The Rev'd Matthew Larsen
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Third Sunday in Advent
December 17, 2017
Asterius of Amasea was a bishop in the late 4th/early 5th century. He gave a sermon on January 1st, A.D. 400 against the New Year’s festival. He says we should celebrate Christmas, Stephen’s and all the rest, Epiphany, Easter, but not the festival of the Kalendae. Here’s why:
1. This festival is not a feast at all
2. There is no real friendship behind the presents.
3. Everyone wants to receive presents. Those who give them are ill-tempered; those who received them, pass them onto more prominent people
4. This festival brings about debts and personal grief
5. Children become money-grubbers.
6. City officials waste money on the festival and use it to acquire personal gain.
Bah humbug. Sounds like he need the Ghost of Christmas Future to haunt his dreams for a bit to put him in the Christmas spirit.
No place where the Christian and secular calendars misalign more than the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The readings often grind against what counts as good holiday cheer.
Today’s readings are no exception. Our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 61, assumes a very specific type of readership and frankly only makes sense if you are oppressed, brokenhearted, imprisoned, and disabled. If you are one of those people, God’s word is indeed good tidings to you. God will heal your fractured hearts, set you free from your incarceration, restore your sight. If you are not, God’s retribution awaits, for God loves justice and hating people grabbing things that aren’t theirs.
John 3 contains one of the more haunting lines in scripture. Everyone comes out from Jerusalem to ask John, “Who are you?” He says “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you then?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.
Then he tells them the words that I find so troubling: There stands among you one whom you do not know. The Messiah is here, rubbing shoulders with you, in the crowd, and you fail to sense his presence. You don’t see him, because you don’t know what to look for.
Luke 4 shows this to be true: Jesus is in his hometown. To everyone there, he is just regular old Joshua from the block (that’s how we would translate Jesus). Then he stands up to read and the attendant hands his a scroll of Isaiah. He reads Isaiah 61, just like our reader did today. Except at the end, he sits down and says, “Today this reading has been fulfilled in your ears.” (I am glad you didn’t do that, [name of reader])
Jesus was there, standing in the crowd, walking in the streets, asking for spare change, walking into our places of worship, before our eyes and we did not know it. When he appears, it surprised us.
It reminds me of Matthew 25, which is almost an advent reading, a pre-advent reading: There is a revelation about how ready we were to see Christ.
when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
But to the rest, he send them away, saying …
For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you did not receive me as a guest, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Just as you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.’
There stands among you one who do not recognize: Jesus Christ.
The work of Advent is preparing our hearts to discern Christ’s body. St. Paul tells us we are not to come to the Lord’s table, to Communion without discerning Christ’s body in the bread and wine. The Isaiah reading and John the Baptist’s words in the Gospel of John reminds us we are not to come to the Christ mass without preparing our hearts to discerning Christ’s body in the sick, the foreigner, refugee, the naked, and the imprisoned. In those whose vote is systemically oppressed, whose live lives in the threat of violence from those sworn to protect them.
Christ stands among us and, please God, give us eyes to see her, to see him.
We get ready to receive Christ we must learn to see Christ in the dispossessed, the disinherited. Not just to reach out a helping hand, but to identify with them. Which brings us back to the Isaiah reading: in order to hear the good news as good news, one must identify with the oppressed. James Cone put it this way: “By becoming poor and entrusting divine revelation to a carpenter from Nazareth, God makes clear where one has to be in order to hear the divine word and experience divine presence.” Preparing for Christmas in the end is not all about buying all the gifts, it “means that” (to use the language of Cone again) “your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are.”
Let us prepare to meet the Christ child by aligning our hearts with the incarcerated, the paralyzed, the foreigner, the unloved. Because once we learn to see God’s presence in them, to see their presence among us as a gift to us, then we will be ready to meet God’s Word incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.
 Summary adopted from C. Datema, Asterius of Amasea, Homilies I–XIV: Text, Introduction, and Notes (Leiden: Brill, 1970), 36.