The Third Sunday of Advent
The Rev. Ted Berktold, Rector Emeritus
Isaiah 35: 1-10; Psalm 146: 4-9;
James 5: 7-10; Matthew 11: 2-11
Especially at this is time of year, place names in scripture can seem very “homey" to us; not just words in stories, but very real places. Over the coming weeks the lessons refer to cities we have known from our childhood; Bethlehem, a city of Judea, and Nazareth in Galilee, and Jerusalem, the City of Peace. Today’s first lesson speaks of Lebanon, so much in the news when we hear of unrest in the Middle East; and Carmel, both a mountain and a city have that name; and Sharon, always referred to as “the Sharon," the coastal plain that goes from Carmel to Joppa in present-day Israel. Penny and I were blessed to go to the Holy Land with some of you several times over the years; to the places the bible names. I would look forward to those pilgrimages for months. I'm so glad that Deacon Nancy Crawford is organizing a Holy Land pilgrimage for next year, following her own journey there this year. It's an experience you want to share.
Being away, on a pilgrimage or a vacation, was always a time of mixed feelings for me, because I missed being here with you, especially in worship. As soon as I left, I would start thinking about when I was coming back. As much as any of us loves to go away, it is always a joy to come home. Colleges adjourn and students travel home for the holidays. "I'll be home for Christmas" has been a popular song for decades. Some of you will be away for Christmas, and we will miss you. Some will bring guests to St. Mary's, welcoming family back home. Home IS where the heart is, and my heart is with Jesus the Savior, the Prince of Peace; my heart is among those who make him real to me. If I lived here without the company of saints like you around me, without my place here in the Body of Christ, I don’t think I would feel at home in Eugene. I wasn’t born here. I didn't grow up here, or go to school here. But I have no desire to move back to the home of my youth, Minnesota, especially at this time of the year. Last week's winter weather was enough for me. I don't need four more months of it.
Our bond with one another and our connection to Jesus give us a common sense of belonging here at St. Mary's. Our shared faith in Christ is what binds us together, and makes us feel at home here; spiritually at home, really at home. That which is familiar makes us feel at home. We are familiar with the bible because we hear it read every Sunday when we gather for worship, plus we have bible study here during the week, and some of us even read it on our own. We call the Holy Land “The Land of the Book” with a capital B. Thanks to the stories we learned from the bible, we’re all familiar with the River Jordan. John baptized and preached at the Jordan. People left their homes to walk through the desert to hear him. To step down to that river’s bank, standing where the Baptizer stood, is to come home. You can imagine John in the water, announcing that the Messiah was near. But you can also feel the Messiah’s closeness at Saint Mary’s among those who hear the message of John in our day. We still baptize, not as John baptized, but with water and the Holy Spirit, the way Jesus baptized.
King Herod left massive stone structures in ancient Palestine, many of them still standing, as they were in the time of Christ and the apostles. Those buildings, a symbol of so much worldly power, mark the contrast between Herod and the greater strength and worldwide influence of the humble man from Galilee, something like the influence of Nelson Mandela in our own day. Those walls and buildings are a reminder that our ministry is one of servanthood, and that our trust is in God, not in this world. Of course, we care about this building complex, our church home. We keep it clean and we decorate it and refurbish and modernize it, in order to use it to honor God and serve our fellow human beings. It is our church home.
Home is where you feel secure. When I come here, I feel secure, safe. The great passages of our lives, our triumphs and defeats, are marked and celebrated here. People in trauma or trouble come here all the time, and we all minister to them as best we can. At baptism or communion, at marriage or burial, at the Saturday Breakfast or the vestry meeting or in Sunday School, the Church is where we come to feel at home. Ritual events tie our frail mortality to the power of the eternal and living God, who once entered human life in the land of the bible. This place reminds us that God has come into our lives. There are footsteps on the planet, other than ours. Because Jesus left footsteps by one river in one time, we can find God's footsteps by any river in any time. There are hands which, because they healed in the past, can become hands of healing in the present. We know words that were spoken with power centuries ago, so we speak them and feel their power today. The news makes the Middle East seem an insecure place, but knowing that it was Christ’s earthly home always made me feel safe there.
The Holy Land, like the Church, is a wonderful mix of the world. Not only is it a special place for Christians, Jews and Muslims; it is a cross section of the world’s cultures and languages. Simply walking the streets of Jerusalem, you might hear ten different languages around you in as many minutes. It reminds us that Jesus was sent to all people in all cultures throughout all ages. He came for the redemption of the whole world.
Advent is a time of preparation; a time when we begin another Church Year and follow the birth, life, death and resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ. If you fail to prepare for a journey, you’re likely to forget something; your camera or phone, your passport or important medicines. Prepare for Christmas, the Christian Christmas. Start now, if you haven’t already been doing so. A week of snow and ice and being shut indoors can be a great time for preparation, or not. Do everything you can to prepare for the coming of the One who gave the blind their sight, who made the lame walk, who cleansed the lepers, who gave hearing to the deaf, who raised the dead, who brought good news to the poor. He gave us his Spirit so we could continue that work.
Preparing for the coming of the Holy One can be exciting, the way Christmas is exciting for a child. Since my own children were grown by the time I came here, and my first grandchildren lived far away, it was good for me to be around the children of St. Mary's over the years as the 25th of December drew nigh. Without the children, Christmas would have just seemed like a time of more work, with extra services thrown in. Children can’t wait for the crèche to be assembled and the tree to be up and the stockings to he hung. That’s how I’ve been feeling this Advent. I can hardly wait for Christmas! It’s exciting to wonder what the Music Staff has prepared for the sermon time next Sunday, and the Lessons and Carols in the evening. I love the music of Christmas. It brings the nativity of Jesus home to us, hearing angel voices all around us, singing " Glory to God in the highest" and "Silent Night.” Every year I am thrilled by the cedar garlands we hang in the church, by the Noble Fir in the narthex, by the aisle candles and the poinsettias and Christmas flowers. It’s always new and wonderful, even after thirty-plus years, and I am uplifted when I see the children gathered in the sanctuary on Christmas Eve.
"Strengthen your hearts," says today's lesson from James, "for the coming of the Lord is near." (5: 9) We don't need to go far away, like the magi, to greet the newborn king. Christ is coming here, into the world, into our parish, into our lives. I thank God for each one of you today, and I pray that Advent means as much to you as you always make it mean to me. If you are here on the Feast of the Nativity, I pray that you will feel at home in the deepest sense of that word. If you are somewhere else, traveling to be with family or friends, I pray that you will be led to a church, as the magi were led to a stable, and that you will feel at home there. May God bless you this Advent as you continue to prepare a home in your heart for the coming of the Savior of the world.
Let us pray:
And my God
Keep me in your sight
Protect me this day
And through the night
Protect me this day
And through the night. Amen.