Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.
The musical West Side Story was written in 1956: Leonard Bernstein wrote the music and Stephen Sondheim wrote the words. West Side Story of course tells of Maria and Tony: a Puerto Rican girl and an Anglo boy who fall in love. The story is modeled on Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy about young lovers from different sides of the tracks. From opposing gangs, in Tony and Maria’s case.
As West Side story opens, Tony’s first song is called “Something’s Coming.” It is about his sense that something momentous is about to happen to him.
There’s something due any day;
I will know right away,
Soon as it shows.
Could it be? Yes, it could.
Something’s coming, something good,
If I can wait!
Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is,
But it is
Gonna be great!
I thought of this song—for the first time in years—this week. It occurred to me that the lyrics of this song are a pretty good reflection of where we are in our church year.
Our liturgies, our preparations, our scripture readings… All have a sense of anticipation that points towards something coming. Since we tell the story of Jesus’ anticipation and birth and life and death and resurrection…since we tell this story over and over and over, we know how it turns out. But I think we could learn a thing or two from Tony’s sense of anticipation, of something coming. He has no idea what is about to happen to him, but his knows it’s gonna be great.
If we look at this Gospel reading about John the Baptist with fresh eyes, it’s pretty easy to think: what In the world is he talking about? WHO in the world is he talking about?
John is attracting all these people out to his revival at the river. It is a huge event that has attracted the people of Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the region along the Jordan, and John baptized them. Just to give you some idea of the scope of the thing: the Jordan is over 20 miles east of Jerusalem. We are talking about a lot of people coming long distances.
And yet, even though he is the headliner of his event, John himself tells the people: You ain’t seen nothing yet. “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
I get the impression that John’s baptism is a kind of temporal thing earthly repentance. I imagine him pointing to Jesus who is beyond time. The way he talks about Jesus is more timeless and universal. John the Baptist’s job was to point to Jesus. Even with all the attention he garnered with his shouting and his wild-animal outfit and his locusts and wild honey…even with all the attention he attracted, John knew that his job was to point to Jesus. He was a messenger from God.
We hear from several messenger-prophets today: Isaiah, the writer of the psalm, and the apostle Paul. The opening prayer for the day, the collect of the day, thanks God for sending messengers to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation. We ask God in our opening collect to give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.
The Greek word for messenger is angelos: it means messenger, but also it’s where we get our word “angel.” Angels figure prominently in our story this time of year. We hear a lot about the heavenly host of angels, about the angel Gabriel who announces to Mary the news of her miraculous baby.
Heavenly beings do not often visit regular humans. But make no mistake: God talks to us. God sends us messengers and angels all the time. Who are some of the other, less famous messengers from God? Messenger can be a word of Scripture, a Word from a friend or a song, or it could be, as with Tony in west side story, it could be a feeling that something’s coming.
For Christians, the season of Advent anticipates the coming of Christ from three different perspectives. Bernard of Clairvaux (d.1153) spoke of the three comings of Christ: in the flesh in Bethlehem, and in glory at the end of time…but most present to us in this moment: we prepare a place for Christ in our hearts daily, The season offers the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, and to be alert for his Second Coming.
West Side Story begins with anticipation that something wonderful is about to happen. And it does, when Tony meets Maria and they have a brief, miraculous few hours together before the reality of their world tears them apart. Tony dies in a street fight between the gangs. And yet. And yet. As the show closes there is a sense that the warring gangs have been chastened, there is a sense of hope for a new unity.
The story of Jesus’ birth always foreshadows his death. But it also promises his resurrection, and his coming again. The beginning and the end come together in this time of anticipation. We will look back with a celebration of the first arrival of the Messiah. We will look ahead as the collect says, to greeting with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.
In between, we prepare. And we look for signs of God’s kingdom NOW. We keep our eyes peeled and our ears tuned for God’s messengers, who come to us in ways we cannot always expect. We are so used to seeing what we expect to see. This is the season to look for the unexpected. The conjunction of what God has done in the past, what God is doing among us now, and what God promises to do in the future come together to undergird the seminal Christian virtue of hope.
Could be! Who knows?
There’s something due any day;
we will know right away, Soon as it shows.