Advent Sacrament

A sermon for Advent 2: Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12, Psalm 72:17, 18-19

I grew up in metro Atlanta GA which, a score and more years ago, as I started seminary, was some 200 times the size of Blytheville. I have served churches in communities of 28,000, 15,000, 7,100, 2,400 and 743. In all these communities, people would ask the same question: “Where are you from?” What they really wanted to know is “Who are your people?” If anyone actually asks you who your people are, you are either in a lot of trouble or standing on the verge of being accepted wholeheartedly into their community family.

In this week’s commentary Karoline Lewis suggest that we are way too quick to skip past the opening phrase of the Gospel, especially the last half “appeared in the wilderness.” Her point is well made. To do so is to skip knowing where a prophet is from; and who a prophet’s people are (Lewis). Prophets are not soothsayers who by various means can see into the future. No ~ prophets are relentless truth tellers; pulling back the carefully woven curtain of our view of the present exposing deliberate ignorance and willful blindness to the sufferings of others; exposing the clever forms of evasion we use to deny pollution, climate change, food insecurity, the lack of clean water, burgeoning prisons, a failing cultural understanding of marriage, the plethora of single parent homes, that a quarter of our kids are living in poverty, acts of violence, our fragile access to healthcare, and exposing the illusions, we use to hide injustice and just plain ole meanness (Lewis; Lose). It is their clear vision of the truth of today that allows prophets to see the ill fortunes of the future that we do not want to hear. Prophets know where they are, they know the people they speak to. Prophets know where we are from; they know our people.

We all know that Advent is a season to cast aside the distractions of this world to make room for divinely inspired imagination. It is a season to imagine a Festival of the Incarnation. Not just the birth of Jesus, but a mystical divine fusion of God with all humanity. It is a season also to imagine Christ’s arrival – 2 (Lose). Only we allow ourselves to be distracted by illusions of a Christmas that are as false as the illusions of grandeur of the Kings of Israel. And we know this because John the Baptist is nowhere to be found in Advent unless you happen to be in a church that reads one the gospel stories like we heard this morning. I have never heard a Christmas Carol that features John the Baptist (Allen). It is a small wonder; can you begin to imagine caroling “You brood of vipers!”

Lewis’ insight leads us to examine John’s use of Isaiah’s prophecy:

 The voice of one crying in the wilderness: [pause] ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’

Only in the original books there is no punctuation so it can also read

The voice of one crying: [pause] ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (Allen).

The first way tells of someone crying in the wilderness and it is certainly John the Baptist. The second way tells of someone crying “go into the wilderness;” and this, I believe, is the subtle call to a fruitful Advent imagination. And it is all comes from our understanding of wilderness.

When we hear wilderness, I expect we see a wild, unsettled, inhospitable place. If it is in a bible setting it is vast dry landscape, with barren hills, some with scrub brushes and the occasional lost sheep. It is a dangerous, chaotic place to be. The wilderness is likely inhabited by equally inhospitable, dangerous people. But, when we think carefully about the story the bible tells us we may remember that the wilderness is a thin place; a place where we discover the edges of space and time. It is in the wilderness that God forms Abraham’s people. It is in the wilderness where the Hebrew people are tested and further formed. The wilderness is a place of chaos, but it is also a place of formation, a place of testing, and a place of purification (Sakenfeld). It is only in the heartfelt wilderness of our existence or our imagination that we experience the sacrament of Advent.

And yes, I know there is no such sacrament in the Book of Common Prayer. But, as you know, a sacrament is a visible and outward sign of an invisible and inward grace. And here both the visible and the invisible are repentance, which you remember, is about changing the orientation of your life.

Your Advent sacrament is invisible because you recognize and accept that you have a problem that is bigger you are (Benoit). It is invisible as you daydream about God’s vision for you as you face your problem, or your life, as a whole. It is invisible as you commit to start making one change. It is invisible as you commit to how that change is becoming a part of your relationships in your community (Lose).

Your Advent sacrament is visible as your commitments are witnessed in how you live life (Benoit). It is visible as people witness your continual discernment gradually transforming your spirit, your emotional well-being, your physical wellbeing, and your social wellbeing. It is visible as others witness you turn from “I” toward “us” and towards God. It is visible as your transformation mystically inspires all of us to turn towards each other and towards God.

It is Advent. It is the season for us, individually and as a community, to confront our inner viper, the quiet hissing voice that whispers “You too can be like God.” It is the season for us, individually and as a community, to see and be the prophet. It is the season for us, individually and as a community, to speak and hear the truth that pulls back our carefully woven curtain exposing the reality we would just as soon ignore. It is the season for us, individually and as a community, to trust the God, who came to us, lo those centuries ago as a mother’s child, will walk with us through this transforming wilderness, and will come again welcoming all into God’s eternal grace.


 

References

Allen, Ron. Commentary on Matthew 3:112. 4 12 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Beck, Norman. Lectionary Scriture Notes. 4 12 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Benoit, Arlette. “Bear Fruit Worthy of the Gift of Repentance Advent 2(A).” 4 12 2016. Sermons that Work.

Boring, M. Eugene. The Gospel of Matthew. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 4 12 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Advent 1 A | Matthew. 4 12 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 4 12 2016.

Lewis, Karoline. In the Wilderness. 4 12 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Advent 2 A: Reclaiming Repentance. 4 12 2016.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

 

 

Change is coming

It is Advent; we are preparing the greatest change since creation, God becoming incarnate in humanity; we are preparing for the greatest change since Jesus’ ascension, Christ’s return. Change is coming. Isaiah prophesizes about change, John calls the people of Jerusalem and Judah to change, and Paul calls the Gentiles in Rome to change. I believe those who observe Advent, as best we can in a Christmas obsessed land, realize Advent is about change. However, I am concerned we’re focusing on the wrong sorts of change.

For those who are drawn to the feast of the incarnation, I suspect our efforts are to more or less be the misplaced Kings bearing gifts, and through some sort of gift giving, to family and friends, those in need in our community, or perhaps through a charity like Episcopal Relief and Development or Heifer Project, or one of the many good charitable organizations around the world.  For those draw to the return of Christ, it’s a bit more Lent like, and the focus is attaining a status of purity, of which similar generosity would be considered a sign. But it’s a phrase from Paul and a chance story that catches my attention.

Paul writes a prayerful petition to live in harmony with one another. [i] It is Paul’s belief God wants us, indeed empowers us to live in harmony with each other, and gives us the gifts to do so.

Thanksgiving is thought of as a family time; though some families do not gather because they are divided. There is a family that has been divided for some nine or ten years. Members have not even spoken to one another. Facebook cracked the shell of separation. But this thanksgiving, disparate family members, of differing faith traditions, took a common teaching of their faith, God wants to reconcile broken relationships, seriously, and their division was healed. Thanks be to God.

At the heart of the family’s healing is a change of behavior, on everyone’s part. That change is what repentance is all about. The healing such change brings about is what repentance is all about. Healing of broken human relationship is the greatest gift one can offer God. There can be no purity if there are any broken relationships.

 

[i] Romans 15:5