A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 5, 2021 (Advent 2)
Every once in a while, someone who attends our Advent service of Lessons and Carols, leaves disappointed. It’s not that the music wasn’t glorious or that the readings weren’t inspiring. There’s not even a sermon to complain about, since we don’t preach one. But still, as they greet me on the way out I sometimes hear, “I thought there’d be Christmas carols.”
So, spoiler alert for this evening’s service: there won’t be any Christmas carols. There’s nothing wrong with Christmas carols. Some of my favorite carols are Christmas carols. And if you really want to hear them, you can turn on the TV or the car radio or walk into any store at the Derby Street Shoppes. If Christmas carols bring you joy, tell Alexa to play them! Watch a Hallmark Christmas movie! Bake Christmas cookies! Sit on Santa’s lap! As this pandemic wears on, I encourage you to find joy wherever you can. Even if, and 10-years-ago me would cringe at this, but even if it means listening to Christmas carols during the first week of December.
But just know that here at church, things are different. You won’t hear Christmas carols during Advent. Not because we’re Grinch-ish or because we’re wildly out of touch with the rest of the world. It’s because as Christians preparing for the birth of our Savior, we lean into this season of anticipation and expectation. We hold off on instant gratification in favor of the fullness of time.
And as the Christmas-industrial complex spins and swirls beyond these walls, what we do here feels even more counter-cultural. And even more critical to the well-being of our souls. My hope is that this place serves as a refuge from the frenzy. A quiet and sacred space to encounter the divine presence and make room in our hearts for the coming of the Christ child. A place to reflect upon the deeper reasons of why we string lights and give gifts and host parties. A holy hideaway that offers perspective and meaning amidst all the external noise and distractions that draw us away from what really matters.
But just because we offer sanctuary and peace to all who physically enter this space or tune in online, this isn’t about escapism. Advent worship is about making the season that much more meaningful. It’s about holding out deep and abiding joy rooted in God, rather than the fleeting happiness of temporary delight. So it’s not just about the Christmas carols — it’s never been just about the Christmas carols. It’s about the orientation of our hearts towards that which matters.
And what matters, the heart of this season, stands in stark relief to that which exists on the surface. Because we are preparing for nothing less than Jesus himself to enter the world, for God to enter the world in human form.
And part of that preparation involves coming to church and singing Advent hymns and hearing about John the Baptist. People aren’t doing that at The Gap or Marshalls. Trust me, I’ve checked. But we are. Every Advent we look to John the Baptist as the preparer of the way. We listen to the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.
And as we listen to that voice crying out, we hear that things will be different — that valleys will be filled in, mountains made low, crooked places made straight, rough places made smooth. That’s not just about finding an easier way to get fro point A to point B. That’s flipping everything we know to be true upside down, and turning everything we hold onto inside out.
But it’s not just the poetic language that tells us things will be different. It’s the list of leaders and rulers that kicks off this passage from Luke and places John into the historical context. We get a who’s who of power and privilege in ancient Palestine, as Luke names the emperor and governor and ruler and high priest. In other words, the powers and principalities, the political and religious and military and economic elite who mattered at the moment John the Baptist came onto the scene. Tiberius and Pilate and Herod and all the rest stand at the pinnacle of the mountaintop, while John dwells in the desert valley, preaching in the middle of nowhere with neither societal status nor standing.
And yet, we hear, every mountain shall be made low, every valley shall be filled. Those who hold temporal authority and wield worldly power, are but chaff in the wind when set alongside the reign of God. And it is to the coming reign of God that John points. It will be different from everything we’ve ever known. All those rich and powerful rulers will have the fancy titles and the fancy clothes, they’ll drive the fancy cars and eat at the fancy restaurants, but John the Baptist doesn’t point to them. He points to the anointed one who is to come; the one born in a stable and laid in a feeding trough.
And so we see that the world which God envisions, the one to which John points, looks nothing like what we’ve ever known or come to expect. Whether you’re an emperor or a mountain, faith in Jesus Christ is not about the status quo. When you follow Jesus, you will be changed. You will see things in new ways. Mountains will be toppled, tables will be flipped, your world will be turned upside down.
That’s what John is telling us as he prepares the world to meet the Messiah. His is a message of upheaval, yes, but it’s also ultimately a message of hope. Because whatever path we find ourselves on, crooked or straight, rough or smooth, God’s presence is the constant. God is our constant companion, even as we face yet another blind curve ahead. “All flesh shall see the salvation of God,” as Isaiah puts it. So that whatever twists or turns we encounter, we know that God is sitting right there beside us, riding shotgun. Jesus is coming into the world to be with us, to walk with us, to ride with us.
Which is a good thing, because it certainly feels like our world has been turned upside down over the past two years. And with news about the Omicron variant and rising case counts, things are starting to feel just a bit more uncertain these days. But we can’t ever forget that God is with us through all of this. Even when we can’t feel God or see God or pay attention to God. Which, again, is precisely why we set apart time and space to be in church during Advent — to feel and see and pay attention to God.
I admit that for me, it never quite feels like Advent until that service of Lessons & Carols. Specifically, the Advent Responsory by Palestrina that the choir sings at the beginning of the service. But whatever it is for you that puts you into the Advent spirit of hope and expectation, I encourage you to engage deeply. We await the arrival of the Messiah — and the ensuing transformation of ourselves and the whole world.