In our midst

a sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent [Year C]

Luke 3:7-18 and Zephaniah 3:14-18a

The other day I was driving down the road and my cell phone rang. I glanced over and didn’t recognize the number even though it was a local one. I’ve been getting a lot of random robocalls lately, so I just let it go to voice mail, which usually solves the problem and I don’t think any more about it. However, when I finally got to where I was going I noticed the person had actually left a voice mail. I started to think maybe someone was in the hospital or that someone needed me for some important reason, so before I got out of my car I listened to it with anticipation. Imagine my surprise and disappointment when I hear that it is Jacob from Project Green, following up with a quote they gave us about my lawn in the spring of 2017 that I never even followed through with.

I am not in lawn mode these days. There were still six inches of snow on the ground that day. I’m waist-deep in Advent and Christmas preparations and this guy is wanting me to think about my grass in the spring? From a visit he made over a year and a half ago? He got about halfway through his opening pitch before I clicked “delete.”

But a few seconds later I had some regret about that. What was he going to tell me? Yes, it’s December, but maybe there was a good reason he was calling. I became curious. Maybe he was going to tell me there was something important I need to be doing—that even though it is winter (technically-speaking still fall) I can still nurture my grass. For it is surely there, isn’t it, even if I can’t see it yet? And there are tasks related to a lush green spring that I might be able to do even now, when I’m waiting in the white. The grass, you may say, is still in my midst, and that, that in itself is a cheerful thought.

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a soggy but cheerful sight

The message for this third Sunday of Advent is that the Lord is in our midst and that in itself is a cheerful thought. Even if we can’t see him or perceive him in the way we might expect the Lord is still in our midst. He may be obscured much of the time by a layer of the world’s brokenness, or terror, or grief, but he is here.

That’s not just the message for the third Sunday of Advent. That was the message to God’s people Israel for years at many points throughout their journey of faith. Their primary posture for so many years had been one of waiting, of wondering whether or not a time of unity, peace, and righteousness would come. They expected a leader who would gather them and feed them and allow them to “draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation.”[1] And even as they waited, several of the prophets, like Zephaniah, reminded them that the Lord was nevertheless somehow already in the midst of them. The time of his arrival and salvation was so near, in fact, they could go ahead start rejoicing, dancing, partying. They still might look out and see mainly the ways they and their world fall short, but if they looked hard enough, or with the right lens, they could already see signs of his presence.

Have you ever noticed you can wait for something and anticipate it so much that it’s almost like it’s already started? Theologians and bible scholars call this prolepsis, which is from the Greek words for “before” and “take.” It’s assuming or acting as if something you are waiting for is already happening or has already happened.  Jacob’s call from Project Green was proleptic. I can’t see the grass yet. I am waiting for the spring to start, but I apparently could take some advice now and do some things for the lawn as if it’s already growing and thriving.

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The National Football League is in a bit of a proleptic phase right now. If you watch games, you see that the announcers are talking about what the playoffs are going to be like even though they don’t start until January. They throw potential playoff pairings up on the screen and in some cases teams are playing like they’re in the playoffs hoping to be there in a month. Prolepsis is the “Gentlemen, start your engines,” phase of the race. Even though the flag hasn’t dropped, we’re revving our engines, going through some key motions, smelling the fumes and in many ways we’d think the race is already underway.

This is true of Jesus’ arrival. This is what the prophets want Israel to focus on so they don’t lose hope, and it’s definitely what John the Baptist is going on and on about  on the banks of the River Jordan. “Even now the ax is already lying at the root of the trees,” he says. Even now it’s time to bear fruit! Even as they are filled with expectation and questioning in their hearts John gives them all examples of what that fruit-bearing might look like. He says they can take and receive parts of God’s kingdom before it’s even really here. And like Jacob the Lawn Guy, he’s going to outline specific, concrete actions for any person at any stage in life. Soldiers, tax collectors, ordinary people who accumulate more than they really need: anyone and everyone can bear fruit now that matches the kingdom that is coming. When we take part in these things, we see signs that the kingdom isn’t only on its way. It is in some ways already here.

John has a way about him, though. His delivery is a bit aggressive and confrontational and we can see how people might be put off. And he certainly doesn’t like people talking religiously and acting the part with no intention of true repentance.

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John the Baptist preaching to the people

It certainly appears that some people have gotten his message here, which is exciting. For example, this week I learned that someone in our congregation is undergoing surgery tomorrow to donate a kidney to someone they barely know who is in desperate need of one. This person isn’t looking for any special recognition or honor. They just heard about the need and started researching how kidney donation works and how easy it is to live with only one. John the Baptist says anyone who has two coats must share with anyone who has none. Apparently this person heard “two kidneys.”  When I learn about things like that, I know the kingdom is in many ways already here. In fact, the Lord is in my midst.

When I walked into the Chapel on Friday and saw gifts lined up and wrapped carefully for distribution to children at Ridge Elementary School, I see that the kingdom has already started to arrive. The Lord is in our midst. But then I learned that this is the first year that Epiphany, along with another local congregation, have taken on the entire task of gift distribution from the administration at Ridge, I am further encouraged that the Lord is near. Apparently, the needs in that school’s community (which is, in fact, our community) have become so great that it has overwhelmed the guidance counselor’s department. Three of our members stepped in, along with some volunteers from Welborne United Methodist Church, to spearhead the whole undertaking. It began in October with research and registration to learn about children’s needs, which led to the tags on our Giving Tree, and your vigorous shopping and wrapping and dropping gifts off in the middle of a snowstorm, and then culminated with thirty-two volunteers, youth and adults, showing up in the school parking lot yesterday to distribute them all. The volunteers had helped to secure funding to pay for interpreters for yesterday’s distribution because so many of the families do not speak fluent English, but the interpreters preferred to do their work for free. The Lord is in the midst of us.

When I log on to Facebook and I see someone upload a photo of a bunch of high schoolers and middle schoolers having a good time on a Saturday night, and what they’re doing is standing outside the home of a woman in our congregation who just lost her husband and they’re holding candles and singing her Christmas carols, I think “how proleptic.” (OK, I didn’t really think it that way, but you understand). I’m still waiting for this new season to come, but I here are some kids acting as if it’s already started.

Caroling 2015 outside.jpg

And the best proof we have that the Lord is in our midst, that the kingdom we’re waiting for is also already here is staring us right in the face. Above the altar there, looming over the bread and wine, over the spring-like altar flowers given in memory of those who’ve died, over the single rose reminding us a new baby’s birth, just as it lovingly looms in every suffering corner of this world. It is the empty cross. John says the One who is Coming is more powerful than he is. Faith gives us the lens to look at the cross and see a powerful love for us. It is love that doesn’t just offer a coat for someone in need, but which offers its whole life. It is mercy that isn’t just satisfied with everyone getting what they deserve, but in making sure everyone’s true needs are met. It’s a grace that doesn’t stop at being satisfied with what he earns, but only in what he can give.

sanctuary Epiphany

Love that offers itself…mercy that knows our needs…and grace that gives what we haven’t earned. This is the One Who is Coming, the one who baptizes us so we burn like fire and whose purpose of compassion flows through us like the Holy Spirit.

And the word is: he’s already here! It’s time to rejoice. The call is coming in, the phone is beeping, you’re driving down the highway of life. The question: will we just let it go to voicemail?

 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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[1] Isaiah 12:3

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