Second Sunday of Advent
Sermon preached at the Cathedral Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem PA
How do you prepare to encounter holy mystery? I have to admit even as I ask this question I am not sure where I am going with this. Nevertheless, this is the question that has been haunting me lately.
Advent is resonate with particular words: expectation, beginning, the coming. Anticipation, light, adventure. If you are familiar with Advent, if you have been down this road before, you can anticipate being caught unawares (as if such a thing were possible) and having your breath taken away. If Advent is new to you, if you have not encountered this paradoxical Christian season before--where you expect to hear about Mary and angels and baby Jesus, but find instead John the Baptist and words like repentance and prophesies about end times--you're in the right place. Because we hold in tension these two things: the birth of a baby along with new beginnings and the coming of a heavenly King along the end of the world.
It's honestly not easy to wrap your mind around. And that's the point: it is mystery. And Holy Mystery is not a small thing. Nor would we want it to be.
This time, this season, this moment, encompasses the expansiveness of God (as if such a thing were possible) and warns us against making the gospel too small. So much in the world works against keeping us open to mystery--any mystery. Even stories about the coming of our savior can be reduced a kind of test, matching each prophecy to some fact about the man Jesus. As if proving Jesus is true is the only use for the scriptures. Advent gets flattened into a countdown to Christmas. As if getting there is all that matters.
But we don't get ready for the coming of Christ simply by counting the days, because we are getting ready for something much more. This kind of preparation takes nothing less than the prophets. Which is why we began to day thanking God for sending the prophets "to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation." It's why we heard from Malachi and Isaiah in our scriptures today, and also the irascible John.
Bear with me, because to touch some of the mystery that calls to us today, I would like to expand our thinking about John. I would like to take us back to John's birth and the story of his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah. They wanted a child so much, but had been unable to conceive. Then one day when Zechariah is serving in God's sanctuary, the Angel Gabriel visits him and promises that he and his wife will have son. And because Zechariah does not believe Gabriel, he is struck mute. Well, Elizabeth conceives and sequesters herself, remaining in seclusion for five months. And in the sixth month, the Angel Gabriel makes another visit, this time to a young woman you may have heard about--her name is Mary. And Mary comes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and Elizabeth's baby leaps in her womb. But that is another story.
So John is born, and Zechariah still mute, until the moment he writes on a tablet, "His name is John. And then Zechariah's mouth is unstopped. And what a beautiful canticle comes forth.
Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy...
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
So much here: preparation, salvation, forgiveness. Compassion, tenderness, breaking dawn.
This is what we are preparing for: In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us. This is who Jesus is coming for: those who dwell in darkness, those who cower in the shadow of death, those who hearts are constricted with fear and anxiety. And Jesus comes for you when you are the one who is beaten down by illness or addiction or depression, when you are the one who puts a good face on things while trying to hold your broken life together, when you are the one who has failed the ones you love.
This is what John is doing in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of forgiveness, a cleansing ritual that is bigger than anything you can imagine. And this is how big the promise is, why John quotes Isaiah: all flesh shall see the salvation of God. All flesh shall see the salvation of God. God's promise of new life is not a limited gift for a few people. This is about redeeming all of creation. Just think about it
This is not a small thing that God is about. It is big. It is holy mystery.
So...how do we prepare for this? What spiritual discipline, or artistic endeavor, or mindful practice can possibly prepare us, or our hearts, for the coming of Jesus (as if such a thing were possible). Well, here's the thing. Here's the amazing thing about God. God does not leave us on our own. God does not set the impossible before us and then just walk away.
As artist and Methodist ministry Jan Richardson says, “We sometimes fall so easily into thinking that preparing is something we do. … I feel drawn to ask, How have I already been prepared? What way has been made within me, without my having been aware of it at the time? …And you? What road runs through your heart even now, ready for Christ to enter?”
How do you prepare to encounter holy mystery? Perhaps we begin by trusting that God is already at work within us. And knowing this for the expansive, exquisite, astounding good news that it is.
Come, Lord Jesus