“Turn Around,” December 8, 2019, the Rev. Louise Kalemkerian

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Second Sunday of Advent

In the name of our all-loving God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

Advent has traditionally been a season of preparation. The church over the centuries has come to understand that Christians need to set aside regular times of the year to consider again the full significance of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The meaning and joy of Christmas will easily elude us unless we make a focused effort to dwell ahead of time on all the promises of God that have come to fulfillment in Jesus’ birth.

The church’s traditional Advent practice stands in tension with contemporary culture. The rhythms of our secular, consumer society have displaced the church year. In our society, preparations for Christmas often begin at Thanksgiving and have been reduced to hanging twinkling Christmas lights, listening to cheery holiday music, and gazing at an abundance of material goods for the buying, all of which we hope will evoke in us a sense of magical, childlike wonder and goodwill.

How different is the preparation to which John the Baptist calls both the people of Israel, and us!  As he comes out of the wilderness, the first words we hear from John are jarring and offensive.  “Repent,” he yells, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

I’m guessing most everyone here is made uncomfortable by that word “repent.”  I certainly am. And it’s closely associated with the word “sin.” Many of us, particularly those who grew up in fundamentalist circles have heard these words as an indication of our worthlessness or shamefulness, or even as condemnation.

The word repent actually means, “turning around” or “changing direction.” It means changing our direction toward God and how God would have the world be.  After John has gotten his hearers attention, he reminds his hearers why he calling them to repentance, because, “God’s kingdom is here.”

When Jesus began preaching, he spoke over and over of the kingdom of God.  We pray for it every time we offer the Lord’s Prayer. John is telling us it has arrived!

The kingdom or reign of God is where and when all persons, everywhere, have enough food to eat and clean water and affordable housing, where everyone has quality education and healthcare, where immigrants and strangers are welcomed, where the environment is cared for, where nonviolence always prevails, where racism and sexism and income inequality are non-existent. This is the kingdom John the Baptist is announcing.  And it’s not rocket science to see around us that God’s kingdom still has a long way to go to be fully realized.

As our lesson from Isaiah points out, God’s reign in the animal realm will include the establishment of peace and tranquility among all creatures.  Here, the “world” is understood as God’s Creation.  The vision of the new order for all the world is set forth.[1]  This is the messianic age of reconciliation and peace, the new reality that will break forth in the Kingdom of God.

John the Baptist followed in a long line of OT prophets whose responsibility it was to call people into right relationship with God, to speak truth to power. When the Israelites strayed from God’s ways, it was the prophets who pointed out their disobedience and idolatry and false worship and called them out. As you can imagine, the prophet was not a popular figure in town.

Over and over again each of the prophets, Elijah, Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah and others called the community back from worship of idols and other alien practices into right relationship with God:  love of God first and foremost, and care for the poor, the marginalized, the stranger in their midst, the sick as evidence of that love. In the words of the Micah, “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”[2] For the prophets, the only way of knowing and loving and serving God was in community.  That God cannot be known except in the community of faith.  Right relationship with God was found and grown with others.

This is the tradition into which John came.  A prophet who challenged his people to come into right relationship with God, who said we must turn around, change our minds, find the right direction. Our own culture, and indeed much of Western Christianity has focused on individual salvation, individual relationship with God, and lost the communal focus.  Christianity is perverted by such claims.  John’s call was to the community of faith, with especially harsh words for the community leadership. We are called to know and love and serve God in this faith community.

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.

God’s special concern for the poor and underprivileged permeates the pages of Scripture, and the call for God’s people to seek justice for the oppressed resounds throughout the Bible. We only need look around us to recognize that there are many persons in our community who are hungry, poor, marginalized, hurting.  And John’s words to us are a wake-up call to positive, proactive actions for persons and causes that support those persons on the margins, the environment, racial and economic justice. Participating in the “doing Christmas differently” program, helping children in the Norwalk community, is a proactive action each of us can take, one of many, as we are able.

John’s call to repentance challenges us to ask ourselves hard questions. Are our values in line with Jesus’ values? How do our values express themselves in our lives? What criteria do we use in deciding where to spend our money? In what areas do our values carry over into the way we vote and how we express our opinions? How can we help “catch” those who fall through the safety net in the larger society? How are we giving back to God by caring for others’ welfare as equal to our own? Without this level of deep self-examination, we are in danger of confrontation by the words of Jesus himself: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you to?

Some years ago I remember Bp. Smith reminding us at a gathering of clergy and lay folk that if we love our neighbors as ourselves, we are to want for and work for our neighbor the same comforts, housing, food, healthcare, that we want and enjoy for ourselves. Wow!  That was a real aha! And a goal to work toward.

Know that today’s text is not a Gospel of judgment, of condemnation, of laying on guilt. God always loves us, no matter what, no matter what we do or don’t do.  John the Baptist comes to wake us up and remind us how Jesus wants the world to be.  How you and I have a calling to make the world more into how Jesus wants it to be, nonviolent, welcoming of all, where all are housed and fed and clothed.  How we out of our abundance are called to share and remake the world into the Kingdom of God.  Today.

[1] Journey to Penuel, Advent 2A, November 27, 2016.

[2] Micah 6:8.

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