December 12, 2010
“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”
When cooks attending services in villages all over England would hear these words from the Collect of the Day, they would hurry home afterward to stir up the fruity batter that had been fermenting in their kitchens for weeks, the prime ingredient for their Christmas plum puddings and fruitcakes. Although the reading of this Collect used to occur in November, since 1979 it has fallen on this Sunday in December. The traditional English batter for Christmas puddings and cakes would be too thick by now to stir, but we still refer to this as “Stir Up Sunday.” How many sermons have been preached on Stir Up Sunday on what needs to be stirred up in our souls, to be prepared to receive what God is birthing among us at Christmas?
Years ago, Bishop Harold Robinson, retired bishop of Western New York, addressing the Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, told a story of a bike tour he and his wife took through the English countryside. They kept finding the most curious signs. One said simply, “This is a sign.” That was all. Another read: “Do not move this sign.”
These signs are comical because they have no purpose beyond themselves. A sign is meant to point beyond itself, or it has no meaning at all.
John the Baptist, restless, in the depths of Herod’s prison, no doubt convinced of his impending execution, begins to doubt, or at least to wonder, “Did I get it right?” John had never held back. His incendiary sermons and actions had been relentless, proclaiming the coming wrath of God and pointing to the one with far greater power, who was to come after him.
John is always portrayed in icons with his index finger raised, pointing away from himself, toward Christ: John the “pointer.”
But as John sat in the depths of his dark prison, what he knew of Jesus confused him. It didn’t conform to the message of repentance and the wrath to come that lay at the heart of the prophecy he had been sent to proclaim. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are YOU the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus’ response is plain and clear. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” These are all the signs foretold in the prophecy of Isaiah, signs of the “year of Jubilee,” of the inauguration of the kingdom of God among us.
Perhaps what John has forgotten for the moment, are the different roles to be played by him and Jesus.
John is the hinge on the door of the gateway into the Kingdom of God. John, we are told, is the greatest of all who have come before Jesus, but all who live in the Kingdom of Heaven, creation transformed by the life of God-with-us, will know fuller life and purpose than John. John is like the doorman, who opens the door and ushers the rest of us through, pointing the way to life more glorious than what we have yet dared to expect or imagine.
Consider that hinge on the gate into such fullness of life as somewhat rusted – stuck in place. It takes the force, the harshness of the message of John the Baptist, to bust that gate open. But what lies before those who pass through with Jesus is life of an entirely different quality and tone.
Life transformed – brand new! Not just a return to the “good old days,” but as St. Paul will declare, “Glory to God whose power working in us will do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine!”
We are so busy these last days of Advent leading up to Christmas Day, bringing out and setting up the decorations and traditional trappings of this beloved holiday season, intent on revisiting the warmth of Christmases past, that we are too often distracted from the profound wonder of what God is birthing among us.
John points not to the best of what has been, but to a world transformed, the very advent of the Kingdom of God.
The prophet Isaiah proclaims the vision of barren desert rejoicing and blossoming abundantly, with joy and singing! Weak hands being strengthened; fearful hearts given hope; waters breaking forth to create flowing streams in the desert; the way home through that desert being transformed into a broad and straight highway that even a fool can travel safely through.
How much do we dare hope about the gift being given us this Advent and Christmas? Are we looking for the best of what we’ve experienced before, or dare we look for more?
Today, John the Baptist stands among us still pointing. He is not pointing behind us, that we might return to the “good old days.” John points us toward a transformative future.
The great challenge facing our congregations today is not how to revive or resuscitate faith communities gone stale. The challenge facing us is to offer the church and the world fresh visions of a renewed and transformed world – the Kingdom of God drawn near to all of God’s children, all of God’s creation, and not just the “faithful.”
The Kingdom of God being revealed in the person of Jesus Christ is different. It is far more than we have yet imagined. And unless we are yearning in this moment to discover something brand new among us and before us, we are likely to miss the point of all this entirely.
John the Baptist stands among us this day pointing to life transformed in Jesus. May we awaken Christmas morning to the joy of opening up that life, unexpected, more than we had dared even ask for. And thereby, through our life together, that life will be given not to us alone, but to the whole world.
And that’s the kind of “stirring up” we can all use!
— The Rev. Steve Kelsey is a retired Episcopal priest, living with his family in Arizona. He is currently serving part time with a team of ministry developers among the Diné (Navajo people) in the Navajo Nation.