The Adventurous Lectionary – The Second Sunday in Advent – December 8, 2019
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
There is a deep restlessness in Advent. Those who seek a spirituality of withdrawal, of peace and quiet, will not find it during Advent. On the one hand, we are bombarded by consumerism and our church and social schedules are filling to the brim. In North America, the hedonistic binge begins with Thanksgiving and Black Friday and escalates so that by December 8, we are beginning to wonder, “Will we get the cards written in time? Will all the services be finished by December 23? Have I missed any home visits? Will I have time to nurture the Christmas Spirit as I seek to nurture it in others?” On the other hand, there is a still, small voice that surfaces, calling us beyond the impeachment proceedings and the malpractice of leaders and Hallmark Movies and on-line shopping to become Advent and Christmas persons who embrace restlessness as the pathway to peace and healing.
In today’s scriptures, we explore radical transformation, guided by God’s future visions of Shalom and wholeness, but brought about by ourselves, for God needs us to be hands, hearts, and minds, to heal the world. Global history argues against a unilateral divine rescue operation. It also puts to shame those who constantly calculate and recalculate the signs of the times. Their hoped for militaristic Messiah has not come, despite daily prognostications. And, in the meantime, the meek seldom inherit the earth. The wealthy seldom give up power. All revolutions, including our own nation’s, are imperfect works in progress. After two thousand years of false prophesies, expecting a dramatic unilateral and coercive, dare we say, destructive, second coming of Jesus seems a fantasy and marketing tactic to sell books and promote contributions. If this is the case, then what are to hope for and what are we to expect? Advent presents an impossible possibility, that the partnership of humanity and divinity will create a new earth. Advent invites us to wait, but also be catalysts for the changes God inspires us to see in the world.
Isaiah 10 speaks of an impossible possibility – enemies becoming companions, children safe from harm, wise national leadership, and a world without war. None of this has ever occurred, despite Isaiah’s dream, but Isaiah’s dream still judges world history and serves as a polestar for our endeavors. Hidden in this passage is threat: if we don’t get on board, we will face the consequences. Our passivity, our failure to follow the Messianic, earth-transforming vision will exacerbated the evils we deplore. As unrealistic as Isaiah’s dream, we must still strive after God’s Shalom and, perhaps, in the striving create communities that nurture a better humanity and make peace with the non-human world; a world in which poverty, injustice, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and global climate change are a thing of the past and God’s Shalom reigns.
John the Baptist is a major figure in our Advent Adventures. John presents us with the dream of a new era, but it is clear that to get there we must go through a dark night of purgation. We must prune away the cumber, subtract our wants, and simplify our lives. We need profound spiritual decluttering. The realm of God requires a change of heart, a contrite spirit, and a new set of values. God is graceful and initiates this process of creative transformation, but God needs us for God’s dream to be realized in the world. Such purgation is challenging for preacher and congregation alike.
Little is known about the relationship of Jesus and John the Baptist. According to tradition, when Mary the mother of Jesus meets her close relative Elizabeth, John leaps in utero in acknowledgment of the uniqueness of Mary’s son. Beyond that, the early life of John, later John the Baptist, like Jesus’ early life, is shrouded in mystery until adulthood.
As an adult, John comes on the scene as a wild man, proclaiming hard words of transformation and redemption. His words appear aimed at individuals, but they have political consequences. He comes as a purveyor of bad news first: he doesn’t mince words to the folk, I suspect privileged people who could afford to take a few days off, who come out to hear him preach, some knowing they need transformation, others for the sheer spectacle of it all. “You brood of vipers,” he shouts, insulting the erudite and affluent. A voice crying in the wilderness, John is a prophet in the tradition of Amos, Hosea, and Micah. Transformation requires pruning, and destruction of old ways of life. Our souls need purification: we must put off injustice and idolatry and spiritual smugness to experience God’s realm in the now. Those who heard his message and sought new life received baptism as a sign of purification and commitment. But, the cleansing waters of baptism must be preceded by a change of heart and lifestyle. John’s word convicted his listeners and convicts us today. We must choose life, John says, economically, politically, relationally, and congregationally.
“Align yourself with God’s coming realm,” such was the message of John. God will come, the gospel narratives state, manifest in the message, hospitality, and healing practices of Jesus of Nazareth. John anticipates Jesus’ ministry not as an abstract figure but Jesus as a spiritual companion, first of John himself, and then all of us. The Celts use the term anamcara to describe a deep spiritual relationship of common values and commitments. Our anamcara mirrors our deepest self and enables us to embody the glory of God as persons “fully alive.” In relationship to our soul companion, or anamcara, we experience the better angels of ourselves and others. Jesus is the deepest self of all of us and opening to this self requires that we put Jesus’ way first even in the Christmas season of consumerism and materialism.
As a preacher, you might take time to put yourself in the shoes of Jesus and John, to experience their intimacy. Imagine the relationship of John and Jesus for a moment. I believe they were the best of friends who grew into spiritual intimates. The narrative evidence suggests that Mary and Elizabeth were also intimates. Elizabeth was the first relative to hear of Mary’s unusual pregnancy. Perhaps, Mary knew of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s own mystical experiences surrounding John’s birth. I suspect these two women were close enough that Mary expected celebration and affirmation rather than judgment when she shared the news of her pregnancy
Did John and Jesus know one another as they grew up? I can imagine John and Jesus growing up together, playing games with one another, going to religious school together, perhaps speculating on the young women in the community, and dreaming of their future vocations. Both boys were set apart by birth and I suspect spiritual experience. They might have been sensitive to the seldom-noticed spiritual currents of life. They might even have journeyed together to study among the Essenes, going deeper than other young persons in search of direct experiences of God. I believe that Jesus and John were kindred spirits and soul friends.
Given my previous reflections, perhaps, it is no surprise for John when Jesus comes to the Jordan River to be baptized. John protests a bit: after all, they are spiritual friends and colleagues, and John knows the depth of Jesus relationship with God. The child who leaped in the womb followed the unfolding of Jesus’ intimate experiences of God, and we suspect John recognized Jesus’ unique connection with the one they called Father. Jesus’ full humanity – the glory of God, indeed the Incarnation, is a person fully alive – resonated with divine energy, power, and wisdom. John may have recognized that what he spoke about in his sermons Jesus’ fully experienced. John preached of God’s coming and Jesus felt that coming realm in his very marrow; he was the embodiment of the good news that emerges when the flames of prophetic practices refine our spirits.
John dreamed of the peaceable realm and so do we. He embodied the vision of Isaiah and knew its achievement would take sacrifices. He envisioned a new heaven and new earth and saw our commitments as helping bring this about in real time. He never lived to see its full embodiment, but he planted seeds that enabled Jesus to move forward as its messenger and embodiment. John is Advent personified: he embodies the fierce urgency of the now, but not yet. He is impatient with our foolishness and sin, and wants us to be better. As Advent messenger, he knows that salvation occurs through the transformation of one person at a time. This very moment is the right time for us to let go of the past, turn away from our half-heartedness and complicity with injustice, and find a new pathway to God’s peaceable kingdom, one step and one breath at a time.
We are the Advent change we seek; apart from us, there will be no peaceable realm.
The uniqueness of John’s message is a good theme for this Sunday’s sermon. His radical vision, preparing the way for Jesus, challenges us to prepare the way for Jesus’ mission in our time. Our preparation is a matter of deeds as well as words. Walking in the way of Jesus involves a commitment to constant transformation and renewal, to changing our ways in response to God’s wondrous gifts of grace. Like John, we are challenged to announce the coming of a world not yet born, critique our own and our community’s hypocrisy, and recognize that Christ’s presence demands a radical reorientation of values so that we might recognize the realm of God already emerging in our midst.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books, including “Thin Places Everywhere: The Twelve Days of Christmas with Celtic Christianity,” “Piglet’s Process: Process Theology for All God’s Children,” and “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims.”