Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Second Sunday of Advent – December 5, 2010
May the whole world be restored to hope, the heavens suing aloud with the promise of good to come, and God: Creator, Redeemer, and Spirit be with us in each moment. Amen.
Every Sunday, in between joyful strains of music and song, we are asked to become attentive and enter into a time of quiet during which we listen to ancient texts read to us by a member of the community, all of which are at least 2000 years old, some much older. That’s the text — not the members of the parish.
Out tradition believes that these ancient texts, written in a time and place and language that was very different from ours, convey the dynamic, promising, at times challenging, word of God — written not only for those who first read them but for our time and place as well.
These scriptures were compiled over a 4000-year period, produced by communities of faith, by their experience of God’s presence and dealings with them. Still, when we hear these texts — some of which may seem so out of touch with our modern world — we may ask ourselves, “How is any of this relevant to my life? Or, more to the point, what are the religious truths that are embedded in these texts that I need to uncover — truths to which I need to pay attention — so that they may guide my life?”
Religious truths. You know, there are at least three major ones: (1) the Jewish people do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah; (2) Episcopalians, among others, do not recognize the Pope as the head of the Christian Church; and (2) Southern Baptists do not recognize each other in the liquor store.
In this short season of Advent — the church’s time of preparation for Christmas — what do we recognize in the scriptures, in these ancient texts and the stories they tell, as truths that make most sense for us, that speak to us most profoundly? For the young among us, it may be the story of the baby Jesus — how God’s Son came to earth as an infant, born in a stable, surrounded by shepherds and barn animals.
There may be some of us who connect with the message John about repentance and change. We may be in a stage or situation of our life when we feel the call to live differently.
Μετενοια (mentenoia)—the original Greek word for repentance literally means “to change one’s mind”— and suggests for me a turning around from where we are — maybe in a place of isolation, fear, and darkness — to a richer, fuller, more faithful life.
Or, perhaps, you are drawn in by the words of Isaiah, and their invitation to look forward to a time when God would make everything right and “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them,” God’s promise of a New Creation yet to come.
Where we are on any given Sunday — both in terms of global geography and in our own space and situation in life — can determine what we hear when the scripture is read. I wonder what Christians in Korea or Iraq hear in the texts we heard today? Or those who live in parts of our country severely impacted by the economy? What do you hear if you’ve just lost a loved one or if you are living with a life-threatening illness? A fundamentalist Christian group in Omaha, that believes Jesus is coming back on May 21, 2011, will surely hear something very different from us no matter what scripture is read in their congregation.
One of the issues we need to face is that — as thoroughly modern people who have been indoctrinated by a secular philosophy that we are privileged people and much smarter and advanced in every way than everyone who got before us — most of all those who lived and wrote the texts we heard today — we may dismiss as irrelevant much of what is read in those quiet times when the word of God is proclaimed.
Just take this character John the Baptist, for example. This image of an exotic, barefoot, disheveled character dressed in camel’s hair whose diet consisted of locusts and wild honey might seem very odd to us. What can he possibly tell us that makes sense for our lives? Yet the image of a fat, red-cheeked, bearded old man dressed in red, who drives a sleigh of eight reindeer across the world is not a bit peculiar?
Here in Norwalk, Connecticut, on a cold December morning, what do we make of this passage from the Good News of the Gospel that, at first glance, seems to be bad news — words of judgment, images of winnowing forks and unquenchable fire?
First, we must recognize that all passages of scripture must be read in the context of the whole story God is telling us. Martin Luther was fond of saying that the scripture is like the swaddling clothes wrapped around the infant Jesus. We don’t worship the Bible; we worship the Savior to whom all scripture — in diverse and sometimes paradoxical ways — points as the full revelation about the truth of God. But, if we are brutally honest, we will admit that its inconsistencies and contradictions can come across as a mess.
What if we begin to understand the scripture as a journey through many, many centuries and years, on which people of all times and places have embarked in order to try to hear God — to hear what the Spirit is saying to us — and to help us follow God faithfully? And the exciting news is that we are still on that journey. The repentance to which John the Baptist called the Pharisees and Sadducees — and to which the Gospel calls us — is not a condemnation and command to atone for the grocery list of transgressions of which we are all culpable.
It is an invitation to reorder our lives, change the way we think, expand our minds about the possibility of a New Creation — even one that is in progress right now — and allow God’s grace to give us a better perspective about what God wants for us. Repentance means doing something positive, something proactive — turning ourselves around and facing in a new direction.
Jesuit Scholar Dean Brackley writes, “The worst danger is not pain or poverty. The worst danger is sleeping through the drama of life.” Can we expect and facilitate God’s work of renewal and transformation in our lives and communities?
I’d like to renew the suggestion I offered last Sunday for keeping Advent. What if all of us would engage others in our community — both here at St. Paul’s and out in the world — by telling each other how the stories of these ancient texts mesh with our story? What questions do they raise? What are we hearing in it? What feelings get stirred up? What are our wildest dreams and our deepest hopes?
Scripture is both rich and multilayered. The Holy Spirit speaks through it to each of us in ways that are personal, encouraging, confusing, and challenging. It is one of the great adventures of the thing we call our faith journey. So, hear what the Spirit is saying to you — you who are the church. What truths in the drama of your life do they address right now, right here, on this Second Sunday of Advent?