Holy in our Midst
God of all creation, as again we anticipate your Holy Presence among us not only in the Bethlehem manger but also in our neighbor next door, the homeless family in the park, the clerk at the convenience store and the conflict across the world, may we bring to all of these the joy of the Bethlehem baby; in the name of the Bringer of hope and Author of peace, amen!
May grace, peace and joy be multiplied to you, from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ!
It is an immense joy for me to be here worshiping with you once more. In some ways it seems only last week that we were together, but in reality it was late last winter during another of the church's typically more somber seasons, the season of Lent. The popular view of Advent sees it as solemn and reserved, but during the past couple decades the liturgical color for Advent has switched from purple, both a penitential color and a royal one, to blue, the color of hope. Every one of the lectionary texts today talks about joy—in fact, historically this third Sunday in Advent has been called Gaudete, after the entrance antiphon telling us to "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice!" Because "The Lord is near."
I'd like to read from several of the lections—first, from Zephaniah, one of the Book of the Twelve found in the Hebrew Bible. Likely you know Zephaniah is one of those prophets sometimes called "minor," but only because we don't have extensive material from them—their words to us are anything but unimportant!
Zephaniah 3:14-18aThen, in place of the Psalm there's an option for a passage that's been included with the writings of Isaiah of Jerusalem:
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.
Isaiah 12:2-6In a word for us today, Zephaniah tells us our Lord, Royal Sovereign, even Warrior - to embarrass those of us who flinch at militant descriptions of God - is right here with us, giving the victory to us, renewing us in love and rejoicing over us, the people called to rejoice in the Lord! And now, not only need we not fear disaster: we shall not fear disaster any more.
You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
And you know Paul's own joy in the churches he knew and visited:
Philippians 4:4-7In reconsidering today's texts, I was very aware that three years ago I preached about Luke's telling us to become givers of gifts and to practice justice and righteousness in order to prepare for the approaching reign of heaven on earth. As recorded in chapter 3 of Luke's gospel, the crowds asked John the Baptist what they should do in order to prepare for the forthcoming reign of heaven, and John answered: "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." He said to the tax collectors who came to him for baptism, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." To the soldiers, John instructed, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
This time Luke's lectionary year again is upon us, but I'm too aware of something else, and that's my own need to halt all the compulsive, restless activity on the inside and out, at least for a while, and to take in the gracious gifts around me so I can be filled by receiving and become ready to be a gift-giver again. Recently in more than one conversation, I've mentioned wanting to make the soon-upon-us winter a time of near-hibernation, and on a basic level I feel far too depleted to risk much giving or much reaching out.
Give gifts? That was for 2003; for this Third Advent Sunday of 2006 let's try "receive a gift" or "receive gifts."
Here's more from Luke's account of John the Baptist by the riverside:
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."So we hear about a threefold immersion: baptism in water, in Spirit and in fire. In the process of becoming God's people, whether by John's wilderness surroundings or here in this city, it looks as if we need to receive gifts water, of Spirit and of fire in order fully to be received into the Reign of God. We began with two prophets from the Hebrew Bible telling of the nature of Salvation among us: this God here with us rejoices over us, gives the victory to us, in love renews and restores us. This God brings saving waters and healing to us. But on another level, what does the world expect, what do our nearby neighbors expect from people they see going to worship and various church activities? After all, presumably people who attend church are somehow connected to heaven, are insiders to the Divine?! Do our neighbors and does the world out there expect to meet a baptized people?
Many non-church people know something about baptism as a kind of religious ritual; in fact, many who don't regularly attend worship have had their own babies baptized or blessed or dedicated, due to pressure or strong suggestions from relatives, nostalgia or whatever. John the Baptist tells us the Coming One will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, which sounds like anything but a perfunctory social ritual! In the same sentence we hear about the wind of the Spirit and fire: around these parts we know a lot about winds that stir embers into flames that in turn generate their own breezes and currents. John baptized with water and we still baptize with water. Today I'm asking you if the waters of baptism quench the Holy Spirit's pentecostal fires? Think about it!
On its first Pentecost, the Church first received the Fire and Spirit promised by John; that Day of Pentecost we read about in the book of Acts was the same day the synagogue commemorated and celebrated Moses' receiving the Ten Commandments, the Sinai Covenant with visible signs of fire and smoke.
Spirit and fire both are able to insinuate their way into the tightest spaces – even into our own too-often resistant bodies, minds and spirits. But then the Fire and Spirit of Life radiates outward from us, again making its way into other tight, cold spaces and places. The Fire and Spirit of Pentecost that inspired the nascent Church still longs to in-Breathe, to in-Spire us, the Church of the 21st Century. This Pentecostal Spirit still is able to Breathe new life and inspiration into us!
Give a gift? Give gifts? Yes, of course, just as in any other year, let us give gifts, and particularly to our nearby neighbors let us especially give the gift of gracious, un-condemning presence showing them that we, the People of God, do not consider ourselves "holier than they are," showing them we are an inclusive rather than an exclusive community, reborn of water and fire – yes! - yet reborn into the biography of the Bethlehem baby, Jesus, Who baptizes with Spirit and with Fire, bringing hope and new life to all the world. We're moving up to the Feast of the Nativity, Christmas Day; one week from today will be the Fourth Sunday of Advent in the morning and Christmas Eve in the evening. For just a word in anticipation of the coming observances of Lent and Easter, being acquainted with the paradox of the God Who fills heaven and earth starting life among us in the winsomeness, the inevitable powerlessness and other finite limitations of a human baby helps prepare us to recognize the scandal of a crucified God on Calvary's cross.
Be givers of gifts? First, before we can be gifts or give gifts to another, we need to receive the astonishing gift of God's amazing unconditional gracious love that both blazes and insinuates its way into the world and into our lives in Spirit and in Fire, re-creating, re-forming and re-filling each of us so we can become the joy-filled Presence of the Holy in our communities and in our churches and families, bringing the same hope the Bethlehem Babe brings to us, so like Jesus of Nazareth, we can be givers of gifts. May we become and may we be bringers of hope carrying the Spirit and Fire of new life to others—