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The Third Sunday of Advent
December 14, 2014
The Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28
Sermon: "Making the Trip"
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel
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
Making the Trip
Back in 1994, two Americans went to Russia to teach ethics. They were invited by the Russian Department of Education to teach morals and ethics in prisons, businesses, fire and police departments, and even at a large orphanage. They were also told they could teach from the perspective of their faith. So they went, like John the Baptist we read about in our lesson from the Gospel According to John this morning, "to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him" (John 1:7).
The experience in the Russian orphanage really hit them. According to one of them, "Will Fish," his real name, there were about 100 boys and girls in the orphanage; children who had been abandoned, abused and left in the care of the government. Fish tells the following story of what happened when the holiday season approached and it was time for the orphans to hear, for the first time, the story of Christmas.
"We told them about Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem," says Fish. "Finding no room in the inn, the couple went to a stable, where the baby Jesus was born and placed in a manger. Throughout the story, the children and orphanage staff sat in amazement as they listened. Some sat on the edges of their stools, trying to grasp every word.”
Upon finishing the story, Fish and his companion gave each of the kids cardboard, paper, and cloth materials to make their own manger scene. "The orphans were busy assembling their mangers as I walked among them to see if they needed any help,” said Fish. “All went well until I got to one table where little Misha sat. He looked to be about 6 years old and had already finished his project. As I looked at his manger, I was startled to see not one, but two babies in the manger.”
"Quickly, I called for the translator and had him ask the lad why there were two babies in the manger. Looking at his completed manger scene, Misha began to repeat the story very seriously. For such a young boy, who had heard the Christmas story only once, he related the happenings accurately; until he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus in the manger.”
"Then Misha started to ad lib. He made up his own ending to the story as he said, 'And when Mary laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told him I have no mamma and I have no papa, so I don't have any place to stay. Then Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I couldn't, because I didn't have a gift to give him like everybody else did. But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much, so I thought about what I had that maybe I could use for a gift. I thought maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift. So I asked Jesus, "If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?" And Jesus told me, "If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me." So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and he told me I could stay with him; for always.'“ Misha had put himself in the manger. He “had found someone who would never abandon nor abuse him, someone who would stay with him; for always."
We call Jesus by the name Immanuel, which means "God is with us." In this Advent season, we discover, like the orphan Misha, that the God who came in Jesus Christ will never abandon or abuse us, but will stay with us; for always.
Jesus promises to be with us:
• When the biopsy comes back positive, instead of negative.
• When the final exam is marked with an "F," rather than an "A."
• When a spouse leaves and doesn't return.
• When the dream of success in business is once again downsized and diminished.
• When the late-night long-distance call communicates a death, not a birth.
• When the longing for family harmony is shattered by a shouting match.
• When the desire for companionship is drained by another lonely holiday season.
In all these discouraging, and disillusioning situations, our Lord is with us as Immanuel, God with us. We're never without companionship or support, as long as we put ourselves in the manger. So, what would keep us from getting to the manger? What might threaten to keep us from the Christ child?
One problem can be blindness; we simply don't see the manger. In our frantic search for comfort and joy, we look for lasting pleasure in all the wrong places: clubs and classes, parties and programs, Internet chatrooms and professional conferences. Sure, these are good things in themselves, but they can distract us from the one place we can find unconditional acceptance and unending peace: in the manger. It is only in a close relationship with Jesus Christ that we discover how truly valuable we are, that we are children of God.
There is also the problem of our incessant busyness. We just don't have time for the manger. In this Advent season in particular, our days are driven by endless extra demands at work, school, even church, and, of course, shopping excursions. That’s without mentioning the cultural requirements of holiday decorating and entertaining. Kind of ironic isn't it, that the escalating time demands of Advent prevent us from having time to focus on why we have Advent in the first place? Consider carving out an evening this week just to slow down and rest. We can declare that the Christ child has been born this day in our particular homes, requiring us to simply stay home and keep him warm.
Then again, there’s the problem of cynicism. Sometimes we don't believe in the manger. The world is such a violent place, and so often victory seems to go to the powers with the largest arsenals and the most ruthless tactics. What chance does a baby in a manger have against suicide bombers, serial killers, machine-gun-toting terrorists and brutal, corrupt governments? It's not a fair fight. We can become very “Bah Humbuggy” if we let ourselves. And yet, no single life has changed the world more than the life of the Bethlehem child; a life that challenges people to look beyond this world’s powers and tactics to see the reign of God among us. I was reminded just this morning of how powerful that child’s life has been. I happened to glance at the current issue of National Geographic, and it fell open to a particular article. Did you know that this Christmas is the one hundredth anniversary of the Christmas Peace of WWI? On Christmas Eve, 1914, British and German troops laid down their arms, came out of the trenches, crossed no-man’s land, and celebrated Christmas with each other, wished each other Merry Christmas, and sang carols to each other; Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht; Silent Night, Holy Night. One Scottish chaplain even conducted a German/English bilingual service in the middle of no-man’s land on Christmas Day. All because of the life of the Bethlehem Child! There's always room for you and me in the manger.
If we will make the trip to Bethlehem, we will find the One who will stay with us on our life’s journey, every step of the way, and will guide us into fulfilling an everlasting reign; one marked by love and peace and justice. If we give this baby comfort and support, we will find true comfort and support for ourselves as well.
If we make the trip to Bethlehem, we will find that there is more to Advent than just the pursuit of our own personal peace. In this time of preparation for Christmas, we will find the chance to change the world too. We can do that by testifying to the power of Christ in our own lives; telling the world about what Immanuel is up to.
That's what Will Fish and his colleague did when they traveled to Russia. That's what little Misha did when he put two babies in the manger. And it's what John the Baptist did when he came as a witness to testify to the light of Christ, so that all might believe through him (v. 7). It's fascinating to note that John is never identified as "the Baptist" in the Gospel According to John. The Apostle has the Baptist consistently shifting the focus away from himself and toward Jesus. John the Baptizer has one function in this Gospel, and one function only: to witness to Jesus
There's an example in that for us. Our journey as Christians is not simply to stay close to Jesus and to enjoy his forgiveness, acceptance, love and peace. It is also to explain to the world why we are choosing to put ourselves in the manger. This Advent, make the trip to Bethlehem. You are in that manger with him.