A Word of Peace (Advent 2) ~ 12/10/17

A Word of Peace
Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
December 10, 2017 ~ Second Sunday of Advent (Year B)

I love the season of Advent. I love the anticipation. I love the return to basics, the reminder that our Christian story is one of God coming to be right here with us in the mess and chaos of human life. I love the music and the rituals and the traditions and the prayers.

And I love that Advent acknowledges the truth of our lives: as we light candles week by week, we recognize that we only need the light because we live in so much darkness.

Last week we began Advent with an apocalypse – the revealing of God in the midst of our real lives, hard and shadowed as they can sometimes be. We heard a general promise of new things to come. This week we get some particulars about that new thing that’s coming as we meet (again) John the Baptist. He was strange, maybe even scary, but there was something in John’s words and actions that spoke to the people.

And so they flocked to him. They were hungry for a word about God, a word from God. Of course, in Jerusalem there was the temple and the rabbis and all the accumulated wisdom of the religious establishment. But that’s not where the hungry people went. They went out into the wilderness to listen to this strange man who reminded him of the true prophets of old, quoting from Isaiah:

…the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” (Mk. 1:3)

As priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor says, the prophets (including John the Baptist) described a new world. She says:

[This coming new world] was a world that would be built out of new materials, not the rearranged stones of the old religion. The Holy Spirit had gotten all but covered up in Jerusalem, with pretend piety and temple taxes and priestly hocus-pocus. The flame was all but snuffed out under the weight of all that foppery, so God moved it – out into the wilderness, where the air was sharp and clean, out under the stars where it was fanned by the most socially unacceptable character anyone could imagine. Dressed in animal hair with a piece of tanned hide around his waist, his breath heavy with locusts and wild honey, John proclaimed that Someone was coming, someone so spectacular that it was not enough simply to hang around waiting for him to arrive. It was time to get ready, to prepare the way, so that when he came he could walk a straight path right to their doors. [1]

If the Bible had nothing to say to us today, there really would be little point in reading it the way we do. It might be interesting literature, but it wouldn’t have anything to tell us about our lives and we could take it or leave it. But I believe that God is still speaking, and one way we hear God’s voice is through our Scriptures.

So this text from Mark leads me to ask: has the Holy Spirit gotten all but covered up in our churches? Do we exhibit pretend piety and misguided priorities and yes, even perhaps priestly hocus-pocus? Is God inviting us into the wilderness, where we will prepare the way for the One who is coming? And if so, how do we do that preparing? How do we allow the Holy Spirit to blow through our lives once again, fresh and revitalizing and healing and transformative?

John was a messenger that the people needed. I think that he is the messenger we, too, need. Maybe that’s why we hear about him every Advent. Barbara Brown Taylor says:

People were drawn to him, apparently, not only because of who he was and what he said but also because of what he offered them – a chance to come clean, to stop pretending they were someone else and start over again, by allowing him to wash them off…Setting up shop in the wilderness, he proclaimed his freedom from so-called civilization, with all its rules and requirements [and distractions and misguided ways]. He called the people to wake up, to turn around, so that they would not miss the new thing God was doing right before their eyes. [2]

Have you ever wondered why the color for Advent is purple, the very same color we use for Lent? Have you ever wondered why so many of our Advent hymns are written in a minor key and don’t express particularly joyous sentiments?

That’s because the waiting of Advent, the preparing for the coming of Jesus, begins with repentance – the repentance John the Baptist preaches.

Now, as one scholar has pointed out, we “have an implicit, cultural assumption that repentance is tantamount to shaming, an effort by the church, if not by God, that is bent on making the penitents feel badly about themselves. (Although, ironically, we have no difficulty in affirming its place in twelve-step programs and similar efforts.)”

Those who have studied biblical teachings about repentance or who have engaged in twelve-step programs know a deeper truth: repentance is not about self-abuse or abject despondency and the conviction that we are, as the psalmist said, “a worm and not a man” (Ps. 22:6). Rather, the act of reviewing one’s actions, feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs, and – we can’t forget this part – making amends, or righting those wrongs as best we can, and finally making sincere commitment to make a change for the better.

To repent is simply to recognize the obstacles we’ve placed in the path that connects us to God, the ways in which our course has gotten crooked and led us astray, and to make every effort to remove those obstacles and straighten out our path so that God can find us. There is no shame in it; to get lost on the way is simply human. And as we repent, we trust the words of John and Isaiah before him, and of Jesus who is still to come: repentance will lead to the transformation of each of us and thereby of the whole world.

But let’s be honest. It can be hard to trust the words of the prophet John and of Jesus who came after him. We look around us and it can be terribly hard to see healing, or new life, or hope. As California burns and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands still try to recover from floods and wind; as North Korea continues to test nuclear weapons and the conflict in Israel and Palestine heats up again; as we hear stories and see images of refugees fleeing conditions we can hardly imagine, only to be turned away by those they desperately hoped would help; as the weather turns cold and we remember that there are many who are sleeping on the streets in the snow; as we look to our own pain and sorrow and the broken relationships and lost hope in our own lives, it can be hard to believe that the promised new thing is coming and even harder to believe that it has already begun.

And so we remember that Isaiah and John knew all about living in dark times and about finding it hard to believe that God was really with them, really active in the world. “But [this] part of Isaiah was written at a time when most of the Israelites were off in captivity in Babylon. Their homeland was no more; foreign armies had destroyed it. Now they were in a strange land to serve their conquerors.” [4] And of course, we know that the Jews of John’s and Jesus’ time lived under the heavy boot of harsh occupation.

But John and Isaiah tell us that the darkness isn’t complete: within that darkness there is still the promise of light. Indeed, the promise is that relief and new life are coming soon – very soon. And so we sing the words of this morning’s anthem, based on Isaiah 40:

Hush, hear the voice of God’s prophet:
prepare in the desert for the Lord.
Hush, hear the words from the prophet;
make straight thou a highway for our God.
With every valley raised up,
every mountain and hill made low:
let God’s glory be revealed.
“Comfort my people, tell of peace,”
thus says our God.
“Comfort my people walking in darkness:
soon the child will come.”

…Let all mortal flesh keep silence:
Hush, hear the word of the Lord.

At the outset of this sermon, I said that one of the reasons I love Advent is because it provides us with an opportunity to return to basics. And so today we read from the very first verses of the Gospel of Mark. It opens like this:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The coming of God as a baby in a cold and remote stable is only the beginning. The story continues to unfold. And we are invited to be part of it. The waiting of Advent is an active waiting: like a woman who paces, sometimes for hours, to encourage her labor to progress so the child she carries can be born, we can do the work of helping bring forth God’s promises of peace. As we repent time and again, and as we allow ourselves to be transformed, we become ever more capable of helping usher in God’s kingdom – a kingdom of radical love and never-ending peace.

As the hymn says, let there be “peace on earth, good will toward all people.” And as another song helps us to pray, “let it begin with me.”

Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor. “Wherever the Way May Lead.” Home By Another Way. (1999, Cowley Publications.”

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor.

[3] Frederick W. Schmidt, “Preaching Advent: a Theocentric Approach in an Anxious World,” Journal for Preachers (Advent 2017).

[4] Dennis Sanders, “December 10, Second Sunday of Advent,” Christian Century (8 Nov. 2017).

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