Featured Sermon: Advent 2A – The voice of one crying out in the wilderness
December 4th, 2016
St. Martin of Tours, Omaha
One of our family holiday traditions is watching the movie Muppet Christmas Carol together. I have to confess that there’s a moment in it when Michael Caine, who plays Scrooge, makes me cry every year—and makes my kids roll their eyes at me, of course. The Ghost of Christmas past has been showing Scrooge events from his youth, most of them happy, but then Scrooge is taken to the scene in which he turns away from the love of his fiancée, one final time, and gives his life over completely to his greed. As the young woman walks away, the young Scrooge sets his jaw in determination to excel in his life of commerce—but the old Scrooge, watching, sobs, tears running down his face. This is the first time in the story that Scrooge, I believe, experiences a recognition of what he has lost, and experiences repentance for his life of sin—the first time in the movie when he not only feels remorse and sorrow, but begins to open his heart and turn away from the path he’s on. It is this—acknowledgement, sorrow, and turning away—that John the Baptist calls to us about from the wilderness.
What was John doing out in the wilderness in the first place? We might be tempted to picture a pastoral scene when we hear this—you know, maybe John was out inviting people to come center themselves and practice “mindfulness” and that sort of thing—to escape the hustle and bustle of their daily grind and find some peace. Well, that’s not what this wilderness was like, literally or figuratively. First of all, you should picture not a nature trail but the desert; the wilderness of Judea is a harsh, hostile, unfriendly and dangerous place. Second, the wilderness for an ancient Jew was a place that reminded them of their wanderings after leaving Egypt. God had freed them from bondage under the rule of Pharaoh, but almost as soon as they left, the Israelites were full of fear, and they disobeyed God’s instructions. Even though they had been led by the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of cloud by day, even though the sea had parted before them and crashed back upon the chariots of Pharaoh’s army, they lost faith.
What did the Israelites do while Moses was on Mount Sinai getting the tables of law that sealed their covenant with God? They gave up and went back to their old ways and created a golden calf to worship. God’s people had to learn to trust and obey God, and to learn this, they were sent to wander in the wilderness for forty years. John called the people of his day to see that they, too, had given up and given in, replacing God’s ways with their own ways; he called them to see that it was time to return back to the desert, to come into the wilderness, to confess their sins, and to find their faith in God renewed. John called the people to repent.
“Repent” is not a word we hear in our culture these days, but this “turning back” or “turning around” in order to turn away from sin is what repentance is all about. Repentance includes being sorry, but the act of repentance is not only about sorrow and remorse. It is not simply an acknowledgment of guilt and wrong-doing, but also an active turning away from sin and a turning towards God. Repentance is not just a change of mind (that is, admitting our sin)—it’s a change of heart, too. Repentance captures part of the essence of the faith/works mystery we hear about in chapter two of James’ Epistle: Faith without works is dead; remorse without repentance is dead as well. In turning to God we accept God’s grace and forgiveness, and start better to walk in God’s ways rather than in our old sinful ways. To be clear: repentance is not about our ability to be good and worthy—it’s about God’s transforming power, and God’s desire to align our lives with the life of Jesus.
This transforming power is why we remember John not as “John the prophet”—but as “John the Baptist.” The people who came out to hear John, being Jews, were inheritors of God’s promise to Abraham. It had become easy for them to believe that their connection with this past guaranteed their connection with God—but John, in an in-your-face kind of way, scoffs at this: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” In today’s Gospel John isn’t just calling people to come out into the wilderness and confess their sins, he’s baptizing them, having them act out the washing away of their sins and their return to a more active connection with God. And John says he points the way to One who brings an even more powerful baptism—a baptism that is more than symbolic—a baptism that brings the Holy Spirit and Fire.
Advent is a time to remember our own baptism—when Christ claimed us, joined us to God through himself, saved us through his atoning sacrifice, and imparted the fire of Pentecost Spirit upon us. Advent preparation is a time to remember, refocus and reclaim the baptism vows we all made—to prepare the way for Christ’s return by fulfilling our promises “to resist evil and to repent from it,…to share the Good News,… to serve Christ in all people,… and to strive for justice and peace.”
Christmas will come in a few weeks, bringing our remembrance and celebration of the birth of Jesus, the manger, the shepherds, the sheep, the star, the “Silent night.” However, Christmas is not the ending of the story but the beginning, and Advent preparation is, in part, our reminder of another night, not so silent, that led to arrest, the cross, and the grave. It is a mistake to come to the Christmas manger without at the same time coming to the Cross. God led Israel out of bondage, but Israel strayed from the path and wandered until it found trust and obedience. The first century Jews had forgotten God’s command to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly; they stopped “bearing good fruit” and relied just on their past, relying just on Abraham’s obedience and not their own. John called them into the wilderness to not just to remember, but to repent.
It’s so easy in our culture for us, today, to forget our promise to be God’s light in the darkness, to be God’s counter-cultural people who seek justice for the alien and the outcast, to be those who feed the hungry and clothe the naked. It’s so very easy for us to escape into the self-centered comfort of shopping and sentimentality. I was baptized, I was “adopted into the household of God” – Christmas reminds me of that and makes me feel all safe and loved and child-like, right at home there with that sweet little baby Jesus in the manger. (Well, except maybe I’d need the new Sealy Posturepedic comfort-dial mattress that’s on sale with free delivery at the Furniture Mart instead of all that itchy straw…) Christmas is full of nostalgia. But nostalgia is not preparation—nostalgia is feeling good about what used to be (or feeling good about our dream of what used to be). Advent, on the other hand, is a season for repentance of what used to be, and a demand to change what is now, in the present, and a call to prepare for the future. Advent is an opportunity to consider how much in my own life I really am working (or not) to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly before God. Not enough…some days barely at all…I’m too busy—and perhaps, like Scrooge, too blinded by my own materialism. This self-centered blindness is all wrapped up in a pretty Christmas bow, so it doesn’t seem as corrupt as Scrooge’s—but I fear it has taken over my heart just the same as it did his.
So I invite us all, this Advent season, to journey into John’s wilderness, away from the easy, wandering path that winds past the antique, animatronic scenes in the shopping mall windows, past the free shipping promotions on Amazon.com, past the same, inescapable, endlessly repeating thirty-five songs. I invite us to journey into the wilderness and then to seek out the more difficult and dangerous, the straighter, path. It’s a path that might bring tears of repentance to my eyes for the realities that actually were. It’s a path that might bring tears of repentance for the sins that actually are—my own. The Ghost brought Scrooge to scenes of his past and his repentance didn’t just change his mind—it changed his heart—it changed his life. John the Baptist stands in the desert, calling to the people of Israel to see themselves not with nostalgia, but with the critical eye of repentance. John the Baptist calls to us today: “See where you came from; see how you lost your way; see where it got you; look where you’re headed now. Repent. Make your path straight, for the Kingdom of Heaven is nearby and the Lord is coming soon.” I pray that you and I can know that the Kingdom of God is at hand, that our hearts will be opened, and our lives will be transformed, by John’s call this Advent season. Amen
– Keith Winton