Sermon for December 11, 2011
Central Congregational United Church of Christ, Atlanta
The Rev. Louis F. Kavar, Ph.D.
I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. But I’ve lived in a number of different parts of the country: Pittsburgh, Morgantown, West Virginia, Miami, Tucson, and St. Louis. Since May, my home has been here in Atlanta.
By moving around the country, I’ve learned that each region has its own personality. What I’ve found to be a hallmark of Atlanta is the warmth and friendliness of people. Even with the significant diversity of the metro area, with people having moved here from around the world, Atlanta is by far the most welcoming place I’ve lived.
Part of what I’ve found here is the openness that people have for entertaining guests in their homes. I’ve been quickly welcomed to visit with people in their homes, for meals, or coffee, or dessert. With those invitations comes a willingness to prepare to welcome me. I’ve appreciated that warmth, particularly because I enjoy entertaining in my home as well.
Preparing to welcome guests takes some work. When someone new is visiting my home as a dinner guest, I always ask about food preferences and allergies. Sometimes, the diet restrictions of guests stump me and I need to carefully think through what dishes would be most appropriate. What makes for a great evening with a guest really is about doing the right preparation.
On this third Sunday of Advent, our focus is turned in a particular way to John the Baptist. John serves as our Advent reminder each year to be prepared to welcome the one who is to come. Yes, Prepare the way! Get ready! There’s a guest coming! Make sure everything is in order!
We’ve all heard sermons on this third Sunday of Advent about our need to prepare to receive the Christ once again in our lives. Yes, the crooked ways of our lives need to be straightened and the rough edges of our lives made smooth. These metaphors draw us into the older strain of Advent traditions which understood Advent as a penitential season. The use of purple as a liturgical color during Advent symbolizes its connection with preparation for Christ as a penitential time.
While it’s important to be aware of our own faults and frailties, I think Christian’s have spent far too much time focused on human sinfulness. Because of that, I’d like to suggest that we consider John the Baptist from a different perspective. Rather than thinking of John the Baptist as having a message for us to shape up and fly right as we prepare for Christmas, is it possible for us to consider that we are invited to be John the Baptist today?
We heard this morning in our reading that John knew who he was – and he was not the light. Instead, he testified to the light that was coming into the world.
There’s a great deal of darkness in our world today. The political process of our country is tied in knots. While some economic indicators appear to improve, there is a staggering number of people living in poverty in our world, our country, and in our communities. The 1% has grown richer, while far too many struggle without knowing how to pay for food, housing, education, and medical care. All of this is happening at a time when political, social, and economic shifts are happening around the world. Yes, we live in dark times when people aren’t sure where the light of hope can be found.
It’s in the very real experience of darkness that we are invited to take on the mantle of John the Baptist. In the midst of darkness, people need others who testify to the light: to point it out and say, “This is something good that gives light to my life and has the possibility to give light to yours.”
The light that is coming is very real and very practical. Verses for today’s first lectionary reading formed our call to worship. As the author of Trito-Isaiah wrote, now speaking to us:
“The Spirit of the Lord – the light – is upon us and sends us to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to comfort those who mourn.”
What does it mean for you and for me to be John the Baptist? How is it that we can prepare the way so that others can experience something good, hopeful, and fulfilling in their lives? How is it that we can live in a way that affirms the light that enlightens our lives while pointing out the light that others need to find for their own hope and wholeness?
Here, at Central, there are many ways in which people do testify to the light. What struck me most about this congregation when I first visited six months ago was the wide range of social justice programs that are supported by a relatively small church. That’s part of what it means to be John the Baptist in our world today: to live in ways that stir up light and hope for others who have been oppressed. This prophetic ministry of John the Baptist has been woven into the life of this congregation to form a tapestry that is nothing less than vibrant.
But, truth be told, I generally find it easier to volunteer for a few hours doing this or that project than I find living from the light in other parts of my life. At the end of a long day of work, followed by cooking and cleaning up the kitchen, when someone in my family asks for or needs something more from me, my initial response is sometimes not a response characterized by graciousness and light. That’s probably nothing compared to my response when someone cuts me off on the road, especially when I’m attempting to get onto 285 and the lane I’m in is about to end. In those day to day frustrations, when we begin to feel weariness in our bones and the stress of events mounts that’s when we need to ask ourselves, “How is it that we can be John the Baptist and point to the light?”
There are also the times when we are with others who seem lost in some form of darkness. Perhaps they say something about it or perhaps we just know that a friend is struggling. Being polite, progressive people of Congregational stock, it’s just not like us to share very personally about our own experience of the light. We fear that we may come off as being preachy or sounding too much like narrow minded religious folk. Perhaps we offer a barely audible promise to remember the person in prayer. But is it possible for us to consider ways to draw on our own experience of moving from darkness to light and sharing that experience with another? At a time when another person is having difficulty seeing through the darkness for some small spark, sharing what we know which enlightens our lives can provide the solid ground that other’s need to recognize the dawn during a very dark night.
What could it mean to take on the mantle of John the Baptist today? It’s probably different for each of us. Whatever it looks like, I suspect that that for those of us at Central, it draws on the warmth and hospitable culture that characterizes Atlanta. Atlanta’s deep tradition of Southern hospitality welcomes the guest into that space where we are most at home in ourselves. It’s from that place of our own enlightenment that we are able to communicate to others, “This is the light I have found.” As we learn to testify to that light in our own way, then we become John the Baptist for others.
A voice crying in the wilderness? Yes, that voice continues to cry out … only now it’s not heard in the wilderness of the ancient Middle East. That voice cries out now in our communities as we accept that we carry on the role of John the Baptist and to testify to the light.
© 2011 – 2012, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.