December 09, 2012
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
(Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11)
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
(John 1:6-8; 19-28)
Advent is a time of preparation, of planning and moving to “get there.” In the Christian calendar, it is the period including the four Sundays before Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. More and more Christian churches are using the Advent wreath with its five candles to mark this period of preparing for and journeying toward Christ’s birth.
The round evergreen wreath, an ancient symbol of everlasting life shaped to represent the absence of beginning or end, is often thought to symbolize God—everlasting and ongoing. The wreath surrounds four outer candles, which stand for hope, peace, love, and joy; these four candles form a ring around a taller center candle called the Christ Candle, which is lighted either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
On the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas, the first candle, the one representing hope (in the sense of expectation), is lighted and remains burning during the service. Each subsequent week, a new candle is lighted, and those that were lighted on previous Sundays are relighted. On Christmas (or Christmas Eve), when the Christ candle is lighted, the other four candles are also lighted. All five are lighted for any worship service through Epiphany on January 6.
A lighted candle creates light and heat, so the progressive addition of candles increases the amount of light and heat brought on the Advent journey. From our teachings, we have learned that heat and light in the Word signify love and wisdom and that the light of the spiritual sun is divine truth, while heat is divine good. Natural heat and light (symbolized by the candles) serve as clothing and a support to spiritual heat and light, whereby they may be conveyed to man. Thus, while the Advent wreath in its entirety serves as a symbol of the waiting and preparation for Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the candles in the Advent wreath particularly signify the people’s preparation to receive the divine love and wisdom that comes to mankind through that birth.
Preparation is also a significant theme in our Bible lessons today. In Isaiah, we read about rebuilding and repair; we also find reference to the earth as a garden bringing forth its buds and flourishing. Emanuel Swedenborg reminds us that this rebuilding and restoration indicates the continuance of the Church on earth and that likening the earth to a garden has connection to the presence of angelic wisdom in the process of preparation. The lesson from Isaiah ends with the promise that the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.
The reading from the Gospel of John contains the familiar introduction to John the Baptist, who explained that he was the forerunner of the One (capitalized) to come, and that John’s own job was to prepare the way through announcement and cleansing baptism. The people that John baptized were those who were ready to be opened to the receipt of the Lord’s advent. They, in their newly baptized freshness, are like the places ready for rebuilding, and also like the earth bringing forth new growth in the reading from Isaiah. The gospel lesson concludes with the promise of One to come who is far worthier than John and other mere humans. This is the promise of the Lord’s birth.
Swedenborg tells us that John the Baptist was sent before to prepare the people for the reception of the Lord by baptism, because baptism represents purification from evils and falsities and signifies regeneration by the Lord through the Word. The gospel of John, rather than dealing with the external events of the Lord’s advent, deals with the Lord’s life in its divine, rather than its human, aspect. John touches on the reality of the reception of Jesus’ birth as the coming of divine love and wisdom into the hearts of mankind.
In preparation for today’s talk, I went to the Common Lectionary, a cyclical listing of Bible readings used by many Christian churches. The readings are set up in three-year cycles—A, B, and C—and the selections for each Sunday include readings from the Old and New Testaments, the Psalms, and the Epistles (the letters). Today’s readings are the Old and New Testament readings for Year B of the Protestant Lectionary.
One of my favorite books, authored by Joyce Rupp, is called May I Have This Dance? It has twelve chapters, each of which represents a month of the calendar year. Each chapter contains a poem, some biblical references, some prayers, and some meditative or thoughtful activities, all loosely associated with that particular month’s position in the year. I had just looked at the end of the section for December, which Rupp calls the month of “homecoming,” when I found my inspiration for the title of this sermon. The idea of homecoming was still in my mind, and I had had a kind of instant flash of houses with warm golden light streaming out of their windows and glistening on just the right amount of snow in the evening light. I had jotted down the words “Coming Home”—and they became my sermon title.
By the next morning, I had realized a couple of really important things. The first thing, which I arrived at after careful reading of the Bible lessons, was that it was going to be a pretty large stretch to connect them to the idea of “coming home.” The second thing, after I had carefully reread the “December” chapter in the Joyce Rupp book, was that the author and I were in definite disagreement over the attitude of the season. Rupp’s focus was on being lost, feeling hopeless, and longing for home, colored with a sense of exile. At that moment, I knew that I really had some work cut out for me if I wanted to connect preparation-based Bible readings to the announced title of “Coming Home.”
So, I waited—and I tried to wait patiently—for a connecting idea.
The first inkling came with the memory of Tom Bodett’s voice in the old Motel 6 ads where he says, “We’ll leave the light on for you,” depicting a sense of warm invitation. Then I spent a little mental time wandering around Currier and Ives-like pictures of wintry Christmas-decorated houses. Suddenly I thought of the opening words from the theme song from the first Home Alone movie: “Candles in the window, shadows painting the ceiling…” As a retired choral director, I have wonderful memories of junior-high- school choirs singing this song that speaks of precious moments, special people, happy faces—and everyone home together.
The final thought that sparked a connection between the readings and my given title was a memory of meeting the poet Edgar Guest (he died in 1959), who was a peripheral member of the Detroit Church of the Holy City where I grew up, and who was also an acquaintance of my grandfather’s. From the time I was very young, the first line of Guest’s poem, “Home,” was part of our family slogan: “It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house to make it home.” As I grew up, I learned to understand the “livin’ the dyin’ the laughin’ and the cryin’”—and even the leaving— that truly creates a home.
OK, so now I was on a roll. I found a line from the Wordsworth poem “To a Skylark,” that established a kinship between heaven and home—and that helped me understand the connection between preparing to receive the divine and the idea of home.
We are all created for heaven, and it is through our choices in life that we grow spiritually toward that promise. Our physical lives are our season of Advent, our time of preparation and of “getting there.” The light and warmth of the candles—the Lord’s love and wisdom—both sustain and lead us on our journeys. The end of the journey is home: a Bethlehem stable, a family home, heaven.
On this Sunday, two weeks prior to Christmas, I’d like to place before you the idea that Christmas, the goal of Advent’s preparation, can also be an active verb, an action word. The preparation and the journey are the large activities preceding the homecoming of Christmas, but the essence of Christmas, of Jesus’ advent into the life of humanity, is the basis of a whole new way of being—and being is more than simply existing; being is a way of living.
I’m old enough that Roy Rogers and Dale Evans are part of my history, and old enough that I can sing “Happy Trails to You” all the way through. Today, I close with something that Dale Evans Rogers said: “Christmas is love in action. Every time we love, every time we give, it’s Christmas.”
May the blessings of this holy season be with all of you. Amen.
Ms. Christine Laitner