The narrative of the book of Nehemiah focuses on the return of the Babylonian exiles to Jerusalem in order to rebuild their city and to fully restore their worship of the living God. They found the fortress in ruins, and had an extensive amount of work to do. But the ones who returned had faced hardship before. They had lived in exile, under the tyranny of a king who didn’t understand them or their history. They needed to learn a new language, how to cook with new foods. They didn’t have the anchor of the temple for their faith. They only had their memories.
At the beginning of our year long Confirmation program, I ask confirmands and their mentors to think about their baptisms. With rare exception, none of them were old enough to recall any details of that day. They’ll have seen the pictures, of course. They might know if they slept through it all, our screamed their heads off. They likely know who was there—beloved relatives and godparents. I ask them to think about how they might tell the story of their baptisms if they were reporting it. And then we hear some of those stories. Like the gowns that have been passed down, or how they got baptized with a sibling, or how it took place at the Easter Vigil or on All Saints’ Day.
Melissa and I collect nativity scenes that we pull out each Advent. There’s the one I inherited from my parents with a handmade stable and hand-painted tall figurines. My aunt and uncle gave it to my parents over 40 years ago now. Melissa has one from the region of Provence in France with small figurines called “santons” which include local villagers along with the shepherds and magi as they come to worship the newborn king. We have a set originally crafted in Mexico that we found in a second hand shop in Quebec City. And there’s the one I bought in Tanzania after climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro made primarily from sticks and corn husks. In addition to the ones with figurines, we have smaller items depicting scenes from the Christmas story, including this small one created from wooden puzzle pieces that Noah will put up on the screen. We got it from a fair trade shop in Boston.
In the traditional stories of the Nativity, Matthew and Luke give vivid description of Jesus’ birth. We are told how Mary and Joseph made their way to Bethlehem, and there was no room for them in the Inn. We hear of angels coming to sing to the shepherds with God’s glory shining bright, and the shepherds finding the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. We learn of the star that appeared in the night sky signifying Jesus’ birth and how the magi traveled great distances over the course of two years all the way to Bethlehem to worship the young king. In these narratives, images of light play important roles.
Our Gospeler Luke begins his nativity story with these words, “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.” You can imagine the outcry that went up when each family received their official notice in the mail. “What sort of harebrained scheme is this?” they asked each other as they gathered in the market place or at the local watering hole or with their neighbors as their kids played together. They groused and complained and raised their fists and cursed. And they knew exactly how they would respond. Each of them would check in with the local officials if they could do so, and if not, they’d make the journey to wherever they were told to go.
Often during the run up to Christmas, I listen to the “Charlie Brown Christmas” Album by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. It’s largely instrumental—it’s the background music as Chuck, Linus, Snoopy, and the gang navigate the Christmas season—so I don’t become too distracted as it plays while I work. There’s the more upbeat “Skating” track that evokes joy as the Peanuts kids go out to their local pond for an afternoon of delight.
I’ve been ordained for over 17 years now, and I still think that somehow we’ll get a different gospel reading on the Third Sunday of Advent instead of a second dose of John the Baptist. And every year I am wrong. We gather to light the third candle of our Advent wreath—the pink one!—signifying our great joy expressed in our other lessons with the word, “Rejoice!” And then John leaps up from the wilderness and exclaims, “Repent!” It boggles the mind, and feels like a bit of ecclesiastical whiplash. Is it “Rejoice!” or “Repent”? And why is this the message of the third Sunday of Advent, when we’re now less than two weeks from the manger scene?
And so a New Year begins.
The new year of the Church comes in with the beginning of Advent and its four Sundays until Christmas Day. We turn the calendar and start a new set of readings for our worship together. We pull out the purple hangings for the church to remind us that we prepare for the Lord’s Coming. We watch and we wait as best we can as we do all the things we do to make Christmas Christmas. And so it begins.
Jesus and his disciples have journeyed to Jerusalem. What our reading really doesn’t say is that the gospel story takes place during Holy Week. Jesus has come to Jerusalem after healing blind Bartimaeus by the side of the road just outside Jericho, and he won’t be leaving. After driving out of the temple the money changers and the ones selling animals to the pilgrims in town for the Passover, the leaders want to trap him with technical theological and political questions. They want him to slip up. So that’s what they’ve been doing all afternoon, when one of the scribes—a lawyer and scholar—heard Jesus and his adversaries go back and forth. The scribe hears the way Jesus fended off his inquisitors and is impressed. So he asks Jesus a question not to test him, but because he really wants to hear what Jesus has to say: “Which commandment is first of all?”
Three weeks ago I began a sermon series on the Genesis 1 Creation account introducing the idea of zimzum to you. Building on the Jewish mystical understanding, zimzum describes how God’s first act in creation was to become humble, and withdraw within God’s self in order to make the space for all of creation to emerge. God limited God’s self in love, took on the posture of a servant, and then spoke the universe into existence in the womb like space within God’s self. And God decided not just to create a few choice things. Rather, God imagined and spoke into being billions of stars and creatures and vegetation and finally humankind. Humanity was formed in the image and likeness of God—all of us, not just one gender or color. Last week I suggested that we most fully bear God’s image when we embrace zimzum ourselves, making space in our lives for God, others, and all of creation. We too can take on the self-giving humility and love that God did and become most fully who God created us to be as we live in community.