Monday, December 08, 2014

in the wilderness

Sermon 12-7-14
Manassas Church of the Brethren
Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

A couple of years ago, I decided to stay away from social media during Advent. Advent isn’t traditionally a season of LESS, but I was feeling pretty overwhelmed with all that the winter months required, and wanted to focus more on Jesus, less on status updates.

I put a little note on my facebook page that I was going to fast from Facebook for Advent, and signed off. While I was home for Christmas, my family went out to brunch with some good friends from the church where I grew up, Sue and Michael and their young adult kids. Their daughter Meg, who is a really sharp lady but in this case, a little slower on the uptake, thanked me for the seasonal reminder she’d seen on my Facebook page. “I saw that and I thought, OH RIGHT! IT’s ADVENT! And I remembered that it was fasting time. So I quit eating meat.”

“Yeah,” her mom chimed in, “she called me and asked about the meatballs we always have for Christmas Eve dinner. She told me she wasn’t eating meat and asked if we could have vegetarian meatballs. I thought, huh, that’s weird, but sure, I love her and if she wants vegetarian meatballs, I’ll make ‘em!”

So Meg spent December not eating meat, and Sue spent the month looking for meatless meatball recipes. When they all gathered on Christmas Eve, Meg’s brother Jeremy made a beeline for the meatballs. He bit into the first one, and, realizing something was not quite right, spit it out immediately. “What IS this?!” Sue said, “Well, Meg isn’t eating meat right now so she asked for vegetarian meatballs. I found the recipe and made some.” “Why aren’t you eating meat, Meg?” Jeremy asked. “Because it’s ADVENT, Jeremy! Don’t you know you’re supposed to FAST during ADVENT?”

“MEG,” he yelled, mad about the meatless meatballs at his Christmas Eve dinner, “It’s ADVENT, when we CELEBRATE. YOU FAST DURING LENT!”

To be honest, I feel a little bad about being somehow responsible for the meatless meatball incident. Despite my impulse to simplify and get off the internet, Advent is not, traditionally, a time of fasting. The big thing we’re anticipating is the coming of Christ, the incarnation of God, the gift of love’s presence among us. This is not Lent, when we look ahead to an unfair trial, unjust death, grieving community, and despair of the cross. We want this season to be one of celebration, connection, generosity and abundance. We want all our dinners to be authentic feasts - no sacrifices or substitutions allowed.

Advent is a time of joy – and well it should be. The birth of Christ is almost unimaginable in its glory, in its importance. In Eastern Christianity, the incarnation – God becoming human and dwelling with us here on earth – is considered even more important than the resurrection. That God would decide to join us in this way, to love us in this way that we might begin to understand…that’s huge. And joyful. And glorious. All the celebrating we do this time of year is GOOD.

And still, the scriptures we read during these weeks are not exactly gilded with gold. They’re sort of scary – stars falling from the sky and crazy guys yelling prophecies out in the desert. If Advent is time for celebration, why is it that the stories of this season are so strange?

For instance: today we have John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness. You know John the Baptist, right? He’s Jesus’ cousin. He’s the kid who made a fuss in his mom’s womb when the in-utero Jesus and HIS mom, Mary, showed up. He’s the guy who got in so much trouble for messing in the marital drama of King Herod that he was beheaded and had his head delivered to the Queen on a platter. That’s in scripture – I’m not making it up.

John had quite the life, but it’s his beginning that gets the most attention. He’s the one whose priest father, Zechariah, was struck dumb for not believing the angel who came to tell him that he would have a kid in his old age. And when Zechariah finally regained the ability to talk, eight days after his son was born, he opened his mouth and sang one of the most beautiful songs in all of scripture:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us
    in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71     that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
    and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
    to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness
    before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

“By the tender mercy of our God” is one of my favorite phrases of all time. And it gets followed up with “the dawn from on high will break upon us,” and that dawn, brought to us by the mercy of the God to whom we belong and who belongs to us – our God – is meant to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. And that light will guide our feet into the way of peace.

This is some seriously hopeful stuff. And it helps us to know that this is the context out of which John shows up, wearing camel’s hair and leather, eating locusts and honey, wandering out in the wilderness preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins.

This context is how we know that John isn’t just a crazy guy on the street corner screaming nonsensical things into a megaphone. He was born a prophet, meant to herald the coming King and remind people what they ought to be doing to prepare for the glorious resurrection and celebration that is to come. John’s job – described in his father’s song of rejoicing at his new son’s birth and the recovery of his own voice – was to point out the signs of God making his way through the wilderness, to point those signs out to God’s own people.

I’m reading this great devotional right now, and the author talks about John the Baptist and Zechariah’s song to him. Imagine, he says, Zechariah cradling his baby boy in his arms and singing this song of hope and promise to him. And remember, the author says, no matter what your luck is in the human-father department, this song is for you, too. Only Jesus can be Jesus, but every one of us can be John the Baptist, pointing out where we see God on the move, preparing the way for the coming King.

I’ll confess that I am typically better at seeing the messy and painful realities than I am at watching out for signs of God moving through it all. And, some weeks seem more filled with those things than others. If you pay attention to the news, this week may have been one of those weeks. Our justice system struggles to accommodate the complexities of race and the job of law enforcement, our public universities struggle to care well for students who’ve been sexually assaulted. Our sisters and brothers in Nigeria continue to face increasing physical and religious violence, and radical militias are doing some serious killing in the name of God. Even if you’re not attuned to the news of the world, the news of your own life – especially during these days when rejoicing seems almost mandatory, even for those of us who would rather be practicing lament - might be enough to obscure the promise of God’s imminent incarnation.

But we are not alone.

In Mark’s gospel, John the Baptist arrives to the tune of an ancient text. Mark knows that his hearers will immediately recognize these famous verses from the prophet Isaiah, and that they will mean something specific. “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” the way Mark opens his story of good news, is either a direct quote or a faithful riff on Isaiah 40:

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

The author of this passage from Isaiah knows what it means to struggle to see God at work in a messy world. The book of Isaiah is actually a combination of the writings of at least 2 different prophets, and chapter 40 – where this text comes from – is the beginning of what scholars call “deutero-Isaiah,” or the place where the 2nd author picks up. This second Isaiah was writing during the time of the Babylonian exile: Israel’s land had been overtaken and all the people had been forced out. Isaiah writes about a voice in the wilderness because his people were actually living in the wilderness.

Far from home and unsure when – if ever – they’d be able to return, Isaiah’s people lived in exile and in hope. They knew what it was to be forced out of comfort, security and home. They knew the fear of living in an occupied land, and the brokenness of a world constantly at war. They knew what injustice looked like, and how it felt to be left vulnerable to violence and uncertainty.

So when Isaiah writes that a voice is crying out in the wilderness, that God is coming and everyone should get busy preparing the way for him to sweep through, he’s not talking about a metaphorical exile. For Isaiah, the issue at hand is not some philosophical ennui or psychological platitude. The King is coming to save his people in the midst of real exile, complicated situations of justice, messy questions of territory, identity, and life.

In the same way, Mark paints a picture of Jesus entering into a world of deep need, deep confusion, deep pain. John the Baptist calls for the people to confess their sins, to be honest about their pain and the pain of their world, and to accept forgiveness and newness right there in the Jordan River.

And that seems really hopeful to me – that Isaiah’s predicted return from exile and Jesus’ incarnate birth happened not once everything finally got resolved and everyone was fully prepared for salvation at last, but those restorations happened, instead, deep in the midst of the current realities.

So, is Advent meant for celebrating? Or is Advent meant for fasting? Was Meg right to give up meat in preparation for the feast? Or was Jeremy closer to the truth in insisting on the abundance of the season?

The incredible, difficult thing is: yes. Both. Advent is celebration of the coming kingdom. And it is also and at the same time, being honest about the current messy realities. We travel through the wilderness pointing out signs of the coming kingdom, eyes wide open to the pain around us, hearts wide open to the promise that salvation has come and is again on its way. Like John the Baptist, we pay attention, we make note of the signs, and we speak up. We get to be voices crying out in the wilderness, preparing a way.

So what should we be doing, here in the midst of our own world? We all get to be John the Baptist, right? I’d advise against the camel hair ensemble – I hear it’s itchy. And locusts & honey just sounds…gross. So how is it that we prepare ways in the wilderness, make it known that God is on God’s way, that salvation is at hand? There are as many answers to that question as there are people in this room.

We can take a cue from John’s own suggestions, though. John says: repent. Confess your sins. Live holy lives. Repentance is a scary word. It calls to mind images of fire and brimstone, judgment and punishment. But I think it starts with opening our ears and our hearts to the possibility that we might, in fact, be wrong about something. Or, that there may be another way of understanding a particular part of the world that’s different than we’re used to. Repentance starts with openness to correction, with ears amenable to listening to the voice of another. Repentance opens the way for feasting and fasting in faith – for living in exile and in hope. It keeps us honest about what is and open to what might be. It gives us eyes to see ourselves how we really are, and the promise to imagine ourselves how we were created to be.

How can we make ways in the wilderness through repentance? I think it starts with listening to the voices we’ve been avoiding. For me, right now, those voices are the voices of people of color, sisters and brothers whose experience of American life is so drastically different from my own that they – along with many others who’ve been listening – have been driven to protesting in the streets this week.

There was a demonstration at my seminary this week – called a “die-in,” because hundreds of students lay down in the courtyard between Candler School of Theology and Cannon Chapel, singing hymns and holding signs and chanting. The University posted photos of the protest, and one of the photos brought me up short. A young, black seminary student lay prostrate on the red brick courtyard, most of his body obscured by a poster-board sign. The sign said: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” Mark 1:3.

(image from Emory's facebook page)

I am trying to listen for those voices in this wilderness, trying to withhold my own quick judgment so that I might make way for repentance, that my own repentance might become a small part of preparing a way in the wilderness, might make room for the coming Kingdom.

What is it that you’ll listen to or for this Advent? What repentance will you allow, what wilderness paths will you sweep clear? How will you fast? And how will you feast?

It is Advent. We are preparing. We are celebrating. We are making a way.

Because our God is on the way.

And Isaiah says: Don’t be afraid.


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