The Third Sunday of Advent
15 December 2013
Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be honour and glory, world without end. Amen.
Each year Advent confronts us with John the Baptist and like all prophets he makes us uncomfortable. He is a challenging figure for us: he “wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.” We can not tame him and turn him into some urban bohemian bourgeois or hipster, some modern-day locovore wearing a belted camel hair topcoat. He is a wild figure, someone to emerge from the wilderness, challenging the people of the cities and countryside, preaching transformation and the coming of the kingdom of God, preaching the up-ending of society as people know it.
In telling the people to “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” he is referring his scripturally literate first century hearers to think back to the words of the prophet Isaiah, who said that “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.” Isaiah and John tell us that in the day of the Lord, when God ultimately brings forth his kingdom—the subversive Kingdom of Love about which I have been speaking. On that day the world as we know it will be remade. The winding roads will be made straight, the hills shall be brought low, the wet places shall become dry, and the desert shall become an ocean. God will turn the world upside down when he brings forth the Kingdom of Love, the Kingdom unlike any other kingdom, where the values of Love, freedom, generosity, abundance, relationship, interconnection, and vulnerability triumph over indifference, coercion, selfishness, greed, and the myths of self-reliance and invulnerability. The values of this age will be overturned and the values of God, our God, the values that lie at the very centre of the cosmos will reign.
And what will this all look like? Isaiah put it this way: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.” Literally and metaphorically the world shall be healed. People shall see and hear clearly and know what reality, God’s loving reality is like, and we shall be free to act and speak this new truth in ways we had never previously imagined. John preached the coming of the one who would inaugurate this new age, and of whom Isaiah spoke, and he did so with a voice that instilled fear and awe:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance (transformation), and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance (transformation), but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Would I have the courage to preach such words? Would any preacher in our tradition use such language to speak to our people today? Maybe not, but this is what John said. This is what he preached. For him the stakes could not have been higher. This age is corrupt, he proclaimed, and someone is coming to call us all to account, and how it all unfolds will not be pretty.
It must be admitted, that we have been waiting an awfully long time for this to happen. The powers of the world, the powers that stand in opposition to the reign of Love, remain firmly in place. The powers and priorities of the world operative in John’s day are, in fact, not very different—save for the technology—from the powers and priorities of the world today. We should not lose heart, however. John the Baptist calls out to us as boldly as he did to those who walked with him and heard him preach. We still have the ability to make our response and act, cooperate with God in this work and achieve great things, and Advent is the time to recommit ourselves to this work. God is determined that ultimately Love shall reign, that the values of John’s age—and this one, I might add—will be turned and transformed and our attitudes changed (which is what the word we translate as “repent” really means), turned towards God's values, God’s purpose.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus wants John to know that he is indeed the one of whom Isaiah spoke, the one who will inaugurate this new age, and he asks his followers to report to John the signs of the times:
Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.
These are, indeed, the signs that God has become incarnate among us and that God’s loving, healing power is now active in and through creation, that this revolution has begun. People are physically and spiritually healed, death is defeated by the power of love, and those on the margins, those forgotten about by the powers of the mighty empire, receive attention, love, and justice (which, to quote Joseph Fletcher, is simply “love distributed”). This is what God does when entering into time and space, when becoming actualised, incarnate into the here and now. This is what happened in the person of Jesus Christ and this is what happens, what we experience of God when it happens today, acting in and through our bodies.
The incarnation for which we wait, both the ultimate fulfilment of God’s promise, as well as the incarnations we experience every day if we know where to look, happen in these moments: moments of healing and reconciliation, the breaking in of new life into moments of death and loss, and those times when all of God’s children, especially the poor and dispossessed, all those rejected and on the margins of society are included. These are the new values that must and will replace the ones held by so many in our world today, as much as they were in those days of the Roman Empire.
The message of John the Baptist and the signs that Jesus shares with us as markers of the incarnation, of the in-breaking of God’s messiah should be our guide posts in our call to help God actualise this new world. While we can not bring the Kingdom to fulfilment on our own—only God will make this happen—we can cooperate with God, turn our hearts, and work to transform our selves, our relationships, our institutions, and, ultimately, the underlying systems of our society. At each of these levels we are called to help transform our world, work for its healing and ours, to bring forth new life from tragedy and death, and work for the distribution of love that we name as justice. This is not simply interior spiritual work on ourselves, although perhaps it begins there. No, it is work that must extend outwards into our relationships and institutions, into the creation that God values so much, that God made and declared Good, and that is the stage upon which the drama of the cosmos is enacted.
With so many of our society’s values subverting this work, it is no wonder that Isaiah and John spoke of the need for a revolutionary shift, a tectonic movement in the priorities of the world. As I said at the outset, such prophetic speech makes us uncomfortable and is frightening to those of us—myself very much included—who are so firmly imbedded in the fabric of the establishment. When, however, we look to what really matters—that call to healing, love, justice, and new life—we see that what will remain, what will endure are the things that truly matter. This sisemic change, the movement to prioritise and enact true healing, resurrection, and love-justice, can be effected if we let go of our fear and respond to the invitation Jesus issued, first to John, and then to his followers and ultimately to us, to first witness and then participate in this work.
We just need to play our part as we put these principles into action in our work, for if we all cooperate we begin to move forward into this revolution of Love, inaugurated at that first Advent, continued this Advent, and yet to be fulfilled. We are all called to witness the inauguration of the Kingdom, turn our hearts, and enter into a process the outcome of which remains uncertain and which, to steal a well-worn phrase, we see only through a mirror darkly. We must remember that as beloved children of God we have within us the strength to undertake this work, untapped healing power, a limitless capacity for love, a community to support us, and, ultimately, a God—identified with pure unbounded, generous Love—who walks with us every step of the way, every step along that crooked path that is, as we speak, being made straight.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Advent Feria, 9 December 2013
© 2013 Andrew Charles Blume