This sermon was preached on the second Sunday of Advent in 2008 to a community of harried DC over-achievers, at a time when the church was without a building and we were worshiping in borrowed space.
December 7, 2008
First Congregational Church DC
Please, people, for the love of God, let us never forget that Jesus’ messenger ate bugs. John the Baptist, that seminal one built up in a crescendo by the ancient Israelite prophets, the one granted the glorious task of readying the world for the Messiah’s arrival on earth… he was not the sort of resplendent dewy-skinned angel we usually see this time of year. He was a bug-eating Saddhu-like wanderer dressed in animal skins. How awesome is that? John the Baptist is such a testament to how fiercely God upturns our expectations in order to shake us awake and call us to a new way of living. A way of living in which we see the divine everywhere and in every bizarre, bug-eating character.
But if the image of John does not get you looking at our sacred world through new eyes, then open your ears to his message. Our readings today reminds us that before Jesus began his ministry, before he even arrived into the cold stink of barn, the world needed to prepare itself. And so John was sent to tell us to “Prepare his way by clearing a straight path for him.”
We are now on our second week of Advent. As Keisa reminded us last week, Advent is our church year’s January – the beginning of the new lectionary year. The new year. And y’all know what this means: it’s resolution time… and because this is church, I’m not just talking about resolutions to visit the gym more often, or to call your mother more. Those are important; mom would love to hear from you and she and I would love for you to keep your body healthy so you live a long time. But the kind of resolutions we talk about in this space are not just about things to do, as about a way to be.
Up in Boston, there is a man who lives in a house on road called the Arborway. My friend refers to his house as the German castle, and it does look like something out of a Bavarian countryside – all thick pointed turrets and gray cobblestone sides. And though I’m not up in Boston this year, I can assure you that way back in October, the baron of this German castle on the Arborway began doing what he does every year. He began preparing his home for Christmas. First he brought out the lights, tens of thousands of them, which he strung along edges and curves of his house. Then he dragged out the giant ornamental sleighs and figures and set them in suspended animation, flying over the roof of his house. Then he grabbed a set of colored lights that swept up to a point in his yard, forming a twenty-foot tall silhouette of a tree. Nearly every day for the past fifty days, I know this man has done what he does every year. He has gone down into his basement, grabbed another handful of lights, and then climbed up onto his roof and added them to the building crescendo.
Certainly this labor of love is worthy of a testament of some sort. Last year in the Boston Globe some of his neighbors offered their perspectives for the record, muttering about the man’s ego-driven ejaculation of gaudiness that glared through their windows at night. The pulsing artificial light kept them awake, as they watched their bedroom walls turn from green to red to blue to yellow. They were not charmed. For my part, as I used to zoom past his adorned castle I often found myself asking –what if? What if we prepared our hearts with the same sort of slightly manic obsession and over-the-top zeal with which this man prepares his German castle?
Friends: something big is coming, soon. It is looming there, just around the corner of time. And it will be glorious, and it will be upsetting. It will be comforting, and it will be utterly de-stabilizing. That small baby who is even now growing and turning and dropping in Mary’s round large belly, slowly being pulled down towards us and the world, that baby is not just any small innocent baby. He is our Lord and our Judge. And with his birth in two and a half short weeks, all our habits will be revealed in the light of day. And we will be called once again to begin on the path of that radical way of holy discipleship living that we are capable of and yearn for, but that takes a sort of energy that is really hard to sustain.
When Isaiah spoke his prophetic words thousands of years ago, it was during a dark time. Babylon had sacked Jerusalem. The Judeans were temple-less, which meant they felt there was no solid ground for their community to stand upon. Everything was uncertain, except for violence, and the abuse of the marginalized, and those with power exercising oppression, and growing poverty. Our ancestors didn’t see much evidence of God among them in that world. And so Isaiah was told to comfort the aching beloved community, assuring them that the Lord was on the horizon and would arrive to teach anew the ways of justice and love that could make everything right again.
But Isaiah saw something else. He saw how the exhaustion of these people had made them close up into themselves. How their cynicism and defeatism had made them fall asleep at the wheel. And so Isaiah sought to wake them up, and remind them of all that is at stake in their lives, and all they are called to do as God’s people. You have to prepare the way of the Lord, he told them. You have to start tearing down the barriers you have erected in your lives before God can enter into them. You have to shake yourself awake and stay that way, otherwise you won’t see the glory of the Lord revealed around you. And it is only when that has happened that everything can begin to be made right again. You can’t change the world if you’re sleepwalking. You have to be awake for this.
You know where this is going, people. Because we are similar people, in similar times. Broken people, in a broken world that constantly assails our soul and spirits. A world where wars proliferate. Where the economy is seizing and everything seems uncertain. Where this here beloved community is temple-less, without a church building. It’s no wonder that in the face of all this, we might create walls around our soft, vulnerable hearts, and routines to maintain those walls. It is no wonder that our cynicism sometimes overtakes and sets us sleep-walking through life, numb to it.
It’s understandable. But in surviving in this way, we know we pay a price. These walls separate us from our God, and our innermost selves, and others. And this separation, as the theologian Paul Tillich preached it, is sin itself. It takes us to a place where we cannot see or hear the truth, and where our spiritual practice becomes flatlined. It may shut out the hurt and insecurity, but it ends up shutting everything out. Even the sacred. It leads us to live in one mundane dimension – where we don’t notice the miracle of a small round brown bird sitting on a new blanket of snow. Or the brilliant glow of dusk that bathes us every single evening, or the delicious faint squeal and curled tongue of a cat yawning. It leaves us estranged from the divine that is around us. And it convinces us that we can just get by until things get better, rather than live into the solutions ourselves. We know this isn’t the way we are called to be. But sometimes we just don’t want to or feel we just can’t live the way we are called to be. Sometimes we want to get caught up in life’s predictable and secure routines — work, pick-up the kids, the carry-out, watch TV, sleep. And then sometimes, we just forget. It’s what we do. We’re human.
And God knows that. And God understands. And that’s why we were given John, who comes to remind us. Every year it is John who greets us at our starting place at Advent. Earthy, wild-eyed John the Baptist sent to remind us to wake up, and to begin again. That is what our lives in God are all about, that is what we are called to do as people of faith. To constantly examine our selves and our world, to see the obstacles we have placed in the pathways to our tender hearts that prevent us from living open joyful deep awakened lives, and then to once again, with great deliberateness, remove those obstacles. Clear a straight path for the Lord to enter our world. And then to do it again. And then again.
It’s resolution time. And what is a resolution? It is about seeing that where you are is not quite where you want to be, and then deciding to try again, try anew, with great courage and resolve. And this is what repentance is. Repentance: that loaded word John calls out in the wilderness with a cry that rises above the darkness and the tumult of life, and travels across thousands of years to break forth into our very world, into our very hearing, into this very room. Repentance is simply about starting again in the direction of God at the beginning of this new year.
So. We’re back to the what if? What if we prepared our hearts with even a 1/5th of the energy that the man up on the Arborway in Boston has prepared his castle? What if we prepared our hearts with even a 1/5th of the energy that we prepare for the Christmas holiday – the buying of presents, the cleaning of the house, the traveling home, the cookie decorating – what if we spent some of that time sitting simply, in the Advent stillness, the pregnant trembling stillness of Advent, and we tip-toed past all our walls and slipped into our soft hearts, even into those velvet dark corners we spend so much of our energy avoiding and protecting, and what if we began to get things ready in there.
When you go, you will discover in your heart an eternal flickering – an eternal light of holiness that is yearning to grow big enough to shatter those protective walls that numb you. John is calling you to that flickering, and he is calling you to lightly blow on it, to let it build so that it can illuminate more of your soul. And then to do this again and again and again. Every day. Like that German baron on the Arborway, persevering with strong-headedness and insane giddiness to illuminate the darkness. Every day a new string of lights, a new turning toward God, a new resolve, and a new breath blown on that flickering flame. And if you do this, by the time the Lord comes, in two and a half short weeks, your hearts will be so open and so illuminated that they will light up the neighborhood of your soul, so that it cannot sleep anymore, so that it is awake to see the Lord arrive in your midst.