Last week, people across the country were shocked to hear the news about the death of Kobe Bryant. It was one of those moments where people from all different stripes were united in shock and grief. He was extremely widely known—even I knew who Kobe was, and I don’t keep up with sports. There was an outpouring of mourning, people naming how he’d captured imaginations, people lifting up prayers for his family.
And then there was another reaction that came about. I started seeing it on Facebook that many people were taking the opportunity to name people who weren’t recognized by the news who had experienced tragedy. Names of people who weren’t famous but were no less tragic of losses. Now, we should never shame people for who they grieve. But the very widespread and unified grief around Kobe has shown up in other famous people as well—David Bowie, Carrie Fisher, Robin Williams, Prince, and others. Society has a way of showing who is considered important.
You’ve got to love some of Paul’s words. In the midst of arguing that the Corinthians should remember that they are Christ’s and not part of some faction, he points them to the fact that the gospel—the good news of God’s salvation!—is foolishness to the world. When he first brought the gospel to this community, Paul was insistent that he didn’t use the flowery, incisive, over-the-top rhetoric of the day to convince them, but instead let the gospel speak for itself. And to most people, this message that Paul was giving sounded like foolishness. The community around the Corinthian church saw what they were doing and saw it through the eyes of people who don’t understand. What he said then is just as true now.
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It’s said that the best form of advertising is word of mouth, and I think we all know why. After all, how did you find your mechanic? And how often do you try a new restaurant that none of your friends recommend? When someone we trust points us in a direction, we trust they’re looking out for us. I tend to trust that people around me are more experienced in basically everything, so I really value the recommendations of others. And you can’t get a much more forceful recommendation than John the Baptist made for his disciples to look to Jesus.
The other weekend, Annie and I went to see the new Star Wars movie. It’s the last of the series of movies that have been grouped into three trilogies, and this final trilogy follows the main character, Rey, in her discovery of her force powers, her calling as a Jedi, and how she saves the galaxy from evil—more or less. But a huge part of this otherwise massively heroic plotline is Rey’s search for her parents.
Now, I’ll skip over the specifics in case anyone hasn’t seen it yet and doesn’t want any spoilers, but the discovery of her identity—her lineage, her parents, who she is—has a major impact on her. Being able to name who she is, being able to define that identity, also helps shape who she’ll become, what her destiny will look like, how her actions are shaped. Identity, being able to name who we are, matters. And it matters more than just what you call yourself.
There’s something about this time of year that makes us want to hold on to Christmas just a little bit longer. At exactly the stroke of midnight on December 26th, all the radio stations that had been playing Christmas carols non-stop since November suddenly go back to their regular programming. The decorations come down. The glittering lights disappear, and it feels like the magic just up and disappears.
But in the church, we keep it up just a little while longer. We celebrate Christmas as a whole twelve-day thing, continuing our carols and the joy and the hope of the season. We linger just a little bit longer at the manger. We hope for just a little more time with the innocence and wonder of the Christ child. So this reading from Matthew is quite an unwelcome contrast, I suspect.
One of my favorite things during the Christmas season is seeing the creative ways that people decorate their homes for the season. Growing up we would put ice sickle lights along the roofline and wreaths on the doors, but this year we didn’t get a ladder in time to put up lights. But many other people did decorate—and there are some really good ones. And one piece that’s nice to see is the nativity scene. I’ve seen quite a few in yards, in front of churches, and even the one that’s out in East End Park in Ellsworth.
And these nativity scenes are just one of the ways that we put the story of Jesus’ birth into art. We condense the Christmas story into a scene of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and their sheep, the wise men, oxen, donkeys, and of course the baby Jesus all huddled under a makeshift stable. Paintings of the birth follow the pattern, and everyone always looks so serene and holy and, well, clean.
Over the last few weeks in Advent, we’ve been reading these texts that talk about the coming of the kingdom. Isaiah spoke of a vision for the end when he let God’s imagination show him a world without the evils of war. John the Baptist shouted about bearing good fruit, worthy of repentance, to set the world right. And Jesus reminded us last week to look and listen for the signs of the kingdom: miracles of healing, wholeness, peace, and life. And this week, Joseph has a dream to fulfill Isaiah’s vision of God-with-us.
We’re familiar with the story. Joseph, who is betrothed to Mary, discovers that she is pregnant. That leaves Joseph with really only one logical reason that this could be: Mary has been unfaithful to him. His plan is to dismiss her quietly. I think that’s important to note: the quietly part. Joseph is a genuinely good man. He doesn’t want to disgrace Mary or her family by publicly humiliating them. But he’s also a man of his time, and he doesn’t see bearing the shame of a wife who is already pregnant.
December seems to last forever when you’re a child. All the anticipation, the carols ringing on every radio, the hope for gifts, the holiday get-togethers, seeing relatives and friends, and of course just the sheer weight of waiting all make the month last forever. There’s so much buildup and you’re so looking forward to Christmas that time seems to stretch out in front of you and Christmas seems like it’ll never get here. And, I think, at least part of it is that time simply goes by more slowly when you’re younger.
So when we’re in this season of Advent, we’re in a season of waiting. We keep hearing that. I keep saying it. Our prayers keep repeating it. And we’ve been waiting. We’ve been waiting for 2,000 years. Jesus is supposed to arrive riding the clouds and finishing the new creation any day now. But…like…where is he? What’s taking so long? We trust that he’s coming like he said he would, but this is taking a long time. And maybe, just maybe, that waiting lifts up a bit of doubt--
Which is where John the Baptist finds himself in today’s reading.
Matthew 3:1-12, Isaiah 11:1-10
Back when I was little and we lived in Virginia, our neighbors had a fig tree. It grew right next to the fence, and every summer we would be allowed to pick the fruit whenever we felt like it, because there were way too many figs growing on that tree for the three people next door to eat. I remember, as a kid who grew up in a neighborhood far from farms of any kind, how special that tree was because of how it magically made food.
And then there were these other trees in our backyard. Big, tall pine trees that dropped their own kind of fruit. The fruit they had were these hard, round, spiky balls we called “gumballs”—a name I still am not sure if it was real or just what we called them. They dropped every time a stiff breeze came by, and most of the backyard would be covered in them to the point that running barefoot was like running through a minefield.
Even as a child, I could tell what good fruit looked like.
Friends, it is the last week before everything becomes Christmas everywhere. This Thursday we’ll gather around family and friends to eat turkey and cranberry sauce and stuffing and whatever other Thanksgiving delights you enjoy, and Friday it’ll be lights and holly and carols until December 25. Which, really, is a little exciting for me, because we get to celebrate our first Christmas season with Hazel! We get to put up lights on the house, and decorate the tree, and do all the things that make the season exciting and wonderful.
So with all that to look forward to, what is up with this text? Today is Christ the King Sunday, where we finish off the church year by honoring Jesus as king, and we read about Jesus on the cross. Honestly, there are a lot of other texts I think would be appropriate for naming Jesus as King. The Wise Men bringing gifts from far away. The transfiguration. The triumphal procession into Jerusalem on a donkey maybe. Something more…kingly. But instead, we get this Good Friday text just as we’re about to enter Advent.