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Today we mark the beginning of a 40 day journey into the wilderness. While Jesus embarks on just such a time into the literal wilderness following his baptism by John, we as his disciples use these days leading up to Easter as a time for taking stock, seeking repentance for those places where we’ve missed the mark, and finding renewal. Jesus himself went out into the desert as the precursor to his ministry.

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Our lectionary committee gave us two options for the Hebrew scripture reading this morning. Whenever we encounter this when making the bulletin, I tell Anne to go with the top choice, which we did this week. Normally I don’t even read the second choice—it won’t be read at church, after all—but this week a commentator mentioned it in her reflection and my interest was piqued. So if you will humor me for the 30 or 40 seconds it’ll take, hear these words from Sirach.

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The prophet Micah imagines a court room this morning, with God taking the role of the plaintiff, the people of Israel the defendant, and the mountains and hills acting as the jury. God tells Israel that they need to give an accounting for what they have done so that the very foundations of the earth might hear it. And then God begins to plead the case: “O my people, what have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you? Answer me!”

Can you imagine a more harsh beginning? God asking the Israelites what God had done to cause them to view their interactions with God as tedious. What had God done to cause them to become bored in their spiritual lives?

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It was Alec Guinness, the British actor best known for his performances as Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars” and as Colonel Nicholson in “Bridge on the River Kwai,” who was put to the test by a Trappist monk.  “What do you think is the most difficult part of being a monk,” the guest-master asked Guinness during his extended stay at an abbey near Leicester, England.  Most, of course, would list off any number of the vows taken: chastity, obedience, poverty.  Not Guinness.  “Other monks,” he replied quickly.  He writes, “[The monk] gave me a long quizzical look… and said, with some solemnity, ‘Yes!’ I felt I had gone to the top of the class.”

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During my elementary school days at South River School, we were graded on our participation. For each subject listed on our report card—be it science or math or social studies—we’d get the grade we earned doing our homework and taking quizzes and completing projects, and then there’d be a grade listed for our participation during the school day. Were we engaged or just phoning it in? The idea was to help parents know that even if Johnny  os Susie was earning a C+ in a certain subject that they were in fact taking an active part in the class time as shown by the A- in participation. They weren’t just trying to silently soak it all in by osmosis, nor were they overly distracted by the world outside the classroom window.  They were present and active and engaged. They weren’t sitting on the sidelines.

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In July 2019 a Gallup/Populace survey of more than 5000 Americans probed the question: How do Americans define success? The respondents were asked it in two different ways: how do they think other Americans define success, and how do they define success for themselves. The hope was to tease out what might be seen as societal expectations when it comes to success, and if those same qualities held true in a person’s own life.

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Almighty One,
We give thanks to you for these scouts and for the years of hard work that have brought them to this day. We thank you for sustaining them through dozens of merit badges, from the obscure like Fingerprinting to the important like Emergency Preparedness.

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And we’re here. 

Sure, technically it’s the Fourth Sunday of Advent—and we have an entire week before we get to Christmas—but that’s not stopping our gospel lesson for the day from skipping ahead. It’s all there in the last sentence, Mary bears a son, and Joseph names him Jesus. Fini. Done. No manger. No shepherds. No singing angels. Matthew goes the minimalist route when it comes to that first Silent Night. (He will have much more to say come Epiphany, but that’s still 18 days away.)

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Every year at Advent it’s the same: we get two weeks of John the Baptist even though we’re drawing closer to Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph’s story won’t show up until next week on the Fourth Sunday of Advent getting short shrift, so we’ll have to wait until then to talk about angels and annunciations and the like. This year in our readings from Matthew rather than a second dose of John by the River Jordan, we encounter the Baptizer in jail. Last week he was proclaiming with conviction that we needed to prepare the way of the Lord because one was coming who was more powerful than John himself. In fact, John said that he wouldn’t even be worthy enough to carry the sandals of this one who would appear with both winnowing fork and fire in order to set things straight. 

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