Here are the thoughts that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, 14 December 2003. The scriptures for this Sunday are Zephaniah 3: 14 – 20, Philippians 4: 4 – 7, and Luke 3: 7 – 18.
Over the course of our journey there are some things that we just naturally learn. For example, we know
Tribbles hate Klingons and Klingons hate tribbles;
When going out into the Universe, remember to boldly go where no man has gone before;
There is no such thing as a Vulcan Death Grip;
Enemies may be invisible, like Romulans they can be cloaked; and,
Always have your phaser set on stun. (Provided in an e-mail by Keith Shikowitz – Lt. (j.g.), USS Relentless – 9 December 2003)
These sayings come from a poster entitled "All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Star Trek." This came out shortly after a book by Robert Fulghum entitled "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." Reverend Fulghum is a Episcopal priest out in Seattle, Washington, and he put together in this little book a collection of writings about life and living. It became a national best seller and he has gone on to write a number of other books about many things. In this premier book he wrote,
ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sand pile at Sunday School. These are the things I learned:
Don’t hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup — they all die. So do we.
And remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.
Reverend Fulghum went on to see how the behavior of everyone in the world and all the basic tenets of life could be seen through those brief statements. ("All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten", Robert Fulghum, Villard Books, 1989)
I have two reasons for bringing up the "rules of life." First, there were a number of articles that I read this past week that pointed out that what we do and how we do things. Second, the people responded to John’s call for repentance with the question, "What should we do?"
Thomas Walters, a Catholic religious educator, reported that a Catholic child spends about 390 hours in parish religious education, from kindergarten through grade 12. Not a bad amount of time perhaps but barely significant when compared with the 11,000 hours the same student will spend in public school education or the estimated 15,000 hours the child will spend watching television. It is not the classroom where a student’s faith will be taught but elsewhere in the student’s life.
As to underscore that very point, Jerome Berryman tells the story about a time when he was a theologian in residence at a Quaker church in Portland, Oregon, when a university student came into the service one Sunday. The student, with the long hair and tattered paints of that time, could not find a place to sit in the sanctuary so he sat down in the aisle. A Quaker with white hair and wearing a three-piece suit then came and sat down beside the young student. Berryman reported that this single episode was so impressive that it changed the student’s life. (From Christian Century, December 13, 2003)
"And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?" (Luke 3: 10) The people heard John’s call for repentance and wondered what they should do, not so much perhaps to prepare for the coming of the Messiah that John was prophesying but to save their own souls.
John’s response to the people was straightforward, "Give to the poor; clothe the naked; take no more than you are owed." In other words, one should treat people fairly. We can see from the reading of today’s Gospel that there was a substantial change in the attitudes of the people who came that day to hear John preach.
At the beginning of the passage, the people were merely going through the motions and their actions did not truly represent their inward attitude. John’s response to them was to call them vipers and to point out that simply by having connections through birth to Abraham and Moses was no guarantee of salvation. The only true salvation involved repentance and a change of heart.
The same is said about the Old Testament reading for today. It is hard to see how a prophecy of doom can be the foretelling of good tidings but that is what Zephaniah is. The opening passages of this little known book of the Bible tell of the impending doom of the Israelite nation, a doom caused by the people’s own actions. They had scorned God’s laws, they worshipped false gods and sinned without remorse. Zephaniah is bringing to them the announcement that they must change their ways or else.
But the words that we heard today are words of hope, promises of protection and promises for the future of those who know God truly. We read that God was going to make all things right; that their enemies would be removed and all those disenfranchised would be restored. And these promises are not made to the nation but to each individual.
I do not necessarily hold to the view of some more fundamental preachers that these are the days preceding the Second Coming of Christ. I do not believe that we can say when that will be since Christ Himself did not know that time or place. I also do not think that there will be any more prophets.
There were prophets in the Old Testament and they were needed in order to announce the coming of Christ. John the Baptizer would also be considered a prophet because he stood there in the wilderness outside Jerusalem calling for all to repent and be saved. He knew that there was one yet to come and that the time of that coming was near.
But there are no more prophets; there is, in my view, no one that can say that the Second Coming of the Lord is near. But that is not to say that we should not be doing things. The people who heard John’s words and believed that he spoke the truth asked what it was they should do.
Jesus told those who saw Him following His resurrection that the signs of His presence were all around them. And when asked, Jesus pointed out the sick, the needy, the hungry, the naked, the oppressed, the lonely and all those society would rather forget. Our preparation for Christ’s coming, be it His birth or His Second Coming, is found in how we treat other people.
In writing to the people of Philippi, Paul challenges them to not worry but rather to pray to God in thanks. He is doing so because they have been spending their time fighting amongst themselves over matters that we do not know about. IN the verses that preceded the ones we read today we read,
I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. And I urge you also, true companion, help these women who labored with me in the gospel, with Clement, also, and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the Book of Life. (Philippians 4: 1)
Euodia and Syntyche were women of the Philippian community who had fallen into some disagreement that was affecting the whole church. Nothing other than what is written by Paul is known about the two women or their disagreement. Paul does not take sides in the issue but rather implores the two to seek reconciliation. For otherwise, the church would be torn apart.
It would be hard to imagine what the actual disagreement was about. But whatever the disagreement was, it was enough to threaten the church and Paul is doing his best to get the parties involved to resolve this conflict. It must have been sufficient to cause grief not just for the two individuals but for the whole church as well, because that is why Paul speaks of rejoicing.
It is not to cover up the disagreement but to reinforce the notion that the church’s existence is so that each member can renew his or her relationship with God. Paul is pointing out that in times of strife and stress, it is most important that we focus on that relationship. It is part of the doom that Zephaniah spoke of because the people had forgotten their relationship with God.
John too is speaking of the relationship the people have with God and the need to renew that relationship. As we prepare for the coming of Christ through his birth, we are reminded of the relationship that was established that last night in Jerusalem.
When he gathered with the disciples in the Upper Room that night before He was crucified, Jesus reestablished the relationship of each person with God. Our partaking of communion today does the same. In this season of Advent, you will be called to do many things, some you may not want to do and some perhaps with persons whom you would rather not be with. It is in those times and those situations that you need to remember what you have been taught, as the disciples were, by the example of Jesus.
It isn’t what you learned in kindergarten that counts the most. It is what Christ has taught you and how well you live those lessons that will determine the preparation for this season of Advent.