December 17, 2017 Sermon

Third Sunday of Advent, December 17, 2017, Lectionary B


The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr. Rector                                       Scripture: John 1:6-8, 19-28


Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:30




Let us pray.  Gracious Father, send forth the Holy Spirit to lead us into increasingly frequent encounters with you, so that we may be sent to testify to your love for us and others through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever.  Amen.


My summer jobs, during my high school and college years, might have been a bit out of the ordinary.  One summer I worked for a veterinarian in Montgomery, AL. That was the first time I saw an animal euthanized, not knowing that one day, two weeks ago, I would see my own cat, Mot, likewise put to sleep.  For two summers I worked in Brooklyn, NY as a research assistant, studying ESP, specifically clairvoyance.  Needless to say, the people I met and the things I saw were a bit out of the ordinary.


For two other summers in Montgomery I worked in a psychiatric unit. Yes, the people there were also a bit out of the ordinary—the nursing staff, perhaps, even more so. As young as I was then, eighteen years old, I assisted the doctors and nurses in giving shock treatments.  I would apply a conductive jell to the electrodes, place them above the temples of the patient, and the psychiatrist would push the button, releasing the electrical charge that coursed through the frontal area of the patient’s brain.


The patient would immediately go into seizures while I quickly placed an airway into his or her mouth, so that an oxygen mask could be applied for a brief duration. If you have seen the movie, “Cuckoo Nest”, staring Jack Nicholson, then you have some idea of what this looks like.  Though the procedure sounds primitive, I personally witnessed its efficacy. I recall one woman who was brought to the unit. She was totally catatonic, literally curled up into a fetal position.  After one treatment, she came out of it and acted as normally, as any of us do.              Now there are two names for this treatment.  One is electro-convulsive treatment or ECT, and the other name is quite similar and is called electro-shock treatment or EST.


The title of this sermon is EST.  However, I want to change what each letter stands for in the psychiatric context to the following:  E stands for encounter; S stands for sent, and T stands for testimony.  In other words, EST, encounter, sent, and testimony will be the three big ideas through which we will look at this morning’s gospel from St. John.


You may have noticed that the reading from John’s gospel is a little different than what we normally hear.  It left out the first five powerful verses with which we are so familiar.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”  The lectionary reading for today left out those five verses and instead began with “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.”


This morning’s gospel rather than beginning with the heavenly begins with the earthly: there was a man.  John’s gospel begins by speaking about God and now in today’s reading it is speaking about the man, John the Baptist.  If we were to look for a biblical parallel, we would recall that the first book of the Bible, Genesis, begins in a similar way.  It starts out talking about God and transitions to talking about the man, Adam.  In other words, John’s gospel is now talking about humanity, about you and me.  Of course, Jesus being born as a man will make the incarnational leap between God and man, but that is for a different discussion.


This brings us to the first letter of EST—encounter.  What do we know of this man named John, not the apostle, but the Baptist?  The first thing we learn about him is that he was a man sent from God.  Now, if you are thinking, “Well, that is the S of sent coming before the E of encounter, then we need to pause and as a way of introduction, listen to something written by a man name Scott.


He writes that: “I used to be a slacker, alcoholic, atheist. I grew up with no god. I didn’t care and didn’t want a god. Religion and god seemed like a crutch for the weak and fearful who needed some assurance in their life. I was into clubbing (raving at the time) and only needed some good weed, pills, and dope. I started running into people telling me I needed Jesus. Some invited me to Bible studies and church events and whatnot. I was not interested whatsoever. Late one night I saw a show about a gangbanger who had a real life encounter with Jesus Christ that turned his life around.


I somehow got mad and curious at the same time and prayed my first real prayer ever. Right there, by myself in my apartment, I yelled in prayer for God to ‘show himself’ if he was real. Nothing happened. I was convinced there was no God more than ever. But, a few months later after many more invites by Christians to churches and stuff, something happened. In my apartment, in the very same room where I had prayed just months earlier, God showed up!     I had an experience with Jesus Christ that I will never forget. I had never felt such wonderful love and peace come over me and I began crying like a baby. It was like nothing I’ve ever known. The next day I ran into a guy who told me he was a dealer and his girl was a stripper, but Jesus turned their lives around. He invited me to church, so I went. When I was there, I asked Jesus to take my life and make of it what he could. I experienced a whole new change!”


We don’t read about John’s encounter with God before he met Jesus.  It is unlikely that it was anything like Scott’s.  We do know that even in John’s mother’s womb God the Spirit was with him.  “When Elizabeth (John the Baptist’s mother) heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41).


In other words, we need an encounter with God to start a relationship with Him. Encounters are not just a bonus to our spiritual life, rather they are necessary. Have you ever just “connected” with somebody? Whether it’s a good friend or spouse, you just “clicked” when you first met them. That is similar to what happens with God. We have the initial connection with God, which is a legitimate “encounter” no matter how subtle it may be.


We don’t discredit these experiences.  If we don’t see flashes of lightning or hear the audible voice of God, that doesn’t mean we haven’t encountered Him. Like many people initially do, we may think it’s just our imagination, but it’s not. We may not know how to respond yet, but God is planting a seed in our hearts. This seed is the beginning of something beautiful.


The point is without a God/Jesus/Spirit encounter there is no S, there is no sending.  This is biblical.  When we look at the greats of the Old Testament this paradigm of encounter-sent is quite evident.  Think of the patriarch, Abraham.  We read in Genesis 12:1: “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you.’” Abram’s name was subsequently changed to Abraham.  For Abraham the encounter and sending are one and the same.


Moses certainly comes to mind.  Recall that Moses encounters God in the burning bush, atop Mt. Sinai.  In the encounter God sends Moses to set free His people, enslaved to the Egyptians.  King David similarly encounters God through the Holy Spirit, and is, of course, sent to be king over God’s people. The various prophets in the Old Testament all have an encounter with God and are sent to call God’s people to repentance.


The prophet Isaiah describes his encounter/sending in this manner: In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. 2 Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory” (Isaiah 6:1-3).  The prophet Ezekiel records his encounter in this way: “Now it came about in the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, while I was by the river Chebar among the exiles, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God” (Ezekiel 1:1).


Regardless of the nature of our encounter with God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit it means that we are sent.  Sent to do what, we may ask.  Returning to the gospel and John the Baptist, we see that: “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”  In other words, we have finally arrived at the T of EST.  John, who had an encounter E (probably many encounters) with God, was sent S to testify T to the light—EST, encounter, sent, testify.  To what was John sent to testify?  He was sent to testify to Jesus, whom, as we heard, John describe in this manner: “I am not the Messiah. [. . .] ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’”  


In a court of law the word testify means to tell what we have seen, heard, or experienced.  We testify all the time without necessarily realizing it.  When Emily and I were driving back on Wednesday of this past week from Birmingham we can testify that there were a number of pine trees along I-20 which had fallen because of the weight of the snow. (Eleven inches had fallen.)  Having recently experienced the death of my cat, Mot, whom we had for fifteen years plus, I can testify that it has been a most painful experience.  I am still grieving.  Many of you know how I feel.


When we testify about God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, we share our real life experiences.  Sometimes those experiences are extraordinary and sometimes they are quite simple.  Hungering for God, for Jesus, for the Holy Spirit will lead to that encounter and subsequent sending and testifying.


We read in Jeremiah 29:13, “You will seek me and you will find me when you search for me with all your heart.”  Encounters with God should not be a once in a lifetime phenomenon for us.  For an unbeliever, or somebody who is “seeking” for God, that person needs to know that God is closer than might be believed. “The LORD is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth” (Psalm 145:18).  “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).


The saints throughout the Bible were humble in their seeking after God. They prayed earnestly with reverence to Him. God consistently met them where they were and encountered them. He launched them into extraordinary lives. The same is true today! God still moves in this way.


It was afternoon. I was no more than four or five. My family and I had gone to my grandparents for Christmas Eve.  I stood in miniature among the adults, awed by the excitement–the bustle of Christmas.  Presents were distributed.  Suddenly, there stood before me a thin, silver-haired man in a navy blue suit.  Had I met him?  To my surprise he handed me a gift–this stranger.  He was my step-great grandfather; I later learned.  As I opened the present, my heart lurched. This stranger had given me exactly what I dearly wanted.  It was the perfect gift.  My heart was deeply touched by this special teddy bear for which I had longed, as only a child could.


How else could the experience be described?  It was a love-gift from a man, unknown to me.  Oh sure, my mother might have told my great grandfather what I wanted.  She might even have bought it for him to give to me.  Even so, the graciousness of the gift coming from his hands was and is nonetheless just that–a grace moment when the core of one’s being is profoundly touched because one’s deepest being had received that perfect gift.


So, it is here again–Christmas or at least the preparations for it. Houses and trees have borne an unnatural fruit, twinkling, blinking many colored lights. Glitter and gaudy show no modesty. Santa and Jesus seem to have curiously partnered—ho, ho, ho-lelujah. Wounded trees flutter, strapped atop cars. Reindeer stand frozen in their tracks; snowmen glad they’re weather proof.  Jingle Bells, but where’s the silent night?


And once again, the madness of shopping has grasped us its in its dollar-squeezing, credit-maxing vice. Check the list twice.  Who is good or nice?  Never mind, it is the thought that counts, but what did they give me last year?  It is so hard to find a gift for those who have everything.  What is the newest tech gadget?  Perhaps, they have left a wish list, the latest gimmick in this year’s merchandising.


Yes, Christmas is coming. We will make it, survive it, somehow. And, what of that special gift we have always wanted. We had thought it was a car, a ring, a necklace, a smart phone, or a new computer. Did they touch our hearts? Were we left with that hollow feeling of too much, but not enough?  What is missing?  The family was there.  The children got their toys.


Jesus came to us as a child.  He is the Christ in Christmas.  He is that perfect gift sent by God, the silver-haired man, if you like.  He came not only to touch our hearts, but to change them, to fill them, to restore them, and to give us hope.  God loves us.  He loves us so much that He became a miniature among us, so that in that gift and later that man, not under the tree but on it, we would come to realize what/who would make us whole, alive, and loving.


Christmas, which we will celebrate in a week, is about God in Jesus coming to encounter us where we live in the everyday.  Each of us has had some share in that encounter.  Because of that, we are sent, you and I.  We are sent to testify that God in Jesus is not only real, but loves us beyond our imagining.  He is that perfect gift to which we testify.                   


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.