December 3, 2017: May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard. Amen.
The hymn we sang this morning is a favorite of so many, and it is little wonder why. Sure, the music is uplifting, but I think it is the words, which come out of the reading we heard this morning from Isaiah, that makes this a hymn we love to sing in Advent. “Comfort, comfort ye my people, speak ye peace, thus saith our God, comfort those who sit in darkness mourning ‘neath their sorrow’s load.”
Oh, what a hymn and passage for us today, for we too sit in darkness mourning beneath the load of our sorrow – personal sorrows of so many, yes, but also the collective sorrow we feel at what is happening in the world today. Our nation’s leaders have passed a tax bill that would profit corporations and the rich on the backs of the poor, and increase the cost of healthcare, remove tax breaks for student loans, and sadly it doesn’t stop there. While this may seem complicated, as taxes seem to be, it really isn’t. It is simply robbing the poor to pay the rich. It is a crime against decency, and we sit in darkness mourning of the lack of courage, morality, and prophetic witness in those we have chosen to serve.
There are the outbreaks of hate and oppression – legislated from our leaders in travel bans, immigration arrests, and rhetoric, and experienced in the streets by racists who feel empowered to openly proclaim their hate, terrorizing the least of these. And then there is the proliferation of men who feel empowered to assault women, while the women feel they must remain quiet and in the shadows out of fear. We sit in darkness mourning of this plague of bigotry, xenophobia, sexism, and misogyny that has infected our world.
The earth and its creatures are dying at our hands from our abuse and neglect. Our leaders not only turn their backs, but continue to deny scientific evidence of what is happening, support the destruction, and uphold the institutions and individuals that commit these crimes against God’s creation. We sit in darkness mourning of our indifference, our neglect, our abuse of what God entrusted to our care.
We call out for comfort from our darkness. That very act, that very call, is the first step to something larger.
You see, part of what is difficult for us, I think, is a sense that all of this is happening, and we feel we have no control. The mourning comes out of a sense of hopelessness, of passivity in the face of overwhelming darkness. We feel powerless, and that is a road to despair, and it isn’t the road God wants us to travel.
Speaking of traveling down roads, there is a story in the Book “Marry Your Muse” by Jan Phillips. She writes, “Last winter, during one of the worst blizzards of the season, I found myself on the on-ramp to a freeway with a thirty-mile commute ahead of me. It was already dark, and the snow was pounding against my windshield like artillery bullets…I drove at twenty miles per hour, my nose only inches from the steering wheel. Hunched over in fear and focused alertness, I headed straight into the storm as it whirled around me like a fierce tornado…
“Oh, my God,” I prayed out loud, puffing small clouds of warm breath into the chilly air. “Please let me get through this alive.” No, I thought, that’s not good enough; I need to be more specific. It wasn’t just staying alive I wanted. It was a sense of safety, some relief from this swelling fear.
“Ok, God, take the wheel. Get me home safe, Ok?”
Now I was reverting to an eight-year-old Catholic who counted on the man with the beard to somehow materialize and work a miracle. That thought always pops up in an emergency, but I knew I had to go deeper than that.
“Ok, I blurted….I don’t need some outside force now. I need to access the God inside. I need the whole damn battalion of inner troops for this one…Road, I am car and tire and I affirm our oneness. We are one whole, moving together, and all is well.”
The prayer, which had come not from my head, but some deep place below, was not about rescue. Not about changing the circumstances. It was simply about accepting the real. Becoming at one with what was around me.”
Ahh, but see it was about changing the circumstances – or at least how those circumstances were perceived, and it has everything to do with what our scriptures are calling us to in this season of Advent…and more importantly, in the world today. The driver of that car took what was happening to her, and entered into a partnership with God. It doesn’t mean that we should go out on slick roads and say “hey – no problem – God and I – we got this!” No, but taking an active part in life’s circumstances can change the way we move through it, if not the outcome.
We are not unlike the people of Israel. In these dark times, we cry out for comfort. But, as we hear in the scriptures today, God replies back with action – our action. “Cry out!,’ God says – “Prepare the way,” Isaiah proclaims, God is looking for partners in the work She is doing. And in the gospel, John the Baptizer, using the words of the prophet Isaiah, repeats this call “to prepare the way” for God. But John doesn’t stop there, he says “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit – the active force of God in the world…interesting, don’t you think? Why on earth would Jesus need to baptize us with the Holy Spirit?
And, there is something else we often miss in this gospel. It is the first line, which scholars contend is actually the title, not part of the text. The gospel of Mark starts with this: “This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The author didn’t say “The good news of Jesus Christ, but, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” This, my friends, is a story that was only beginning then…and it continues to this day.
The life of Jesus told in the gospel of Mark isn’t a neat tidy story that happened a long time ago. The Jesus story may have started in a crib in Bethlehem, a birth we await in Advent, but the purpose of this birth today is to have Jesus reborn in our hearts, so that we may continue the story.
The gospel – the good news – continues in us.
We are the prophets, we are Christ alive – all in partnership with God through the Holy Spirit. And if we are going to live this out, then we need to “access the God inside” as the woman did that night in the car, because being prophets, doing the work of Christ, that requires some truth telling. And while it will be an Advent experience for us – drawing us from darkness to light – it is also the kind of work that will really annoy some people. It is the nature of things that truth tellers, which is another way of thinking about prophetic work, are not generally the folks most people want to invite to the party. As Gloria Steinhem once said “The truth will set you free – but first it will really piss you off.” John the baptizer and Isaiah (or for that matter, all the prophets and Jesus too) can attest to that.
And here’s the thing about this work…something we sometimes miss about John or many of the prophets – it rarely happens in the centers of power, but among the powerless. John didn’t stand among the crowds of Jerusalem, but went out to the wilderness – the place of wild things, nearer to those on the outer circles – the forgotten and the least. It is where Jesus did nearly all his ministry until it was time to complete his work on the cross. It is where we must go.
Dr. Karoline Lewis, of Luther Seminary, put it this way “The beginning of the good news happens in the middle of nowhere… The good news of truth and justice for all will be cried out by the prophets willing to accept all. The truth will be known in the outskirts, in the unexpected places, the spaces where boundaries have been crossed and that needed to be torn down long, long ago.”
Out of darkness, from the depths of our mourning, over what is happening all around us, we cry out to God for comfort. And God will answer back…with love – and a call to prepare the way for God to enter our hearts.
Advent places us amidst the darkness of the world, not so we can despair, but so that we can act, because the story that began so long ago begins anew every Advent…really, every day. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, is one part of the larger story of God at work in the world, into which She calls us to actively partner with Her – to be a part of changing what is for what may be – of continuing the good news of Christ by being Christ in the world. The choice we make each morning is whether or not we will be part of it – whether or not we will continue the story – whether or not we will prepare the way.
For if we are to be comforted, we must choose to “access the God inside” because this is not a time to dwell in the darkness mourning, but to make new paths for the light of God’s love. Guided by the Holy Spirit, those paths we make will be forged by truth, the truth we proclaim – the light that we will shine on it is the Christ within us. And, the places the paths God calls us to make will always lead us to the ones we despaired most for – the hated, the oppressed, the poor, the marginalized, the earth and all the creatures that inhabit it.
We will go to them and stand and proclaim the good news.
We will be truth tellers calling the world to a new way of being.
We will make way for God in our lives, and for the God at work in the world.
And in all this, the comfort we seek, we will find – because darkness will no longer be for us a cause of mourning, but an opportunity for partnering with God – for continuing the story of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
For the audio from the 10:30am service, click here:
Rev. Diana L. Wilcox
Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge
December 3, 2017
Advent 4 – Year B (Longer Advent – Advent 2 in RCL)
1st Reading – Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2nd Reading – 2 Peter 3:8-15a
Gospel – Mark 1:1-8