Sermon preached by the Reverend Malinda Johnson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Second Sunday of Advent – December 9, 2012
With his bad diet, bad outfit and let’s face it, bad mood, John the Baptist always shows up early in Advent to whip us into spiritual shape. We may be jumping the gun on Christmas, already over-indulging in all sorts of ways – but not if our ascetic friend, John, here can help it. Rather, he’s got repentance on his mind and he means for us to have it on ours as well before it’s too late. It’s as if he’s shouting “last call” when the party’s barely even started, which reminds me of St. Benedict’s instruction in his Rule to keep death daily before one’s eyes. Talk about “jumping the gun”! Yet what both Benedict and John are suggesting is simply this: confront the moment of truth before it confronts you.
I think it was Samuel Johnson who once said, the proximity of death has a way of focusing one’s attention marvelously; and to keep death daily in sight is simply to attend to things that matter most while there’s still time.
There’s a Zen parable about a man who was walking along when a hungry tiger came charging at him. The man ran for his life, but the tiger gained on him quickly, chasing him all the way to the edge of a cliff. The man figured he had two choices: he could turn around and face the tiger as well as a certain death. Or he could take his chances and jump off the cliff. So off the cliff he jumped and as he scrambled to find a foothold or something to hang on to or stop his fall, he spotted a scrubby tree growing out of the side of the cliff. The desperate man grabbed the tree with both hands and hung on for dear life, breathing an enormous sigh of relief. But then he looked down. And waiting patiently at the bottom of the cliff sat another hungry tiger.
At this point the man happened to notice a small plant growing out of the craggy rock beside him and from that small plant hung a perfectly ripe strawberry. Reaching out with one hand, he plucked the strawberry and savored its sweetness as well as its exquisite beauty.
Like the man in this parable, John the Baptist wants us to reckon with the fact that for us, too, there are tigers up and down, tigers either way. No one is immune to pain and suffering; no one gets out of this world alive. And we’d do well to look for blessings and receive them gladly while we still can.
Now, sin is one of those loaded theological words that can be tricky but I mention it because John’s cry for repentance (for a radical make-over or re-direction of one’s life) makes little sense without it. Let me be really clear, however: I’m not addressing hard-core evil here. All I mean by sin right now are those things – those hang ups or habits of heart and mind, those dubious choices — that prevent ordinary people of faith like John’s followers — and us — from seeing God’s love clearly. And so John the Baptist — who’s always associated with that familiar passage from the prophet Isaiah – he urges us to take inventory right this very minute and do our part: get rid of anything and everything that’s blocking our perception. For instance, maybe you tend to confuse God’s voice your parents, who were impossible to please. Sort that out. Or maybe you’re the perfectionist who simply can’t live up to your own high standards. Well, stop blaming God at least and try practicing imperfection as a new spiritual discipline instead. It seems to me sinning is often about getting stuck – in the status quo, which isn’t healthy or working for us, let’s say; or maybe we’ve just settled for a certain mind-set or way of seeing the world which is distorted by our own fears and insecurities. John wants us to change whatever we need to change and do whatever else it might take to metaphorically pave the way for God’s gift to us in Jesus.
It’s important to remember that repentance (or this inner work that can be so hard it’s likened to leveling a landscape – every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low — it isn’t about judgment or punishment or adding “insult to injury”, as it were. It’s about entrusting the truth of who we really are, finally, to the mercy of God. Sure, there are tigers up and down, tigers either way; but sometimes what terrorizes us most is our own estimation of ourselves in the eyes of God. If nothing else this Advent, forget about being “good enough” or even good. God’s love is a saving gift, not some entitlement or reward.
The meaning and message of the Incarnation is that we are lovable and loved, forgivable and forgiven just as we are; and the biggest spiritual challenge for so many of us is seeing and believing that this is really true. I once worked for a priest who every now and then would pronounce the absolution first before the confession just to drive this point home.
In the first lesson we heard today from Baruch, we’re offered an alternative to that bulldozing image that both Isaiah and Baruch use, another somewhat gentler way of picturing how to receive the gift of salvation — how to live what Henri Nouwen liked to call “the life of the beloved”. Baruch suggests lyrically that it’s like trading threadbare clothes of our own making, clothes that aren’t all that comfortable or flattering anyway, for a custom-made, magnificent wardrobe fit for a king or queen:
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem
and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God.
Put on the robe of righteousness that comes from God;
put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;
for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven.
For God will give you evermore the name,
‘Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.’
It’s time to get ready for Christmas. And it may just be a matter of looking for — and finding — that perfect gift after all.