Sunday, December 5, 2010

Advent 3A: "The Greatest Show on Earth!"

Preached by the Rev. David K. Fly at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, December 5, 2010.
         I don’t know about you but when I hear those words my heart starts to beat more quickly and my excitement begins to build. A ringmaster wearing a top hat and tails and wonderful leather boots takes his place in the center ring – the brass band plays a fanfare. The circus is about to begin!
         The task of the ringmaster is more than simply announcing the acts that are soon to come before us. It’s his job to build anticipation so that we put away all our cares and worries and look to the future. Something magnificent is about to happen. And within moments we begin to experience a world we didn’t believe could exist: animals jump through hoops, acrobats walk on the air above us, people are shot out of cannons and yet, they live! And in the midst of all these wonderfully talented people, the clowns fall flat on their faces and we laugh. It’s a sight to behold.
         “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near . . .’ And John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist . . . then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river . . .”
         The ringmaster/ John the Baptist? The circus/ the Kingdom of God? Strange bedfellows, eh? However, Dr. Loren Mead in his book A Celebration of Life says this:
To the contemporary world of strife, violence, tension, suffering and anxiety, both the circus and the Kingdom of God present a view of a wholly different kind of world. Not a world of business as usual. Not a world of things as they have always been . . . but a world of surprise and delight . . . a world of new possibilities . . . a world that’s unpredictable . . . a world where all participate, where no one’s left out . . . even the fool . . . a world in which the unexpected and the unprecedented can happen . . . a world of celebration of all life . . . a world of laughter as well as tears. A world that celebrates Easter.
         John the Baptist doesn’t come into the world wearing a top hat and leather boots but he’s certainly a dramatic character and especially during the season of Advent he’s like the ringmaster proclaiming the coming of a kingdom and the arrival of a Savior. Jesus enters the center ring after his introduction and suddenly angels appear to shepherds and to Mary in the garden after the resurrection, the dead are raised, the lame walk, the blind see, the hungry are fed, untouchables are touched, even Paul, a persecutor of the Jews, runs away with the circus and describes himself as the least of all the apostles who walks at the end of the parade – no one is left out.
           Once we’ve known the kingdom Jesus brings, things will never be the same again. And you and I are called to play active roles in making the kingdom of God a reality. Not only are we called to repent – to leave the old life of sin and death behind – but to allow the new life of Christ to live in and through us.
                  When my daughter Jessie was three, I took her to the Ringling Bros./Barnum and Baily circus. As the ringmaster came to the center ring, Jessie’s eyes grew wide, “Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages (it was almost as if he had called Jessie by name!), welcome to the GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH.” And suddenly, high over our heads, there was an avalanche of activities as the acrobats filled the air over the ring and lion-tamers and clowns danced into the three rings. It was a sight to see and I was so entranced by all that was going on that I didn’t keep my eye on my daughter. When I turned around to say something to her I discovered she had left her seat and was walking down the aisle. I caught up with her. “Where are you going?” I asked. “Out there!” she said, pointing to the center ring. I said, “Oh Jess, circuses are only for watching.” And I tried to explain that even if she made it to the center ring, someone would have to turn her away.
         Well, three years later, the tables were turned on me when my old friend Nick Weber, a Jesuit priest, came to town. Nick had created something called the Royal Lichtenstein Three-Quarter Ring Sidewalk Circus and they travelled the country. They were in St. Louis doing a show in the parking lot of a shopping mall. I took Jessie. We stood and watched as Nick, a wonderful clown and mime in whiteface, came to the center ring. He stopped and looked at the audience and then, motioned to Jessie, calling her out of the crowd to join him, and when she did, he had her stand on a pedestal in the center of the ring. And while she stood there with a smile that could be “heard around the world,” he made her a paper flower out of dirty, old newspapers. Jessie was the star of his act.
         Later that afternoon, while near a wishing well at a local shopping mall, Jessie stopped to drop in a penny. When I asked her, “What are you wishing for?” Jessie said, “That Nick would take me away with him to the circus.” And by the time we got home, she had her colored chalk out and was drawing clown faces and beginning to practice juggling. It had taken her three years but she made it to the center ring!
         Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, Children of all ages. I don’t know how long it’s taken you. I don’t know what you long for but it’s here for you. The Kingdom of God is at hand. And no one is excluded. No one left out. Every Sunday, when we stand before this altar and the priest says, “Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit” and we respond, “And blessed be God’s Kingdom, now and forever. Amen”, we, in the presence of the Holy Spirit manifest a whole new world – an entire way of thinking about our lives and the world around us – we, like the ringmaster of the circus who welcomes the world to the greatest show on earth and John the Baptist in the wilderness, who says, “Jump on in, the water’s fine!” we say, “Hurry on down the aisle to the center ring and find the special place that God has prepared for you since the beginning of time.” Amen.

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