Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Second Sunday of Advent – December 8, 2013
The blessing of God, the creator and savior of humankind is upon us with peace and with promise. Amen.
A posting on a church-related blog says, “Advent is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Church Year. It gets no respect. In the mad rush to Christmas, the season of Advent can get pushed aside like hapless shoppers in the way of a bargain at Wal-Mart. But Advent is also the antidote for the commercial Christmas frenzy and a template for our entire lives.”One might say that this is a kind of prophetic message. We hear from them often on most Sundays. A prophet is someone who claims to have been contacted by the divine, and to speak for them, serving as an intermediary with humanity, delivering some message called a prophecy. Prophets have existed in many cultures through history, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, even in Ancient Greece. In our weekly worship, we hear from several of them, perhaps the more familiar ones being Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.
Prophets are regarded as having a role in society that promotes change. The word comes from the Greek word προφήτης (profétés) meaning advocate. I think that is an important understanding because it suggests that the prophets are not our antagonists. They are on our side. They want to encourage and support us on our life’s journey.
Yes, even crusty, old John the Baptist. He is a strange sort and yet the framers of our worship give him not one but two opportunities to rant and rave in Advent. We can’t ignore him. He appears in all four Gospels at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. His message is pretty straightforward: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Later, we hear Jesus tell us the same thing. Repentance. Matthew’s Gospel places a significant amount of emphasis on it. In the original Greek, the word is μéτανοια—which means literally “to change one’s mind” –to have a change of attitude and heart, to do a complete turn around. We sometimes refer to this as transformation.
Writing for The Christian Century several years back, author Rosalind Brown says, “John greeted those who came to him with the demand for repentance and baptism, or rebuffed them as a brood of vipers—hardly a gentle welcome from God. Why these demands? Because so much has gone so very wrong. Our world is full of injustice, oppression, and unrighteousness, so something has to give when God enters this world—and it is not going to be God.”
When John the Baptist comes over that desert horizon, smelling of camel’s hair and honey, he is pointing toward a way that we can make only by what we give up, what we shed, what we let go of. I suggested that in last Sunday’s sermon as a way to be able to wear the “armor of light” that our Patron Paul spoke about in his letter to the Romans.
Perhaps, shedding the fears and worries that weigh us down and that we wrap around us like heavy winter coats, smothering our sense of joy; shedding the blinders that prevent us from recognizing how many have nothing to put on, no reason to hope.
Letting go of our unreal expectations of what we’re supposed to be doing to conform to the unwritten rules of our culture and our guilt about the embarrassment of our personal abundance, allowing our plenteousness to be the source of giving to those who live in scarcity.
John’s fiery words, especially those he addresses to the Pharisees and Sadducees, can be overwhelming with their utter intensity and disturbing bluntness. My guess is that the Pharisees and Sadducees who came out to hear him preach that day did not expect the cold reception they got. They were the religious elite, strongly opposed to the ministry of Jesus. They thought that, just because they were descendants of Abraham, they had a direct line to God. They believed that their ancestry was a protection from God’s anger.
“You brood of vipers!” You snake-like phonies! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? John as much as says that descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. It’s what we do with our life, how we treat one another, what is in our heart and, most importantly, the good fruits we bear that matters,—not our pedigree. And, if we think we’re on God’s “A list,” and look down on others we think are not, we better climb out of the sewer of holier-than-thou-ness.
Prophets see and feel the depths of human misery and are unafraid to confront the reasons behind it. The Episcopal Church joins South Africa and the rest of the world in mourning the death of Nelson Mandela, prophet and witness to justice. His leadership spanned decades leading to the establishment of a nation that aspires to serve the freedom and dignity of all people. He helped the world to see a vision of God’s economy. John the Baptist’s wilderness was the desert; for seventeen years, Nelson Mandela’s was a prison cell.
Every age produces prophets, some the prophets of doom, some the “false prophets” about whom Jesus warned us and then some endowed by God with the mission and power to speak the truth, to give their listeners a good dose of reality. The litmus test of their authenticity is found in their calling to give voice to the silence of the forgotten, suffering people.
Our challenge today is to separate out from John’s preaching what was meant for the enemies of Jesus and what is meant for us. There is something that we need to hear within the fierceness of John’s message: Prepare for God’s arrival! Make the road smooth and straight! Make it passable! It is hard to recognize the kingdom of God if there is an obstruction in my path.
In her book Landmarks, Author Margaret Silf points out that in the spiritual life “perhaps we only begin to understand the nature of our imprisonment when we have at least begun to be feed from it…”
She reflects on her life in Berlin during the Cold War era, in a “run-down inner city area, less than fifty meters from the Wall. We were often awakened at night by the sound of shots and the flash of flares.” A blockade prevented the normal flow of traffic along any of the three land routes between West Berlin and West Germany. The only way to travel beyond the city was to use one of three air corridors to the west.
Margaret writes, “Apart from that, Berlin at this time could be encapsulated in the Underground map. A network of streets and squares and junctions named after unknown, and, for me, unimaginable places in the lost hinterland of East Germany.” It never occurred to her that these were anything more than “names on a street plan.” Whenever she traveled the West Berlin underground anywhere, within a half hour she would hear: “This is the end of the line. Please leave the train.”
She recalls, “This memory of Berlin returned to me very vividly one day. Suddenly I could see myself in this beleaguered, harassed city. That was exactly how I felt, when I started to realize my separateness from God…Only the air corridors of my prayer open up a slender connection to my eternal reality.”
In Eternal Echoes, John O’Donohue writes, “Each one of us wants to belong. No one wants to live a life that is cut off or isolated…One of the great dreams of humanity is the founding of a perfect community where longing and belonging would come into sublime response.”
And so it is with the realm of God so deeply longed for, that perfect community. We have scarcely a map to go by—only the wild shouting of a desert-worn prophet and a way of love offered by a Savior. Yet we haven’t seen or walked its streets, have not experienced in our lives the peaceable Kingdom where the wolf shall live with the lamb, where the nursing child plays over the den of the asp, where the lion shall eat straw like the ox, where justice and integrity and decency reign.
In her book, Margaret Silf asks, “what if that shadowy mystery beyond the span of our years turns out to be the real country, to which our earthly days are just fragmented signposts?”
Indeed, how would we live then? How would we live then?