The Third Sunday of Advent
A song of hope to exiles in Babylon…. "Waters shall break forth in the wilderness, streams in the Syrian Desert… a highway shall be there."
Luke 1:47-55 (UMH 199, The Upper Room Worshipbook, 17-20)
Canticle of Mary (the Magnificat).
"Be patient . . . until the coming of the Lord." Consider singing "Wait for the Lord" (Worship & Song, 3049) or "Until Jesus Comes" (Worship & Song, 3050) as a repeated response leading into the gospel lesson.
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John the Baptist in prison sends a question to Jesus: "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"
"Expecting Reversal" Sunday
The Third Sunday of Advent has often been called Joy Sunday or "Gaudete Sunday" (Gaudete is Latin for"Rejoice!"). That term made sense during the late Middle Ages when this designation was added. Advent at that time was primarily a penitential season. It was conceived as a kind of parallel for the middle Sunday in Lent ("Laetare Sunday") to lighten the tone a bit in a season of fasting. "Laetare Sunday" was so called because the Mass that day would begin with Isaiah 66:1: "Laetare Ierusalem" (Be joyful, Jerusalem).
So, in the middle of the season of Advent, Advent 3, the Mass would begin with "Gaudete in Domino semper" (“Rejoice in the Lord always") from Philippians 4:4.
That was all before Vatican II, the change by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike to three-year lectionaries rather than one-year lectionaries, and the concurrent re-orientation of Advent from a season of penitence to a season of expectant preparation for the Second Coming of Christ as prelude to the celebration of Christmas. We no longer read Philippians 4 every year on Advent 3. So the original rationale for calling this day "Joy Sunday" during all three years of the lectionary cycle no longer exists.
What to call this Sunday in this year, then? How about "Expecting Reversal Sunday." All of this week’s texts fit that theme. Yes, there is rejoicing mentioned in Isaiah 35, but it is rejoicing about dramatic reversals prophesied to take place. Likewise, Mary’s soul "magnifies the Lord" and her spirit "exults" in God our Savior, but again because of major reversals she confidently expects God to initiate with the coming birth of her child. Meanwhile, in today’s gospel reading, John and his followers are waiting expectantly for Messiah, though perhaps not yet rejoicing; and Jesus offers them, as witness, another series of reversals: blind people seeing, lame people walking, the poor getting good news (for a change!). It’s about "Expecting Reversal" everywhere!
If that term isn’t appealing, how about something like "Turn Around Sunday" or even "Turning Sunday," using John Bell’ s"Canticle of the Turning" (his setting of Mary’s song, the Magnificat) as a musical motif throughout the service. (See Upper Room Worshipbook 18).
Use pink candles, stoles, and paraments if you like this day, but remember, it’s just fine, especially since we’re not reading Philippians 4 this year, to save your money and stick with all blue or purple.
For those who use an Advent wreath during this season, here is GBOD’s ever-expanding collection of Candle Lighting Liturgies for 2013.
Many more Advent resources are also available.
Christmas is coming. Not just the day, but the Season. Does a full celebration and opportunity to contemplate the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ get drowned out or overridden by all kinds of other activities and travel plans? Consider how you may ReThink Christmas Season this year to ensure you celebrate it, as well as Advent, as fully as possible where you are.
GBOD’s Kwanzaa resources are available on the GBOD Planning Calendar.
"Blue Christmas" services are becoming a mainstay in many places around the United States. These services recognize the sadness and loss that many people may feel acutely at this time of the year. While some offer such a service on Longest Night (December 21), any time during Advent could be appropriate.
New Year’s Eve/Watchnight/Holy Name of Jesus/New Year’s Day resources are also available, along with our planning helps for this time.
Coming up in January
Human Trafficking Awareness Day (UMW Resources)
Ecumenical Sunday in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Human Relations Day
Martin Luther King Birthday
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“Wait for it. Wait for it." It’s a phrase that shows up regularly in British television "programmes" or spoken by British people in American television shows. It is spoken to people who are just on the verge of starting something—like a race or a timed contest of some sort (wait for the starter’s signal)—or people who are just about to get their pictures taken (hold position until after the flash). Or perhaps, in the U.S., it might be said to children (or adults!) who come downstairs on Christmas morning and are just about to tear into the packages around the tree.
It’s not the sort of waiting that is about standing around in "queues" (British for "lines"). It’s the kind of waiting that happens when people are just on the verge of getting going, of experiencing what they’ve longed for. Just a bit longer, and they’ll have it!
In all of these cases, the key to the expectant waiting, the bated breath, is the clarity of the vision about what it being awaited. People can see it. It’s right in front of them. No one with eyes to see or ears to hear can doubt what it is or that it is. It’s right there, just beyond our grasp, but surely coming.
In our texts this Third Sunday of Advent in Year A, what we’re waiting for is nothing less than what Mary sang long ago-- the reversal of the powers that be, the undoing of every oppression, the feeding of all who hunger, and the elevation of all left out or shut out of power. We wait with Isaiah for springs to emerge in deserts, and highways where the path seemed impossible to navigate, leading exiles home. We wait with John the Baptizer—for an apocalypse, a dramatic realization of God’s reign here and now. And we wait, prompted by James, with the patience of a farmer for the harvest to come.
In all of these things, we’re not actually waiting for Christmas, as important as the Feast of the Incarnation is for us as disciples of Jesus. We’re waiting, instead, for the fullness of God’s reign to be realized in our midst. So as you’re thinking about graphics and design of the worship space for today, keep the focus of what we’re waiting for where the Scriptures themselves place that focus. And ask yourselves as a worship planning team, and especially the artists among you, what the"great reversal" we all await looks like, concretely and symbolically, in the place and among the people who gather for worship with you. Build your design more around those compelling images and less, if at all, around the culturally supplied and supported images of"Christmastime."
Christmas itself will be with us in due season. Be patient. Inhabit the fullness of the Incarnation when its celebration comes. Today we have other things to do.
Among them, as on every Sunday, we are invited to gather around the Lord’s Table, and there experience such waiting anew as we feast on Christ today in anticipation of feasting with him forever in the heavenly banquet.
The people in exile in Babylon to whom this prophetic song was delivered may have been caught in a tension. On the one hand, they were making their homes in a strange land, just as God had instructed them to do through the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29, October 13). On the other hand, they were still longing for the homes they had reason to suspect were destroyed. They wanted to be content where they were; and at the same time, they wanted this exile to end. But no end appeared in sight.
So when the prophecy we read today was delivered, it must have seemed at best like a crazy dream. The Syrian Desert turned into a glade? Spring flowers where the bulbs must have dried into a fine powder centuries ago? How can a people be strong and not afraid when they’ve been uprooted and now are doing the best they can to survive in a land where their language, their religion and their cultural customs make little sense? And a highway built from Babylon to Jerusalem? No one goes from Babylon straight back to Judea for good reason—it’s a desert!
Crazy, simply crazy. Such reversals are impossible!
Unless they’re not. Unless, that is, this is the word of God.
And whoever is crazy, or expectant enough, to believe that… they’ll start to see it, and they’ll be standing on tiptoes, excitedly peering into its reality drawing near.
If Isaiah invites us to see crazy, impossible political and ecological visions, James is waiting back on one’s heels, trusting simple, fairly concrete and yet mysterious organic processes. The central metaphor is one of farming. Those of us who live in more urban or suburban settings might think of it as gardening. The moment you plant the seed in the earth, and even before, you are already tasting the juicy, ripe tomatoes, the buttery sweet corn, the complex musky tones of fresh broccoli, the comforting zucchini bread, and the crisp lettuces and spinach that you will enjoy in days to come… if you wait for it. Harvest too soon, and what you will get will pale in comparison to what it would have become.
The waiting James describes is no less expectant. The outcome is no less sure. And the reversals are no less profound. The oppressed get justice. The hungry are fed. Prisoners are freed. The blind see. Those pushed down are lifted up. Strangers in a strange land find themselves watched over. Orphans and widows are defended, not taken advantage of.
But the quality of the waiting is different. The energy of the waiting here is about the holding back, the discipline of letting God’s kingdom unfold in its own time in full confidence of the harvest to come.
Think of it as"waiting on the heels" rather than the tiptoes. While the waiting in Isaiah is about strengthening our hands and knees and stirring our imaginations to stretch our hopes and vision to the future, the waiting in James is about strengthening our hearts here and now—about becoming firm in our values, strong in our center, giving generously while dissipating nothing. Staying centered, waiting on our heels, we pull back as well from grumbling, and we accept the suffering that comes. It’s about patience.
The Greek word for the patience encouraged here is "makrothumia"— being "big spirited," literally. Generosity and magnanimity are near synonyms. Let the vision of what is surely coming so strengthen you, in or through or despite suffering, that through it, like the prophets, you also grow, mature and bear gracious fruit.
We need "Isaiah waiting" and "James waiting"—both. Both are expectant, both expect significant reversals of the way the powers that be usually arrange things, and both are confident the source of these reversals, and so the hope in the waiting, is God.
Are we there yet? That’s the question impatient children frequently ask when they’re tired and bored with being stuck in the car, the bus, or the plane. If they’ve been napping, they may also ask it if we can stop for a bit and get out of the car. Are we there yet? Is this where we were going?
Often, of course, the answer is no. We’re not there yet. We’re just taking a break, or getting a snack, or stretching. But eventually the answer is "Yes." And once the answer is "Yes," if they ask, "Are we there yet?" we know we haven’t described our destination accurately, or maybe it isn’t quite what they thought they were waiting for.
There comes a time when the waiting stops, when the longed for thing has in fact come. And at that point, if we’ve gotten used to waiting, or tired of hoping, we may need someone to introduce us to where we’ve actually arrived. Maybe those who have brought us along haven’t been clear enough. Or maybe what we expected was something rather different from what we’ve actually received.
That’s the situation in which John the Baptizer finds himself. Imprisoned by Herod, facing the likelihood of torture or even death, the prophet and his disciples wonder if what he’s been announcing— “one coming after me who will baptize with fire and Spirit" – has actually come to pass in the ministry and person of Jesus. After spending his life proclaiming, "It’s coming. He’s coming" and asking in his heart, "Are we there yet?" perhaps he was now wondering, "Is this all there is?"
Jesus has a dramatic answer that almost seems a non-answer. He does not say, "Yes, I’m the one." Instead, he asks the disciples of John to look around them and see what’s happening—blind people seeing, lame people walking, deaf people hearing, lepers being cleansed, dead people being raised, poor people getting good news for a change. Tell John what’s happening, he says. Let what’s happening be the answer. And maybe that will help him say "Wow! Look at this! It is here! He is here! We’ve made it!"
We are there yet. We are the witnesses. We have seen and heard. We have waited. Jesus is the one, still, today, right where we are. And you are the body of Christ. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for to live into what God has already opened up all around us.
Wait for it. Wait for it. On tiptoes, on heels, or on walking, leaping, and dancing feet. It’s coming in crazy big ways. It’s coming as surely as the crops grow. It’s coming and among us even now as we move in the living word of God, following Jesus in the power of the Spirit.
Paint that. Dance that. Sculpt that. Set that to music—vocal or instrumental. Wait for it and all the reversals it brings… in all the ways our God invites us to this day, and in the days ahead.
In Your Planning Team
Are we there yet? Is the world about to turn? Wait for it. Yes, we’re there, and there’s still more to wait for too.
That’s the trajectory of worship for this third Sunday in Advent. Questions, hopes, confident assurance, arrival, and the realization even more is to come.
As you design worship today, let its trajectory follow the trajectory of these readings. Enter with questions. Build expectation for dramatic reversals (musicians and dramatists, you know how to do this!). Pull back to the heels. Open eyes at the table. And see. We pray or sing Mary’s song today during the second movement of worship, "Word and Response." Consider praying Simeon’s song as the thanksgiving after Communion, or if you are unable to celebrate the sacrament, as a unison prayer of sending.
Lord you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised.
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people, Israel. (Luke 2:29-39).
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As you start sketching in music or art you might use, don’t forget the witness of the people you know in your congregation or your own social networks. Who are those who wait on tiptoes? On heels? What stories do they tell about their expectant waiting for God’s turning to come?
In these helps, I’m often asking you as a planning team to go out and talk to people. You may have thought your role was simply to "outline the show." It’s not. It’s to make sure what you do in worship represents what God is doing among and in the midst of your particular people, the people you know, where you are. The more you hear and learn their stories, and the more you help them tell them, or otherwise incorporate them in the worship you plan and lead together, the more worship becomes what it is intended to be: the work of the people giving all of their lives to God.
So who’s seeing a very different future coming among you, one that reverses the powers and brings joy to those the power oppressed?
Who’s waiting on their heels, not because they are afraid to take a risk, but because they know (and when you hear them, you know, too!) that something even better is to come when they do? How do these people describe those acts of waiting?
Who looks around and see signs of God’s kingdom come and coming everywhere? Go ask these folks, and then fill your worship bulletins, banners, screen, and walls with those signs this morning. And let the stories of those signs be written and told.
Follow the trajectory. And fill it with voices and stories of these witnesses who are waiting for it, some on tiptoes, some on heels, all surrounded by ample hopeful witness that the promised reversals are well underway.
The Song of Mary. This is one of the few Sundays when a song outside the Psalter is appointed as a response to the first reading. Make the most of it, especially because it is Luke's powerful song on the lips of Mary. The United Methodist Hymnal (199) provides a sung response for the Canticle of Mary that makes a nice connection with the first reading. The canticle itself brings Mary more into view as Christmas approaches. Of course, there are many other settings of this canticle that you will know of and consider for choral or congregational use.
Whatever you do, sing this today! There is no more potent song in all of the Bible expressing the expectation of God turning the world upside down than Mary’s song. For heaven's sake, and yours, don't skip it!
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Embodying the Word: The Entrance for Advent 3
Consider how to embody the core imagery of waiting for God to turn the world upside down for this week even as you enter the worship space.
Waiting to Enter
Depending on how your worship space is arranged, consider keeping people out of the worship space for a time before worship. Maybe you have added a Christmas tree for this morning. Or maybe the greens were hung by a small group last night. Or maybe you have a new font or another new item of "holy hardware" to dedicate this morning. Whatever it is, it needs to be worth waiting for. This is not to be a gimmick of any kind. Rather it is to be a way for the congregation to experience, from even before the beginning of worship, what it is to wait on tiptoe, as it were.
An Enacted Call to Worship
After you have all physically entered the worship space, and before the lighting of the Advent Wreath (if you have that custom), consider asking people to offer themselves to God in all three body postures of waiting we have described above, perhaps as follows:
Leader (leaning forward on tiptoes at the font): O God, your promises fill our hearts, and we can hardly wait to see them come to pass among us.
People: (leaning forward on tiptoes): We can’t wait for you!
Leader: (leaning back on heels): Jesus, you planted good seed in the lives of your disciples for three years, day in, day out, and were patient for the harvest.
People (leaning back on heels): We will wait with each other, side by side, trusting that what you have planted will bear fruit.
Leader: (walking toward and around the Lord’s Table, and gesturing to windows or images of the world outside): Spirit, we see clear signs of your work all around us.
People: (walking in place and gesturing toward the Lord’s Table and the windows or images of the world outside): Keep us walking, and keep opening our eyes to see and celebrate and join your work more and more.
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UMH 207 or 211 "Prepare the Way" (Luke)
BOW 241, 242, 244, 246, 248, 379, 420 (Isaiah)
Isaiah 35: 3-4 "Be strong; do not fear . . ." (Isaiah)
BOW 417 (Isaiah, James)
BOW 240 (James)
BOW 263, "Bidding Prayer" (Matthew) — Adapt this to be a greeting or use it as an opening prayer.
BOW 245 or 247 (Matthew, James, or Luke/Magnificat)
BOW 254 (James)
BOW 250, 252 or 253 (Matthew)
UMH 201 (Isaiah, Matthew, Seasonal)
BOW 268 (James) "God, all-powerful . . ."
Hanging of the Greens (if not already done)
Lighting the Advent Candles
Response to the First Reading
Concerns and Prayers
BOW 517, "Prayer in a Time of National Crisis" (James)
BOW 509, "In Time of Natural Disaster" (Matthew)
Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, Togo
Invitation, Confession, and Pardon
BOW 478, 483 (James)
Thanksgiving (if no Communion)
BOW 255 (Isaiah, Luke/Magnificat)
BOW 551 (James)
Dismissal with Blessing
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I spend a lot of time on the road. Since I am geographically challenged, I have come to rely completely on my GPS to guide my way when I am traveling in a new place.
On a couple of occasions, though, I have found myself in a wilderness area where my phone couldn’t find its connection to the satellite, or my battery has gone dead, or for some other reason I have been left to navigate my way from an atlas or paper map.
What happens when this tragedy occurs? My heart starts to beat fast, I break out in a sweat, my hands sink and my knees totter, and I begin to feel panicked. I hate the feeling of losing my way. It frightens me and makes me feel inadequate.
In this passage from the prophet Isaiah, God’s chosen people have lost their way. They are off course, away from the familiar path as they try to live and navigate their way through the period of the Babylonian exile. They are scared and feeling completely inadequate in every way. They know they have let their Lord down, and they believe that the circumstances they have found themselves in are no one’s fault but theirs.
But through the prophet Isaiah, God comes to them to speak a word of hope in the midst of their fear and panic. Just like my GPS might suddenly break through and pick up the signal from the satellite, or the battery might come back to life so that my device can lead me safely to my destination, God appears on the scene and speaks to the lost and frightened chosen people promising a clear and safe passage out of their current predicament.
God promises that they will return to the land of promise and God will guide their way home, just as God guided their way out of Egypt and into the promised land so many years before. They don’t need to be afraid of their current state of exile, and they don’t need to fear the passage back home, because God is with them. They have the ultimate GPS in their hands: the God Positioning System, and it is the Holy Way for God’s people. And no traveler, not even a fool who is geographically challenged, will be left to go astray on this road.
We are on the road of Advent, making our way toward Christmas. We are deep into the journey by now, and there are many temptations and challenges that may be distracting our members away from the Holy Way of passage toward the birth of our Savior into this world. On this third Sunday in the season, only ten days out from Christmas, our people may well be entering into the panic mode. They are frantically making last-minute preparations for the big day that may involve getting the house ready for guests, making menus for multiple feasts, and trying to get their final shopping completed.
There is so much pressure to have the perfect Christmas. Marketers are ramping up the continuous flood of images of cozy fireplaces and perfectly decorated trees with piles of beautifully wrapped presents underneath and surrounded by well-dressed children and smiling parents and grandparents. Christmas music is constantly in the airwaves. Santa is everywhere. It is difficult to compete with the commercial nature of Christmas in modern America. The possibility of our congregation members losing their way and losing their focus is becoming greater and greater at this point.
But we know the truth; and the truth is that for most of us, Christmas is far from the vision represented by the advertising industry. Our church members may be dreading the family gathering because no one gets along. Families are not picture-perfect. Our children are disheveled and many days it is difficult to wipe the jelly from breakfast off their faces or get them out of their pajamas, much less get their hair neatly combed. Many people are struggling financially and should not be encouraged to go further into debt in order to achieve the vision being sold by the merchants. People are depressed and angry this time of year. Grief is heightened for those who have lost a loved one in recent months. Lots of people are hanging on by a thread.
On this third Sunday in Advent, Isaiah speaks a word of hope to the many who are lost and to the least among us: Hope is on the way! It is just ahead of us on the road to Christmas, and God will provide safe passage to get us there, no matter how difficult things may seem right now. All we have to do is keep our eyes focused on the true meaning of Christmas and trust in God’s Positioning System to deliver us safely to our destination.
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It is hard to wait ten more days at this point. The last few miles are always the longest part of the journey when we can’t wait to get somewhere. It is always the point when the kids in the back seat are hanging on by a thread, squirming in their seatbelts and screaming, “Are we almost there? How much longer?!!”
It is to those of us who find ourselves struggling to get through these final days of this frenzied season that the writer of the Letter of James calls us to practice the virtue of patience.
And not just a little patience, but a LOT of patience. Patience like that of a farmer waiting for the crops to be ready for harvest. Patience that strengthens the heart. Patience that keeps us from grumbling against one another. Patience like that seen in the prophets.
It is a tall order, especially for parents of the squirming children who are now on vacation from school and completely caught up in visions of Santa bringing a load of presents and dropping them on their doorstep. It is a tall order for those of us caught up in the pressures of our heavily commercialized American version of Christmas.
How can we as a church step in to help people during this time when a call to patience is in order?
Are there ways the church can help, perhaps by offering a special daytime program for children home from school, or a present wrapping party for adults?
Is there a way we might become more patient and strengthen our hearts by reaching out in love and service to those in our neighborhoods who are struggling with basic needs in these final days before Christmas?
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In this story, John the Baptist is in prison. He sends some of his followers to go and see Jesus to ask him if he is indeed the One that John had prophesied about. Jesus responds that John's disciples should go back and tell John what they themselves are hearing and seeing with their own ears any eyes: the blind can see, the lame can walk, the lepers are healed, the deaf can hear, the good news has been preached to the poor, and those who have taken no offense have been blessed.
After Jesus says this, John's disciples start to walk away, at which point they hear Jesus begin speaking to the crowds about John. "What did you expect to see when you went out into the desert to see a prophet?" he asks the crowd gathered. "Did you expect to see a blade of grass bending in the wind? A man dressed funny? What did you go to see? A prophet? Yes. But you saw more. The One of whom God said, "I will send my messenger ahead of you to open the way for you. To be sure, John the Baptist is greater than any person who has ever lived. Yet the least person in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John."
What does Jesus mean when he says John is the greatest, yet the least
? To get started, let's look at what we know about John. Nobody was more pure, dedicated, radical, relentless, or single-minded in his pursuit than was John. John lived in the wilderness. His clothing was woven of camel's hair and held on to his body with a simple leather strap. He food was locusts and wild honey. People came to him from all over to be baptized in the river Jordan.
John was equally relentless with every person he encountered, even those who traveled from distant places to hear him speak and receive his baptism. And he was just as hard on the scribes and the Sadducees and the Pharisees as Jesus ever was.
When some of them came to him he told them, "Who let you in on this? You snakes! You better shape it up! You better change your ways! Don't you go telling me who your daddy was and what all your daddy did, what your daddy owns and who he controls. God can make better men then your daddy out of a that pile of rocks! The ax is sharp and the One with the ax is ready to work. Every last tree that is not bearing fruit is going to be cut off down to its roots and burned in the brush pile. So don't come saying "My daddy" to me. The one who comes after me, whose shoes I am not good enough to touch, has his shovel ready. He will scoop you up like grain and separate out the wheat from the chaff, the one to store in his barn forever and the other to burn in a fire that will never go out. I just baptize you with water. The One who comes from God will use the HOLY SPIRIT, and he will baptize with fire!"
We know what we know about John. But nobody knew better who he was and what he was meant to do than John himself. He was clear about his purpose in life. He knew what his job was, and he went about it with all that he had. His job was to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah, the chosen one, the messenger of God, the savior, the king of Truth, the one whom God had promised to send. And nobody ever did his job better than John.
So why is it, then, that Jesus would say that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John?
Is it because the people in the Kingdom of Heaven were wiser, stronger, more knowledgeable, dedicated, or holy than John? Before you answer, think of some of those in the Kingdom of Heaven. Think of Simon Peter, for example. Think of how he misunderstood Jesus just about every step of the way. Think of how he bumbled around and asked the wrong questions and fell asleep at that most critical moment in the Garden of Gethsemene. Think of how he blustered and cut off the ear of the high priest's servant and how he promised to be steadfast and ended up denying that he even knew Jesus when the moment of truth came. And yet, even with that kind of a personal history, I can't imagine that any of us would think of Peter as the least in the Kingdom of Heaven.
So how in the world does Jesus count Peter greater than John? Is it because those in the Kingdom of Heaven have a different message than John? No, that can’t be it, because, as Matthew tells us plainly, the basic message of Jesus was precisely the same message that John preached. Both of them began with "Turn away from your sins because the Kingdom of Heaven is near." If the message that Jesus preached is the same message that John preached, and if John's character and integrity and understanding not only compares favorably with those who belong to the Kingdom of Heaven, and indeed, puts many of them in the pale, then how is it that they are all greater than John?
When Jesus is speaking of John, he acknowledges that John is the greatest person who has ever lived. But later on, when he hands the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven to that BUMBLER, Simon Peter, he says, "Flesh and blood alone have not given you the answer."
What Jesus is talking about is not the greatness that we attain ourselves, with our own sweat and talent and intellect and actions and strength of character, no matter who we are or what we do. What Jesus is talking about is the gift of God. He is speaking of the gift that God alone bestows.
It is the gift that goes beyond life and beyond death.
It is the gift that is not limited to our lifespan and our accomplishments and our place in history.
It is the gift of timelessness.
It is the gift of Christ Jesus, Emmanual, God with us.
It is the gift of Christmas.
It is the gift of peace and good will that none of us deserves or earns or warrants or that could ever be attained by us, because it is miracle.
It is, indeed, the miracle of Christmas.
What is a miracle?
Usually we think of as a miracle as something that breaks the laws of nature, or goes against the greatest of odds, or something that is completely contrary to what experience has led us to expect. In fact, many of us have heard or even given testimony to miraculous cures and unbelievable coincidences in our lives that we call miracles and that we attribute to the mysterious workings of God.
But that's not the kind of miracle that Jesus was and is. Remember that when John the Baptist's disciples came to ask if Jesus were the one that John was looking for, Jesus said, "Tell John what you've heard and seen. The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are brought back to life, and the good news has come to the poor, the destitute, and the hopeless."
All of that, my friends, is nothing short of a MIRACLE. I'm not talking about breaking the laws of nature and going against the odds, although of course all of that happened too. I'm talking about signs of God. I'm talking about evidence of God, the creator, the maker, the author of this universe, being present.
I'm talking about being taken out of what we can do, and what we think, and time, and life, and death, and the circumstances that we usually experience, and being completely and utterly transformed by the presence of God. That's what a miracle is.
And that's what the miracle of Christmas is. That's what the birth of Jesus brought. That's the ultimate gift: the Christmas presence. That's what the gift is, and that's why it is so great: because it is a gift and because it comes from God, whose presence takes us out of this earth and out of our living and into the Kingdom of Heaven. It is that which is timeless and eternal, and which none of us really understand.
The movie "Forrest Gump" starts out with the camera following a feather as it is blown about by the wind. The feather serves as a symbol for Forrest Gump's life, which was a life that defied the odds. If you've seen this movie, you know that Forrest Gump was a person of limited intellectual capacity. I guess we would call him mentally disabled. Yet he was able to live a fulfilling, meaningful life and serve as a role model for many people.
But alas, the feather floated by late in Forrest's life. The woman that he he loved, the woman that he stood by and waited for his whole life decided to marry him only when her life was coming to an end. Happiness for the two of them turned out to last just a little while.
Our lives are so short. We are creatures of time. We are feathers caught in a breeze ourselves, blown about by the winds of circumstance. We are fragile and unable to hold on long to happiness. We are unable to see beyond the scope of our experience and the world we have been born into. Whatever we accomplish, be it fame, money, or worldly treasures, ultimately does not matter much. Because none of that lasts. Our days are numbered; and before we know it, they are gone.
It is only by the grace of God that it can be other than this that we know. Only the creator sees beyond time and change and wear and tear. Only God can make something permanent of our lives and work with something as delicate and fragile as a human soul. And nobody has ever seen God. You and I see God only as in a quick glance at a dim mirror. At Christmas, which comes back each year, we take a turn at understanding the magnitude of that miracle that occurred so long ago in Bethlehem.
In this, the season of Advent, we try to prepare our hearts to catch the spirit of what God's gift to us is really all about. We are a little like John the Baptist, waiting and waiting and asking if this is the one we were waiting for.
Is this the Christmas in which we will catch the spirit of what God meant?
Is this the Christmas that our hearts will be transformed into complete peace and wisdom?
Is this the Christmas that we will be taken beyond the bounds of this earth and become full-fledged citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven?
Is this the Christmas that we will finally understand the greatness of the miracle and the meaning of God's grace?
Is this the Christmas that we finally comprehend the depth of God's love for all creatures whom God sent Jesus to bring the good news to?
No matter how hard we try, we can never grasp the greatness of the miracle by thinking about it. When it comes right down to it, we can't understand God any more than we can understand life. The best we can do is become like little children. That's what Jesus said. Because we forget how to be children. I read somewhere that when little kids have their eyes covered up so that they can't see you, they think that you can't see them. They think that if they cover up their eyes, they are hidden from you, even if they are sitting right in front of you.
How can we grasp what it is like to be so uncomplicated? How can we grasp the miracle of God's gift and the meaning of Christmas? The answer is that we can't. We can't package God up in a neat and tidy box wrapped up in pretty paper and tied with a golden bow, that we can place under our tree to look at and admire. The Christmas presence is not under the tree. It is all around us, in the eyes and hearts of the people who love us. The Christmas presence is in the hands of those who care for the hurting. The Christmas presence is in the meaning life takes on when the Spirit of the Lord is among us and the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. So let us simply be thankful for God's gracious gift. Let us simply give our thanks for Christmas presence.
Preaching Notes are written by Dawn Chesser, Director of Preaching Ministries, GBOD, email@example.com.
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