On Shining the Light
December 5, 2021
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.
Luke 3: 2-6
…during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Today’s sermon is titled On Shining the Light. Like anyone’s work week, mine is fairly structured. There are things I must accomplish on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in order to be ready to compose the sermon on Thursday. In fact, I will not allow myself to go to bed Wednesday night until the sermon is, at the very least, outlined in my head and I have a clear idea about how to begin. Sometimes my idea about how to begin changes, though. Sometimes it happens in the middle of the night and sometimes it happens first thing the next morning. Today I woke up thinking about Rosa Parks and I honestly could not figure out why, exactly. I already had a plan for how to begin this sermon, but the more I thought about Rosa Parks, I realized that the best way to begin is with her story.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I went to do some preliminary research about her and the very first headline I found said, “Rosa Parks Refuses to Move: On this day, December 1. Are you kidding me? Yesterday was the anniversary of this historic event! What are the chances? Friends, I tell you, things like this deepen my faith in God immeasurably. And people like Rosa Parks, and John, that we read about in our scriptures for today, ones that shine the light for us, they deepen my faith in humanity and in what is possible for us as a human race if we are willing to take the risks.
On December 1st, in 1955, Rosa Parks climbed up the stairs of the Cleveland Avenue bus in downtown Montgomery, Alabama. She took the same bus home every day after a long day’s work bent over her sewing, and up and down off the floor penning hems in ladies’ dresses and skirts. Rosa went to the “Colored Section” located in the rear half of the bus and sat down in the first row. As more and more people boarded the bus, the “White Section” up front filled and there were white people standing in the aisle so the bus driver asked everyone to move further back to make more room in the front for the white passengers. “In a spontaneous act of nonviolent resistance, she quietly refused.”*
Here are her words: “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”*
“Rosa Parks was arrested and convicted for violating the Montgomery City Code. She appealed her conviction, and in doing so, directly challenged the legality of segregation law.”* We know that her story was a pivotal point in the Civil Rights movement. It sparked the idea of the Montgomery bus boycott that lasted over a year and inspired countless other non-violent protests. In her simple refusal to be pushed back, Rosa Parks took a great risk to shine a bright light on the innumerable indignities suffered by black Americans on a daily basis. Rosa Parks prepared the way for a major movement in America that continues to this day. God bless us in our efforts towards equal justice for all people.
We go back in time now, almost two thousand years, to the banks of the Jordan river where we meet John. He is often referred to as John the Baptist. John is the son of Zechariah, the priest we heard about last week, who was struck dumb in the temple for talking back to the angel Gabriel. Remember? The angel appeared and told Zechariah that even in his advanced age, he would soon father a son and the son’s name should be John. For doubting the angel, Zechariah was unable to speak for ten months. It was the day of his baby boy’s circumcision ceremony, when Zechariah agreed to name the baby John, that he was suddenly able to speak once more.
It was just three months later that Jesus was born into the same family. John was Jesus’s first cousin once removed (I had to look that up). I like to imagine that John and Jesus grew up with one another. What we know about John is that he was raised the only son of the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. John would have been educated in the priestly caste even though their district, Abijah, was the poorest in all the land. Some scholars theorize that John joined the Essene Community but grew disillusioned with the inward focus of the community. The Essenes were focused on preparing for the coming of the Messiah, so much so that they became reclusive. This was not John’s style at all. John was all about preparing the way for the Messiah but he felt like the people were not ready. Listen to what is written in the very next verse that follows our reading for today (verse 7-8). “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none and whoever has food must do likewise…[you tax collectors] collect no more than the amount prescribed for you…[you soldiers] do not extort money by threats or false accusations.”
John was telling the people to get it together. He was offering the ritual of baptism as a chance for the people to renew their commitment to righteous living, to love and care for their neighbors, and to seek justice for all people. Like Rosa Parks, John was preparing the way for a new paradigm to take shape. Without the work of John, Jesus’s teachings would not have been as effective. Without Rosa Parks, we may not be where we are today.
Friends, we have a long way to go fully realize the just society that our founding fathers and mothers imagined as the first democracy in the world was being constructed here in New England. And we have a long way to go to fully realize the kingdom of God that both John and Jesus imagined for their people. The question for us, here and now, is this: How are we preparing the way? What do we see lacking in our culture and what are we doing in our own lives, in our own relationships to fill that lack? What are we, to borrow the words of Rosa Parks, what are we tired of giving in to and what are we willing to do about it? How are we preparing the way?
In closing, as we enter the second week of Advent, carrying the themes of hope and peace, I leave you with this. To maintain hope and to achieve real and lasting peace, we must be engaged in some struggle to bring it about. So, Friends, I urge you to consider either taking up work on an issue you care about or taking the next step in work you are already doing. It can be in care of self, it can be taking steps to mend a strained or broken relationship, it can be participating in community organizing around social issues like affordable housing or racial justice. Start small and dream big, Friends. We are all preparing the way for something; let’s make sure we’re shining the light for something wonderful and beneficial for humankind. It begins one person at a time. One Rosa Parks, one John, one me and one you. So be it. May all our efforts be blessed. Amen.
Prayer Requests and Pastoral Prayer
God of Love and Light, I thank you for filling so many of our needs. Help us to be grateful for the ways we are fulfilled and strengthen us to attend to the aspects of our lives that need healing and care. If there are those we need to forgive, please give us the words we need; if we are desiring forgiveness, empower us to ask and especially to receive. For those who are ailing, Lord, we pray for comfort. For those facing death we pray for peace and assurance. As individuals, teach us to care for ourselves so that we are making choices from a foundation of fullness. As communities, teach us to extend ourselves to those who we tend to avoid. As a nation, teach us that our greatness is most accurately measured by our kindness to the least among us, as Jesus Christ so humbly exemplified. If ever we are in need of direction, turn our minds to this prayer, that Jesus gave his disciples so long ago…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
Benediction: I leave you with these words from the book of Philippians, chapter one. “This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best.”