Saturday, June 23, 2012

Sunday Sermon: John the Baptist/Pentecost 4

"Hope for a Child"

Last weekend, my husband and I made a journey I haven’t taken in fourteen years – we drove out through Western Minnesota and into Eastern South Dakota, until we finally landed in the tiny town of Vienna, South Dakota. We were there to celebrate a church Centenniel.  Long ago, I had served as pastor of three churches out there – Bethlehem Lutheran in Vienna, Naples Lutheran in Naples, and Our Savior’s in rural Henry. The town of Vienna was listed back then as "population – 90" – the membership in the three churches was about 275, I think. I was surprised, when I got there, to find out that they had a pretty healthy youth group and confirmation class. I had thirteen 7th and 8th grader confirmation students that first year when I was still getting used to being a pastor.  And a few years later a healthy dozen youth took a bus down to New Orleans for a Mission trip. On the other hand, there were only a handful of baptisms during my time there. I presided at many more funerals than weddings. I remember so clearly the few baptisms I had, because each one was precious; I remember the people in the congregation with stars in their eyes, looking at the baby. All their hopes were right there – in that tiny tiny child.

Perhaps this seems an odd way to begin a sermon about John the Baptist – but maybe it seems odd to you that we are even talking about John the Baptist this summer Sunday. We’re used to hearing from John in about December, as we are getting ready for Christmas. We’re used to hearing his warning "Prepare the way of the Lord," when there is snow on the ground and when everyone is fixing their hearts and minds on their Christmas preparations. We have a picture in our mind – don’t we? – of John the baptist out in the wilderness, a sort of a severe, wild-eyed person, clashing with our Christmas carols and urging us to repent. And here it is a nice summer day, so far from Christmas, so far from snow, so far from Christmas presents, and we’re hearing about John the Baptist – or actually, we’re hearing about his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth and about their own hope for a child. Or, to put it more accurately, their lack of hope for a child. Because they were past hoping. They had given up hope. They were too old to have children.

There’s a little backstory to today’s gospel reading –- today we heard only the end of the story of John’s birth. The story begins with old Zechariah going into the temple, serving as a priest. This was a regular activity for him, just as weekly attendance at church is a regular activity for some of you. So he didn’t expect anything to go differently that it ever did. But this particular day he was praying, and all the people were outside, and an angel appeared to him, and told him something: he said "your prayers have been answered. Your wife Elizabeth is going to have a son." And of course the first thing that happened was that Zechariah was afraid, not just awe, but all-out fear. And the second thing that happened is that Zechariah did not believe the angel. He may still have been praying for a child, but he had long ago given up really hoping for a child – after all, they were too old to have children. So he said to the angel, "How will I know that this is so?" –which might seem to be a reasonable question to us, but I think what he really meant was, "Give me a break. Because this is not just hard to believe.....this is impossible to believe....." — and the Angel responded by drawing himself up to his full height (which could have been pretty tall) and saying, "I’m Gabriel. And now, just because you did not believe me, you are not going to speak for the next -oh – 9 months." So when Zechariah came out of the temple and he couldn’t tell anyone what had happened to him.

Nine months of silence. Nine months to think about, meditate about, pray about what was happening in the world, what Zechariah was hoping for, what he had ceased hoping for. In the meantime, Mary also learned that she would give birth to a child, in the meantime, things were happening, ordinary miracles, but extra-ordinary miracles. Isn’t that what the birth of a child is? It’s something so ordinary it happens every day. But it’s something so extraordinary that it fills us with hope again, every time. And there were promises attached to both of these births: John and Jesus. Promises that God would do a new thing, come in a new way, set his people free from all that kept them weighed down.

What is it about Christmas anyway? What is it about Christmas that gets us all excited and expecting? Oh, I suppose someone out there will say, "it’s the presents" – there they are all wrapped up. It’s the presents and the fact that they are all wrapped up and perhaps they are a surprise. Is that what it is? It’s the possibility of surprise, the possibility of opening up something and not knowing what it is before you open it. Perhaps that’s what it is about Christmas. Perhaps it’s the idea that the thing you think is too good to be true – really might be true. Or maybe it’s this: maybe it’s the child. Maybe it’s the hope for a child, the hope for THE child. Maybe that’s what it is.

Anyway, Zechariah had nine months to think about it: what he hoped for, what he had stopped hoping for, what he was afraid to hope for. He had 9 months to stretch his imagination, nine months to re-consider the promises of God – 9 months to think that God’s dreams might even be even wilder than he had imagined. His barren wife was expecting – God was about to do a new thing. A new thing – wilder than his wildest dreams. He was as good as dead, but he would have a son.

What is it about Christmas, anyway? Maybe it’s hope – the hope that a child brings, the hope that children bring. Maybe it’s hope – beneath the presents and the glitter and the light in the darkness – hope for the future, a future that is based on forgiveness rather than revenge, on peace rather than warfare, a future where God against walks among us, as he did in the garden, back in the beginning. Maybe that’s what it is.  Because we need that hope not just when it's dark and cold and the days are short, but even now, today, when there are storms and when there are floods and when there is grief, and when we still don't know what our future might be.

So when his son is born, Zechariah writes on a piece of paper, "His name is John," even though no one in their family ever had that name before. And when he writes that name, he is able to speak: and this is what he says:

"You child, will be called the prophet of the Most high;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways;
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us."

What is it about Christmas?
Maybe it’s the hope of a child – maybe that’s what it is – it’s the hope of a child when all it lost, when you are as good as dead, when you have stopped hoping. That’s what it is. It’s the hope of a child, a child who brings new life, a child who makes you new. It’s not just his son John – but the one he points to – Jesus.

So it was a bright summer weekend when we drove back to South Dakota – after 14 years away. And I wondered what I would find there, as they celebrated 100 years of God's faithfulness to them.  I wondered who I would recognize, who would recognize me. We drove slowly into town. The church had been repainted. There were a few cars in the parking lot. I recognized a face – the woman who ran the post office. I ran up to her and said, "Do you remember you always said, ‘there’s a lid for every pot?’(she said this to me because I was single but hoped someday to find a mate.)  I introduced her to my husband. I found out that some of my dear friends had died.

And then I started to see the children. There are 25 or 30 children in this little church now. I don’t know any of them. Not one. But they are the children of some of my confirmation students, all standing up in the front of the church and singing at the top of their lungs, "Jesus loves me."

Christmas. It was Christmas in the summer, because of the children, and because, like John the Baptist, they pointed to Jesus. AMEN.

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