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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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2nd Sunday of Advent

Mark 1:1-8

Dining on Non-Traditional Delicacies

Christmas Delights

Food is a very important part of any celebration. It gives literal substance to ideas, values and beliefs. It is also the stuff that connects people to one another. Every culture has its own unique and special food that is associated with Christmas. I discovered in my research for this sermon that my own family has a blend of both the Old World and the New World. My family had a Russian Orthodox background until my grandmother converted to the Jehovah Witness faith. In the Ukrainian culture the families would gather on Christmas Eve and have a meal together. My family followed this tradition with a fervent but non-religious zeal. We did not need a Day Timer to know what we were doing Christmas Eve. We rotated the responsibility to host the grand event from family to family but we always had a family gathering on the night before Christmas. However the food served was anything but traditional Russian Orthodox fare.

Advent in a traditional Orthodox family was a season of fasting from meat, eggs and milk products. They saw the season as a time of preparing for the event not the actual celebration of it. Therefore, the Christmas Eve dinner being still in the season of Advent consisted of fish, mushrooms, sauerkraut, peas, red borscht, pirogies and other dishes with poppy seed. It also would have been served in a Twelve course sequence. Every component of the meal held a religious significance. The twelve courses represented the twelve apostles. The fish connected to the Greek word IXTHUS held a four fold meaning. First the letters where an acronym for Jesus Christ, God's Son Savior. Secondly, you will recall that Jesus told his disciples that he would make them fishers of men. Third, the profile of a fish was used by the early church to mark their secret locations for worship when they were under severe persecution. Poppy seeds symbolized abundance and prosperity. The latter is a carry over from the people's pre-Christian roots.

This reverent spiritual commemoration was smothered by my family's gluttonous appetite. Our idea of a fast was the time between finishing the main course and starting dessert. Dishes of turkey, ham, kielbasa covered our table and it would not have been a Christmas Eve dinner without stuffed cabbage. In the old country jam filled doughnuts would be served for dessert. At the Pavelko table pies, cakes and other treats too numerous to remember would cover a special table. My favorite was the clothes peg cookies. This was more of a Slovak dish then Ukrainian. They were made from a very delicate dough that was wrapped around a clothes peg and baked. After cooling the center was filled with whipped cream and it was never the Cool Whip variety. My family never worried about calories or cholesterol when they ate.

Throughout the OT food conveyed special religious symbolism for the Jewish people. We cannot help but think about the passover lamb, the unleavened bread, the bitter herbs and spices whenever we think about the flight of the Jewish people from Egypt. Food was also important to John the Baptist, although we do not often think about his food. While we may use honey on some cookies and in our tea, insects do not illicit that mouth watering Pavlovian response from anyone that I know. However, John the Baptist's diet was the cuisine of the prophets and had a very special and very important religious symbolism for the people and for us today. Unfortunately like my own family's neglect of their past, we also neglect John's message in our haste to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

The Locust of Barrenness

Locusts are the insects of the desert. If the land is not barren and leafless when they arrive, it will soon become. The locusts of the desert have several unique characteristics. First they are prolific breeders. A female is able to make a deposit of over a hundred eggs four inches into the hardest of soils ensuring their survival. Secondly, they have a remarkable ability to adapt to whatever vegetation is available. They are not fussy eaters. They also have an enormous appetite and attack the stalks of plants with a ferocious intensity. Accounts of large swarms of locust all mention an almost deafening crunching sound caused by their eating. Once a plague or swarm of locust takes to flight they are virtually impossible to stop.

Throughout Scripture, locusts are associated with the judgment or punishment of God. In the tenth chapter of Exodus we are told that the insect covered the land. This invasion of insects was the eighth plague to strike Egypt when Pharaoh refused to allow the Hebrews to leave his country. The Biblical account is eerily similar to descriptions of the plague that struck Palestine in 1915.

John's diet of locusts symbolizes for me two important ideas. First, John was making a radical statement against his generation. The austerity of a diet of locusts reveals his contempt for the life style and material trappings of his society. Secondly I wonder if John was making a connection with the prophet Joel. In the first chapter of the prophet's oracle, Joel gives a graphic description of the complete and utter destruction that the locusts would have on the land.

What the locust swarm has left
the great locusts have eaten;
what the great locusts have left
the young locusts have eaten;
what the young locusts have left
other locusts have eaten.

Joel is attempting to awaken the people out of their spiritual stupor by explaining that the destruction caused by the entomological creatures came from the hand of God. The people in Joel's day were no more receptive to that line of reasoning than they are today. The popular view of God cannot accept or understand a God who extends his hand of discipline and punishes his people through natural disasters, economic crisis, or armed conflict. God is only supposed to act in a loving, accepting, caring way toward humanity. The God of the Old Testament has been rejected and replaced with a new, mellower god. But John was not a New Age prophet. He was an Old Testament prophet who had come to warn the people of their pending doom.

How responsive to John's message are you? Do you bristle at the thought that God might be angry with America? That maybe, just maybe we have not always been on God's side throughout our history? Are you resistant to the notion that the current economic crisis may have been caused by years of worshiping the material world and misusing God's resources as wise stewards?

Those are difficult questions to answer. They are difficult because they do not have one solution. Even if we answer every one in the affirmative, we still must struggle with the remedies. What do we do to change? Do we buy one less latte a week? Do we skip one round of golf a month? Do we buy less presents this Christmas? What positive steps can we take to demonstrate that we have truly repented and have made a change in our lives?

Those questions are also difficult to answer because of the long term nature of the problem and solution. Our financial malaise did not happen overnight. The economic rot began several years ago. People did not decide to become greedy one day on the floor of the NYSE. Working for a financial gain or reward is fundamental to our capitalistic system and the line between a reasonable profit and excessive greed is not boldly drawn in the MBA text books or in Scripture. One person's luxury may be another person's necessity. We do not have any clearly defined guidelines to differentiate. However, the waters of fiscal doom are rising and may be forcing us to accept that something must change.

That was John's message to the nation of Israel. Something must change. You cannot go on living the way you have been living and assuming that God is on your side, because he is not . The sound of marching solders, the payment of a tax to support a foreign ruler, and the economic hardships of the middle class were all proof to every good Jew that God 's hand of judgment was against them.

Mark Galli an editor for ChristianityToday writes:

we might consider this current economic disaster as first and foremost a spiritual disaster. And a spiritual opportunity. That sort of talk would not make sense if we didn't know God's mad method of working in and through things like crucifixions. But he does. He is even said to bring on disasters, economic and spiritual, so that people will return to him.

America will not flourish until the church is willing to accept his hand of discipline, respond with a heart of repentance and return to him.

The Sweetness of Grace

John did not just live on locusts. We are told that he also lived on wild honey. Some scholars believe that this may not have been the honey from the comb but a sap-like substance. That part of the equation is of little consequence. The point is that John knew of the sweetness of God's grace and love. One of my favorite single verses from the psalms is from Psalm 34:8 “Taste and see that the Lord is good” John Calvin writes, “God never disappoints the expectations of those who seek his favor. Our own unbelief is the only impediment which prevents him from satisfying us largely and bountifully with abundance of all good things.” God invites us to experience his grace and mercy. He calls us to sample his love by trusting in his will and plan for our lives.

This will be the most difficult part of our recovery. I fear that the American people even many within the church, expect God to quickly aid the crisis at hand. While he may, I would a expect a longer period of recovery. Finding jobs for all of those who are laid off and those who will soon be laid off will not be easy. Government loans may not come to the auto industry and even if they do, the Big Three will be very different three years from now.

Are we ready for the changes that are coming and will we be able to taste the sweetness of his love in them?

During my bone marrow transplant all my taste buds killed by the radiation and chemo. I had to relearn the taste of food. Some of the learning came easy. Some did not. I remember going out to dinner and ordering my favorite meal. It was an assortment of seafood—clams, scallops, crab and some fried white fish. I could not finish the plate. My taste buds were not familiar with the fried food and I became nauseated. Broccoli was another dish that took a long time to relearn.

Our response to circumstances and situations is similar. We expect the situation to go a certain way and are shocked if it is different. Sometimes we can adjust but other times we cannot. We may grumble and complain. We may try to change it but unless God wants the circumstances to be as they are, no amount of prayer, no amount of faith, no amount of positive thinking will change them. We must learn to accept the flavor of his grace as it presents itself through the life's circumstances.

John Calvin, Calvin's Commentaries: Psalms, electronic ed., Logos Library System; Calvin's Commentaries (Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1998), Ps 34:8.

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