Advent finds us all in different places
Today I had the privilege of preaching at Spirit of Grace, a wonderful and welcoming congregation in Beaverton, Oregon. The readings for the day and my remarks follow.
Today is the second Sunday of Advent, this season of anticipation for the birth of Jesus and all that it means to those of us who believe in him. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this is a challenging time -- partly because of the culture and society around us, which seem to have their own understandings of Christmas. And partly because this year Advent, as it always seems to do, finds us all in different places.
For some of us, this is a season of joy, of childlike wonder, when expectation fuels excitement and creates extra energy.
For others of us, Advent almost always comes with a long “to-do list.” Some of it is fun; some of it is frustrating. But we rush to complete every task by December 24.
Those of us who follow the news this Advent season see the brokenness of the world, of our country, of our own communities. Given all that is going on, or not going on, we often feel the weight of depression and despair, in a time when we had hoped to see light and possibility.
And for a few of us, this particular Advent may be a time when sadness or loss colors our lives. Our pain seems all the more vivid now because the rest of the world is decked out in red and green.
So, this second Sunday of Advent finds us all in different places. And to be honest with you, before this season ends, I will probably have been in all those places myself. But, thankfully, I think today’s Scripture reaches out to us, wherever we may be.
We would do well to remember that the first reading today, from Isaiah 40, was aimed at people who had lived in exile for almost a generation. The prophet was speaking to the people of Judah and Jerusalem, to a remnant of them anyway, to those who had survived a stunning defeat, a “shattering disaster,” 50 years before. The Babylonian Empire had swept through the kingdom of Judah. They had killed Jews, destroyed villages and towns, and laid waste to Jerusalem. They they had torn apart the temple, the holy place where the Jews believed God lived. Finally, to make matters worse, the Babylonians rounded up the best and the brightest and the most skilled of the Jews, forced them to leave their homes and live in another country, far, far away.
This exile all but broke the people of Judah. The Psalms record their anger, their grief, their yearning, their bitterness. Some were consumed by guilt -- many of them had not led upright lives. Others felt forsaken by God and mourned for the homes and loved ones they had lost. The biblical book of Lamentations describes the ruins of Jerusalem and says the sacred stones of the temple were scattered at the top of every street.
But, as often happens with empires, Babylon eventually fell. The new conqueror, Cyrus of Persia, declared an end to the exile and decreed that the Jews could go home. But, as often happens, freedom came with fear. What would the people find when they went back to Judah, back to Jerusalem? Their homes and villages might still be in ruins. Or other people might have claimed and rebuilt them. And with the temple destroyed, God surely must have moved on.
Isaiah, and other prophets before him, reminded the people over and over again that God was not bound to one place, especially not to a stone temple in Jerusalem. God has been with you in exile, the prophets said, and God awaits you at home.
“Comfort, O Comfort my people,” Isaiah writes. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem . . . make straight a highway . . . every mountain and hill made low . . . uneven ground leveled out . . . do not fear . . . Here is your God!“
Isaiah asks his people to have faith despite what they have seen and heard, despite their doubts and fears. Isaiah calls them to act on that faith, not to linger in the ruins of Babylon, but to go home and remake their lives.
Today’s second reading, from Peter’s second letter, was inspired long after the Babylonian exile ended. After the birth of Jesus and his death and resurrection. This letter was addressed to a community like this one, a church united by their belief in Jesus and challenged by those who doubted his promises. This letter was written at a time when the church’s critics had grown bold. Yes, the followers of Jesus believed that he was coming back to them, in glory. But months, weeks, years had passed, and it hadn’t happened yet.
“Where is the promise of his coming,” some sneered at the church. Questions and doubts threatened to take hold of the community: What is taking so long? Maybe he isn’t coming.
Peter cuts quickly to the chase. Remember “this one fact,” he says. “With the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” His point, some people say, is that God experiences time differently that we human beings do. But I’m not sure about that. Peter is saying that for God, time is both fast and slow, both short and long. I have that same experience, don’t you? When I am sad or lonely, time drags. When I am happy and excited, time flies. I think Peter means that the passage of time is not something we control. But those times when it seems to drag may work to our advantage.
Maybe what we experience as delay is evidence of God’s patience, Peter argues. We can use this time to prepare for Jesus’ coming. Because when he does come “like a thief in the night,” all this -- the things, the stuff, the objects that we have made or built or bought, all the things that consume our attention -- even the elements they are made of -- will all be burned away.
We will be left with nothing but ourselves. And those selves, Peter goes on to say, should be at peace, “without spot or blemish.” I don’t know about you, but getting myself to place where I am at peace and without spot or blemish, will require some effort. Peter reminds us that our waiting is not idle time, to be spent dozing before the fire, waiting for Jesus to knock on the door. We all have work to do. God is not stalling just to catch us off guard or unprepared. God wants us all to come to repentance.
Which brings us to the Gospel, the beginning verses of Mark, which build on the imagery of Isaiah. Once again, the setting is the wilderness, and we learn that a messenger, sent from God, will “prepare the way of the Lord” and “make his paths straight.” Mark is not talking about building a highway home, as Isaiah did, but about straightening out crooked paths. And in Mark’s mind, the straighter path -- the more direct route -- lies through the wilderness. And many of us know that to be true.
Mark also introduces us to John the baptizer, giving us just enough detail to make him seem odd and old-school at the same time. John is clothed in animal skins, a strip of hide wrapped around his waist. John’s appearance connected those who saw him then and hear about him now with an earlier time in our sacred history. It connects us to the days of the prophets -- who always spoke for God whether or not the people wanted to listen.
Hear what John is saying now: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” John has just described himself as lower even than a slave. But here he is, baptizing “people from the whole of Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem,” who have come to him to confess their sins. John is a humble man, who acts with power, in the service of others.
And he is not done talking: “I have baptized you with water,” John says, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” I think John, who lives in the wilderness, speaks humbly, does what he can and promises even more, is the prophet of Advent, the embodiment of this season. I would like to be more like him.
I told you I think today’s Scriptures speak to all of us, wherever we find ourselves.
If we are joyful, excited and energized about the birth of Jesus, these readings are a reminder that some of the energy we feel should be directed toward ourselves. So that we will be ready for Jesus and the work he requires of us. Not that we should become glum or self-absorbed, but that we should use the gift of God’s patience to create and foster qualities that won’t burn away on the day of the Lord.
If we are saddled with an overwhelming “to-do list,” we need to remember that we are not alone in our efforts. Helping others and receiving help are both part of our Advent experience. Remember that God is not bound to one place, one day or a single experience of time. Faith can re-write our “to-do” lists.
If we follow the news and see the brokenness all around us, we should not give in to communal depression and despair. Our “shattering disaster” is not the first one we have endured. We have been and can be a remnant people, passing through the wilderness. With God’s help, we can find our way home and rebuild our lives.
And, finally, if we are struggling with some kind of sorrow, these readings remind us that sometimes the most direct path forward passes through the wilderness. We can take one step at a time and remember that we are not walking alone.
No matter where we are this Advent, no matter the challenges that we face, I think I can summarize this message from Isaiah, 2 Peter and Mark in what we used to call a “nut graf” at the newspaper -- a quick and clean statement telling readers why we were writing this particular story, why we were writing it now and what difference it would make to them. So here is my nut graf this morning: God is already here. Be prepared. The Lord is coming again.