Advent III – December 14, 2008
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
In most parts of the Anglican Communion, the third Sunday in Advent is known as Rose Sunday or Mothering Sunday. With every passing year, I continue to LOVE these Rose Vestments.
It is also known as ‘Stir up Sunday’. That comes from the Collect Prayer for today, which begins, ‘Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us . . .’.
That being said, those who hail from the British Isles or those among us who are Anglophiles know that ‘Stir up Sunday’ has more to do with Christmas pudding than it does with God.
If you know anything about Christmas pudding (you might want to pay attention as there will be a quiz at the end of the sermon), it contains large quantities of figs and dates, oranges and apples along with several kinds of nuts, all mixed together with perfectly obscene amounts of stout and rum and brandy (yes, AND brandy).
Indeed, in 1664, Christmas Pudding was banned by the Puritans as a lewd custom unfit for people who followed the ways of God. In 1714, King George I re-established pudding as part of the Christmas feast, thanks be to God, even though the Quakers strongly objected.
One would begin to make one’s Christmas Pudding on the 25th Sunday after Trinity Sunday with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and his disciples. Every member of the family took a turn stirring the pudding with a wooden spoon from east to west, in honor of the three kings.
When it is served, the tradition is to soak the pudding in brandy and set it aflame to represent Christ’s passion (which is as good an excuse as any for more brandy). A sprig of holly as garnish is a reminder if His ‘Crown of Thorns.’ It was often planted near houses in the belief that it protected the inhabitants. And, after imbibing that much alcohol, I suppose you were poised (or, um, not) to believe just about anything.
Well, that’s all well and good, but I suppose you are wondering whatever in the world this has to do with today’s Gospel on John the Baptist. Well, watch closely as the preacher ties this all together. (And I do it all without a net.)
Given the gospel’s description of John, the cousin of Jesus – living out in the wilderness, preaching repentance, dressed in camel hair and a leather girdle, eating wild locust and honey – one might suppose from his manner and dress that, were there any to be had in those days, clearly, this man would have also partaken in more than his share of – ready? – Christmas pudding!
I mean, really, church! Tell me you didn’t see that coming!
Well, talk about someone who could stir things up! John the Baptist could any day of the week and twice on Sunday – and not just the third Sunday in Advent! All foolishness aside, John does say something that is very important for us to hear today – especially as we make our way closer to the Blessed Madness of Christmas.
“Who are you,” the priests and Levites who had traveled from Jerusalem to see him asked. And John responded with five words which I have found myself repeating to myself more times than I care to admit, just this week alone. Indeed, these are such important words, with such an important message, that I want you to pay close attention so that you might repeat them to yourself this week.
When you find yourself elbow deep in baking Christmas cookies to package up and mail to relatives, and shuttling the kids from one activity to another, and trying to get that work that you took home completed, and getting the last minute Christmas gifts done, and . . . .everything else that stirs up your anxiety and blood pressure, and you can’t even remember your own name, much less the names of your own children, or grandchildren, or even that of your next door neighbor, remember the words of John the Baptist who, when asked who is was said this:
“I am not the Messiah.”
You may need a Messiah, but you are not the Messiah. Neither am I. Jesus is.
And, yes, Jesus lives in you, and Jesus lives in me, but neither one of us is Jesus. That’s the temptation of these frenetic times – to think we can do it all, make it all work, get it all done. That we can accomplish 27 hours of work in 24. “I’m on it,” is our triumphant cry.
Multi-tasking combined with technology can sometimes be a cruel trick, leading us to believe that we actually have super-human abilities.
In those moments when you are tempted to think you can push the needle on the meter of your life just a little bit further, repeat the words of John the Baptist to yourself:
“I am not the Messiah.”
You are not the Light, but whether you know this or completely understand or fully comprehend this, the truth is that your life is a testimony to the one who came to be the Light of the World.
The question for your life of faith is not, “How much can I accomplish?” Rather, it is, “What is the meaning of my life?” And, “What does God want from this gift, this present, that is my life?”
Robert Fulghum, author of ‘Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten’ tells a story about a Greek philosophy professor. It seems that it was his custom to end each lecture by asking the class, “Are there any questions?” One day a student raised his hand and – half-jokingly said, “Yes … what is the meaning of life?”
The professor replied, “I will answer your question,” pulled a small hand mirror out of his pocket and told this story: "When I was a small child, living during the war [WWII], we were very poor and we lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place.
"I tried to find all the pieces and put them back together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy, and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine - in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find.
"I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child's game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of the light. But light - truth, understanding, knowledge - is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it.
"I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life."
John the Baptist said, “I am not the Messiah.” Neither are you. Neither am I. So, even as we pray on this ‘Stir up Sunday’, remember that our petition is directed to God. We are asking God, on this third Sunday in Advent, to ‘stir up God’s power and asking God to come among us.’
We are not asking God to make us a Messiah, but to be our Messiah, because many of us – especially at this point in time – are sore in need of a Savior.
So, repeat after me, church. “I am not the Messiah.”
Say it again. “I am not the Messiah.” Good.
And, one last time, for good measure: “I am not the Messiah.”
Well done. Now, believe it. Live it.
And, remember, you’re to stir the Christmas pudding, not have a taste of it, and if you can do that, you’ll have a sweet taste of the belief that you are who you are: you are a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape you do not know. You’ll understand that while Christ lives in you, you are not the Messiah.
You are not the Light, but your life will have greater meaning if you reflect light into the dark places of this world and change some things in some people. If you give the gift of hope to those who live in the darkness of hopelessness. Perhaps others may see and do likewise, and together, through hope, we can change the world.
This is what your life in Christ is about. This is the ministry we share with the one we call John the Baptist.
In fact, you know, I don’t think it would hurt to say this prayer again:
“Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost, be honor and glory, world without end.