Sam Magill is a coach and poet. He has served on the Bishop’s Committee at St. Hilda St. Patrick and has chaired the stewardship committee. This sermon was preached as a response to the texts for The Second Sunday of Advent, Year A. The sermon was based on the manuscript below.
Advent has got to be the most confusing season of the church year.
Our culture lights up its darkness before the left-over turkey is cold. Yesterday, the Millcreek Chorale gave a fine concert, (if I do say so myself and for Carolee) full of songs about the happiest time of the year, a very merry Christmas, Joy to the World. AND, in the very same concert another song asked, What brought you to the manger, oh Christchild sweet and mild. Jesus, holy, undefiled.
There was in the concert and in Advent proper, a terrible tension. Which is this season? Is it one of glitter, of presents, of light? Or is it a time to examine exactly why God became incarnate as a tiny child born in a barn. A time to explore the contrast between “Jesus undefiled” and humanity who again and again refuses to listen to God.
Last week’s reading from Matthew reminded us of the great flood, of God cleaning house in response to human betrayal of covenants with God. It was the first Sunday of Advent. Today, the Second Sunday of Advent, we hear of John the Baptist washing sins away in the river Jordan – cleaning up humanity again. And then the Pharisees and Sadducees arrive. “Who warned you of the wrath to come?” “You brood of vipers”. He warns them of the one who is coming who will bring a winnoing fork, who will lay an ax to the tree, who will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.
What brought thee to a manger, oh Christchild sweet and dear?
Isaiah is also filled with tension between the sweet child and the wrath of God.
On one hand he writes: A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
11:2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
Also, ; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
And then in one of the most pastoral images of scripture, Isaiah tells us of a coming time when “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” A little child…
In today’s Gospel reading, John arrives in his camel hair clothing – this, by the way is not the lovely camel hair sport coat I once bought at Nordstrom. He is a rough man who is grounded in the earth and can survive on wild honey and locust pods. Isaiah foreshadows John as much a Jesus: “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”
Fleming Rutledge in his book, Advent, suggests that John is the key person of Advent. His announcement of the presence of God in the world and of the wrath to come because of human failings sets the stage for Easter. Rutledge writes, “In Advent we pause to take stock of this uniquely sobering fact.” The eternal Judge whom John predicts is arriving, the Very God of very God, Creator of the worlds, the Alhph and the Omega, has become a little child.
And it is John who sets the stage, who shines a light on the dual aspects of Advent: Another cleansing of the world and the arrival of one who is greater than great. Advent is first of all about cleansing.
John says to the leaders – who warned you of the wrath coming? Well, lots of prophets, lots of history, floods to cleanse humanity. If we update this to our time, Who is warning us of the wrath to come? At Diocesan convention, we talked a lot about climate change, about mankind’s lousy stewardship of the gifts God has given to us. For me this is a lot more serious than individual sin. And I said to myself, “ Who warned us of the disasters to come? Al Gore, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Gretha Thunberg? Dr. Martin Luther King Junior in a different sense …. And on and on. And we go on destroying God’s gifts. Why wouldn’t the creator of all get so angry that all is destroyed. And yet, that is not God’s decision.
What brought thee to the manger, oh Christchild undefiled? I image God saying, well, I tried predictions, I tried floods, famines, fire, wars……ouch. They just don’t get it? Wait – what if I incarnated all my love in a child! Maybe that will convince humankind that love is the greatest and only solution. Love of everything I have created including themselves.
In one of his daily meditations, Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and mystic, writes, “Christmas is Already Easter”. He explains that until about the 12th Century AD, Easter was the big celebration. Rohr writes that the Franciscans poplularized and sentimentalized Christmas. Frances believed that if the Incarnation wasd true, then Easdter gook care of itself. He taught his community to celebrate the birth of Jesus. “Once God became a human being, then nothing human or worldly was abhorrent to God. Distance and separation from was forever resolved. …… We are all saved by mercy. We’re all saved by grace.
So what are we left with? Hope and only hope. Advent asks us to go into the darkness to learn and come to terms with our behaviors. Remember in Star Wars, when Yoda sends young Luke into a cave? He asks, Luke, are you afraid? Adolescent Luke says No! and Yoda predicts – you will be. What does Luke encounter? Himself, his heritage. If we go into the darkness, what might we learn? Before we sing Joy to the world, before we deck the halls, before the yuletide pageantry, let us go into the darkness and listen.
Then we may just be able to hear that still, small voice calling us to love, love, love. If we do, then maybe, just maybe we will have a very Merry Christmas – but it does not happen just because December 25th will arrive. It will happen when we receive the gift from God in the person of Jesus. The price of this gift, the road out of the repeated cycles of destruction and God’s wrath, is for us to offer our hearts. The song yesterday said, “To thee my heart I offer… my heart, my soul and all I own.”
How do we get from Second Advent to the brilliance of Chrismas? We learn to hope. We wait.
But waiting is so very hard for us! Remember Waiting for Godot, the play by Samuel Beckett? I recall attending a production when I was in college. The play went on and on, recycling issues, waiting for Godot to arrive. The company staged it in a way that tortured the audience to the point that people one by one got up and left before the play was done.
Waiting is hard, especially in our culture – when the power went off last week, we sat in the chilly house with our generator, with candles and blankets – waiting for the light. And checking our AP to see when our power would be restored. The trouble was, it was not to happen in our timeframe. It happened when it happened. And suddenly, the lights came on.
An powerful and relevant example of waiting shared with me by Sharon Daloz Parks, a former colleague. Each Wednesday evening, the single mom, Native American, waited for the babysitter to arrive and oversee her young children while she attended a meeting. After weeks of these visits, the babysitter, a teenage girl in the community, began wondering where the mother was actually going. She had asked around the tightknit community and learned there was no meeting on Wednesday nights. Curiosity got to the girl and one night, she bundeled up the kids and secretly followed the woman, Peering through the window of the meeting hall, she saw the mother seated by herself in a large circle of chairs. When the mom returned home, the girl confronted her saying, What are you doing? There is not one at the meeting! The mother agreed and said, “our community is suffering from alcohol illness. I am attending an AA meeting each Wednesday. Right now, I go by my self, and I am waiting. At some point, others will join me.
Remember when we had to patience to wait until midnight mass before saying Merry Christmas? If we cut Advent short, we run the risk of not learning what God calls us to learn.
And yesterdays concert rings true again: Oh Lord how great Thy perfect Love that reaches from the heavens above. Thy love for us by sin defiled….that made Thee God, a child.
What brought God to come to us, love. Full stop. We cannot instantly address the messes we / humanity have made. But following the love delivered in the form of a tiny child can. For God, nothing is impossible.