Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
December 04, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Advent is like a sleepless night. It should be a time of hopeful, joyful anticipation, like New Year’s Eve. It can be a time of scrambling, long-delayed preparation, like the night before you have to move out of your dorm room, or worst of all, like a night when something is eating away at you, because you know you could have done better, and you should do better, but something is holding you back.
The last couple of weeks have felt that way for me. As some of you have heard, three weeks ago, on a cold and rainy day, I hung up my umbrella and my gray felt fedora on the pegs outside Marge’s office. I know there have been some exaggerated rumors going around, so here’s what happened. It was a Tuesday, and I’d planned on going home to eat something before the Vestry meeting, but before I knew it I realized I only had time to run out for some quick takeout. I discovered that both my hat and my umbrella were gone. By this time, Harvest Meals was almost done cleaning up. I asked the volunteers who remained if they knew anything about what had happened, but they hadn’t. Realizing I’d been ripped off, in my own church, by someone we were trying to help, who probably needed an umbrella but definitely didn’t need a dress hat, I was furious. Sternly but without yelling, I told Maud that she was responsible for what happens when her organization is using our space, and that incidents like these are how programs lose their host sites. Then, after the Vestry meeting, I intemperately mentioned to a couple of Vestry members that I was considering suspending Harvest Meals for two weeks.
In the following days and weeks, my emotional state bounced around like a ping pong ball in an empty clothes dryer, anger, regret, indignation, doubt, self-righteousness, concern, defensiveness. It felt like a constant change of direction, but I wasn’t really getting anywhere, or doing any favors for anyone else. Motion isn’t necessarily progress. “Vipers flee in haste from fire as it rushes across the scrubby growth of the wilderness.”* I didn’t have a change of heart so much as I was warned to flee from the wrath to come, and really, I just got tired.
So now I’m starting to understand something that always puzzled me about this story about John the Baptist. Why did anyone come to see John, let alone the powerful Pharisees and Sadducees, members of elite urban movements, people who enjoyed everything the world had to offer? Maybe because they wanted to sleep at night. They realized that their identity, their category, wasn’t enough, though the world said it was. They realized they needed to change something real. Despite what the world told them, they could feel the discomfort of a strain that threatened to tear them apart, the growing divergence between what they wanted and God’s will for them. They felt the ax at their roots. They felt the need to change.
John points us in the right direction, as he always does. We think of repentance as a change of heart, but “the Greek word translated ‘repent,’ metanoeite, means change one’s mind in a radical way; the corresponding words in Hebrew and Aramaic mean to turn, to reverse completely one’s life direction.”* A change of direction inevitably brings a change of outcome. John doesn’t say, feel better about yourselves, and certainly not, “take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” He doesn’t try to boost their self-esteem. No, he says, “bear fruit.” “Bear good fruit.” That’s good for them and good for the world. And not just as a strategy to avoid the ax and the fire. Doing good will make us feel better than anything else can. Grace and peace go together. And the labors of our fruits will, by God’s grace, give us the peace which the world cannot give, and let our weary souls find the rest they seek.
A fine Christian scholar, D. Mark Davis, pointed out that, “In the season of Advent, one is tempted to interpret the nearness of the kingdom of heaven to be a reference to Jesus. Indeed the… verse – preparing the way of the Lord – would reinforce that. However, the fullness of Isaiah’s text is about filling valleys and bringing mountains low – which sounds more like a kind of wholesale structural change that is part of the Lord’s coming.”**
I don’t think anything quite on that scale has happened here, but if all I had done was to “get over it,” then nothing would have been accomplished, for me or for anyone else. But instead, I actually, eventually, made some changes. I called Maud to reassure her that, first of all, I never meant to alarm her or make her feel threatened or disrespected; I was merely expressing strong feelings with as much control as I could muster; and secondly, that we shared the same goal of keeping Harvest Meals at St. John’s. I assured her that the program was not at risk of suspension, and we agreed that we would both make efforts to enhance the sustainability and security of the relationship. And on the church side of things, in addition their wise counsel and generous emotional support, our wardens, Gwen and Paul, said they would propose to the Vestry that St. John’s reimburse me for the cost of my things, and for my part, I have donated a security camera to the church. So I hope and pray that repentance has set things right, and that I’ll be able to sleep again.
Dr. Davis also wrote, “The phrase ‘God is able to raise up children of Abraham out of these stones’ is incredibly profound. We assume that rocks are minerals and not life or life-giving as roots are. God can produce life from non-life. Likewise, a tree can be cut off from its root source, making it no more alive than we presume a stone to be. The space between life and death is a thin place through which God can pass freely.” So, since “John’s words are not prophecies of a future but an ‘even now’ reality,” we should expect God to produce profound changes in us in order that change might come into the world. And though this is the great revolution, greater than any the world has ever known, the nature and outcome of these changes is grace, and peace. Therefore, despite our very real differences and flaws, all Christians say together, Amen, Come Lord Jesus.
*Chris Haslam, http://www.montreal.anglican.org/comments/aadv2l.shtml