ADVENT 2, Yr A. Dec 8 2019
He is a man unlike any other. A man with a unique sense of fashion and a most original paleo diet. And he is out there- doing his thing.
Of all the biblical characters in the New Testament, next to Jesus, John the Baptist is my favorite. And on this second Sunday of Advent, we find ourselves on the banks of the River Jordan with non other than the man himself, John the Baptist. He is the herald and all the Gospel writers agree that there is no Gospel of Jesus, the good news of God cannot be realized without John the Baptist. Described by Jesus as the greatest of prophets. John took his mission, which was to declare the imminent arrival of the coming Messiah, very seriously.
From what we read about John the Baptist, John was fearless. He was not afraid of Herod or Herod’s wife, who in the end arranged to have head.
He was totally devoted to the One for whom he came to prepare the way, saying to his followers, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” This wild figure dressed in camel’s hair would more likely be depicted as a cartoon image holding a sign that reads, “Get ready, the end is near!”
So there is John the crazy, wild looking guy out in the wilderness – far away from the places of power. He is a prophet in the classical sense. Not a predicter of the future but the voice of God. Calling the people to repentance. John proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” I want to focus for a moment on two aspects of that phrase Repent and kingdom of heaven. Now the crowds from Jerusalem and the surrounding regions line up to hear John and to be baptized in the Jordan. Why do they flock to hear John? Perhaps they have become disheartened by the quality of their lives and welcome the call for change.
If we look deeper into a Jewish understanding of the word, “repent,” to repent or to return, is to follow the prepared way of the Lord. It is to return to a path that leads us back to reconnecting with the God who made us and loves us beyond our understanding.
To repent doesn’t mean to simply be sorry. In the New Testament, to repent means to begin seeing differently, to begin thinking differently, both of which lead to acting and living differently. To repent is to change, but not for the sake of change itself. Rather, when we change, we start to LIVE differently, because as we enter a new mindset or as we develop a new way of seeing, we become aware that our actions are out of step with God’s dream for all creation.
And what is God’s dream for all creation? The answer to that question can be found throughout Scripture. But notably from our other prophet Isaiah – God’s dream is for the world to be a place in which peace and equity – rather than fear and hatred – rule the day.
Where the wolf shall dance with the lamb, the lion will eat grass with the cow- it is the description of a world turned on its head. And it is turned on its head because of power of God and THIS is the world that God dreams for us.
God dreams for the world to be a place where we view each other with compassion and with love, where all of creation is full of the mercy and the peace of God. Dr. King dreamed of the Beloved Community. Such a dream is one that God calls us to live into not next year, not ten years from today, but right now. – for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
And that is the why of repentance. John does not just shout, “Repent!” and that is the end of it. We need a why to go with the what of repentance. For those of us who follow God in the Way of Love, it is Jesus who defines our new mindset and a new way of seeing the world and the path that leads us back to God. Deciding to try to live and love like Jesus is what Christian repentance is all about.
So many of us have been taught to believe that when we hear the word “repent” it is because we have done something wrong, that we have sinned and are in need of a change of heart, mind, and body in order that we might live a new life. Such Repentance is weighed down with the burden of guilt and shame.
Again, repentance is about shifting our way of thinking back to God. So then, what if we choose to hear John’s call of “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near”- not as an ominous threat of impending condemnation, but as an invitation to live into God’s dream?
In this advent season, we sing Come O Come Emmanuel- That word Emmanuel, means “God with us”. We pray for the coming of God in our midst. This is a season of preparation it is a season and a time that is devoted to trying to see the world differently, not as WE think we should see the world, but as GOD sees the world.
As children of God, we need to hear and heed the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness – the voice that reminds us of God’s dream. We need to take the time to seek God’s vision for us – to ask, “What does God want us to be and to do?” God invites us all to dream BIG and to dream something beyond what we can presently see – the poor, the suffering, the imprisoned, the refugee, the homeless, the hungry, those who have lost loved ones through acts of violence. These are dreams by which to set a course. God does not ask us if we are there yet, but rather whether we are headed in the right direction.
Following Paul’s counsel, we who have glimpsed God’s dream must now share that hope. Like John, we must strive to renew the hopes of an exhausted world. With practice, we can be like Isaiah, who can see beyond the mess and dream of a world in which all are ready for the arrival of God.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” - “Repent, live into God’s Dream.” This is John the Baptist’s invitation for us to come home and to be the people God has created us to be. Amen.
Now that thanksgiving is behind us and we have awakened bleary eyed in the early morning of black Friday to seek out that very special bargain. I have to ask, is it worth either staying up all night to get that place in line in the HOPE of being one of a few lucky people who just might score a 55” TV for 299.99 or whatever it is.
The holiday decorations have been in Costco since August there was Christmas music on the radio before Thanksgiving. So, now what?
Now, it seems we wait. In the cycle of the Church calendar, we have entered into a new liturgical year- the season of Advent. Literally, the word Advent means, “coming”. Theologically, for Christians, Advent has to do with preparing for the coming of Christ. We change the color of the hangings in the chapel from Green to Blue. On this first Sunday of we add the penitential order. But the season of Advent is not to be confused with Lent. We also light our advent wreathe as we prepare and count the days toward the birth of the Savior. This short period is not primarily a time of penitence but rather a time to joyfully prepare for the coming of Christ.
In Advent the liturgy deals with contrasts: light and dark; joy and sorrow; beginning and end; and, especially, chronological time and God’s time. We discover in Advent that God’s time is of the kind described not by clocks and calendars but in terms like “the time is ripe,” or “in the fullness of time.” (See, for example, Galatians 4.)
We have these Candles in an Advent wreath to help us visually mark chronological time. One candle is lit for each Sunday in Advent. Remember I said the symbolism of contrasts? As the days become shorter the light from the candles grows until when it is darkest, that is, the longest night of the year on Dec 21, the wreath is the brightest- just four days before Christmas.
But it would not be honest of us to simply see Advent as a sweet sugar plumb run up to Christmas. Yes, it IS that, but if we consider the readings before us, the beginning of the liturgical year is anything but sweet. The first Sunday of Advent begins the new year celebration by focusing on the End of time – and that’s end with a capital E- with the expectation of Jesus’ final return among us. There is a fancy word for this incredible end of the cosmos- it’s not the Apocalypse- It’s the Eschaton.
The First Sunday of Advent is concerned with the Lord’s return as Judge of his people and of the whole created order. The eschaton and Jesus’ return is not simply a return which happens haphazardly, but neither can it be forecast by the clock or the calendar. There is a theme of “wake up! Be ready!”
The birth of Jesus marked the first arrival of Jesus, but for Matthew, the entire life of Jesus, his birth, ministry, death, and resurrection comprise are all part of the Great Plan in which church is already living and always will live in the turning of the ages. The End has begun. Matthew strives to answer the question: how are we to live in-between “the already” of the salvation we have experienced in Christ and the “not yet” of that salvation not being fully consummated in the world? I will admit that Matthew’s approach is rather complex and multi layered. But know this: Matthew is peaking largely metaphorically and not literally. He is not predicting what will happen at the very end when Jesus returns. He is describing a a state of being- a way of living in the faith that calls the Christian community to live in such a way AS IF Jesus’ return were immanent.
Living faithfully in this present time of Christian discipleship does not mean that we can rest on God’s grace. Together, in these four weeks there is a sense of hope, expectation, and urgency. Something is happening, something wonderful, yet uncertain.
Each and every day of our lives is filled with an Advent hope. Advent is not simply a time to await the coming of Christmas. And I would also suggest that it is not just a time for Christians. Advent is a time to renew and enlarge our hopes, to tap into the deepest hopes of the human race for the age that is to come- hopes of justice- hopes of liberation- hopes of love and forgiveness. There is a sense of urgency that wakes us up from our complacency.
Advent challenges us to prepare ourselves and our world for the full coming of the kingdom. That Jesus is coming doesn’t’ mean we live our lives and our faith in fear. We live it in hope that Advent challenges in preparing for that same kingdom to break down the barriers of race, culture, age, religion, sex, orientation, or and find new beginnings. That is the kind of world, the kind of kingdom Isaiah is speaking about in today’s readings. A world where God’s presence will be the judge where people will beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. We city folk don’t see many plough shares or pruning hooks theses days, but Isaiah is talking about talking the tools of war and melting them down to make something new, something that can be used to feed the hungry and build communities rather than destroy.
We need advent, we need this time for words of hope for a better tomorrow. We need this time to be reminded that darkness, though it may seem to be growing cannot over power the light. That God, is still very real and present in the midst of it all and will usher in a kingdom and a kingship that is like no other. That kingdom of justice and peace cannot exist without the power of God working in us to make it so.
“ ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ ” This is the message of Advent. Amen.
The Rev. Daniel L. Leatherman is priest in charge of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church.