The Second Sunday of Advent, 2B, December 7, 2014; The Rev. Pamela L. Werntz
2 Peter 3:8-15a Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.
Mark 1:1-8 He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
O God of the prophets, may we have the wisdom, the strength, and the courage to seek always and everywhere after truth – come when it may and cost what it will.
Every year at this time, the church gives us a new advent – a new beginning — a new season of longing to hear and respond to lessons of prophetic wisdom and calls for repentance writ large. These calls are not for personal repentance, but for national repentance, for corporate repentance, and for ecclesiastical – that is Church — repentance. And the good news is that this year is no exception! The most magnificent sign of this kind of prophetic action can be seen in the large numbers of people rising up in Boston and all around the country to protest the status quo of racism and injustice. It’s good news. People are watching and waking up and demonstrating anger and calling for change.
Some of you are thinking, “That’s the good news?” I would like you to believe that it is. Our scripture lessons would like you to believe that it is. These are bossy lessons – bold and directive in their instructions for we who are the heirs of the prophetic tradition. In the lesson from Isaiah, we have an instruction to comfort God’s people – to build a highway – a clear and easy road to get right with God. It never takes very long in a Bible study discussion of this passage for someone in the group to say, “Hey wait a minute, why would God need people to build an accessible and direct route? If God is God, why can’t God arrive unassisted, through the circuitous mazes and road blocks? Why do we have to do all the work?” Maybe because we need to clear the obstacles so that we (and other folks) can see that God is right here. Maybe there is too much stuff in the way.
And then in Isaiah, we have an instruction to cry out! “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” All people are frail and feeble – withered and faded when God’s spirit stirs and blows like the wind. (In other words, there is no use.) A voice says to us, “Cry out!” And we say, “What shall we cry?” The people are small and weak compared with the ruin and destruction in the world. The people are small and weak compared with the degradation of society and unspeakable violence in countless places – there’s no point. Maybe that’s not your reason for not crying out – maybe you have a different reason – but I bet it’s a variation on the theme that it won’t make a difference. I bet that you share the view that all is not well in the world but you don’t know what to do about it.
The instruction is clear – shout out from a place where you can be seen and heard, that God is present and that God is good, Isaiah charges. Tell out boldly that God is like a strong and caring shepherd – who will feed the flock, cradle the lambs and gently lead the mother sheep. Cry out that God is the very embodiment of Love – love which nourishes and holds and tenderly leads vulnerable ones to safety. Tell out that God’s love is sure and enduring.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but many many people do not know that God is good. And it’s not just secularism that is to blame. The Church bears most of the responsibility. We do not always behave as if we imagine that if God exists at all, God is good. We look out and see brokenness: we look in and see brokenness. That is exactly what this passage from Isaiah is addressing – a situation where everything is broken. And we are the heirs of that brokenness and heirs of the prophets. It is incumbent on us to preach repentance. (Now you might be thinking, “uh oh, I wouldn’t want to preach repentance; that’s what we hire you for, Pam!” I’m here to tell you that you hire me to remind you that it’s your call too.) What that means is that it is incumbent on us to invite — to exhort, to cajole, direct, entice – peoples (peoples – not individuals, peoples – nations, corporations, institutions, the Church) to turn around — that’s what repenting means. Turn around and see that God is good. Turn around toward the Holy One – toward Love. Turn around and see Love and behave accordingly. Repent.
Perhaps you know the Hasidic tale of the man who travelled to meet with Reb Dov Baer to ask him how to love God when so many bad things happen and there is so much suffering in the world. The Rabbi said, “I cannot answer your question but go to meet Reb Zusya. Maybe he can help you.” The man travelled and when he arrived at the hovel where Reb Zusya stayed, he found him emaciated, dressed in rags, with sores covering his body. The traveler asked him, “How can I love God when there is so much suffering?” Reb Zusya looked up and smiled and said, “I cannot answer your question. Nothing bad has ever happened to me.” For me this is a story about how pain is not optional, but suffering is. Turn around toward the Holy One. Turn around and see Love. Respond accordingly. Repent.
It is also incumbent on us, as heirs of the prophets, to prepare the way for salvation. There’s another big fat loaded word (as if repentance weren’t enough for one sermon). The salvation idea of our tradition is not a personal or individual idea – it refers to the saving grace of God which will create “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (in the words of 2 Peter). Our scripture lesson from 2 Peter addresses our impatience with God’s apparent delay in setting things right – God’s slowness in making new heavens and a new earth. It’s not slowness, the writer says, but God’s patience with us. The writer postulates that God is giving us thousands of years to come to repentance because of God’s desire that none perish. Thousands of years – and we apparently need all of them and more! Again, it is God’s extravagant goodness that we are encouraged to consider. We are exhorted to regard God’s patience as salvation and to use the extra time wisely – to identify, perhaps, with Jesus – to grow in the grace and knowledge of God.
Jesus, it seems, has reversed the order of amendment of life and forgiveness. With Jesus, the offer of forgiveness always comes first. It’s true. Time after time in the Gospels, Jesus declared forgiveness without any evidence that someone had demonstrated a new life without sin. It alarmed many people around him. (We continue to have a very hard time with the concept of forgiving people before they’ve earned our forgiveness.) The story is that forgiveness is given and then the Lord waits thousands of years (only a few days in divine time) for the grace of the forgiveness to sink in so that we change our ways. Jesus’ hope was that the knowledge of forgiveness would permit us to live new lives of freedom from the prison of not knowing the goodness of God.
So our first two readings want to boss us into declaring visibly and loudly that God is good and want to boss us into knowing that God’s patience is salvation. What about the Gospel? The bossiness of the Gospel reading for today is in at least two places. One is explicit in the quote from Isaiah (really a mash up of Isaiah, Malachi and Exodus) and one is implicit – and it’s found in the last line. John the Baptist is telling the hearers that the one who comes after him will baptize with the Holy Spirit. This is how it all started – this is how the Good News of Jesus Christ began, writes Mark the Evangelist. For Mark, there is nothing of Gospel importance before this: John the baptizer is embodying the words of God’s ancient promise – John is doing what he can to prepare the way for the Lord. He’s announcing the coming baptism with the Holy Spirit. And the first hearers of Mark’s Gospel know as well as we know, that it’s true – they (and we) have been baptized with the Holy Spirit. By the time Mark’s Gospel was being written, it was already true. Baptized with the Holy Spirit. What does that mean? It means that the fire of God is kindled in you and in me. The implicit instruction is burn – shine – brighten – warm. The flame has been lit in us and this is no time to hide it. The world needs our brightness and our warmth more than ever. We must tend the flame. We must not hide our fire.
Some of you have heard me tell the story of a candlelight vigil for peace one cold Advent night many years ago. I was standing next to Bishop Barbara Harris when I noticed that, unbeknownst to her, the paper cup around her candle was burning. “Bishop Harris,” I said, “your cup is on fire.” And without skipping a beat she replied, “That is the story of my life!” My prayer is that it will be the story of all of our lives.