By: Amelia McDaniel, Director of Children’s Ministries
I like to go back and read books again. Books I have loved. Sometimes the re-reading is nostalgic. Sometimes I realize that I no longer identify with the characters the way I once did. And sometimes I am astonished to find that the rereading reveals a whole new story to me.
I make a habit of rereading To Kill a Mockingbird every few years. Each time I read it again a new facet of the story comes into view for me. And I fall in love all over again with it. I’ve loved Scout as someone who identifies with her, as a big sister to her, as someone who wishes she had a momma to love on her. I’ve loved Jem through the eyes of a sibling, and through the eyes of a mother to a son. My last reading of the book had me enthralled with Atticus and how he struggled to care for his children alone and explain a world that in so many ways is inexplicable.
So when I was rereading today’s Gospel, with different eyes from the last time this story came up in our lectionary cycle, I was struck by John’s screaming out at the people around him. John, who from the very beginning was in on what God was doing with Jesus. John who leapt in his mother’s womb when she was in the presence of Mary, still carrying Jesus in her own womb. John whose fire and zeal led him to the to tell people to get ready. That God was going to do something new.
In today’s Gospel John starts not at a level 10 but at a 15.
You brood of vipers! Who has warned to you flee from the wrath to come!
Oh my. Reading John as a parent to two teenagers gives these words new meaning. I now know this emphatic need to have others LISTEN TO ME. You brood of vipers at my house comes out a little bit like … I tell you what! You had better get yourselves together! I know something.
John had crazy hair and wore camel skins and ate bugs and honey while doing this. I have bed head, flannel pj’s and exist on a diet consisting of mostly coffee.
But John’s story and mine diverge a bit. In the Gospel the people ask John what it is they should do after he starts fussing at them. This rarely happens for me when fussing at my teenagers. Or Ever. But oh well.
John gives them some immediate things to do right now. Right then. Share what you can. Do right by others. Don’t be a bully. And John seems pretty insistent that this is something they should do right then and there. Get yourselves together right now.
There’s a lot of right nowing going on in this season. Some of it has to do with the fluff and hustle and bustle of what we have turned this season into. The lines at Target full of people getting stuff done RIGHT NOW. I’m pretty sure I saw a woman at a bakery cry when she took another order from somebody who needed a bajillion Christmas cupcakes RIGHT NOW. Heaven help anyone behind the counter in a retail store because people need things RIGHT NOW. Obviously this was not the kind of RIGHT NOW thing John was talking about.
But, right now a lot of things are happening that John was asking of his listeners. This week we delivered car loads of gifts for 5 families in Goochland county. The boxes of donated items are filling up for GoochlandCares. Right now our outreach contributions are being put to use across the county and city. Right now a team of our parishioners is preparing for a mission to Ecuador. I know so many of us are engaged in helping others right now in so many ways. And all of this is so good.
But there is another side to the right now. And it rings as real and true as all the good being done in these days. . Right now, there are people hurting. Right now there are people feeling alone and lost. Right now there are people grieving because they miss a loved one. Right now there are people fleeing their homelands in fear. Right now there are people without enough food. Right now not everything is lit with the warm glowy Christmas lights.
But the promise of Advent is that this painful side of the right now, is not a permanent situation. Get ready. God is going to do something new. That’s why the people following around listening to John were showing up. It wasn’t that their current situations were glorious and wonderful. They had needs that were not being met – hunger, scarity, bondage, fear. And the way John was talking it felt like he just might be onto something. And he was.
Several months ago, I was in the nursery with Meg Zehmer, our wonderful nursery coordinator. A child in the nursery lamented that he couldn’t do something. And Meg quickly replied, “not yet. You can’t do that just yet. But you will be able to.” Just not yet. What a brilliant response to a child and to all of us.
Not just yet.
Advent reveals the beauty in the tension between the right now and the not just yet.
The promise of Advent points us to the beauty of seeing God in our midst, of love being revealed in the birth of Christ. In God’s radical insistence that love wins, right now and forever. And reminds us that there is more to come, more to be done for love to win. We live also in a time of great sorrows for the world and in individual lives. Places and hearts where love has not just yet made things right, made things whole. And in Advent we remember the promise that God will indeed do something new in all of this.
The strange thing to me is that this tension can be cause for joy. Great joy. Joy for what has been revealed and joy for what will come. This Sunday on our Advent wreathes at home we light the pink candle for Gaudete Sunday, or the Sunday when we are to Rejoice. This is a little lost on us now because unlike centuries ago when this was a more penitential season, we spend most of December joyfully celebrating rather than solemnly preparing for the birth of Christ and the coming of a new kingdom.
We all experience some manufactured joy at this time of year. It’s inevitable. It’s just baked into the culture at this point. But there is also a joy that lives a little closer to the surface at this time of year. They joy that has nothing to do with anything we can mass produce and everything to do with Jesus.
There is a great gospel song by Shirley Ceasar that I love. She sings
This joy I have the world didn’t give to me.
This joy I have the world didn’t give it and the world can’t take it away.
Who gave it to me? Nobody but Jesus. Nobody but Jesus.”
The joy that we are called to revel in this season is not of this world and cannot be man made. It is given and created by nobody but Jesus. The baby we are waiting on who changes everything. The kingdom of love he brings into our midst right now and the one to come, the one that is not just yet.
When have you felt that kind of joy in your life? The kind you know is a gift?
When I think of times that I had felt great joy in my life, I am grateful that there are many. The birth of my children, gatherings and special times with family and friends, my own triumphs and better yet watching the triumphs of those I love, so many happy memories. But I was surprised by a memory that surfaced. At face this memory should be a sad one.
Not long before my maternal grandmother died, I was visiting her at the
hospital. She had fallen and fractured her hip. But a whole host of other problems unfolded as her body was unable to recover from the injury. When I arrived one day, the nurses had gotten her up and had her seated in a chair. She had lost the ability to speak clearly, but we greeted one another with I loves you’s and hugs.
I didn’t know quite what to do. We couldn’t chit chat. She was not super comfortable in the chair. It was just hard and awkward for a moment. Then I saw her brush on the table. “Mama would you like me to brush your hair?” She smiled and nodded. So I did. I brushed her beautiful hair. She had had gorgeous hair for years. People would tell her she looked like the tv star Linda Evans. She would smile and tell them that in fact Linda Evans looked like her because she was much older than Linda Evans.
I stood in a dim hospital room and brushed my Mama’s hair. And for just a little while, I don’t think she was in as much pain. Her faced eased and she closed her eyes and kept smiling. And we were happy there for a bit, truly joyful, when for all accounts we had no reason to be.
There was such a pull between the pain and sorrow in that moment and the knowledge that indeed God was soon going to do something new for her. And that tension was the source of such joy. So much love and hope were revealed in that simple connection. Nobody but Jesus. It was nobody but Jesus that brought that joy and love to us that day.
In today’s letter to the Philippians we are reminded to Rejoice. That the Lord is near. And to not worry.
Don’t worry? Easier said than done. Don’t worry? At this point in my life reading of this letter I have legitimate worries. Worries for my children, worries for my own future. Worries about the times we live in. Honestly telling me not to worry makes me want to have a come apart. For me it is near impossible not to worry and I suspect it is the same for many of you too. But then I think about Mama and that hospital room, the joy and peace that surpassed our human understanding. And focus begins to come. I reminded that we should listen to John. Be a little less like vipers.
Share what we can. Do right by others. And above all Get ready for God to do something new in our own lives and for this world.
Jesus will close the gap between the right now and the not just yet in time. And although this surpasses human understanding, John was sure of it. And I am too.
This joy? This life? This love? This promise of what is and what is to come?
From where does it come? Nobody but Jesus.