, but looking for something. We overhear them, “this way! They said he would be only a little bit farther. I know he is, I can feel it.”
What could they possibly be looking for in such a place as this? Are they excited about the lone shepherd? Maybe they’re going to rob him? We are curious, so we follow along.
Scene two: A man standing in a small river. He is wearing clothes that people wore centuries ago – camel fur and a chunky leather belt. Across his waist is a satchel with big big chunks of honeycomb with bugs swarming about it. His hair a wild mess, his beard down to his chest. He’s as skinny as a pencil. He is shouting, things about repentance and sins and Someone who is coming. On the banks of the river we see people – people just like the 2 travelers, from all over the Judean countryside, sitting and listening to this strange man.
One by one people get up and walk into the river with him, only to be plunged into it and then brought back up. We look at a close up of the crowd, they are mesmerized by the experience. End Scene.
If Mark knew the other parts of the story like the angels and the kings and all that, he didn’t find them important enough to include them. He skipped right over them. Not even a mention of Mary’s name. Not even the smallest hint of a baby born in a barn. Instead, what Mark thought was important was the wilderness and John the Baptist. For Mark, this is where the Good News starts.
People came looking for John. His home was nowhere-land and he was a prophet in the truest sense of the word. In Children’s Chapel, I teach that prophets are people who have come so close to God and God has come so close to them, that they show the rest of us the way. Whatever John was offering in that river, people were hungry for it. People traveled a day or two by foot, away from the city walls, away from their homes, out where wild animals roam, where there is no food, to get a taste of it. They were looking for something, some truth, and the word was out that John had it.
What would make people do this sort of a thing? What was in that water? After all, there were temples inside the city that were safe and had all the comforts of religious rules, structure, and routine. The rabbis had certainly not sanctioned John the Immerser to dunk people in water in the middle of nowhere. John was ushering in something that was completely new.
My only guess is that what John was preaching on that riverside is freedom. It’s the first thing that we know about him – he proclaimed repentance and forgiveness of sins. I can only think of that as freedom.
It’s freedom from who we’ve been,
freedom from what we’ve screwed up,
freedom from the expectations the city walls placed on us,
freedom from every single time we were not true to ourselves or to our story,
freedom all the things that grip us;
our addictions, illnesses, status, control, fears,
freedom our expectations about the way things were supposed to go,
freedom from the heavy load we’ve all been carrying for far too long.
Now that’s something I’d be willing to go into the wilderness to find a wild prophet for. We find John here in the wilderness precisely because there is nothing. There is nothing around to distract us. There’s nothing around to chase or hide behind. It’s just wilderness. All we find is our true selves and this very strange man telling us that we can be new again. Try it, get in the water. The only thing waiting on the other side is a brand new set of wings made just for you.
Once we have that freedom, everything is changed. We are no longer bound by all the gunk that holds us down, but given a new identity of beloved, redeemed, claimed, no matter what. God’s love for us exactly as we are is perfect freedom because nothing can sever that. It is unconditional, without bounds, without expectations.
But there’s more, he says, a king is coming. But not the kind of king that we usually think about. This king had no army, no castle, no riches. This king is even greater than John, than anyone we can ever imagine.
And so friends, on this second week of Advent, in the 39th week of Corona-tide, take heart and remember the king that was coming, is still coming, and that is full of mystery. So we need to get ready. That’s why we have Advent – so we can spend our time remembering all the messengers that have come before and listen to the messengers today.
The strange man baptizing in the wilderness is only a part of the road that leads us to Bethlehem, just wait till you see the rest of the movie.
It’s as the hymn sings:
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.