13 December 2020
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Which narrative are you in?
Our Advent narratives jump around, Mark, John, Luke, Matthew…and it’s easy to get lost in them. Especially after several hundred years of miracle plays, youth pageants, and nativity scenes that mash all of them together….
But the different voices…from different gospels in Advent and Christmas…different…singular voices, all crying out from the wilderness and from the towns and city streets…They reach each of us differently…They speak to each of us individually…in different ways…if we know which story we’re in.
We all know that this Advent is different…and like I said way back at the beginning of this pandemic…we may all be in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat…the reality of the world impacts each of us in different ways…and so—it’s also true–that while we share the same gospel stories…we cannot all find ourselves in all of the gospel stories all the time. They hit us differently each time we read or hear them. I’m willing to bet that this Advent you may find yourself in a story that you are not used to being in…you might even wish you were in a different story…But there is comfort in the clarity that comes from understanding which narrative is unfolding before you.
Luke’s story is probably the one many of us want to be in… the cozy one that we always hear on Christmas Eve…the one that all the nativity scenes are based on…the one most of the hymns and carols (that we will have to sing in our own homes this year) are based on. And maybe that’s where you are…but maybe not. Maybe you find yourself more often this year out in the desert with Mark. We heard Mark last week…that lone voice out in the wilderness—People suddenly appear in Mark…John the baptizer and Jesus. Jesus appears—fully grown—there is no birth narrative in Mark—There’s no ramp up, just boom there he is…and then boom he is immediately driven into the wilderness. Tempted by Satan. Waited on by angels. Maybe these past months have felt like an endless desert waste to you. Maybe every once in a while something suddenly appears…bright, and glistening in the sun, but then is swallowed by the dust and wind…leaving you alone again. Maybe your desert is too much family togetherness…cooped up in a space that feels way too small, trying to work from home while simultaneously homeschooling kids. Maybe your desert is endless hours by yourself waiting for the next video call from your family; praying the technology works. Temptations abound for us in these desert times, but ministering angels also seem to arrive just in time. If you’re in Mark’s story, who are those angels for you?
Are you in Matthew’s story? Matthew’s story is full of dreams and evil kings…foreign intrigues and narrow escapes…drama, and bloodshed. In Matthew, Joseph dreams: he dreams about his young fiancee giving birth; he dreams of Herod murdering all the children under two. Joseph and his family flee to Egypt. He dreams of a return to Israel, and is warned in yet another dream to settle in a town called Nazareth in Galilee. I’m sure many of us dream of the day when we can be back together, meeting in person, without fear of either catching or transmitting some dread disease. Many of our dreams this year are filled with portents and omens: case loads climbing and vaccines on the horizon; cities and towns struggling with tensions between seeing the need for racial reconciliation, and finding the political will to actually do something about it. Matthew’s characters in these early chapters are constantly living under oppression, constantly looking over their shoulders, constantly at risk and trying to life faithfully in the midst of it all. They are led by dreams and stars and in the midst of all that would threaten to destroy them…you know what they discover? “Overwhelming joy” (Matthew 2:10), and open their treasures and offer the best of what they have…gold, frankincense, and myrrh. If you’re in Matthew’s story, what are your dreams of the future? What joy have you found? What treasures are you offering?
Maybe you are in Luke’s story. Luke isn’t really as cozy as the greeting card industry has made it out. Because, in Luke there’s also an empire requiring registration, meaning difficult travel and long lines and no room at the inn. But there are angles proclaiming, “Do not be afraid,” to those whose live and labor requires them to live outdoors much of the time. And there is Mary—as central to Luke’s story as she is marginal to everyone else’s. Mary hears and responds to God’s call, and she ponders all these things in her heart. She also unleashes an absolutely stunning, utterly revolutionary, prophetic paean to God’s ongoing, unshakable, irresistible work in the world, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior…he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the poor with good things and sent the rich away empty,” (Luke 1:46-55).
In Luke, it is through ordinary human beings that the message is primarily transmitted…that the work of God is accomplished…Mary and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, Mary and Martha, Cleopas and his companion, Peter’s mother-in-law, Joanna, and Susanna, centurion’s servant’s and rich young men…Maybe you are mourning the loss of the familiarity of this story; but maybe you’re also discovering things…quiet things…or revolutionary things…things that you are pondering in your own heart…things that will grow and blossom in time…and maybe you’re finding your voice to raise in praise and protest.
And maybe you’re in John’s narrative, which is the one we heard today. Barbara Brown Taylor* has joked that an Advent pageant based on John’s gospel would consist of a single child in front of a black velvet curtain intoning “And the word became flesh and lived among us,” (John 1:14). John’s story is one of cosmic significance…it’s the long arc of the universe bending towards justice. It’s the light shining in the darkness and the darkness unable to overcome it.…in John’s story everything points to this light…to this way…this truth…but truth is not something that any of us posses. Truth is something we must work together to discover. So maybe, as the daylight fades—you find yourself in John’s story…the world does look fearsomely dark at times…and the light terribly faint and far away…
But here’s the thing…discovering which narrative you’re in often leads to new discoveries…discoveries that can guide you in the path that leads towards light and the truth. But…the important thing to remember is that no matter which story you find yourself in…God is already there…as angels in the desert, as a whisper in a dream, as women and men and girls and boys, shepherds and sages, prophets and poets…none of whom are the light but who testify to the light…who point us toward the light, so that we can do the same and light the way for others.
*Brown Taylor, Barbara. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 1 p.69)