Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A)

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 18, 2022 (Advent 4, Year A)

Wait, watch. These are the themes of Advent. The church is always encouraging us to hold off on celebrating Christmas too early. On the Sundays of Advent we sing Advent hymns, not Christmas carols. We light the Advent wreath and the building light points to that grand event that is to come: the birth of our Lord. Our desire for instant gratification is put on hold, even as the world around us watches Hallmark Christmas movies. The waiting and watching is part of our spiritual discipline as we steep ourselves in hope and expectation. 

And yet, this Sunday’s gospel passage subverts all of our patient waiting. Here’s the big spoiler alert: Jesus is born! Oddly enough, we get Matthew’s birth narrative on the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year. So, in light of this, I think we’ll just cancel all the Christmas services and we’ll see you in the New Year. 

But before we do that, I guess we should take a closer look at this passage and see how it fits into the season of Advent. The first thing to notice is that Joseph plays a prominent role; this whole scene takes place from his perspective. In a dream, he learns that he should go ahead and marry the woman to whom he was engaged, and that this child Mary is carrying, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and that he is to name him Jesus. Now, that’s a lot to absorb. But when Joseph wakes up from this life-changing dream, he does what the angel says: he marries Mary, waits for her to give birth, and names the child Jesus.

Now, Joseph is kind of the Rodney Dangerfield of the whole nativity scene. When you set up your crèche you probably start with the manger and baby Jesus. Next comes Mary, perhaps a few angels, and then there’s always that moment of confusion when you can’t tell Jospeh apart from one of the shepherds. But eventually you figure it out and stick him in there to gaze upon the holy child, but not too close. 

Joseph is like a holy bystander. Supportive of Mary, excited and nervous at the prospect of raising this child. But he’s not exactly able to stare down at Jesus and say, “I think he’s got my eyes.” So we’re not quite sure what to do with Joseph. It’s nice to have him around, we think, but he’s not really necessary to the story. But there’s more to St. Joseph than this, and he does play a crucial role in Jesus’ life. Not only does he raise Jesus as his own, he protects him from certain death when the holy family flees to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath — the result of another dream. And so Joseph stands out as a model of someone who hears God’s voice and faithfully responds to it, even when what is being asked is unusual or disquieting.

In this season of waiting and watching, we could all stand to tune out the noise and listen a little more intently to God’s voice. Believe me, it’s hard to do that a week before Christmas. There is just so much noise and so many expectations. But you’re here. Which is a good place to be as we all seek some spiritual shelter from the swirling storm that is the Christmas-industrial complex. And so Joseph points us to a way of listening and responding to God’s call even when life feels too full. And we need that during this season.

The other thing about this passage and the real reason it fits into the season of Advent is that it points to questions about Jesus’ identity. We learn that he is indeed divine, being conceived by the Holy Spirit. That his birth is the fulfillment of Scripture — we get that quote from the prophet Isaiah — “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” And we see the significance of his name. The name Jesus means “to save,” and Jesus has come into the world to save us from sin and death. But also Jesus is Emmanuel, meaning God-with-us. Through the birth of Jesus, God enters the world in human form to live and dwell among us which, another spoiler alert, is the true miracle of Christmas.

So, in the same way that John the Baptist prepares the way of the Lord, this passage prepares us to meet the Christ child. It sets the stage for the entrance of the messiah into the world by emphasizing Jesus’ identity as God’s son. We’re not waiting for some wise teacher to show up on  Christmas. We are awaiting the arrival of God’s only begotten Son. The one whose birth literally changes the world. The one who sets us free from the bondage of sin and death. The one who ushers in the very kingdom of heaven right here on earth. And in so doing transforms the world and fills our lives with hope and meaning. Not to get too far ahead of ourselves — we still have a week before all of that.

But hearing this birth narrative a week before Christmas is also a good reminder that even as we await the birth of Jesus, Jesus is already here. So while the Advent police may not like you listening to Christmas carols before the 25th, it’s okay to do so. And even though I may roll my eyes at the Hallmark Christmas movies, I’m not going to turn them off in a huff while Bryna’s watching them at the rectory. Which she does. A lot. Jesus is with us right now, in this moment, in this place. Just as he always is. Even as we prepare for his arrival in a manger not long from now, and even as we await his coming again in great glory.

When our boys were growing up, they used to love setting up the crèche in our living room. They always did it with great care and reverence. Even if they often added their own figurines to the scene. There was usually a Darth Vader next to the shepherds or a Power Ranger among the sheep. But a debate would always rage about whether to put the baby Jesus into the manger before the 25th or wait until Christmas. I was always in the let’s wait camp and everyone else in the house opposed my position. So I always lost. But theologically speaking, they were probably right. Jesus is with us, even as we wait for him. Both of these things can be and are true. Just as Jesus is with us now, even as we await his coming again at the end of the age.

And in the meantime, we can look to Joseph’s example as one who listens attentively to the moving of the Spirit in his life. We can reflect upon Jesus’ identity as God’s son. And we can open our hearts to the one who is both to come and already at hand.


Third Sunday of Advent (Year A)

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 11, 2022 (Advent 3, Year A)

John the Baptist looms large over the season of Advent. The Forerunner, the one who prepares the way of the Lord, this loud, larger-than-life figure who preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins along the banks of the Jordan river. And yet we don’t encounter a more counter-cultural figure in the days leading up to Christmas. You’ll never see a giant blow-up John the Baptist on anyone’s front lawn. He doesn’t feature prominently in any Christmas carols — no one’s singing “here comes John the Baptist right down John the Baptist Lane.” No one trims their tree with a John the Baptist ornament — although I would pay good money for one.

This morning, we hear Jesus ask the crowds that had sought out John the Baptist in the wilderness, what they went out to see? And it’s a good question. John, after all, was drawing ever larger crowds. Some were drawn to him because they thought he might have been the long-anticipated Messiah, some heard that he was a prophet, some of the religious elite were nervous about his growing popularity and wanted to catch him in heresy in order to discredit him, some were just interested in the spectacle of it all.

And so Jesus asks what they had gone out to see. A reed shaken by the wind? In other words, someone willing to bend to popular opinion? Someone who checked the polls before deciding what to say? Or did they go out to see someone dressed in “soft robes?” In other words, a member of the religious establishment who wouldn’t upset the status quo? Someone who wouldn’t challenge their understanding of God? Someone who wouldn’t demand much of them? 

Well, we know John is the exact opposite of that. For starters, camel skin and leather could hardly be considered soft. And a guy who subsists on locusts and wild honey probably wouldn’t fit in very well at a fancy dinner party or a charity ball. After all, he’s known as John the Baptist, not John the Episcopalian. And just last week we heard John greet those gathered around him by calling them a “brood of vipers,” so we know he wasn’t just telling the people what they wanted to hear. Surely they didn’t want to hear that.

But it begs the question, what do you go to church to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Well, you can certainly see that. But what do you come to church to see and hear? Sometimes we leave feeling inspired by the music or the liturgy or even, occasionally, the sermon. Sometimes we leave feeling good about ourselves and, perhaps if we’re honest, even a little self-righteous for having done the right thing and gone to church. Sometimes we leave with hearts bursting to go out into the world to serve others. Sometimes we leave feeling challenged or uncomfortable, even angry. Sometimes we leave feeling and knowing at our very core just how much God loves us. Often it’s a whole swirl of these emotions, depending on the week.

But it’s important to examine our inner motivations about what we’re hoping to see and hear when we gather for worship. Again, we can’t just go to church to see a bunch of people dressed in soft robes, and we can’t come to church just to make ourselves feel good. Or to simply revel in sacred space and beautiful music — which, believe me, I love. And is an important aspect of the spiritual life. But it can’t end there. We are not called to be passive recipients of faith, but active participants in it. Faith is not a spectator sport, it is a way of life; a call to action. And so every time we gather, the question posed to each one of us is how will we live out this faith with which we have been entrusted? How will we turn our faith into action?

And there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer, just as there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all faith. There are varieties of ways to respond to God’s word and they are ever-shifting in our lives. Someone may feel compelled to feed the hungry through St. George’s, someone else may be inspired to join a Bible study or teach Sunday School, someone may share their gifts and passions through committee work, someone may want to donate money for a new set of soft robes. “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit,” St. Paul tells us. And there are varieties of ways to live out our faith in the world. But live it out we must. 

Around the corner from our rectory in Massachusetts lived two little girls who were also members of the parish. I’d pass by their house regularly whenever I walked to my local coffee shop. Which was often. So often that I used to refer to it as my “satellite office.” One afternoon as I was walking past, I noticed they had set up a lemonade stand. Now, that’s not a particularly unusual suburban sight. Many of us sold lemonade at the end of our driveways as kids and ended up being praised for our entrepreneurial spirit. The neighbors would stop by to purchase a cup, often telling us to keep the change; which was thrilling. And we’d keep at it until dinnertime, or until we realized we didn’t live on a main thoroughfare and standing in front of a table all day was boring. 

But in the name of supporting small business owners, I stopped at their table and bought a dixie cup full of lemonade. Before I did, they told me all the money was going not to themselves but to feed the hungry. In Sunday School they’d learned about families who didn’t have enough to eat and they had collected food items for our local pantry. But that wasn’t enough. They wanted to do more. And the end result was that they were putting their faith into action in a very tangible way. 

We’re invited to do the same. It may not be setting up a lemonade stand — at this stage in life that might draw a few odd looks. And there’s the whole permitting process. But I encourage you to reflect upon whatever your version of a lemonade stand might be. We all set up different ones, just as we all respond to God’s call in different ways. 

John the Baptist’s unique calling was to set up his lemonade stand along the banks of the Jordan. To use his prophetic voice to cry out in the wilderness, to baptize those seeking an authentic encounter with the living God, to prepare the way of the Lord, to point not to himself but to the one who was to come.

So, what do you go to church to see and hear? Your answer informs what kind of lemonade stand you set up. And in the spirit of John the Baptist, we are drawn ever closer to the heart of Jesus. 

Second Sunday of Advent 2021

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. 

IV Advent 2020

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 20, 2020 (IV Advent)

I hear a lot of voices in my head this time of year. Now, it’s not what you think. But it’s hard to hear the stories leading up to Christmas and then the Christmas story itself, without hearing some other, very familiar voices. 

For instance you can’t hear the words of the prophet Isaiah that were read at Lessons and Carols a couple weeks ago without hearing Handel’s Messiah ringing out: “Comfort, comfort, ye my people.” At least I can’t. And whenever Luke’s gospel is proclaimed on Christmas Eve, at least a small part of my brain hears Linus standing on a stage and sharing the meaning of Christmas with the Peanuts gang. I watched it on PBS last week and Linus dropping his blanket at the words “fear not” gets me every time.

And even with this morning’s gospel, the story of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel announces to Mary the stunning news that she will bear God’s son, part of me hears years and years of Christmas pageants. But, if I’m honest, especially one from my parish in New York when we didn’t have enough boys one year. So we had the Angel Gabrielle. Which was fine. Except that she stood on a pew to deliver the news to Mary and slipped. Which meant we literally had a fallen angel in our Christmas pageant that year. 

All of which is to say that when we hear these familiar stories, we often bring in other voices and experiences and memories to bear on the Advent and Christmas that’s right in front of us. It may be the warm childhood embrace of a grandmother or the voice of a father reading ’Twas the Night Before Christmas or the sound of a church choir singing In the Bleak Midwinter.

This year, in particular I’m hearing the voice of the Angel Gabriel — or Gabrielle, depending on the year. Gabriel acts as a holy disrupter, a divine force that shatters the status quo and forever changes the trajectory of Mary’s life. Without this visit, what would Mary’s life have been like? She would have likely gotten married and had children, as would have been the expectation in her hometown of Nazareth. She would have engaged in domestic activities and presumably helped her husband eke out a living off the land. There would have been joys and sorrows, she would have laughed and cried, grown older and wiser, lived and died. A full, if unremarkable, life. 

But Gabriel appears as God’s messenger and everything changes. After this encounter, after Mary’s “yes,” nothing is ever the same again. Life is disrupted. For Mary, for the world, for us.

Now, I doubt Mary really welcomed Gabriel’s visit. Nobody craves disruption and confusion or seeks disorder and uncertainty. In our own lives, we tend to turn order into an idol. ‘I’ll be happy when things finally calm down at work. I’ll be able to breathe when the kids are older, or when they move out of the house. If I can just get through this home renovation, all will be well. Once I make it through this upcoming medical procedure, things will be okay.’ Mary was likely no different from the rest of us. And we hear that she was perplexed and fearful in the face of Gabriel’s message of disruption.

“Greetings, favored one,” are Gabriel’s first words to Mary. There’s a sense of reassurance in that opening line. This may all seem terrifying — an angel appearing out of nowhere usually is — but   Gabriel begins by preemptively telling Mary that she is favored and chosen by God. Granted, as evidenced by the experiences of the Hebrew prophets, being called by God doesn’t mean life will be easy. God’s favor is not the same thing as the world’s favor. Favored status in God’s realm equates to relationship, not privilege; to disruption, not stability. Favored doesn’t mean newfound wealth, favored doesn’t mean a life without pain or grief, favored doesn’t mean worldly adulation or popularity, favored doesn’t mean business as usual.

Favored, in this case, means chosen by God to be the Godbearer, the mother of our Savior. Favored means playing a role in the salvation story. Favored means turning the world upside down. “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you.” Those seemingly sympathetic words are words of disruption.

Gabriel comes as a holy disrupter and Mary, after just a moment’s hesitation, gets it. And she is all in. Ready to participate in the holy disruption that will enter the world as God in human form; the holy disruption that will emerge from a manger in Bethlehem.

Because God, our God, is not a God of stability and status quo. Just listen to Mary’s words after she ponders and then absorbs and embodies Gabriel’s message. Mary’s song, known to us as the Magnificat, contains words of radical disruption. “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” 

Those are hardly words that indicate nothing’s gonna change. These are hold-onto-your-hats-a-mighty-wind-is-gonna-blow words. Everything is gonna change with the birth of this child. A child who will usher in a new world order where those on the outside are brought in and those who have been beaten down are lifted up.

And this is where I think Gabriel speaks not just to Mary, but to each one of us as well. When he says, “Greetings, favored one,” He’s also speaking directly to you. God favors and delights in you. Which, when we’re feeling down or guilty or imperfect or overwhelmed, is hard to take in. But it’s not just true that you are favored by God, it’s the deepest truth there is. God favors you and loves you, even as God disrupts your life by calling you into ever-deepening relationship. 

You know, in some ways, Gabriel could be the patron saint of 2020. If we see him as a holy disrupter, well, this entire year has been one of disruption. Our routines have been upended, our perspectives shifted. Some of this has been helpful, some revealing, much of it painful. But through it, God has been fully present. We may not always recognize or appreciate this. As with so many things in our lives, we often fail to see the hand of God in the disruption. I know I have my moments. But God is right there in the midst of it all. Challenging us and opening our eyes and inviting us into new ways of being. Mary shows us that God is present in the upheaval, in the very chaos and disorder that we fear so much.

That’s the spirit in which I pray you’ll enter into Christmas this year. Embracing rather than denying the disruption. Grieving for the traditions and people we’ll miss, but reveling in the message of our Savior’s birth. The message first conveyed by God through that angelic holy disrupter and carried out by the one who proclaimed, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

I Advent 2020

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 29, 2020 (I Advent, Year B)

One of the tricky things about living with semi-adult children is that they stay up much later than I do. And while that’s usually fine — it’s not like I have to tuck them in or read Hop On Pop before bed — at least once a week, just as I’m slipping into that delightful REM stage, I get jarred awake. It may be the inadvertent slamming of a kitchen cabinet or clomping around the mudroom looking for a lost charger. But whatever the cause, it always takes me forever to fall back asleep. 

I don’t think this is exactly the point of the Advent call to keep awake. But then, the lines between the spiritual and the secular often get blurred this time of year. One person’s holiday lights are another’s Light of Christ. And that’s fine. But the start of Advent is not a seasonal reminder to hang the garland over the fireplace or string lights on the tree. Advent is a season of preparation and anticipation for the coming of the Christ-Child. Most of us understand that, and deeply appreciate this time of waiting and watching. Even as we put up an inflatable Santa in the front yard or hang the stockings by the chimney with care.

But the spirit of Advent doesn’t end with the babe lying in the manger and presents being opened on Christmas morning. Calendar-wise it does. But the deep truth of this season, the reality that transcends even the 12 days of Christmas, is that we’re invited not just into a four-week season of anticipation, but to live anticipatory lives. 

Living an anticipatory life means living in the present, but also waiting for something more. It means anticipating the fullness of life that is the reign of Christ, but also participating fully in the here and now of our daily existence. It means anticipating the coming kingdom and all of its promised joy, but still engaging in fruitful and meaningful relationships right here on earth.

And this whole idea of living an anticipatory life is rooted in Advent. During this season, we wait for the arrival of the Messiah at his First Coming in Bethlehem, even as we anticipate his return at the Second Coming to judge the world.

We hear this poetically set out in that beautiful collect appointed for the First Sunday of Advent, which calls upon God to “give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility” — that’s the manger part — so “that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal” — that’s the anticipatory part. So there’s a right now part to our faith, and there’s a still to come part to our faith. 

Which is why Jesus is asking us to stay awake. “Beware, keep alert,” he says. “For you do not know when the time will come.” Like the disciples in the Garden of Gesthemane who could not stay awake to pray with him for a single hour on the night before our Lord’s crucifixion, Jesus doesn’t want us to get lulled into spiritual apathy. Which is so easy to do, at least when things are going well.

I admit that, as with everything during this difficult and trying year, I continue to hear familiar passages in new ways. In the grand arc of our faith, Jesus is reminding us to be ready for his return. Not to fall asleep at the spiritual wheel. Again, that’s the anticipatory side of faith. But I’m also hearing the call to keep awake as an urgent cry to remain vigilant against that which this pandemic has revealed. To be attuned to the sin of oppression, to remain alert to the demonization of others, to stay awake to racial and economic inequalities. 

Frankly, it’s easy to fall asleep on these issues. At least when your privilege doesn’t keep them front and center. If you’re not the one feeling hunger pangs or if you’re not the one who can’t pay the rent or if you’re not the one getting harassed because of the color of your skin, it’s easy enough to fall asleep to the urgency of these situations.

But then Jesus bangs some pots and pans and tells us to wake up! To not fall asleep on the poor and the vulnerable, the harassed and the helpless, the poor and the downtrodden. Especially not now in the midst of a global pandemic where the comfortable class works from home, while the working class and those on the front lines are put at risk every single day. Jesus shakes us awake and tells us not to forget the least and the lonely and the lost; reminding us that from a spiritual perspective, when it comes to our fellow children of God who are struggling and hurting, there can never be a mentality of out of sight, out of mind.

This is what it means to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armor of light. The light of Christ reveals what we so often seek to deny. Jesus demands that we rise up and wake from the debilitating effects of spiritual slumber. The cost to humanity is too great to sleep through the spiritual alarm clock. We can’t keep hitting the snooze button and expect others to do the hard work of justice. This alarm being sounded is the clarion call of the Christian faith. To take up the cross and follow Jesus. And Advent is the perfect season, and this is the perfect moment, to wake up and get to work.

We often talk about the cost of discipleship. That following Jesus places demands upon each and every one of us. The yoke may be easy and the burden light, but it does restrict our freedom to act however we want and do whatever we want, especially when it comes to the impact upon others. I know I’ve found it incredibly disheartening to see so much self-interest and self-centeredness taking hold in the world. Just this week so many of us sacrificed greatly by limiting our Thanksgiving gatherings and denying ourselves time with family and friends. And this sacrificial love is what our faith is really all about. It’s certainly what Jesus’ life was all about. 

I’m aware that the start of Advent is a tangible reminder that as we move ever closer to Christmas, the reality that we will not be gathering together inside this sacred space becomes ever more real. And that is a hard truth. We are all sacrificing to care for one another these days — by not gathering for in-person worship in a building that really can’t sustain it; by not traveling during the holidays; by not having Christmas parties; by not seeing family members. None of this is easy. But I find myself ever more proud of this extended St. John’s community. And I am grateful for each and every one of you.

May we remain ever-vigilant, may our eyes remain ever-open, and may we remain ever-watchful for the arrival of the Christ-child, the one who comes to us in great humility and everlasting glory.

Third Sunday of Advent 2019

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 15, 2019 (III Advent)

Like most parents-to-be of my generation, Bryna and I pored over the classic book What 717T0T1FKDL._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_.gif.jpegto Expect When You’re Expecting during the nine months leading up to the birth of our first child. There was information about the stages of development — “hey look, now it’s the size of a lemon!” I routinely got chided for referring to our unborn child as an “it.” There were tips about maintaining a healthy pregnancy — though I still have no idea what folic acid actually is or what it does. And there were helpful hints about baby-proofing your home, like covering up all the electrical outlets and keeping the rat poison out of reach.

I’m not sure what Mary’s regimen was like during her pregnancy. Obviously she didn’t have much time for nesting, and I don’t think the manger would have been considered a choking hazard. But I’m sure she had some very real expectations for who her child would become and what motherhood would entail. 

During this season of Advent, this time of preparation and anticipation, it’s helpful to ponder what expectations we have for this child. What are your expectations for the arrival of Jesus into your life? Of course, at one level, he’s already arrived. His birth, life, death, and resurrection have already taken place. But the yearly remembrance of his birth allows us to reset our expectations and receive him anew into our hearts. And that is the true gift of this season; that’s the opportunity that awaits us during this time of renewed hope and expectation.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting…Jesus is probably not going to be the title of a best-selling book. But our seasonal expectations are wrapped up in questions about Jesus’ identity. We wrestle with these questions in our own lives and they arise over and over again in Scripture. In the Bible, sometimes these questions about the identity of Jesus are answered with great confidence and bravado; at others, they’re answered haltingly and with hesitation. 

At one point, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter blurts out, “You are the Messiah! The Son of the living God.” It’s the first time Jesus’ true identity is articulated in the gospels and we can’t help but hear the question directed towards us as well. Who do you say that Jesus is? What are your expectations? These are the questions that define our lives of faith. We want to join Peter and boldly assert right along with him, “You are the Messiah!” But sometimes we struggle; with faith, with doubt, with expectations.

This morning we hear a very different question about Jesus’ identity. John the Baptist’s bluster is gone; we encounter him not boldly proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins along the banks of the River Jordan, but wasting away in a prison cell. He sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Uncertainty has crept in. Did he somehow get it wrong? In all his haste to prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight, did he miss the Messiah? In John’s question, there’s a deep sense of vulnerability and even fear that he has wasted his life pointing to the wrong person. “I thought I had it right, but…Are you the one who is to come?” 

When it comes to questions about Jesus’ identity and our ensuing expectations, most of us live on a continuum. Somewhere between rock solid faith and brittle uncertainty. Remember that even Peter, the great apostle, the rock upon whom Jesus built his church, the first to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, also denies him three times. None of this is as easy as it seems. For anyone.

And complicating things is that for many, the expectations of who and what a Messiah was and would do, did not mesh with the reality of Jesus’ reign. And perhaps this is what fueled John’s question. Just last week we heard the Baptist announce to the crowds that while he baptizes with water, “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

John’s vision of the Messiah is like one of a great warrior who will ride into town, destroy his enemies, establish a new reign, and march on to eternal victory. And if that’s the expectation, it’s no wonder John is confused about Jesus’ identity. Jesus is less concerned with tearing down than lifting up. In response to John’s question about being the one who is to come, Jesus says to John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” 

That’s what to expect. That’s where our expectations should be. Set upon a Savior who is always present with us, who never forsakes us, who forgives us, and who loves us deeply and tenderly and unconditionally. A Messiah who reveals God’s love for humanity, not by force or fear but by faith. A Lord who loves and lifts up the brokenhearted.

The past few weeks, Jack has led the Middle School Youth Group in a unit focused on Jesus’ identity. I’ve been amazed at their engagement with these questions and really proud of them for wrestling with the topic in such an authentic way. And they put everything on the table — just take a look at the walls in the youth room which are covered with newsprint, where they’ve scrawled their ideas and questions and expectations about Jesus. As Jack pointed out, some of the questions are answerable and some are not. Some are clearly delineated in Scripture and some leave us wondering. They’ve pondered his birth and life, looked at his divinity and his death.  They’ve wondered whether he was aware of his holiness? And why he spent all of his time helping others. They asked whether people worshiped him as a kid and whether his family had pets. And they grappled with why he allowed himself to be killed and what it all meant.

Our middle schoolers are setting their expectations for a life of faith. Some things are set in stone, some things are more fluid, but it’s all about cultivating a lively and living relationship with Jesus Christ. Something we all must do throughout our lives. And I find this season of holy expectation a particularly poignant time to do just that. 

As helpful as the book was, I still get annoyed whenever I think about all the things that weren’t in What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Like the fact that your child will only projectile vomit all over you when you’re all dressed and heading out the door for work. And at least some of those teenage years. But as we wait expectantly to welcome the Christ child, know that you will receive the Jesus that you most need. That whatever your expectations, Jesus will bring with him what most needs healing in your life. And in the end, for right now, that is enough.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

First Sunday of Advent 2019

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 1, 2019 (I Advent)

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” 

Beautiful, well-known words from the prophet Isaiah. Words that offer a vision of possibility and hope. Words that evoke peace and the prospect of harmony. The vivid image of instruments of war being hammered into implements of peace is arresting. 

Outside the United Nations stands a large bronze sculpture titled “Let Us Beat Our 119163.jpgSwords Into Plowshares” by a Russian artist. It was presented to the UN in 1959 by the Soviet Union at the very height of the Cold War. If you haven’t seen it, the sculpture depicts the figure of a man holding a hammer aloft in one hand and a bent sword in the other, which he is beating into a plowshare. Geopolitics aside, it is a stunning portrayal of the Biblical imagery. 

Of course, for the realists among us, Isaiah’s words come across as fanciful at best. Nice imagery, but not exactly rooted in reality. After all, just turn on the news! Open a newspaper! Violence and war and destruction are all around us. If anything, plowshares have been beaten into swords; pruning hooks have been turned into spears; nation continues to lift up sword against nation; and in every corner of the earth, war is being waged.

But the beauty of Isaiah’s vision, is that he can’t be just shrugged off as some naïve peacenik. The prophet is well-versed in the world’s reality. We just heard a portion from chapter two, but listen to what he describes in chapter one of the book that bears his name: “Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire…They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.” 

Isaiah’s eyes are wide open to the world’s violence and injustice; this is no sheltered, rose-colored existence. Which only makes God’s vision of peace and wholeness all the more powerful. The dramatic image of turning swords into plowshares, stands in stark relief to the injustice and destruction that defines so much of the human condition. And again, artists have long sought to capture this spirit of hope in the midst of alienation and despair.

In 2007, the artist Pedro Reyes was invited to the Mexican city of Culiacán in the Northwestern part of the country. At the time, Culiacán was one of the most notorious drug trafficking centers in Mexico and one of the most violent cities in the entire world. Rampant gun violence was tearing at the very fabric of the city and its inhabitants. 

Reyes came to Culiacán to launch a campaign where residents were asked to donate guns that were subsequently melted down and made into shovels. The Biblical symbolism was powerful, as they quite literally beat swords into plowshares. And so was the witness to peace in a city so accustomed to violence.

In the end, Reyes and his team received 1,527 guns. In a public demonstration, they flattened them with a steamroller. And then, after converting these instruments of killing into garden tools, they then used the shovels to plant a corresponding number of trees in Culiacán and around the world. In fact, a few years ago, Reyes came to Boston and used one of these shovels to plant a tree at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, highlighting our own city’s struggle with gun violence.

What I love about this whole story, is the Biblical imagery of Isaiah’s vision come to life in a very real way. Of course, violence remains a prominent feature of modern life — in Culiacán where drug cartels continue to wreak havoc, and all over the world. Again, just turn on the local or national news. But Reyes’ Culiacán project was and is a clear and visible sign of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom, right into the heart of the world’s harshest realities.

Which bring us to the season of Advent. If you come to church and listen to the readings and pay attention to the words that accompany the hymns and pray the seasonal prayers, you’ll notice that  Advent is about so much more than hauling Christmas decorations down from the attic. It may well be that too. But Advent is a season not just for getting the house ready for the holidays, but one that prepares us for both the first coming of Jesus 25 days from now, and the second coming of our resurrected Lord at the end of the age.

And it is that second piece, the anticipated return of Jesus that offers us hope that one day there truly will be no more war, or violence, between and among people. But in the meantime, we must reconcile what it means to live in in-between times. Because that’s our reality as Christians living in the 21st century. We live between “the already” of our salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and the “not yet” of waiting for the full realization of God’s kingdom. We live between the arrival of the baby Jesus in a manger, and the return of the risen Christ in all his glory.

So how do we do that? How do we live authentic and faithful lives as we wait for God’s kingdom to be fully realized on earth as it is in heaven? One method might be to just bide our time, stick our heads in the sand, and ignore the injustices and disparities that characterize the human existence in this in-between time. To just throw up our hands and decide that anything we do to bring justice to the world is but a tiny drop in a giant bucket of oozing cruelty. 

You may not be surprised to learn that I don’t suggest taking this approach. Our place, I firmly believe, is to play an active role in helping to bring about God’s reign right here on earth. And we do this by any number of small but Christ-centered acts. By reaching out our hands in love to the least, the lonely, and the lost. By being generous and kind and loving in our interactions with others. By rejecting violence in the name of peace. 

You can beat the swords of destruction that each one of us wields, into tools of harmony. You hold that hammer in your hand. And the question is whether you will drop it in favor of the sword, or use it to beat that sword into an instrument of peace. Will we work as co-laborers with Christ to enable God’s reign in our midst? Or will we passively work against it by failing to use that hammer to fashion implements of peace and justice? 

Those are the questions I invite you to wrestle with this Advent. Because if we believe that God’s reign leads to abundance and joy and hope and peace — all those things we talk about at Christmas — that’s what we must forge during this season of preparation. In our own hearts and in the lives of all whom we encounter.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Fourth Sunday of Advent 2018

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 23, 2018 (Advent IV, Year C)

Who do you think wrote the best protest song of all time? There’s no right answer, of course. Bob Dylan, maybe. Woody Guthrie. At least that’s the generation we usually identify with the modern protest song — the 60’s. For many of us, protest songs conjure images of sit-ins on college campuses or rain-soaked hippies dancing in the mud at Woodstock. Bob Dylan singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” or Jimi Hendrix wailing away on his left-handed Stratocaster playing the Star Spangled Banner or Pete Seeger singing “This Land is My Land.” 

But to qualify as a genuine protest song, you really need just two things: a righteous


Woody Guthrie

cause and an identified injustice. Protest songs have addressed various issues over the years, and have spanned every generation and every musical genre, but the most prevalent themes have been war, civil rights, and economic injustice. 

Some of these songs have been overt and others more subtle. John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” was an obvious anti-war song. There’s nothing understated about singing, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.” But many of the old negro spirituals worked on two levels, with a relatively harmless or even spiritual lyrical veneer, along with a deeper cry for freedom and protest against oppression. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” for instance, was full of code pertaining to stops along the Underground Railroad, references lost on slave owners, but signals of hope for their oppressed slaves.

In our passage from Luke’s gospel, we have just heard Mary sing a protest song. I’m not saying that this song of Mary’s is in exactly the same vein as Dylan’s “The times they are a-changin’” or Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” or even the classic negro spirituals, but there is a subversive quality to the Magnificat that often gets overlooked. The Magnificat is not just a harmless manifestation of spirituality, it is a radical statement of a bold and hope-filled faith.

But in order to fully comprehend the impact of Mary’s words, you first need to examine the context out of which they were born; to look at the political situation of early first century Palestine. The days immediately preceding Jesus birth were fraught with political strife and uncertainty. The pressure on and the oppression of the Jewish community was at a fevered pitch. The imperial power of Rome had ruthlessly crushed the minor Jewish rebellions that had bubbled up against the Roman Empire. Between the draconian taxes and the treatment as second-class citizens and the human rights violations, life was not easy for the Jews of ancient Palestine. One of the major complaints, besides the economic oppression and day-to-day cruelty, was the holding up of the Roman emperor as a divine being. This went against everything the Jews stood for as monotheists, believing in the sole authority of a single God. To be coerced into proclaiming the emperor as divine was, essentially, religious abuse. 

At one level, the choice for the Jewish people was simple: collaborate or resist; accept the yoke of oppression in order to survive, or fight back and court death. But the moral murkiness and hardships did much to drive out hope. And it’s a dark place to live without hope. Without any sense that things would ever change; to feel emotionally and physically trapped and imprisoned by circumstances beyond your control.

One of the most ruthless displays of imperial might led to the burning of a town near Nazareth named Sepphoris. Tradition holds that this was the hometown of Mary’s parents, and may have been where the future mother of Jesus was born. This town was sacked and held up as an example of what happens when you rise up against the Empire. Its citizens were brutally killed, raped, and enslaved in a very public display of Roman power. Mary, and her cousin Elizabeth, most likely saw first-hand the violent destruction of Sepphoris; they were well-acquainted with the price of resistance.

But these events, rather than serving as a catalyst for despair, honed Mary’s understanding of hope, a concept forged not in theory but in the brutal reality that God alone had the power to emancipate her people. Painful real-life experience caused Mary to thrust all hope of deliverance upon God, rather than upon man.

Mary stands in for a people hoping that God will side with the righteous in scattering the proud and bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry and sending the rich away empty. As the God-bearer, Mary is playing her part in bringing salvation to the world. Not as a passive observer but as an active participant in God’s unfolding plan of salvation. And part of that plan involves a full-on reversal. The political impact is part of it, but it’s more about what is valued in the coming Kingdom of Heaven. Mary is helping to usher in a reign where might doesn’t make right, where the vulnerable are lifted up, where justice rolls down like waters, where peacemakers are more valued than warriors, where the only question that matters is how your soul magnifies the Lord.

Now for those on the margins, from the people of Israel living under Roman rule to those who are marginalized and ignored in our own day, the Magnificat offers powerful words of hope. For those who struggle, for the exploited, for the abused and the abandoned, for asylum seekers, and for those whose dignity has been trampled down again and again, this is good news. This is the great reversal.

But if you still don’t see the Magnificat as a protest song, consider these three examples of times in the past century when the powerful have sought to ban the public recitation of Mary’s words. During the British rule in India, the singing of the Magnificat in church was forbidden because it was deemed subversive. To highlight this, on the very last day of British rule in 1947, Gandhi — who was obviously not a Christian — requested these words be read wherever the British flag was publicly lowered. In Argentina, the military junta outlawed Mary’s song in the late 1970s after the Mothers of the Disappeared displayed its words on placards in the capital plaza to call for non-violent resistance. And the government of Guatemala, in the 1980s, found Mary’s proclamation of God’s special concern for the poor to be so revolutionary and such a threat to authority, that they banned any public recitation of the Magnificat. These are radical words, my friends. Words that have the potential to topple governments and bring down the powerful from their thrones.

Now, I know that these actions and these situations can feel distant or remote to people not being persecuted for their faith or belittled for who they are or subjected to acts of violent oppression. But if there’s anything Jesus teaches us, it’s that when one group is being ill-treated, when one part of the body of Christ is being injured, we all suffer. And so we stand in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed and the marginalized in our midst and in our world whenever we sing Magnificat.

In a very real sense, the Magnificat is the “We Shall Overcome” of the Biblical world. It is the promise that ultimate justice will enter the world in the form of this child Mary carries in her womb. That the arrival of Jesus will give birth to hope and salvation, a process set in motion by the unlikeliest of actors. Mary, this humble, Jewish maiden says yes to God and the world is both transformed and turned radically upside down. She sings a protest song, and the world awaits a savior.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

Third Sunday of Advent 2018

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 16, 2018 (Advent III, Year C)

Some people have asked me why I don’t start my sermons with a prayer. Something like, “In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Or “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O God, my strength and my redeemer.” Many preachers do this, and there’s a fairly comfortable ritual of expectation that develops between preacher and congregation. There’s also a practical element, as it often serves as a signal to the gathered assembly to sit down and settle in for the exposition of Scripture. In the parish I grew up in, it was the job of the acolytes to dim the lights at this point, which was intended to heighten the drama of the sermon, but generally had the effect of putting people to sleep. We certainly aren’t instituting that practice here.

While there’s nothing wrong with beginning a sermon with a prayer — some of my favorite preachers do this — I don’t do it for two reasons. First, I believe the sermon should flow directly out of the proclamation of the gospel, as an uninterrupted response to the Good News of Jesus; an extension of it, rather than something separate. The other reason is that, quite frankly, if I haven’t already said a prayer before I get into the pulpit, I’m hosed. And so are those of you subjected to the sound of my voice.

When John the Baptist started preaching on the banks of the Jordan River, he took this john_the_baptist_preaching-400.jpgwhole concept one step further. Not only did he neglect niceties or prayers or even inviting people to sit down, he kicked things off with an insult. “You brood of vipers!” he screams at the crowd. Now, that’s an attention getter; a signal that no one will be settling into their seats for a comfortable and reassuring seasonal message. He’s not there to make people feel good about themselves with a cotton candy-sweet, Joel Osteen-inspired self-help lesson. John the Baptist doesn’t arrive on the Advent scene with his hair askew and his eyes aflame with zeal for the Lord, wearing camel skin and a leather belt and eating locusts and wild honey, to put people at ease. John shows up to shake us up. To rattle our collective Christmas cages and prepare us to greet the Christ-child with open arms and contrite hearts.

“Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John demands to know. What’s amazing is that his audience doesn’t flee from John at this point. But in fairness, they have arrived hungry to hear his message of repentance; they didn’t leave the comforts of their homes and venture out into the wilderness to hear a banal message of lukewarm piety. They are seeking transformation through the coming Messiah; the one whose sandal John was unworthy to untie. The one who would baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. They are seeking not comfort, but truth.

You, too, are here, I think, to hear a message of transformation and renewal that will change your life. That’s what encounter with the risen Christ leads to, after all. It’s why you’re here during the season of Advent, to be challenged by the themes of repentance and preparation that come bursting through our Scripture readings and hymns and liturgical texts.

John’s tough message of repentance, of encouraging us to turn away from that which tears us down and destroys the soul, is a reminder that living the Christian life is not always easy or comfortable. It’s hard work to turn away from evil, to die daily to sin, to pick up your cross and follow Jesus. But then again, transformation — truly changing your ways and being made new — is never without cost. The most important things in life are rarely easy. Change is always hard. And John the Baptist doesn’t sugar coat this fact as he preaches along the banks of the River Jordan.

Don’t assume, he suggests, that just because you go to church most Sundays and send a check to the United Way every year that you’re a finished spiritual product. That you shouldn’t be down on your knees seeking forgiveness and looking to repent and return to the Lord. Just because you yourself have been baptized, doesn’t mean the hard work of faith is complete. Baptism itself may be a once-and-for-all event, but it is also an ongoing process of ever-deepening relationship with God as we continually live into the baptismal promises we either made or were made on our behalf. There’s a reason the word “disciple” forms the root of the word “discipline.” Authentic faith is not an easy, no-cost proposition.

So, okay. John the Baptist is yelling about the coming judgment and the crowds haven’t left. He’s insulted their religious background as not being sufficient and they still haven’t left. This is a tough passage to hear and you haven’t left. But what we have in common with the crowds is the question that follows John’s opening diatribe. We want to change; we want our encounter with Jesus to transform us indelibly and for the better. And so we ask, along with the crowds, “What then should we do?” It’s a question dripping with an honest yearning; a query tinged with hope. “What then should we do?

And John gives a surprisingly practical answer. This repentance of which John speaks, this repentance that is essential to faithfully preparing for the coming of the Messiah, is rooted in ethical obligations. In other words, it is rooted in love. If you have two coats, share one with someone who has none; if you have extra food, give some to the one who is hungry. In business, don’t cheat people. When dealing with others, don’t lie. None of this is rocket science. Share, be fair, don’t be a jerk. We learned all of this in kindergarten, but somehow we’ve forgotten much of this in the intervening years. We’ve all gone astray at various points. And John calls us back to what matters in our interactions with others. He calls us to repent and return.

Jesus will make a similar point as he is asked about the most important aspect of faith. Again, it’s not complicated. It all gets back to the simple command to love God and love neighbor. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love God, love neighbor. Share, be fair, don’t be a jerk. The thing is, we can all do this. We can all take small steps to make the world a better place.

As we await the coming of the Christ-child, as the light increases on the Advent wreath, as your Christmas preparations build to a crescendo, heed the words of John the Baptist. Not the part about being a brood of vipers, necessarily. But bear fruits worthy of repentance. Show the world your faith by proclaiming it not only with your lips but in your lives. Reach out your hands in love to those who go without, in this community and beyond. Make room for kindness in your heart. And know that by doing so, you are preparing well for the one who is to come.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

Second Sunday of Advent 2018

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 9, 2018 (Advent II, Year C)

Did you know, there’s a Christmas episode of the Flintstones? It originally aired on December 25, 1964, as part of the original cartoon series. In it, Fred gets a part-time job at Macyrock’s department store to help finance the family’s Christmas. Mr. Macyrock initially fires Fred for being his usual doofus self, but reconsiders when he learns that the store’s regular Santa Claus has the flu. Fred proves a natural at entertaining the children and by the end of his stint, Mr. Macyrock proclaims Fred as the best Santa they’ve ever had. 

Oh, but that’s not the end of the story. On Christmas Eve, two of Santa’s elves, named FLINTSTONES XMAS 2Blinky and Twinky, appear to Fred as Macyrock’s is closing for the night. They explain to Fred that the real Santa Claus is sick and they ask him to help deliver presents to children around the world. As Fred steps in to save the day, we see him perched atop Santa’s sleigh shouting “Merry Christmas” in French, Italian, German, Dutch, English, and Swedish. 

This is all very nice, until you do the math. And you think, “Wait a minute. The Flintstones took place in the Stone Age. That was two-and-a-half million years before Jesus was born in Bethlehem.” Fortunately, as a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons, this encroachment of reality never reared its head. 

But as Christmas has become increasingly secular, it’s entirely possible to celebrate the holiday like the Flintstones: completely devoid of Jesus. You can celebrate Christmas without any sense of what it’s about or why it matters. Many of the people we know and care about do just that. They put up beautifully decorated trees and reverently place candles in all the windows. They gather friends and family for Christmas dinner, pulling out all the culinary stops. They revel in this most wonderful time of the year. This is all good and even holy in its own way. But, as with the Flintstones’ Christmas, there’s something missing. 

It is into this scene, that John the Baptist shows up every year. Well, not to the town of Bedrock exactly, but it’s impossible to miss the point of this season when John breaks into our midst. John demands that we set some expectations for this season; expectations that transcend the external trappings of gift giving and menu setting and holiday decorating. John insists that we remember the purpose and meaning of what we are preparing to celebrate with the arrival of the Messiah. John urges us not to forget what the fuss is all about. John adds substance to the flash.

He does this with grand pronouncements and with action; with lofty words as the voice of one crying out in the wilderness and with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As the forerunner of the Messiah, the one who points not to himself but towards the one who is to come, John reminds us that it is all about Jesus. That the inflatable snowmen and your mother-in-law’s fruitcake and stockings hung by the chimney with care all must, ultimately, point to Jesus. Otherwise, why bother? It’s all empty; it’s all meaningless; it’s all a Flintstones’ Christmas. Nice. Pleasant. But, in the end, hollow. 

In this vein, John the Baptist stands firmly in line with the Old Testament prophets. This morning we hear from the prophet Malachi. And as John calls us to meaning in this season of Advent, Malachi was calling the people of Israel to meaning in worship. The people had gotten lax in their devotions, their rituals had become empty, they had failed to uphold the core of what mattered most: God’s relationship with God’s people. Malachi, like John the Baptist, was announcing God’s imminent arrival. And while this is exciting, it is not without cost.

That’s what Malachi is getting at when he uses the image of the refiner’s fire. With the processing of silver and gold, the impurities are burned away and something shiny and beautiful and valuable emerges. The same thing will happen, says the prophet, on the day that the Lord returns to judge the world. The evil that inherently resides in each one of us, will be burned away. That’s not always an easy process, indeed it is often a painful one. But the mercy and loving kindness of God endure. We are healed and made whole through the process. God’s entrance into the world is not something to take lightly, whether we’re talking about preparing for Christmas in our own day or looking ahead to that final judgment towards which the prophets point.

Now, the themes of purification and repentance and judgment don’t always make it onto your holiday playlist. No one’s hanging a cute refiner’s fire ornament on the Christmas tree next to the one of Snoopy in a Santa hat. But these are important themes for our spiritual preparation, as both Malachi and John the Baptist proclaim. During Advent we reflect upon both the first coming of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem and his second coming in great glory at the end of the age. He comes as a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, yes, but also upon clouds descending. And it is our role to prepare our hearts through prayer and good works.

I guess the main difference between a Flintstones’ Christmas and a St. John’s Christmas is that we’re not just expecting Christmas, as if it’s merely a date on a calendar. We are expecting a Savior. That’s why this season of Advent is so important to our spiritual lives, why you are encouraged to be drawn deeply into it, why John the Baptist is making all that noise. Expecting a Savior means standing in the sure and certain hope that we will one day be set free from that which enslaves us. That the sin which clings to us will be burned off by the refiner’s fire of repentance. And we will be made whole, healed and forgiven and lifted up by God’s deep and abiding love. That’s what the impending joy of Christmas is all about.

Now, I’m not suggesting you ignore the external trappings of the season and simply navel gaze until December 25th. You can drive down Main Street after dusk and be enchanted by the twinkling white lights in all the windows; you can even head a town or two over if you want to experience some more colorful, flashing displays of holiday spirit.

But none of it has any rootedness unless you also spend time reflecting on the deeper themes of the season. When you do, when you engage in Advent worship, when you prepare for the arrival of the Savior with intention and great expectation, when you heed the words of the prophets, there’s just an extra jolt of joy that makes Jesus’ birth even brighter and more meaningful. 

I’m still not sure why Fred yelled out “Merry Christmas” rather than “Yabadabadoo” from Santa’s sleigh in that Flintstones’ Christmas episode. These are the things that keep me up at night. But in the end I’m thankful to Fred, Wilma, Barney, Betty, Pebbles, and Bam Bam for helping highlight what truly matters this Advent. Even it’s by pointing us back to the message of the one crying out in the wilderness, the one who bids all flesh to see the salvation of God.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018