A Sermon by The Rev. Angela Yarber | December 6, 2009 | Second Sunday in Advent
Scriptures: Luke 1:68-79 and 3:1-6
Luke provides us with two stories that are perfect portrayals of the season of Advent. They’re all about preparation, preparing the way. In chapter one, Zechariah is filled with holy and fatherly joy as he witnesses the birth of his son, John, and his excitement cannot be contained so he burst forth into prophetic song. The “Canticle of Zachariah”, as it’s called, describes the way his son, John, will prepare the way for Jesus. This proud daddy knows that his child is someone special: a future sackcloth wearing, locust eating, wilderness roaming, repentance demanding, baptizing prophet of peace. This baby boy, his daddy believed, would give light to those who sit in shadows and guide our feet to the way of peace. This little baby would grow up to be the preparer of the way of peace, the one who cleared the path so that Jesus could walk, the one who guided our feet to the way of peace, the way of Christ.
In fact, many theologians speak of the need for Christians to actually be imitators of John. John is the one who prepares the way for peace, who points to the Christ child, who guides our feet to the ways of peace. Isn’t that we should be doing this season of Advent: preparing the way for peace? Waiting, preparing, yearning for the birth of peace in our world? But not just in theory or in abstract, but in reality, with feet marching for justice, dancing for peace, standing for what is good and right and true. Guiding our feet to the way of peace.
But Luke’s story doesn’t end there, not according to the lectionary and not according to anyone who reads the Gospel. Rather, after Zachariah’s song of joy over the birth of baby John we discover the birth narrative of Jesus. But not yet! Not this week! It’s only the second week of Advent. We’re still waiting and preparing the way, like John, so I’m not going to read Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth. Rather, we skip to chapter 3 and find another brooding text of preparation.
Now baby John is all grown up and his father’s prophetic song of joy is coming to fruition. He is, indeed, preparing the way. John is guiding our feet to the way of peace. And as the now grown-up John roams the wilderness preparing the way, he quotes a prophet of the Hebrew bible, Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make God’s paths plumb. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made direct, and rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
All flesh shall see the salvation of God. Not all hearts shall see the salvation of God. Not all minds. All flesh. And this is an interesting choice of words for a variety of reasons. First, John is preparing the way for God to be made flesh, for incarnation. All flesh shall see the salvation of God. Not in abstract, not in theory, but actually see a fleshly living God born as a humble and needy baby just like you and me with flesh and bones and tears and aches and pains and skin, flesh, hands, feet, a face…just like us.
And it’s interesting that John proclaims that all flesh shall see the salvation of God as he prepares the way for God in flesh, but also because of what this word means: flesh.
In Greek, flesh, here is σαρξ , which literally means “flesh, physical body; human nature, earthly descent.” Those things, those parts of you that you thought you had to overcome, your bodily realities will see the salvation of God. Not just your heart. Not just your mind. Not just the squeaky clean parts of you. Your flesh, all flesh, all physical bodies, all human nature—even the parts that you don’t like—shall see the salvation of God.
I must say that when I read this text I automatically hear it through the lens of Handle’s Messiah “And all fle-e-esh sha-all see-ee it toge-ether.” And I think that Handle and John and the Gospel writer are onto something here. All flesh shall see the salvation of God. All flesh. All physical bodies. All human nature. All earthly descent. All flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Let’s be honest here, the “flesh” doesn’t really have the best reputation in Christianity, does it?
The church has told us—primarily celibate men in power, I might add—that the flesh is secondary. The spirit is most important and the flesh is something to be overcome, negated, denied. This is why many Christians throughout the ages have denied their bodies, starved themselves, lacerated their flesh, impaled their bodies in order to identify spiritually with the suffering of Christ. But John isn’t talking about suffering here. He’s talking about our fleshly God. Our baby Jesus. Burping, crying, humble, needy baby Jesus whose flesh does the same things yours and my flesh do. Flesh gets dry and flakey, itchy, sweaty, it has rashes and bumps and bruises and scabs and cuts and scrapes. Flesh ages and stretches and grows and sags and has places that are undeniably beautiful and sensual and undeniably ugly and must be covered. All that flesh shall see the salvation of God.
So, as I thought about these fleshly realities and what it means for them to see salvation, I racked my brain for memories of flesh: the silly, the sensual, the sad. And I remembered three fleshly realities that I think are somewhat universal experiences, all in need of salvation.
The first, of course, is the silly. I’m sure we could spend hours of trading stories of silly, humorous, and likely rather inappropriate flesh moments. Don’t worry. I’ll keep it clean from the pulpit. This funny fleshly story comes from a friend.
My friend was in his senior year of high school and his best friend was a pastor’s kid. And not just any pastor’s kid, but the only child of an Independent Missionary Baptist pastor in northeast Alabama. Women can’t wear pants, no one drinks alcohol, no one dances, and you don’t watch R-rated movies—no matter how old you are! So, my friend and the pastor’s kid got a great idea. They decided that they should have a graduation party and that it should be held at the pastor’s house because said pastor had a pool. It would be the best pool party of their lives. The two boys planned every detail: BBQ, volleyball, music, invitations. One small glitch: pastor’s kid needed to ask his dad for permission. Surely it wouldn’t be a problem, he thought, because this could be his graduation gift. He was old enough and responsible enough to plan a fun pool party for his graduating class.
Said senior asked his father, his pastor, about the pool party and his father replied with a thick and authoritative Southern accent, “No way. Boys and girls swimming together!? That will never happen in my swimming pool. I don’t want any of you boys lustin’ after the flesh.”
Lusting after the flesh. Need I say more? Such phrases from conservative Baptist preachers are typical throughout the history of the church. We can’t see woman. We can’t see bodies. Because all that will do is make us sin. No mixed swimming. Because we can’t have anyone lusting after the flesh.
And I don’t mean to poke too much fun. There is a time and a place for that kind of flesh and I think it is responsible and morally aware to guard hearts and bodies against wanton debauchery and lustful extravagance. But such would likely have not been the case for a Scottsboro High School graduation pool party.
And that would naturally lead me to another fleshly story, a sensual story. Now, again, don’t worry, it’s sensual, not to be confused with scandalous. I’m not talking about Brittany’s Spear’s bellybutton or any other seemingly scandalous escapades that fill our culture and media. Although, I would say that those fleshly realities shall see the salvation of God, too. Rather, I’m thinking about seeing real flesh, real bodies doing something extraordinary, skilled, beautiful.
The story occurs in New York City, 55th Street and 9th Avenue, to be exact. It’s January of 2007 and I’m in New York doing Art and Religion research. Between Broadway shows and museums—all in the name of research, of course—I stumble upon the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre. It’s cold and snowing outside and the Ailey studio’s full glass wall windows are radiating with light. Much to my delight, I see that it’s not simply an adult drop-in class, Horton technique, or a children’s class, but the actual company is rehearsing. Sculpted, lithe, sinuous, beautiful, sweating, strong bodies dance, leaving their all on the studio floor. I stand there mesmerized and watch.
Now, I’ve watched my share of Alvin Ailey videos. I’ve read about Ailey. I’ve even seen the company perform their world renowned Revelations, the most spiritual dance performance to ever grace the stage, bridging poignantly the plight of African Americans in the civil rights movement with the deep soulful spirit of the black church—all embodied in three movements that sweep and leap and soar from being buked to being baptized to being the body of Christ—all on “secular” stages, I might add. So, I’d seen Revelations. I’d seen them on stage, from my seat many rows back under the theatre lights with stage make-up and costuming and precision. But that couldn’t compare to what my eyes witnessed at 55th and 9th on that cold January evening. I stood still, breathless, for over an hour without even realizing it as the snow fluttered from the sky on this Southerner who despises cold weather. They danced, soared, fell, lifted, embraced, gasped, each muscle and every movement skilled, filled with breath and urgency and yearning and beauty and pain. I had the Stendall syndrome. Unable to move my own flesh I watched as the most beautiful flesh I’d ever seen rehearsed in a New York studio.
This is the kind of story that causes me to stand in awe—literally—of the flesh, of what the body can do. For all the things we may not like about our bodies, about our fleshly realities, we must stand in awe of what they are capable of. Flesh can run marathons and birth babies and build houses. My own battered and tired flesh amazed me as I finished my first triathlon a couple months ago. Our bodies, our flesh are magnificent creations capable of great beauty and great horror.
And this leads me to my final fleshly story. The sad. Although, sad doesn’t quite capture the horror, brutality, and treachery that the flesh can do. It’s a story I’ve shared with some of you in the past, the story of a time when I witnessed the brutality of the flesh broken, wounded, and forsaken.
The scene is a south Alabama project complex where I spent part of my adolescent years. My family had no money and we were surrounded by others in poverty and the violence poverty often creates. Amidst the pain and suffering of our complex, the children gathered together to play. Every night the poor kids in the complex would gather together to play hide and go seek. We always knew that the green, graffiti generator was base and by smacking that base and screaming, “Olly olly oxenfree!” you were untagable. Only I never knew that feeling, the feeling of shouting “Olly olly oxenfree!” and thus being liberated from all that binds me, from the confines of welfare cheese, and the bars across our living room windows, and the roaches that didn’t pay rent, but lived in our home anyway. I didn’t know that feeling because Davy Boyette always got there first. “Olly olly oxenfree!” Davy perpetually shouted. He was the fasted kid in the fourth grade, the fasted kid in the complex. Until one evening…when I made it to the graffiti generator first. I was on the other side of a long field and I knew that my dancing feet were bound for glory. So, as my hand-me-down Chuck Taylor’s pounded across the dry grass and my permed hair blew in the wind, I ran to that generator, “Olly olly oxenfree!” “Olly olly oxenfree, Davy!” I shouted.
And I couldn’t wait to find Davy Boyette and rub it in his face that I was the fastest kid in the complex. So, I ran around the complex screaming “Davy” until I rounded a corner to an ally way and saw Davy Boyette, no longer the fastest kid in the complex, but a crumpled mass of flesh sprawled out across the pavement. An older kid in baggy jeans stood above him with the crowbar he’d just pulled out of his pants. “Olly olly oxenfree!”
I turned and ran away as fast as I knew how and I began to vomit. And I haven’t stopped vomiting since.
Only weeks later, three teenage boys broke into our home while I was at vacation bible school with a friend and tried to slit my six year-old brother’s throat. His flesh forever tormented by the violence of growing up poor, still in search of redemption.
Flesh can be silly and sensuous and, in many cases, flesh can be scary and gut-wrenching. When I look back and think about how incredibly fortunate I am and my family is to still be standing—thriving—I am both humbled and moved to action on behalf of our countless brothers and sisters whose flesh is slain by the hands of injustice.
And all that flesh—the silly, the sensuous, the sad, and even the scandalous—is redeemed by the incarnation that we prepare for this Advent season. All flesh shall see the salvation of God. The pastor of the Independent Missionary Baptist Church in Northeast Alabama, the beautiful dancers at Alvin Ailey, Davy Boyette and my brother and all those children whose flesh is rent by violence, and yes, even Brittany Spear’s bellybutton…all their flesh shall see the salvation of God.
So, let’s prepare the way so that our feet may walk in the ways of peace. All flesh shall see the salvation of God—the parts we love and the parts we hate—are all redeemed by our fleshly God upon whom we wait in hope.
And it is this fleshly God that we remember when we gather around this table. It is a fleshly body that was broken so that all flesh can see salvation. Let us remember our broken and fleshly God as we share this meal with our own flesh, our own bodies.