Are These But Shadows?

Sermon #4 in the Dickens of An Advent Series (Sermons 1, 2, and 3).  Primary Scripture: Luke 3:1-17

I started this week as I have the last few weeks, climbing into my car, plugging my phone into the speakers and listening to a portion of A Christmas Carol. As Tim Curry’s rich baritone voice filled my car this Monday morning, and I thought ahead to what would be happening in Stave 4, I had one of those “maybe this wasn’t such an excellent plan” moments.

On paper, this series looked quite practical: 4 Sundays of Advent – 4 visitations. And then Scrooge’s new-found understanding of the meaning of Christmas would fit perfectly with our celebratory Sunday just after Christmas.

But now, here we are, almost at the climax of the holiday season, surrounded by mounds of presents wrapped in brightly colored paper, more and more houses twinkling with lights, parties and music and kids out of school….

Just four more sleeps until Christmas Eve, when we gather to mark the birth of the baby Jesus….

And here we are scheduled to spend time with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the one whose description is all too similar to the cloaked and hooded Grim Reaper, just without the scythe.

The one Spirit that doesn’t speak, who merely points in ominous silence.

Seriously, it took a fair amount of willpower not to do a little mash-up and use mostly stave 5. Throughout the chapter, I found myself tempted to fast forward.

Can’t we just get Scrooge over to Bob’s house to hear about Tiny Tim and learn his lesson?

And why does Dickens use so many extra words to describe the men who talk so callously about the funeral?

I knew how the conversation was going to go at Old Joe’s, but I had kind of forgotten the couple trying to figure out how to suppress their joy at a reprieve from foreclosure because it felt wrong to celebrate a man’s death, no matter how odious he happens to be.

I had also forgotten about Scrooge not being able to look at himself… not being able to pull back the sheet from the dead man’s face. About Scrooge not recognizing his own bed chamber because it had become a place filled with mortality. A tomb. As silent as the Spirit that escorted him.

As I wrote this and even standing here right now, I have the uneasy feeling that we’re all ready to just move along. Perhaps because we’ve each had sufficient dealings of our own with death this past year, fueling the desire to move past the sorrow, past the pain and into being happy or “ok” or “normal” again.

The good news is that I’ve felt this before.

We’ve all felt this before.  

This feeling is a close cousin of the desire to move right on from Maundy Thursday’s foot-washing to Easter Sunday’s shouts of “He is Risen Indeed!”  All without the Good Friday denials and shame and pain. Or the centurions gambling over the cloak of Jesus. Or sitting vigil through Holy Saturday,

So… as I do every year during Holy Week, this week I took a deep breath, and like good old Ebeneezer Scrooge, said, “I am prepared to bear your company and to do it with a thankful heart.”

This final excursion for Scrooge is the shortest, in terms of travel. They stayed within the confines of London. And because this particular Spirit does not speak, Scrooge was the one to interpret all that he sees.

Having visited his past, he knows that his own choices, as well as the decisions made by others, had an influence on his present state of mind and character. And he understands – at least a little better –  that the choices he makes in the present have ripple effects into the lives of others around him, perhaps even to his own detriment.

So it makes sense that he would ask, on seeing his own grave and the cold, lonely circumstances of his death, “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of what May be only?”  

Thinking back to Marley’s reasons for setting these events in motion, we can be reasonably certain of the answer.

When Scrooge asked of the Spirit “Am I that man who lay upon the bed?” fully aware at last of the fruit of his sins of selfishness, greed and idolatry, I couldn’t help but hear echoes of Nathan telling David “You are that man” in order to reveal many of the same sins.

And like David, Scrooge at last comes to terms with who he has been, who he is, and who he is capable of being. He cries out for mercy, hoping the chance to live with the past, present, and future in mind will lead to a different outcome.  And he waits for an answer.

And we must wait as well… for the answer to come in stave 5

You know, when prophets declare the word of the Lord and offer God’s descriptions of the future… for better or worse… they are but shadows. Generally, they are not descriptions of the things that must be or even the things that will be, but the things that might be.  Because often, the will, might or must of the outcome is contingent upon how humanity – particularly the children of Israel, the people of God – respond to the will of God.

Over and over again, across generations, God has made clear what is required of those who would seek mercy or justice or solace from the Lord.  God expects us to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our Lord.  Whenever the people chose injustice, arrogance and independence, God’s favor waned.  But God’s presence was constant. Even when humans could not, God kept covenant.

By the time we get to John baptizing and preaching out in the wilderness, he is doing the work described in  Isaiah, the road construction passage, in fact. God’s call to the people to get ready – to raise up the valleys, lower the mountains and make straight the pathway on which God’s glory would come into the world.

What must we do, ask the people who come to the Jordan to hear him. They want to know – Are you serious about preparing the way for the Lord? Is God coming?
These things you describe this glory and power- are they but shadows of what May be?
Or are they the things that Will be?

Here’s what you must do, says John…
Bear fruits worthy of repentance.
Don’t talk about who you have been, where you come from, how you are already part of the family.
God doesn’t need people who lay claim to faith by way of those who came before, but people who make clear that they are part of the family by their actions.
More specifically, he says, If you have coats or food enough to share – look around, see who doesn’t have enough. If you work with money or have power over others, be honest and fair.

Yet again, God’s call is to Justice. Kindness. Honesty.  In other words, love the people in front of you.  

John makes clear that he is not the messiah.  He knows his role is to point to the one who is coming. Not silently pointing, like the Ghost. No – John uses words to prepare the way for Jesus. He invites the people into the waters of baptism, into the hard work of repentance. Not least because the coming Messiah would soon be baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with Fire, burning away the chaff and gathering in the wheat.

John was bringing good news to the people through his exhortations- Like the prophet Zephaniah who encouraged the people of Zion to sing aloud and shout.

Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.
The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.

I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.

Sing! Shout!  Do not fear!
And do not let your hands grow weak For there is work to be done in the waiting.

Each advent, we wait for the coming of the Christ child.  Knowing of course that the child grew to be the man of whom John spoke, and that he suffered and died, then rose again.
We await the coming of the Christ child year after year as a reminder that until he comes again, we live in a world that is still far too acquainted with death and far too attached to sin. We celebrate his first coming so that we might all the more eagerly anticipate the second.

There is work to be done in our waiting, too. Doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.

Because that is how the glory of the Lord will be made known. How the Kingdom as it will be might be seen in this time. A kingdom in which the rule of love guides the actions of all within. Where the prince of peace reigns.

In the past few weeks, we’ve created a couple of chains together – one with links representing the sins we needed to confess and one with snowpeople representing relationships for which we gave thanks and over which we prayed.

I’d like us to create one more chain this week, this one representing the work that we are called to do, the life and love that we can bring to a world that is steeping in loneliness, death and despair.

On these holly leaves, write an act of kindness, justice or mercy that you will be part of in the coming weeks, whether as part of this community, as a family or neighborhood activity or just on your own. These acts might be simple – or complicated, large or small, but I want them to be true.  something you can  and will do.

I’ll pray for us as we gather these in…


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