Monday, December 5, 2011

Prepare the Way of the Lord: Advent 2 Year B

In my office, I have two icons of John the Baptist. They sit between the two chairs across from my desk where they cannot be ignored. As I sit listening and talking with people, they remind me to think beyond the present. They call me to pay attention, to take notice of God’s presence and work among us.

Both of these icons are special to me.  One of them is handmade, or hand-prayed, by a dear friend.  Bright colors frame John’s face and his eyes are turned away: a reminder that John looks for someone else.  The other is the first real icon I ever saw of John that touched my heart. Most of icons of John are fairly predictable: wild hair, strange robe…In this icon, the image focuses on the path in the desert. Indeed, John seems to blend in with the wilderness around him.  The images remind me, again, that John never sought to draw attention to himself. Instead, John’s life and ministry does not serve him; he serves God. 
In my faith journey, I’ve never really spent a lot of time studying John.  He’s only mentioned several times in the Gospels. And, despite the importance of his ministry, he has always struck me as a peripheral character; his purpose to bring authenticity to the story. So, in the past, I’ve always rushed over him, in a hurry to get to Jesus.

Yet, John’s ministry is as vital to us as Peter or James or Paul. John stands at the intersection of the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus’ ministry.   Like Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah, he is a prophet calling the people back into relationship with God. 

Before John, the prophets called Israel back to the covenant and the law.  By the law, the people knew God’s mercy. This time, God does something different. John’s call to repentance prepares us for the revelation of God’s mercy that fulfills the law.  

Ever since Eve and Adam ate that single piece of fruit, creation has been in a state of decay. Rather than satisfying our original purpose to reveal God, humanity becomes separated from God. From this point forward, God seeks to return creation to its original purpose. There was the flood, the ark and then a covenant with Noah. There was the call and a covenant with Abram and Sarai: the promise of a great nation in response to their fidelity. There was the great Exodus, the liberation from Eygpt; along with 40 years in the wilderness, the gift of the law and the Promised Land. Yet, none of these manages to fulfill God’s intent: to bridge the gap, to re-unite creation with its Creator.  Indeed, it is as if the chasm continues to grow.  Yet, God’s desire never changes. Humanity begins with love and this Love continues to work on our behalf. 

So, God does something new. God comes among us as more than a prophet, more than a king. God comes as one of us. God comes with all of that love wrapped up in a package that looks very familiar.

But, we’re not there yet. This moment, Christ’s arrival among us, is still to come.  No, we are still somewhere in between then (the past) and then (the future).  Today, we stand with John: waiting and preparing for the moment when Christ comes.


Mark’s Gospel does not include a “Birth Narrative.”  There is no census in Bethlehem, no angels visiting in dreams. Instead, Mark begins with Isaiah,  “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way…”  We often, for obvious reasons, associate these words with John. They come right before his introduction in the Gospel and they seem to describe John’s ministry.

And, something I read this week, as I prepared for this sermon, got me thinking.  What if these words from Isaiah aren’t really about John?  What if they refer to the Gospel itself?  What if it is the Gospel that prepares the way, that straightens the path, for Christ to in our lives?  We often imagine that John is “the one” who prepares the way for Jesus. We imagine that he is the fulfillment of this passage from Isaiah.  And it is true that John prepares the way for Christ.  The question I’m asking, though, shifts our thinking ever so slightly.

John is one character in a very big story.  And his role is essential to the story.  John is not the first to proclaim Christ’s coming and he’s not the last.  And, as John announces Christ’s coming, he acts, he gets to work: he calls people to repentance, listens to their confessions and baptizes them.

Mark does more than paint a portrait of John as the one who points the way for Jesus.  Mark offers us our first example of discipleship: John is an example of what it looks like to prepare the way for others to follow Christ.


When I consider my life, it occurs to me that each event has led me to this place, this moment.

I remember moving from North Carolina to Louisiana. I was a freshman in high school and not a big fan of the family move for my dad’s new job.  But, as you know, teenagers don’t have many options in this situation and, so, off I went.

Turns out, one result of this move was a hinge in my vocation and ministry.  Because of my church community in Louisiana, I embraced a call to ordained ministry.  Some mentors in my life at the time helped me put this vocation on my horizon.  They guided and walked with me as I maneuvered the path towards ordination.

And now, years later, I continue to experience the influence of that community in my life.  Every time I preside at the Eucharist, I remember their support.  When I share my story, my faith journey, I know that that support prepared the way for me to experience Christ.

When I ponder this, when I imagine, that each moment and person served a purpose, I am amazed.  I could not see it at the time.  And now, I see, the people and places strung together reaching back generations leading us here to this moment.

Time, though, does not end here.  It stretches forward into the future reminding me that we are all part of a greater story: a reminder that we are all part of a larger purpose.

Can we imagine that our lives are woven together for a purpose?
Can we imagine that our life together is a sign of God’s mercy and grace 
for each of us
Can we imagine that we have a role in God’s work in the world; that our ministry will prepare the way, straighten the path for someone else to experience Christ?

John did.  John imagined that the work he did made a difference in God’s kingdom. He imagined that his life is a vehicle for others to experience Christ.  He stood at the edge of the wilderness and called the people of Israel into a particular way of life.  He did not do this for his own sake, his own ambition or self-satisfaction.  He was a prophet for the sake of God’s kingdom and God’s work in the world.  He took seriously the call of Isaiah and prepared the way for God’s work in the world.
John’s ministry is also our own. We are all part of God’s story.  We all have a role to play.  

We are all messengers of God’s grace and mercy.

Thanks be to God!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Tear Open the Heavens and Come Down: Advent 1 Year B

It’s our reading from Isaiah that really spoke to me this week. I am struck by the image of a prophet appealing for God’s intervention.  Haven’t we all been there: yearning for God to intervene in our lives? And I take great comfort in the knowledge that one of the greatest prophets had those feelings. 

The book of Isaiah spans over several centuries and periods during Israel’s history. Isaiah tells the story of Israel during war, devastation, exile and, eventually, return to Jerusalem. Isaiah, though, is a prophet, not a historian. The foundation of his storytelling is theology: connecting God and God’s activity to God’s people. So, the prophet often finds himself in the middle, triangulated between God and the people. 

There are many themes in Isaiah’s prophecy: the primacy of The Law, caring for the weak, the justice and judgment of God.  And, Isaiah has one final resolve: to return Israel’s reliance and faith to God no matter their circumstance. Isaiah knows that when Israel depends fully on YHWH they will know the full compassion and mercy of God.

Our reading this morning falls in the third section of Isaiah. Written during the fall of Babylon, it chronicles the return of God’s people to Jerusalem. This particular section focuses on conflict within the community: Israel’s internal turmoil rather than external politics. 

And their internal conflict has everything to do with their relationship with God. During their exile from Israel, the people felt abandoned by God. And so, they abandon The Law, God’s way. Feeling lost and defeated, they begin to practice the religion of their conquerors. As they return to Jerusalem, they continue to worship other gods, continuing to ignore The Law, to ignore YHWH.  These practices create great divisions and break down the community of Israel. They forget to care for one another, putting their ways before all others.  Isaiah knows there is only one solution: God’s intervention. 

So, as we read in our text today, Isaiah cries out for God’s intrusion into history.  He appeals to God as Creator and Father to show God’s self to the people. Isaiah believes that once Israel knows that God is with them, they will return to God. 
Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence…O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…
How will God intervene? God will leave the heavenly throne and establish God’s self on Earth.  With this act, God will bring peace, justice and righteousness for God’s people. This is the ultimate intrusion of God in history. It is exactly what Isaiah asks of God today.  

It is no coincidence that we read this text on the First Sunday of Advent. Advent is the season when we prepare for the coming of God’s son: Jesus, the Messiah. This is a two-fold event. Of course, we celebrate the first coming of Christ: Jesus’ birth into the world. During Advent, though, we also prepare for Christ’s second coming.

I know, I know: we rarely, if ever, talk about Jesus’ second coming.  We associate this event with strange cult figures who declare the end of the world. Or strange images from Revelation of winged and multiple-eyed creatures.  Our reading from Mark’s Gospel doesn’t help. Which one of us yearns for the day when the sun and moon will darken, stars will fall from heaven and the Son of Man will come on clouds of power and glory? Which one of us is ready for that day?

Let’s face it:  we prefer to focus on the baby Jesus instead of the heavenly One.  The baby Jesus is easier to celebrate. Everyone loves a baby, especially one who doesn’t keep us awake at night.  To focus on Jesus’ second coming requires us, in the words of Mark, to keep awake. To prepare for Christmas during Advent,
allows us to focus our attention on the past: that time when God came among us.  The call of Advent, though, also requires us to look at our present and future.  Advent asks us to imagine that God did more than act in history.  Advent reminds us that Christ is human and divine, a precious child and a heavenly king. 

This is good news. We need both.  Christ’s humanity is a sign of God’s care and compassion for creation.  Christ’s power and glory is a reminder that He is more than one of us.  He is also One with God.  He is the bearer of God’s kingdom: God’s peace and justice for all creation.  Jesus’ coming among us binds us fully to God: through his humanity and divinity.

Take a look around us. Our world is full of problems: hunger, poverty, injustice, disease, and war.  And there’s no doubt that we seek to cure these ailments.  We depend on science for our cures, government for our conflicts and entertainment to soothe us. We give money, collect food, volunteer, offer a listening ear and friendly advice.  Still, even with great confidence in our strength, we cannot solve these problems. It seems there will never be a time of peace, justice and well-being.  Yet Advent stands as a reminder that God has intervened before and will come among us again.

Isaiah has his time, his moment of asking for God’s intervention.  Advent is our time, our moment to ask for God to perform awesome deeds once more, to “tear open the heavens and come down.”

And so, Advent is a time of hope.  It is our time to remember how Christ’s birth began a new era and brought a new way of life.  It is our time to believe that God will act in history again.  We say our prayers; we decorate our homes; we sing comforting and soothing carols.  We volunteer more, collect more food and go to Church more often.  This is all watchful living: participating in and recognizing God’s actions in in our world. And these are all expressions of our yearning for God’s presence among us.  This yearning is a sign of confidence and trust in God.  Christ’s life among us was one of healing and mercy, the revelation that this is the heart of God.  When Christ comes in power and glory, the heart of God will rule creation.  This is the root of Christian hope: that one day God will come down from the heavenly throne and establish God’s self in creation.

May Advent make us ready to receive Christ among us: as a precious child and as “…the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory...”

Peace be with you this Advent,