traditional sermon advent 2
If it is Advent, then it is time for a story. And if you have been with us at St. Peter’s for a while, you have heard a number of stories whose themes tie in with our Advent season. This year I will read again from my favorite resource … The Children of Christmas book by Cynthia Rylant. The story is entitled “Ballerina’s and Bears.” If that title sounds like the last thing one might associate with John the Baptist Sunday, then I would ask you to hang with me for a bit, and see if I can’t convince you otherwise. I’m going to suggest that the odd and crusty ol’ Baptist with his camelhair coat and grasshopper sandwiches is a perfect match with the pre-adolescent character we will meet in our story today. She lives on the streets of New York City … her name is Sylvia. Join me for a story …. would you, please?
New York is never relaxed about anything, not even Christmas Eve. When most other cities are hushed and drowsy, New York plows its way through Christmas Eve as it does all other nights – with hard jerks, with screams and groans, and with a tightness in the air. And on Christmas Eve in New York there are wanderers. Many of them have been wanderers for years and years. But still others are new at it. They are children. And on this night, when they should be curled into a soft warm chair with a cup of cocoa, thinking about the sweet delights of Christmas morning, instead they are on the streets walking, as usual, for there is no one to be with and nothing else to do. This Christmas Eve is a warmer one than most. There is no snow. So a young girl named Sylvia is out in the night.
Yes, little Sylvia wanders through a wilderness that is just as wild as the one through which John the Baptist wandered … even though they live half a world away from each other, with 2000 years of history between them. They share the experience of the wilderness, even though they are at vastly different places in their lives. John would be considered a middle-aged man at best, given the life expectancy in first century Palestine. Sylvia is just beginning her life. John’s wilderness is a natural one of hard ground and craggy rocks and scrub trees. Sylvia’s wilderness is defined by tall buildings and dark alleys and fast moving cars. And yet they share a similar compulsion … they are both searching for something in a hostile world … a something that may in fact turn out to be a someone.
Sylvia loves to walk. She has been walking at night since she was eight. What she has found out about walking is that it can bring her peace. When she waits for the walk light, she doesn’t think about a small apartment full of terrible silences and shadows in its corners. When she peers into store windows, she doesn’t think about the mother who is not in that apartment. When she searches the faces of other walkers, she doesn’t think about the bugs and the odors she’s left behind. She doesn’t think about her empty refrigerator. She doesn’t think about the awful emptiness of everything that should be filled to the top for a kid. So especially on Christmas Eve she needs this walk. When nothing at home is filled to the top. Sylvia stops at every store window that is full of toys. She knows she is too old for toys now, but she can’t help looking. She mashes her face against the glass, her tongue tasting the wet mist on it, and she watches the music-box ballerinas dance, the sturdy bears drum, and the steam engines run through gingerbread tunnels.
Sylvia searches for peace … peace that will counteract the emptiness in her life. She knows where to find that peace … it is in her familiar routines … it is in the store windows she gazes into … and in the faces of those she passes on the street. But it is a lonely peace … it is a hollow peace … because it comes to her through watching and imagining — and not through real encounters with others in her world, which she dreams of. John the Baptist also searches for peace … and he too, knows exactly where that peace is found … it will be found in the one he is searching for … a person of power … a person who brings the Holy Spirit to those he meets. John searches for an encounter with the Lord of Life. And so both of them walk … and watch … and wait … for the encounter that will bring meaning to their lives.
Sylvia believes that someday in her life someone will give her one of these things for Christmas. And she will laugh and say, “Oh, but I’m too old for such foolishness now!” But she will accept the gift, the ballerina or the bear or the train, and it will mean everything to her. Sylvia watches the faces of the people on the sidewalks. It is late, and most families are home, their children lying under soft quilts, the tree lit, the presents all wrapped. Sylvia knows this, so she knows these are not the faces of mothers and fathers she is passing. But she pretends. And she picks out the face of a particularly handsome man passing by and she imagines that he is her father and he is rushing home to her with a gold bracelet in one pocket and chocolates wrapped in red foil in the other. He will be home soon and he’ll tiptoe into her room and leave his gifts on the table beside her bed, kissing her forehead before he tiptoes out . . . She walks. The delis are open, and she sniffs the aromas that float through their doors as shoppers go in and out. Then Sylvia sees a long mahogany table aglow with red candles, and there are plates and plates of meats and cheeses and breads and fruits and vegetables and pastries and candies, and Sylvia is laughing because there is so much to eat and she is already full of foil-wrapped chocolates and what will she do with all this food? Sylvia walks.
Maybe the word that describes what Sylvia and the Baptist both experience is … “longing.” They long for more than what life has offered them so far. I wonder … when have you last longed for something in your life? I’m not talking about the silliness of the baubles and distractions that we sometimes crave. I’m thinking of that deep yearning that offers meaning and true purpose in life. Maybe you have longed for someone in your life … someone with the potential to share in your pursuit of purpose and meaning? At the end of the day it is never the stuff with which we surround ourselves that brings fulfillment … is you are honest with yourself, you know that to be true. We long for people to whom we connect … deeply. Sylvia had some semblance of a family, certainly … but it was as broken as broken can be … so we understand her longing. John had a more normal family … we read about them in Luke’s Gospel … Zechariah and Elizabeth … but still, he longed for more. So they both continued to watch … and wait … and long for the one they had yet to meet.
Sylvia passes a cathedral. The doors are open. There is singing. And, for the first time in her life, she goes inside. At first she is surprised. She didn’t mean to come in, really. She meant to stay on the street. But the church is so beautiful. Sylvia has never seen so many pots of flowers and pine boughs. And the candles – hundreds of them. The church is like one big birthday cake and Sylvia imagines that she is one of the roses on top as she sits and watches the priests and the people perform. She sits entranced, and in a while the show is ending, the priests and the people are leaving. They all move past her, then she is alone. She watches the candles for a time in the empty church, then she rises to leave. But at the door one of the priests is standing, and he is watching her. Sylvia is frightened. She knows she shouldn’t have come in. She doesn’t belong in his church. He will be angry. The priest is smiling at her, though, and he begins to walk toward her. But she runs past him, back out into the lights and the noise that make her invisible. Again she believes she is safe. Sylvia walks.
John never quite connected with the religious community of his day, either. It was perceived hypocrisy that kept the Baptist estranged from his fellow Hebrew leaders. For Sylvia, it was fear … simple fear. I expect that there are some here who sympathize with the Baptist, and some who resonate with Sylvia. Religious communities invite hypocrisy … it is the false god that stands in the shadows of our halls. And sometimes we invite fear … because of the intensity of our beliefs and the threat of a message that questions the values that the world invites us to embrace. Either can lead to estrangement from the community. But that estrangement can also heighten our senses to those purposeful things that yearn for … those people we long for. Let’s hear the end of Sylvia’s story.
And now Sylvia is growing tired. Now she is sleepy enough to turn toward home, to go back. She is so tired. Sylvia steps out into the street, forgetting the walk light because she is so tired, and the yellow taxis are speeding behind her and in front of her. She is trapped. She cannot move. She stands very still and watches the cars weave all around her. Suddenly one of the yellow taxis stops right in front of her. The window is rolled down and a young man’s face, an Oriental face, looks into hers. The young man puts his hand on her arm, moving gently like a priest, and he says to her, “Don’t stand in the street. It is dangerous.” His eyes, Sylvia sees, really mean it. She moves off the street as he drives away. And when she is home, Sylvia doesn’t dream of ballerinas and bears. When she is home, Sylvia falls asleep smiling into the eyes of a young man in a yellow car who put his hand on her arm and filled Christmas Eve for her to the top.
In the end, God finds ways to surprise us with grace and power. And is that not what the season of Advent promises us? The arrival of God’s Spirit and God’s very presence into our midst … oft times when we least expect it. Sometimes we follow our routines and rituals so faithfully that we stop being open to surprises that arrive in unexpected ways. John the Baptist is one of those surprising inbreakings of the Kingdom of God that we often to take for granted. Most of us would have avoided John like we do the guy standing on the corner of S. Prince and Farnum streets looking for some help. Maybe Sylvia’s story also offers us a bit of an inbreaking of the Kingdom. Because being ready is not so much what we look for, as it is what we are open to receive when the blessing arrives. If you have encountered just such a moment of God breaking into your life, then you know exactly what I mean. If not, I pray that you will experience it sooner than later. We cannot predict when and where we will encounter these “advents” of God’s presence in our lives. But I pray for us all today … hearts that are open to unique … and powerful … and personal encounters with God … that will also fill your life to the top. Amen.