I want to tell you an advent story, a story from when I was a little boy — maybe seven or eight years old. We were living in the Upper Perkiomen Valley of Pennsylvania — a little sliver that lies right between the Philadelphia Suburbs and the Lehigh Valley metro area. In the weeks before Christmas, all of the usual changes began. The Christmas tree went up. The record player (which was used only for Christmas albums) came out. My mother would bring out the ancient mixing bowls and measuring cups and buy bags of chocolate chips, walnuts and M&Ms to be baked into Christmas cookies. My father would bring up the special Lionel model trains to make their runs around the Christmas tree.
We would begin to spend more time in the car. Off to the malls in Quakertown and Allentown to buy Christmas clothes and presents. Visiting the grandparents, aunts and uncles: down to East Falls in Philly, and up to Tamaqua. Like many little boys, I was fascinated by roads and maps, and I read every road sign on each of these journeys.
Now, one night after dinner, my parents were casually talking about places we might like to travel to in the future. My father liked to drive and often took us on short trips to various sites around the eastern part of the state. And I was excited, because I actually had something that I could contribute: what I thought (in my innocence) was a good suggestion. So I proudly chimed in: “Why don’t we go to see the place where Jesus was born?”
When my parents pointed out that Jesus was born in a place that was very far away, I corrected them: “Jesus was born in Bethlehem. That’s on I-78. We pass the exit on the way to Grandmom and Grandpop’s house.”
I was unaware, of course, of the Moravian missionaries who settled in the Lehigh Valley in the mid 1700’s and founded Bethlehem (not to mention Nazareth and Emmaus). I had simply assumed that all of the stories of the Bible had actually happened a few exits up the Interstate. Why not?
My parents were undoubtedly correct about the correct geographic location of the nativity of Christ. For us Americans, the birthplace of Christ is as distant in space as it is distant in time. Bethlehem and Nazareth are both in that geographic blind spot we call the Middle East. Culturally, politically, that might as well be a different planet. And when the gospel dates this story in the “fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius,” — that, too, is hopelessly distant. A place and a time to which we can barely relate. Meaningless points on a map and on a historical timeline. A place that, even today, is separated from us by vast differences in culture, language, politics and tradition.
All of that is true. But there is a further truth.
There is the truth as seen through a child’s eyes, and mind, and heart. And that truth is that God is not as distant from us as the grown-ups believe. The truth, seen through the eyes of a child, is that Jesus is very close to us indeed.
All of the chasms of time and distance and culture and politics which divide and limit humanity do not limit God.
Remember that Jesus said that it is only those who become like little children who will enter the kingdom of heaven. Maybe that’s what the prophets mean when they tell us to “repent” and to “prepare the way of the Lord.” Maybe they are calling us to reject the notion that God is distant from us. And to reject the notion that the whole human family is destined to be fractured and separated. To reject the notion that the problems of the world cannot be solved, and that our differences are insurmountable. Maybe repentance means turning toward an understanding that God calls us into a close relationships — close to God, and close to one another. Maybe the prophets are calling us to look past everything in our lives that separates us from God and from one another — even if those divisions seem to be as immovable as mountains.
I am no longer a seven year old boy. Just like you, I’m an adult living in the present day. And Christmas is coming. Traffic is building up, and time is running out. Only a few shopping days remain. There is so much to do. More than ever, we have good reason to keep our focus on the present moment, on our own lives, on our own family, our own community, our own nation. But we are Christians. We hear the cry of the prophet in the wilderness. And we will hear the cry of the babe in Bethlehem. And we know that we must respond to those cries. Those events that happened two thousand years ago, and thousands more miles away, are still just as powerful right here and right now. God is still calling to us, right in this moment, right at this place. So let us repent, and see with the eyes of a child that the Kingdom of God is very near to us, and that there is work for us to do right here and right now.
And may the light of Christ lead us with joy to glory. Amen.
This sermon was preached by the Mr. Ryan Tobin at St. Stephen’s Cathedral on December 8-9, 2018, for the Second Sunday in Advent. The texts for the day, which can be found at this link, are:
- Baruch 5:1-9
- Philippians 1:3-11
- Luke 3:1-6