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The Third Sunday of Advent
December 11, 2011
The Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28
Sermon: "Get It Right This Year"

The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
The Gospel:

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

John 1:6-8, 19-28

Get It Right This Year

There’s something very special about Christmas pageants, even those in which everything seems to go wrong. Robert Fulghum, the pastor who wrote, Everything I ever needed to know, I learned in Kindergarten, remembers one such Christmas pageant. Trying to outdo previous years, the director decided to rent a live donkey for Mary to ride on. It sounded like a good idea at the time. Have you ever noticed that a lot of things “sound like a good idea at the time?”

The day of the pageant arrived. The congregation sang the carols beautifully, the little angel choir, complete with haloes, got through their first big number, “almost on key and in unison.” At last the time came for the grand entrance of Joseph and Mary, with Mary riding on the donkey. Then it happened.

The donkey made two hesitant steps through the door of the narthex, took a look at the whole scene, and locked his legs. The donkey would not move and the entire procession came to a halt. Jerking on his halter had no effect; neither did some wicked kicking on the part of the Virgin Mary. 

Just then the head of the board, seated in the front row and dressed in his Sunday best, rose to the rescue. With another man pulling the donkey’s halter, he crouched at the stern end of the donkey and pushed; slowly sliding the rigid beast across the smooth cement floor, inch by stately inch. The choir director chose that moment to turn on a tape recorder that blared forth a mighty chorus from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. This scared the donkey such that it started braying loudly. By this time everyone was laughing. The organizers vowed never again to put on another Christmas pageant, although they did the very next year. 

Fulghum writes, “The memory of the laughter outlives the memory of the hassle. And hope; hope always makes us believe that this time, this year, we will get it right.”

Our Gospel lesson this morning from John tells us that people have been trying to get Christmas right for a long time. John the Baptist comes to prepare the way for the Messiah, and the religious leaders want to know, “Are you the Christ, are you Elijah, are you the Prophet?” To each of these John answers “No!” Yet, John’s words do have some things to tell us about Christmas; some things that just might help us to get it right this year.

The first thing his words tell us is this: Expect the unexpected. Look at verse 26: “…but among you stands one whom you do not know, even he who comes after me…” I read about another pageant recently. This was a children’s pageant also. The innkeeper was played by a boy named Ralph. He had very much wanted the part of Joseph, but didn’t get it. Upset, he quit the pageant. His mother and his director insisted that Ralph do his duty and be part of the pageant anyway, and made him the innkeeper.

But Ralph was set on revenge. When that part of the pageant occurred in which Joseph asked for a room, Ralph grinned and announced, “Come on in. We’ve got plenty of room!” The congregation, especially Ralph’s mother and the director, gasped. Joseph and Mary were stunned. They had expected to be turned away. Obediently, they walked into the inn. But the young man playing Joseph was equal to the occasion. He looked around, turned to the congregation, and said, “Hey, this place is a dump. We’d rather stay in a stable!”

What would life be without such surprises? A lot less embarrassing you’re no doubt thinking. There are some surprises we could do without, but Christmas is not one of them. God comes into the world in the person of a tiny babe. Angels sing and shepherds rejoice, and the world isn’t even aware that it has been forever changed. That’s one surprise that the world is still coming to terms with. Christmas is a season of the unexpected. That’s the first thing John’s words would tell us about getting the celebration right this year. Expect the unexpected. 

That leads us to the second thing his words would tell us: Anticipate Christ’s life-changing arrival. Verse 23: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” We are to anticipate miracles and mysteries at Christmas. 

Christmas; that one word says it all. John the Baptist knew the truth of that word even though he never in his whole life uttered it once. The life-changing power of Christ’s presence in any person’s Christmas explains how stingy people can become generous, tired people can become energized, and cold people can become warm toward others. That is why we look forward to this time of the year with such anticipation; to hear again God’s promise to save this battered world through the unexpected birth of a baby.

John caused quite a stir in the desert. People from all over were going out to see and hear him. Countless persons were baptized by John in preparation for the arrival of the Messiah. John helped build a sense of anticipation. His voice still echoes today. Christmas is a time of anticipation. That’s the second thing John’s words would tell us about getting the celebration right this year. Anticipate Christ’s life-changing arrival. 

That brings us to the third thing John’s words would tell us: Give yourself over to adoration. Just listen to this adoration: verse 27, “…even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” John the Baptist was a witness, and his focus was one of unbridled adoration.

Four days before Christmas the Campbell children’s mother was hospitalized. To make matters worse, their father was stationed overseas. The six children were farmed out to the Hansens; a family in their church. The Hansens were kind enough to take all the Campbell children in and share their own Christmas celebration with them. Despite that kindness, though, it just didn’t feel right to the Campbell kids; there they were on Christmas Eve standing around someone else’s tree, in someone else’s home. They wanted their own tree, their own presents, their own uninvaded privacy. Concern about their mother was coloring everything. 

The Hansen’s had a family tradition of allowing everyone to open one gift on Christmas Eve. They were thoughtful enough to have presents for each of the Campbells as well. As young James Campbell opened his package, he tried to conceal his lack of excitement. It was a pair of mittens. He already had two pairs of mittens. It was not the best Christmas he had ever had. 

That night, however, James had a dream. He dreamed about mittens. In his dream one of the mittens was missing. The whole dream was spent desperately searching for that mitten. He dreamed the same dream over and over again in the next few weeks, and each time he could not find the missing mitten. It left a lasting impression on him. 

These days, all these many years later, James finds that he is continually drawn to mittens; “…lost mittens, wadded, trampled, soiled, useless mittens, fallen from pockets to sidewalks,” as he puts it. He will pick up mittens without thinking. Mittens have become something of a hobby to him. 

One day before Christmas, a couple of years ago, James was walking through a church parking lot, when he found a mitten lodged in a high, hard-packed snow bank. Since he found the mitten in the church parking lot he figured that someone in the church must have lost it. Finding the doors to the church locked, he walked out to the front lawn where he began to pass a life-sized plastic nativity scene. James trudged toward it through the snow until he stood right in front of the plastic Christ Child. The divine child had his hands extended into the December chill. On sudden inspiration, James placed the mitten on an outstretched hand of the Christ child. It was absurd, of course, to put a single mitten on a plastic doll, but there was something very right about this act as well. It was an act of unbridled adoration. Christmas is about adoring Jesus. 

John the Baptist knew. “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal,” he said. John was a witness to Jesus who was about to arrive on the scene. “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” And that, of course, is our job this season as well. We are to be giving witness to the unexpected, and at the same time the long-anticipated. Christ is born in Bethlehem of Judea. Come let us adore him. That’s how to get the celebration right this year. 

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