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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Acolytes as John the Baptist

A Sermon for II Advent - December 7, 2008
Susan Ironside, Seminarian
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ

The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever. AMEN.

I truly cannot hear this Gospel reading without thinking of that opening number from Godspell. It’s in my head whenever I hear the text read. You know, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”

So here we are in Advent, and the Church, in her ancient wisdom, takes this opportunity to remind us that the advent season is about preparation. It is a time to reflect on the God who comes to us in human form, the God who interrupted the night sky with a blaze of angels,who interrupted world history with a baby in a manger, who interrupts our lives by breaking into our hearts and filling dark and empty places with glorious healing light.

So it’s advent, people. (Claps loudly) Wake up and smell the coffee. Jesus is coming and you had better be prepared. We are Anglicans for heaven’s sake. We are nothing if not people of tact, and being caught unprepared is, frankly, unseemly. Like setting the table with the water goblet on the wrong side. How embarrassing! So really, people, for heaven’s sake: Prepare yourselves.

But before we all enter into a full-blown panic about preparation, I mean we don’t want to be caught unprepared, but let’s pause for a moment and try to sort out what is needful. How do we prepare, exactly, for this event?

Historically the church reminds us to not be too anxious for Christmas to get here. We don’t fling out the greens just yet. We don’t sing those great Christmas hymns just jet. I mean, really, that’s what those pagans in the malls do, peddling us a dizzying array of LED lights, lawn decorations and evergreen scented candles as early as mid-October.

Heathens! We don’t want to be like them. We want to follow John the Baptist, and prepare the way of the Lord.

John the Baptist, that nutty guy in the wilderness yammering about repentance whilst clad in an unseemly outfit of camels hair, partaking in strange dietary habits. There’s a strange model of advent readiness for you. Seems almost like Chris Rock showing up to help the altar guild.

How puzzling. The forerunner to the reign of God should be someone proper, clean cut, someone equal to the task of preparing for the Ruler of the Universe.

But John would be the first to admit that he is an unusual choice. Not worthy to untie the sandal, even. He baptizes with water, but the one he announces, he is the main event, he baptizes with the Holy Spirit. This is big.

The task of preparation for us is an unusual one. Because we too are called to prepare, but we are also ones who have been baptized with water AND the Holy Spirit. We have been bathed in water, but we have also been drenched in the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist’s vocation is our vocation.

On Sunday mornings, I have the good fortune to keep company with the acolytes here at St Paul’s. They are the forerunners of our liturgy, the ones who lead the procession by carrying a heavy cross, and potentially dangerous lighted torches. They are bright and funny and seem to live by that wonderful motto:

It’s all fun until something goes wrong….then it’s HYSTERICAL!

They are reverent and diligent in performing their tasks and serving at the altar. But they also watch everything and miss nothing, and are the first to notice when something is a bit off track. They prepare for worship by being the first to take those brave steps as the procession begins every Sunday.

They look very dignified, and they are. Truly. They lead me in worship whenever I watch them. But they have wilderness in them too, I think. Yes, a good dose of Wildness and Wilderness seems to be a key part of every good acolyte, and these ones here in Chatham, they have a good dose of John the Baptist in them.

They seem to embody, this group of acolytes, a wonderful mix of reverence and joy. They are my John the Baptist. They remind me to nurture my own inner John the Baptist.

So since I already admitted that I can’t hear today’s gospel reading without thinking of Godspell, I will admit this too: I love kitchy Christmas preparations. My house looks like a Christmas department at Macy’s exploded and landed in my living room, and my husband announces when he comes home to scented candles and cinnamon potpourri, “this place reeks of Christmas!”

And this happens pretty soon after Thanksgiving. I guess I am not a really good Anglican.

Don’t get me wrong, I adore the lovely blue vestments, the Advent hymns, and I have benefited greatly for periods of silence, like the silence we keep here this morning. And my soul has been fed by Advent prayer practices which remind me of the One who was, and is and is to come.

We who have been baptized with water and the Holy Spirit can never be reminded too often that our restless hearts will never be filled by eggnog lattes or anything they sell at the Mall at Short Hills.

We who have been baptized with water and the Holy Spirit need to be reminded again and again, that the One who was, and is, and is to come, marked us as his own forever. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. The best thing about nurturing your own inner John the Baptist, is the reminder that we are not called to be the main event.

We are called to prepare the way for the One who was, and is, and is to come. We prepare the way for Jesus, who in all things goes before us. It’s an unusual ministry we have, as ones who have been baptized with water and the Holy Spirit. It’s a strange type of preparation, preparing the way for the One who was, and is, and is to come.

It’s probably a bit more like the preparation we do when we have boarded an airplane, and the pilot announces, “Prepare for take-off!” Well, that plane is taking off whether we have completed a check list of preparation ritual or not. Put your seat in the upright position. Fasten your seatbelt. This plane is taking off.

The pilot and engineers are the ones who will somehow miraculously get those tons of steel off the runway, and into the sky.

As we gather again today to share in a preparation meal of bread and wine, let us rejoice that we are not the main event. We are the acolytes, and we too are called to have a good dose of reverence, with a greater amount of joy. Good acolytes have wildness and wilderness in them.

A good acolyte watches everything, and misses nothing. A good acolyte carries heavy things,and potentially dangerous lighted torches and steps boldly out ahead of the procession.

Let us fasten our seatbelts and put our seats in the upright position. This very morning we participated in living out our vocation as forerunners by coming here, and doing those small tasks which were given to us, by virtue of our identity as those who have been baptized with water and the Holy Spirit: Lighting a candle on a wreath, singing ancient words of preparation.

There are other things to do to get ready and they are not bad things: trees to decorate, cookies to bake, and in an hour or so, we may be back to doing them. But right now, in this very moment, time stops for us, and in this moment we prepare to rejoin the chaos that is waiting just outside those doors.

And perhaps, just perhaps, the preparation we undertake in this place, will carry us back out into that place.

What we do here at the altar has everything to do with what we do outside those doors. The silence we keep here, will carry us into the noisy world waiting for us out there.

We prepare the way for Jesus, the One who was, and is, and is to come.

We prepare the way for Jesus, who, in all things, goes before us.


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