December 3, 2017 // Christmas Present 2: Everywhere, Loved // Sara Wolbrecht // Mark 1:1-8 //
I don’t technically have an uncle Gary, but the sermon series video is very much like my brain – and is meant to capture a bit about how all of our brains work. As we named last week – Advent is an intense microcosm of the larger reality of our lives, in that any time of the year, on any day, any moment, we’re almost ALWAYS somewhere else. Our mind ping-pongs back and forth from replaying the past to worrying about the future.
But the invitation the Jesus story offers us – and what we’re pressing into this Advent season – this most wonderful time of the year – is to be people who are present. Here. Now. Who experience our experiences. And if we can do that during Advent? Man, bring on the rest of the year. In a few minutes we’ll review some of the practices we’re taking on to be people who are Christmas, Present. But first: all kinds of good things for us to consider today.
For today! We begin by turning to the scripture passage we heard – letting the Jesus-story inform our Advent journey. We turned to the very beginning of Mark’s gospel – the first eight verses.
Notice how what we just heard – the beginning of his gospel – Mark does not begin with a baby Jesus story, but jumps to right before Jesus shows up on the scene as an adult, to begin his ministry. And before Jesus shows up, we meet crazy, wearing a camel-hair habit, tied at the waist with a leather belt, eating locusts and wild field honey: John. John the Baptist who is fulfilling the prophecy of preparing people to receive the message and life of Jesus. If you are someone who has been in church for any part of your life, then you have likely heard of and maybe know a bit about John the Baptist, and even this passage in particular may be familiar to you (we actually listened to part of it last month in our practice of Lectio Divina – I slyly got you ready to hear it again now). But with things that are familiar to us, we often miss what might be happening under the surface. And that’s true with John the Baptist and what he is doing here. So I want to dig into John the Baptist today – to see how this speaks about our Christmas, present.
So, who is this guy? Who is John? To ask that question of any biblical person, to ask who they are – they lived in a context where who you are is who you come from. Your family, your ancestry determines who you are, what you do, where you live, what potential your life has. And if your parents were farmers, then your grandparents must have been, too, and your great-grandparents, and back and back generations. And you can bet when it comes to filling out your career test in high school or college you can bet when you get your results back, you have one job option: farmer.
So to get to know John, it is good for us to ask the question: who are John’s parents? If we turn a few pages forward into Luke’s gospel, we know who John’s parents are – do you know? Elizabeth and Zechariah. Luke 1 says this about Elizabeth and Zechariah: “During the rule of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest assigned service in the regiment of Abijah. His name was Zechariah. His wife was descended from the daughters of Aaron. Her name was Elizabeth. Together they lived honorably before God, careful in keeping to the ways of the commandments and enjoying a clear conscience before God. But they were childless because Elizabeth could never conceive, and now they were quite old.” Luke 1: 5-12 (The Message). And their story unfolds as Elizabeth becomes miraculously pregnant – paralleling Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus. And as you may know, Mary and Elizabeth are cousins. So what does that make John and Jesus? John and Jesus are first cousins once removed. That’s right, I know my family tree flow-charts.
John’s dad, Zechariah, what does he do? He’s a priest, and we may not have picked up on it, but John’s mom, Elizabeth is from the priestly class, too. She is descended from Aaron, as in Moses’ brother, who was the high priest in the days when the Israelites were on the move through the wilderness, from slavery in Egypt to their life in the Promised Land God gave them. Elizabeth and Zechariah are both priests.
Which is fascinating to consider, as we encounter John here. John’s pedigree is that he is from the priestliest of priestly families. His mother and his father have that heritage. One way to see this: John was Establishment, alright? He comes from “organized religion.” His parents took care of business at the temple. And certainly an upstanding son of theirs that would give them good credit as parents – he would also would be worshipping in the temple, following and upholding the laws of the temple system.
The temple system was the way in which the people practiced their faith, which was a measurable, rule-following system. Check off the list of rules, and you’re golden. At this point, there 627 laws that good God-fearing Jews adhere to in this temple system. All these laws were how the people knew they were ok with God, that they had earned forgiveness and righteousness before God, and even how they knew they were ok to belong in community.
So. Hearing all this, here’s what I want us to notice about what’s happening here. Understanding John’s family background, and the temple system: do you get the scandal of this text? Because where is John? Is he in the temple like he’s supposed to be? Nope - he is down by the river baptizing people – definitely not paying attention to those 627 temple laws, much less enforcing them. What is he wearing? It’s interesting that Mark notes John’s clothing. How often does the bible note someone’s clothing? And it’s noted that he’s eating strange food – not eating at 5 star restaurants, he’s eating locusts and wild honey. In other words, Mark goes out of his way to note that John is not dressed like a priest, he’s not eating like a priest, he’s eating like the people – in fact the poor people.
John completely abandons the temple system, as well as his family expectations, everything he is supposed to and expected to be, and he goes down by the river.
This is scandalous thing that John is doing. And here’s why this matters: friends, we, like John, live within the bounds of expectations. (This shouldn’t be a surprise, but we often forget it). Like John, a certain shape and trajectory is expected for our lives, the way “it is supposed to be” and the way we are supposed to be. And although there are particular nuances based on our family of origin, there is the basic cultural, American, middle-class flow that most of us are told to live. And it goes something like this:
We’ll grow up in a happy, healthy family, with no divorce, no death of family members, with parents who are present and attentive. We’ll be good at sports and at school. We’ll go to college meet a great partner, get married after college, find a great job, save enough for a down payment, have kids (with no trouble getting pregnant, no miscarriage, and no health or developmental issues for our kids). We’ll keep moving up in our job, make and keep great friends, love and marriage will be easy and fulfilling, our kids will behave. Always. There are no signs of: illness, job loss, financial issues, depression, anxiety, divorce, infidelity, addiction, loneliness, broken relationships, or abuse. We’ll die at nice old age, in our sleep.
Ok, I laid it on a little thick, but I don’t think this is far from what our cultural narrative, the cultural expectation is for our lives. John had his, but man you better believe we have ours, too.
And of course there’s more to it than that – and I’m not even naming the more nuanced expectations in our own unique families. Most of the time, those expectations are unconsciously present, but those expectations peek out sometimes, in all the questions of when we’ll get married, when start having kids. And in more subtle ways. My parents have always been supportive of whoever I want to be, but I think of how my mom would make comments about what other people were doing: “Did you hear about Julie? She’s not going to college…” And it became really clear that I should go college, that was an expectation. All to say: we are swimming in the larger cultural expectations, this trajectory that “our life should take” – including nuances from our own family of origin, as well.
And why do we bring this up now? Because holy cow, who just spent time with family last week for Thanksgiving? And who will in the next few weeks, even for Christmas? There are so many good gifts of being with our families. There are also so many expectations that we step back into, every time we’re together. The system of our family wants us to function in the ways we always have, and fitting into the larger narrative of expectations and values our family holds.
And those expectations are not inherently bad. But that expected trajectory our family places on us may not be the trajectory that God is leading us into. Right? That’s what we see here with John. For John to be a priest and serve God in the temple – I would think that would have been completely aligned with what God would intend for John’s life. Right? But God had a different plan. Which may cause us to ask – how did John know?
I always marvel at this – when I read of these faithful (yet flawed) human beings in the bible who did bold things like John – I am on a very basic level amazed that they even knew what to do. Who they were to be. Like John – how did he know to do this? Do you ever marvel at that? What becomes so clear when we step into the stories of these folks in the bible, is that they in all their diversity, one thread that carries through all of their stories was that they could hear God. Sometimes it was pretty hard to miss – like an angel saying, “Go, and do this thing!” But not always.
They were connected to the pulse of God, they heard God. And there is something to that, in how we can better prepare ourselves in light of our family and cultural expectations. Because these folks in the bible also, again, like John here, had their own crazy uncle and family values and expectations, and the larger cultural narrative of what they should do and WHO they should be. But they stepped outside of it to become who God invited them to become.
And as we draw closer to Bethlehem, to Jesus’ birth, isn’t this what we see in all of the people in the Christmas story? Such scandalous responses, acting outside of what was expected of them. Joseph who married an already-pregnant young woman. Mary who said yes to being that out-of-wedlock pregnant teenager. The shepherds who abandoned their posts to go see a baby. Magi who left everything to travel for months following a new star in the sky. The Christmas story is a cast of rebels.
They became rebels when they became present to the Presence. Present to the presence of God. In a way that gave them courage to buck the system, to move beyond the expectations, to become who they were designed to be. It is in the Presence of God, where we can remember that who we are is not rooted in becoming a farmer, or upholding 627 laws, or in making it to church, or ‘being a nice person.’ That we do not earn love and approval through meeting the expectations placed on us, or the vision our father/mother/parent figure has for us. But we are already loved as we are. And from that place, it is a wide-open field of possibility for what God might invite us into. To be rebels.
So my friends – Advent is an intense microcosm of the larger reality of our lives, in that any time of the year, on any day, any moment, we’re almost ALWAYS somewhere else. Our mind ping-pongs back and forth from replaying the past to worrying about the future. And you better believe that so much of that inner distraction is wrestling with the expectations that have been placed on us.
So my friends: what expectations are you coming up against? From our family, form the wider culture? Where is the rub, the itch, the discomfort you feel in you for where you are and how things are in your life right now? We’ve all usually got something. Even a low-grade grumble. Look at where you may have anxiety in regards to this season when it comes to being with certain people, or fulfilling certain tasks you feel like “you have to do.” Pay attention to that. Look at how it may be a place where God is inviting you to let go of those expectations. For me, I have two brothers, and one of them cut off the relationship with the other, and they have not spoken for TEN years. It is beyond devastating for my family. There are many layers to how this makes the holidays hard, and I have to keep coming back to places like this in God’s story, where I remember that my life may not line up with ‘the way it is supposed to be’ and yet I can still listen for how to live faithfully in the mess of it. Where is there mess in your life? Your family? And what does it look like to listen for God?
So as we anticipate Christmas shopping with Aunt Sue and sitting down at the table with Grandma, and hosting family in our homes or traveling to be with them. And as the questions (or just the passive aggressive comments) come up from them about all the ways in which our life doesn’t look the way it is supposed to, what do you think we can do to be grounded in the presence of God?
Well, first, clearly we show up to Christmas dinner in a camel-hair habit, tied at the waist with a leather belt. Obviously. Or if not, what do we do? Here is is: We, too, can choose to be present to the Presence.
Last week we named how all the great faith traditions, at their best are trying to teach us one thing – and it is to be present. In the moment. Here. Because in the present moment, here and now, is where God is. Not in our replaying the past, not in worrying about the future. But when we are able to feel our feet on the soil where we stand, we become present to the Presence of God.
And how do we become more present? Well, that’s why we’re here every Sunday of the year, and keep coming back here – to be with one another and with God and bring our messy, lovely, imperfect selves into the process of being made whole, being made more present to be loved and to love. To be salt for the world. And for Advent, we have named four practices to help us BE in the midst of so much DO this month. These four practices help us to listen, to hear who we are, to know that we can live a different story.
So if you missed last week – here they are for the first time, and if you did hear last week, then this is a great time to check in about how the week went, maybe reset some expectations of ourselves, our schedule, our mindset to see how we might finesse this differently in the week to come. And always: there is grace, there is grace, there is grace.
To Be More Christmas Present: First practice: 1. Power Down. No one in the history of human kind has ever had the obstacles we have to being present. We willingly carry our obstacles in our pockets now. Our phones. We all have different habits regarding our phones and tech, some of us hardly have them with us, but many of us have them on us constantly. Regardless of where we fall on that spectrum, when it comes to being present, our phones are an obstacle as we end up using them as any excuse to be somewhere else rather than right here. Did you pay attention to your phone habits this week? Please continue that and looks for ways to choose the present moment over our phones.
Second practice, we 2. Light Candles. (add to list and keep all four up) Specifically: Advent candles – whether you were here last week and made an Advent log, whether you have your own Advent wreath, or just dedicate four candles on the table as your Advent candles: light them every day, adding another each Sunday, letting the light grow in this dark, dreary time of year, as we hope towards Christmas. At our house we’ve lit ours each morning at breakfast this week, which has been a more reliable time than dinner, with all that’s going on.
And with those Advent candles, we’re using our Salt House Advent booklet. We passed them out last week, it is also online, you can grab one today. In this booklet is information on Advent, and our third practice of presence: 3. Savor the Story. Each day, in the booklet there are 2-3 verses to read (only 2-3 verses, people) that slowly inch us through the Christmas story, Jesus’ birth, as told in Luke’s gospel. Just a few sentences, every day, holding how God becoming human and showing up here among us informs our experience of the now. At our house, we read it most days at breakfast and at bedtime snack.
Then on Sundays is a longer piece, the same reflection and prayer that we’ll be doing here on Sunday mornings, too, walking through the four Advent themes of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.
Fourth and finally. Is the Big Kahuna of our practices, the: If you do none of the other things: try this one. Do number four. And that is to 4. Meditation. In the last few months, meditation has been a transformative form of prayer for me. I mentioned last week the app I use (because yes, our phones can also be used for good) There’s a phone app I use called Headspace, which is also accessible online at headspace.com. You may have or find something else – awesome.
In mediation we’re learning to observe our thoughts and feelings and our bodies without judgment. Did you get a chance to try it even once this week? Just setting aside 10, 5, or even 2 minutes to meditate daily this Advent season – how much more present to yourself, to the magic of this season, to the moment might you become if you do? Again: I can’t make you do it, but man, I sure do recommend it.
All four of these Advent practices are laid out in the booklet. Play with them, as we become more present, together.
Friends, bring to mind again this text from Mark, and the person of John the Baptist, who rebelled against the expectations of his family and culture for the sake of what God was doing – and hear, as we head into Christmas, that we can do it too. We don’t have to live the story we’re told to live – by our culture, our families. It is a word of freedom and hope – for us to hold as we choose to listen instead, to be present to, the story God is inviting us to live.
As a final note on our text: there is a powerful message that John the Baptist carries in his actions of baptizing down by the river. In the context of the temple system, this establishment, upper class boy says – you know what, doing it that way, with the rules and in the temple, you’re just creating too many obstacles.
John appears in the desert – and says – you can experience the fullness of God, the forgiveness of sins down here! God is here in the water of the river. You don’t have to just do it at the temple. Because God is EVERYWHERE.
John really is setting the stage for Jesus’ message as he begins to shift the system to be one where God’s presence, God’s radical love is available everywhere and for everyone. Do you believe that? I sure do. Which is why we’re aiming to become more present – to be here, for in being here, now, opens us to that story where we are with God everywhere, which means we are everywhere, loved. That’s my hope for us this Advent.
As we close our time, we’ll move into practicing presence, together, knowing that God meets us in our showing up in the moment. Today, we’re going to meditate using the audio from the Headspace App. This is day two of the 10 days they have available for free.
Again, there are so many ways to meditate, and as Jesus followers, the point of it is to become more present to the presence of God. And here is just one way to do it, using a tool I have enjoyed. After, we’ll keep holding the space of being present and flow right into a song to listen to what God is saying to us.
Headspace Audio, Day Two. www.headspace.com