The People Beyond the Creche: The Impatient

John 1:1-9
Luke 1:39-45
Matthew 3:1-12
December 13, 2015
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

We’ve all heard the saying, “Patience is a virtue,” but I would argue that sometimes it is impatience that is the virtuous expression of our faith.
And so this is a sermon for the impatient among you — the restless, the impulsive, the agitated and the excitable, the fervent, the zealous, the ever busy and bustling, the fidgety and demanding and headstrong and determined, the ones who have been told all of your life, “Will you just slow down for a second and take a breath, for Pete’s sake!” Well, today, you are the virtuous ones and your impatience could be the model of faith for all of us.

On this third Sunday of Advent, we heard the scriptures describing John the Baptist who would prepare the way for the coming of Christ, and it is clear from what the Bible says that no one would ever use the word “patient” to describe John the Baptist. The gospels paint John as a man on a mission, a fiery prophet who denounced the powerful and demanded repentance from the authorities. According to Luke, John’s impatience revealed itself quite early in life. Luke describes him as leaping in the womb in joy when the pregnant Mary enters the room.

“Let’s get going!” the unborn John says to the unborn Jesus. “I can’t wait to get out there into the world so that I can proclaim the coming of your Kingdom!”

Luke’s imaginative picture of the infant John is there to warn the readers from the start that John is going to be a man of energy and determination. He was called a prophet by the biblical writers because he was appointed by God not to placate us and comfort us but to unsettle us and disturb us and shake us out of our complacency. He came to prepare the way for Christ and make straight his paths and to fulfill that mission he would use a wrecking ball if necessary.

Because prophets were not patient people. They looked around at their communities and saw the powerful crushing the powerless, and the rich exploiting the poor, and they wanted society to shape up; not ten years from now after the politicians had had time to make sure that every political donor was happy; not in a few years when people’s attitudes had had time to adjust to a new way of living together as a society; not even tomorrow after everyone had had time to sleep on it. The prophets wanted justice now because after all, people were suffering while those who might make a difference waited and pondered and “patiently” did nothing.

My sermon series is called, “Beyond the Creche” because I want to call our attention to those that we leave out of our picture of Christmas and the way in which that neglect distorts how we think about the Christmas message. In our typical creche scene, for example, we carefully place the baby Jesus in the manger “where no crying he makes.” Mary and Joseph gaze upon him silently; the shepherds and kings kneel in quiet devotion. It is a serene picture. We think of Christmas time as a time when the whole world for a moment stops its shouting and pretends that everything is right with one another. For one night we will imagine that there is no war, that all people live in harmony, that no hearts are aching, and no hurtful words are said. We will shut out the noisy broken world for one blissful night until December 26th when we go back to reality where nothing ever changes.

But what would happen if we added John the Baptist to our nativity scene? Things would get really noisy really fast. Things would get heated up and a lot more real, because John didn’t think of Christ’s birth as a night of make-believe but as the night when God began the very real process of re-making the world. In Christ, John proclaimed, the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up. Christ fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. Christ’s Kingdom began that first Christmas night when the light came into the world and it continues to shine as a real possibility every time Christ is born again in the hearts of the people and they see that things are not the way God calls them to be and they insist on the real possibility of justice and peace for all the world.

John was impatient for the coming of Christ’s kingdom. Impatience is a virtue when we too are unwilling to accept the status quo of injustice and oppression and instead call upon the world to change, today, right here and right now.

Last May, the Minnesota Wild, the NHL hockey team from St. Paul, advanced to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs where they, unfortunately for their fans, were swept in four games by the Chicago Blackhawks. During the Wild’s last week of play, as Chicago battered them in game after game, a frustrated sports reporter in St. Paul wrote, “The Wild are obsessed with not allowing a goal. They get into their structural box and defend, defend, defend… If I hear the word ‘patience’ one more time,” he railed, “I will explode. The Wild are down 3-0 in the Western Conference semifinals; how much more patient do they want to be?”

“Note to Wild,” the reporter added, “You only live once, so get out there and take a chance.” (Tom Powers, “Pioneer Press,” May 7, 2015 http://www.twincities.com/sports/ci_28062603/tom-powers-wild-need-turn-patience-impatience-or)

John the Baptist knew that the rich and the powerful possess the rink, and the rich and the powerful are hoping that if they can convince the rest of us that patience is a virtue, then they can just wait out the clock, while we hunker down, play defense, and never make a move.

Impatience is a virtue if it means that we will not wait for the perfect time to make a change but are willing to get out onto the rink and take risks right here and right now.

And impatience is a virtue if it means we will not wait for the perfect solution to society’s problems but are willing to take imperfect steps toward greater justice right here and right now.

A few weeks ago in Book group, we read about Frances Perkins, a woman who came to prominence in the early 20th century as a labor rights advocate. In 1912, she lobbied the NY State legislature to restrict the hours of women workers to fifty-four hours a week. The business owners fought the bill and proposed a compromise that would improve conditions for women working in manufacturing but would exclude the 50,000 women who worked for the canneries. The author of the compromise admitted later that he had deliberately left the women in the canneries out of the bill because he hoped that the reformers would refuse to compromise the purity of their vision, and thus leave the issue permanently gridlocked. Frances Perkins however, was impatient for justice. She famously said, “I will accept half-a-loaf now,” knowing that at least that the 400,000 women in manufacturing would be able to enjoy better working conditions immediately. As it turned out, once the door was cracked open for a few, it was easier to open it all the way for the rest of the workers. Only one year later, the state expanded the law to cover the cannery workers as well.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “Change is made by [those] who take the next step; not those who theorize about the 200th step.”  (Goodwin, Doris Kearns (2013-11-05). The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (p. 540). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.)

Impatience is a virtue if it means that we will not wait for the perfect time to make a change but are willing to get out onto the rink and take risks right here and right now.

Impatience is a virtue if it means we will not wait for the perfect solution to society’s problems but are willing to take imperfect steps toward greater justice right here and right now.

And impatience is a virtue when it causes us to do anything we can for Christ’s vision of justice and peace no matter how small or insignificant it might seem because at least it is something that we can do right here right now.

This advent, the problems in our nation feel overwhelming. In the past month alone, we have had two mass shootings, one by a man spouting anti-abortion rhetoric and another by a couple radicalized by ISIS. Chicago continues to be embroiled in protests after a video was released showing a young black man shot by the police 16 times as he walked away from them. A few days ago, another policeman in Oklahoma was convicted of raping and sexually abusing eight African American women after he stopped them for traffic violations. Our fear of terrorism has caused many states to shut their doors to innocent Syrian refugees. Hate speech is pouring out of the mouths of our presidential candidates. Muslim school children are taunted by classmates and even more concerning, 20% of Muslim students in California said they experienced discrimination by a teacher or an administrator. And 45.3 million people live in poverty in the U.S. today, the highest number in the 53 years the census bureau has maintained poverty statistics. (http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/us_hunger_facts.htm)

It’s an ugly world out there and we can’t fix it all. We can’t even fix most of it but as Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”

As people of Christ, we are called to be impatient enough to do something now, even if it is just a drop in the bucket because for someone somewhere, that drop might be the living water they need to save them.

Christmas is the birth of Christ into our worlds and into our hearts, and he comes bringing to us a vision of peace on earth and good will to all. God doesn’t want us to make the nativity scene into a serene portrait of a pretend world all in harmony with one another and then after Christmas go back to the way things were.  Let’s instead put John the Baptist there in the stable with the others, railing against injustice, pushing us to peace, and reminding us of the virtue of impatience. May we commit ourselves to working for Christ’s kingdom in any way we can no matter how imperfect, no matter how small, as long as it is right here and right now.