by Rev. Joe Connolly
“John went through the entire region of the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins;…” — Luke 3:3
Most of you know I am in my twenty third year as the pastor of this church in Norwich, as your pastor. Some of you know this next factoid but not everyone. Before I came to Norwich I served as an Associate Pastor at the Waldo County Cooperative of Churches in Waldo County, Maine.
That was a five church cooperative, a five church yoke. (I know— it sounds very Methodist.) When it came to a preaching schedule, the Senior Pastor and I switched off week to week, one week three of the five, the next week the other two.
The towns in this group— Frankfort, Jackson, Monroe, Brooks, Freedom— had a combined population of less than 3,000. Brooks was the largest— on a good day about a 1,000 souls. These were very small churches in very small towns. My first Sunday in the pulpit as a settled pastor serving those churches was September 4th, 1995.
For about two years before that, starting in 1993, I did a lot of work as a supply preacher. In those 104 weeks I filled a pulpit on a Sunday 47 times— just short of half of the possible Sundays.
I must have done all right. A lot of churches asked me back. The church in Belfast, Maine invited me six times.
I am reciting this history to explain something. Since 1993 I have not actually heard a lot of other pastors preach. Obviously, when you’re in the pulpit preaching you are not listening to someone else preach.
Once, however, I attended a service and heard a sermon offered by a good friend. The essence of it was some people think inside the box; others think outside the box. The point was this recommendation: for churches thinking outside the box is a necessity.
Well, after the service I saw my friend and said, “You’ve fully explained my life situation with one sermon. Some people think inside the box; others think outside the box. My take is, ‘Box? There’s a box? Why was I not told?’” (Slight pause.)
I need to be clear. There are times thinking inside the box can be useful, wanted, warranted. Innovation is not always a necessity. But usually innovation, trying something unknown, is the only way you can see if that thing will or will not work. And innovation is often the only avenue which will encourage growth.
Me, personally? Male, older, Caucasian— I may present an image which says inside the box. But don’t be fooled. I’m a theater person.
For theater people, stretching is a given. I would, in fact, suggest stretching, trying something different, outside the box stuff, is good for individuals and for organizations.
Can it be risky? Yes. However, I doubt that, in all of human history, growth has ever happened without stretching, without real risk taking. (Slight pause.)
This is what we hear in Luke. “John went through the entire region of the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins;…” (Slight pause.)
There are a number of things to which we need to pay attention in this reading. First, given the story which precedes these words, the writer skips from the time Jesus is very young— at the temple— to the time Jesus is about to start a ministry of preaching.
Second, since the writer gives us all those names in this reading which, by the way, are not easy to pronounce, there is clearly an attempt at offering information about the historical context. This is not the first time Luke’s author has offered historical context.
The more famous effort reads this way (quote:) “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” (Slight pause.)
It is often said Luke was written for, written to and written about the poor and the outcast. The story of shepherds is not meant to depict a peaceful, pastoral scene.
Shepherding was a hardscrabble, marginal, risky, lean way of life. There was nothing romantic or attractive or peaceful about it. Further, in that era shepherds were considered the lowest of the low. On any kind of social scale they were outcast.
That having been said, in these two key passages what is this writer doing? Setting the context. The writer tells us who was in charge in the world, tells us who did not have a hardscrabble, marginal, lean, risky existence. So, at least part of the point Luke strives to make is to draw that contrast, that distinction.
And who appears after setting the context? First the shepherds who are outcast, then the Baptist, who shouts on Jordan’s shore, the one about whom it can readily be said this person is an outcast from respectable society, someone who does not care about boxes.
John, however, can and does tell us about what a relationship of God looks like. And a relationship with God is about a God Who clearly wants to be in relationship with humanity— with everyone— with those in charge, with those not in charge.
Why is it clear God wants to be in relationship with us, with humanity? John claims the place God starts with this relationship is what is commonly called forgiveness. We are forgiven before we do anything, before we have done anything. Further, we do not have to do anything to be forgiven. This is often called God’s unconditional love.
Put another way, because of this relationship between God and humanity— and this is what any solid relationship is or at least should be based on— God starts with a premise: we are trusted. We are trusted with each other’s being, trusted to love one another, trusted to be stewards of the world God created.
John also says we are invited to what is commonly called repentance. As I have often said before, repentance is not about remorse, not about feeling sorry. Repentance means turning toward God, walking in the ways of God, living life to its fullest, living life as God would have us live, living life filled with hope, peace, love and joy.
So, when we hear this proclamation about repentance and forgiveness these are not what popular culture says they are about, what I’ve just outlined. That brings me back to the juxtaposition with which the writer of Luke presents us in laying out the context.
Luke asks who is in charge of society? Who runs the world. Luke then holds up the power brokers and contrasts that with those who are outcast. (Slight pause.)
I think this is a given. Those who are in control— or rather those who think they are in control— are generally comfortable inside the box.
Those in control tend to use bywords and we have all heard from time to time. Don’t make waves. Don’t upset the apple cart. Include only those who are just like us. That is, my friends, clearly inside the box thinking. (Slight pause.)
What is outside the box thinking? Everyone counts. All people are included. Go ahead— eat the apples off the cart. Let’s splash some water— waves can be fun.
And yes, doing new and different, working outside the box means taking risks. But my experience says the only way to fail is to refuse to take risks.
What’s my experience? You remember I mentioned that five church cooperative where served as an Associate Pastor? These were poor churches in a very rural area. End to end the cooperative spanned 40 miles.
But they thought outside the box, took a risk. Each church had its own budget. Then together they formed a separate budget. With that unified budget, they had the where-with-all not to have just one pastor but two. Now, that’s thinking outside the box.
This is also to say the preaching of the Baptizer is not about any kind of ethereal, pie in the sky stuff. Turning toward God needs to be real, practical, substantive and risky.
Perhaps that’s why so many have a hard time with repentance, turning toward God. How much of a hard time do people have with repentance? They turn it into something it is not.
As I said, repentance is not about remorse, not about feeling sorry. But that’s what people turn repentance into.
And forgivingness? As I said, we are forgiven before we do anything. And we do not have to do anything. But people are uncomfortable with free gifts. Don’t we owe God something for this gift? No, we do not. (Slight pause.)
So, this is the Sunday of Advent when we celebrate peace. Biblical peace is not the absence of conflict. Biblical peace means the truth of the real presence of God. Biblical peace means the real presence of God is with us.
And yes, that’s what Christmas is really about: God is with us. And that very idea that God is with us— that make really makes people really, really uncomfortable.
How do I know that? Do me a favor. Go shopping and you see displays of trees, lights, ornaments, electronics, cookware— you name it. But let me know if you see any signs which say, “God is with us.” No one out there has seen that in the supermarkets, in the box-stores. (Slight pause.)
So, let us celebrate Advent with hope, peace, love and joy. Hope, peace, love and joy can be found when we realize the real risk we take in our life is to ignore that God with us and that God is present to us. Of course, that God with us and present to us is the message of the Baptizer. It is the message of Advent. It is the message of Christmas. God is with us. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, NY
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Secular culture makes every effort it can to take over church culture. After all, secular culture turns the birth of the Messiah, the in-breaking of God, into a buying spree while at the same time claiming there is a war on Christmas. Whose staffing that war? The buyers? After all, when we the last time instead you heard somebody say ‘Have a blessed Advent filled with all the hope, peace, love and joy remembering that God is present to us’?”
BENEDICTION: Let us be present to one another as we go from this place. Let us share our gifts, our hopes, our memories, our pain and our joy. Let us go in joy for God knows every fiber of our being. Let us go in hope for God reveals to us, daily, that we are a part of God’s new creation. Let us go in love, for we rest assured, by Christ, Jesus, that the love of God is steadfast. Let us go in peace for God is with us. Amen.