The Rev. Anthony Johnson hears a divine message in the laughter of a Muppet.
The East Baltimore minister says an image of Tickle Me Elmo, the giggling Sesame Street doll anointed as a must-have children's gift, came to him in a vision and spoke to his soul.
"The doll represents the struggle between materialism and spirituality" that many people go through at this time of year, said Johnson, pastor of Mount Hebron Baptist Church of Clifton Park. "We need to give our children something that cannot be given in a package -- and that is real love. God placed the image of Elmo in my mind to remind me of the true meaning of Christmas."
Everywhere now, ministers and priests like Johnson are reflecting upon their secular experiences, hoping to find a contemporary way to the tell the centuries-old story of
Advent. For some, it's all divine inspiration. But for most, it takes study and hard work.
"I'm always looking for good stories," said the Rev. Andy Aaron, an associate pastor at St. Louis Roman Catholic Church in Howard County. "I've learned that if you start out with a good story, people will listen to what you have to say."
Since the eighth century, Advent has marked the beginning of the church year. The word "advent" is derived from the Latin "adventus" and means "coming." Christians celebrate the Advent season -- the four Sundays preceding Christmas Day -- in anticipation of the anniversary of the birth of Jesus and his second coming. Each week symbolizes a different aspect of the story.
"The first week remembers the prophets, the second focuses on God's preparation for the birth of Christ, the third considers our response to Jesus, and the final week emphasizes God's love for said Johnson, 43, who began preparing his Advent sermons two months ago.
Baptist ministers, unlike Roman Catholic priests and ministers belonging to some other Protestant denominations, do not use a standard cycle of biblical selections as the basis of their homilies. And that makes their jobs tougher.
"Our churches are autonomous. No one comes in and tells us how to run things or what to preach," said Johnson, who belongs to the Maryland Baptist Convention, an affiliate of the National Baptist Convention.
The independent nature of the church compels Baptist ministers to spend weeks, sometimes months, searching for just the right Scripture.
"I usually decide on the message I want to convey and then select appropriate readings and hymnals," said Johnson, sparing quick glance at the numerous Bible commentaries lying on his desk. "I also talk to God -- in my car, while I'm shopping, wherever I happen to be."
During last Sunday's worship service, Johnson told the tale of his Elmo epiphany, drawing gales of laughter from the parishioners. The name of the hottest toy of the holiday season was repeated time and again, to emphasize the point of the pastor's parable.
"As we find ourselves in the midst of another Christmas season, malls are congested, parking lots crowded, people are in search of the perfect gift for that special someone in their life," said Johnson.
"But if we were to be honest with ourselves, what we give are not really gifts," Johnson said, swaying rhythmically to and fro. at the pulpit. "Gifts are given freely. What we give are presents. We give presents expecting something in return.
"It's sad to say that too often parents spend more time buying love than what they do teaching love. Instead of teaching our children how to love and respect each other, we buy First Down winter coats, Nintendo 64 and sleeping Elmo."
"Tickle Me Elmo," said several giggling members of the congregation.
"Laughing Elmo," replied Johnson, deliberately blundering.
"Tickle Me Elmo," came the cry, louder this time.
"Praying Elmo," Johnson insisted.
Confident that his message had been delivered, Johnson closed the subject of little Elmo, wiped his perspiring brow and turned his attention to Scripture.
"I will use anything I have to, even Elmo, to get my parishioners to focus on the religious aspect of the Christmas holiday," Johnson said after the worship service.
Many times in the past, he has told a secular story to deliver a spiritual message. It is an art he learned as a child by listening to his father preach at Timothy Baptist Church in West Baltimore.
The practice of storytelling is employed by priests and ministers of every denomination.
"I may read poetry or refer to the work of one of our parishioners, who volunteers at Mother Teresa's AIDS hospice," said Aaron, speaking of his plans for tomorrow's homily -- the first Advent sermon he will deliver since his ordination in May.
"[The volunteer] told me about a woman at the hospice who has terrible fits and tantrums," he said. "She read poetry to her one day, and the woman calmed down immediately. But the next day, the woman reverted to her former behavior. The story reminded me of why we celebrate Advent every year -- we need to be reminded of God's grace and love, especially during those times when we are frustrated."
To remind members of Trinity United Methodist Church in Annapolis of the true meaning of the Advent season, the Rev. Vernon L. Thompson told the congregation last Sunday about a man who makes each of the Christmas gifts he gives.
"A man I know bakes bread and gives the loaves as gifts," said Thompson, interim pastor of the church. "He gives of himself, something he made personally, not an item he bought at a mall. That is what we should all be striving to do -- giving of ourselves."
At Grace English Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lutherville, the Rev. Lawrence Cameron was setting pen to paper yesterday afternoon, busy crafting his sermon for tomorrow's service.
"I plan to talk about people who, through humble actions, act as angels here on earth," Cameron said. "After all, what are angels but messengers of God?"
The minister was pondering yesterday whether to invoke the example of Bea Gaddy, who is known for feeding thousands in Baltimore. "She is someone who is self-giving, someone that everyone can relate to," he said.
As for Johnson, who saw divine inspiration in Tickle Me Elmo, he was still waiting yesterday for another sign from God to help him with tomorrow's homily. "I'm under deadline pressure," he said. "I'm hoping God gets in touch with me soon."
Pub Date: 12/21/96