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The reason for the season

Dec 17, 2017

Passage: John 1:6-28

Preacher: Rob Donehue

Series: Advent 2017

Category: Advent

Summary:

Is there a reason for the season? Advent gives us the time and space to ask that question so that when Christmas arrives, we will truly know the answer.

Detail:

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B
Dec. 17th, 2017
St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11     1 Thessalonians 5:16-24     John 1:6-8,19-28

 

So, over the past few weeks, I’ve received several phone calls that I thought were rather odd. In each case, the person on the other end said that they were returning a missed call that had come from my number. The first two didn’t make me think anything too strange was afoot, but then when the third and fourth and then fifth came along, I began to wonder. So, I consulted the internet, and sure enough, I discovered that what was happening has to do with a phishing scam. As the internet search told me, apparently there are a variety scam operations which can somehow make a phone call to people where the number that appears on the screen for the incoming call is not the actual number that is making the call. The aim is to get someone to answer and then to provide sensitive information that can be used to defraud them, and since the number can’t really be traced, it’s harder for victims to find out who is trying to trick them. In any case, it appears that my number is one that has been used as a decoy to mask these fraudulent calls. 

I’m telling you all this not to make you wary of answering your phone when you get a call from me - though if you get a call from my number and some strange voice asks for your social security number and mother’s maiden name, go ahead and hang up! No, I’m telling you this because I think the situation speaks to what I’d call our curiosity around the irrelevant. I found it curious that more than one person called me back to find out why I had apparently called them. Hence the internet search. I was convinced there must be a reason for all these strange “return calls.” And, turns out, I was right; even though I didn’t much like the reason.  

And no doubt the people who called me were curious about why they had received a call from an unknown number and why no one from that number had left a message. In both cases, we wanted to find out what was going on. We wanted to know why these seemingly irrelevant phone calls had been made and to discover what the relevance actually was. All of this curiosity was piqued, I think, because most of us don’t like to think that someone would want to contact us without a good reason. We don’t like to think that others are wasting our time or pranking us or trying to scam us, and when we do discover that, no, someone was trying to make us look like fools, we’re left wondering, “Why would someone do that?” We want to know the reason. We want to make some sense of it.  

Well, if you’ve followed me thus far, then you’ll pick up immediately on what I think the Pharisees’ attitude was toward John the Baptist in the Gospel reading. From what little we know about John, it seems he was an odd, charismatic figure who lived an extremely austere life in the Judean countryside and whose preaching and teaching was centered on the expectation that a messiah would appear very soon and so people had better get ready for it. And his message became popular enough that he attracted the attention of the religious establishment. And the religious establishment was curious about who this guy was. The priests and the Levites wanted to know the reason why John was saying and doing the things he was saying and doing, and they wanted to see if John’s reason fit the traditional expectations. And they figured that if John had no claim to be either the messiah or Elijah or the prophet, then the likely reason for his message was that he was either a fraud or a dangerous political subversive. They went to John to make sense of who he was and what he was doing, and what’s clear from the Gospel reading is that they were not willing to leave until they had some reason to report back. We’re led to understand that they were not impressed with John’s reference to the prophet Isaiah about being “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” but the point I invite us to focus on is that they were looking to make sense of who John was. 

In that sense, the priests and Levites were doing nothing out of the ordinary. I’d even say they were doing the right thing in questioning John. We all want to make sense of things that have the potential to impact our lives in a very real and immediate way. And I wager that there are few, if any, here who would be willing to accept a message like John’s without wondering where it comes from or who the messenger really is. St. Paul talks about this very idea in his letter to the Thessalonians. “Do not despise the words of prophets,” Paul says, before going on to add, “but test everything.” What Paul means is that if you hear a message about God, don’t automatically assume it’s either right or wrong. Do your due diligence and look into it. Be curious. Make sure it stands up to scrutiny. Looking for the reason behind something does not mean you oppose it; it just means that you want to make sure it’s authentic. 

Which brings us to a pithy saying that I am sure we all hear around this time of year: “Jesus is the reason for the season.” That saying anticipates the feast of the Incarnation which we will celebrate on Dec. 25th, and as statements go, it’s true, even if it’s pretty innocuous. But the question for us in the weeks before Dec. 25th might be, “Is there a reason for the season?” In the run-up to Christmas, we hear all sorts of messages about peace and goodwill and glad tidings of great joy and the like, and even though those messages are good, I wonder if we give ourselves enough of a chance beforehand to be curious; to really think about whether we really believe that the coming of Jesus makes all that joy and peace real. I wonder if we allow ourselves the time to ask whether the “holiday spirit” we’re supposed to be fostering at this time of year comes from a place of deep longing for closeness with God, or if we’re merely responding to a well crafted marketing campaign designed to make us spend money.

The message of the gospel at Christmas should not come to us like a call from an unknown number. And if it does, then I think it likely that we’ll hear the Christmas story and say to God, “Sorry, I never did reach out to you in the first place.” No. The good news during Advent is that we are given space to examine what the reason for the season really is. We are given time to be curious about why the coming of Jesus should be for us such a joyful event. 

And we can do this in a number of familiar ways. We can offer help to those in need, we can visit the sick, we can welcome the stranger, we can reach out to old friends and perhaps find a way to reconnect or reconcile with those we’ve been estranged from, we can talk to God more intently and ask God to help us understand the Christmas story more deeply. However you go about it, Advent is a time for us all to examine the reasons why we will proclaim our joy at the birth of Jesus. And if we are doing Advent well, then our praise and prayers at Christmas will be all the more bright because we will know the reason for the season.