A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

One of the unexpected joys of my work here at St. Mary’s is that I have been given the opportunity to age up. In the congregations I have been in previously, my work centered around children and youth, and I rarely ventured into the territory of people who had mostly stopped going to the orthodontist.

I am grateful that my life here includes coordinating a number of book studies, some adult forum programming and preaching. Turns out I like grown-ups too.

Currently our Friday morning book has just completed, Miracle on 10th Street. It is a compilation of writing by the great Madeline L’Engle, an author who wrote for both children and adults. It is full of pieces of prose and poetry about Advent and Epiphany that have given us a great many things to talk about over the last few weeks.

I could not help to think about today’s Gospel when I read these lines from her poem “First Coming”:

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

Mark’s Gospel does not begin with any sweet birth narrative or genealogy. Mark comes out swinging, right in the midst of the tarnished world.

There’s no gussying up with any pedigree showing how Jesus is from the House of David. There are no angels sweeping in and upending Mary’s world. No trip to Bethlehem. This isn’t John’s beautiful, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.”

Right out of the gate in Mark’s gospel we meet John, the crazy cousin, clad in camel hair and eating bugs and honey in the wilderness. He jumped right into the messy world to make way for Jesus.

John has something to say. And it’s not particularly sunshiny. Most prophets, including Isaiah who we heard today as well, have some pretty hard things to say. Prophets are not people who have any particularly great status or power. They are usually not from “the right side of the tracks.” But prophets are undeterred by their lack of credentials. And they make it their work to point out the ways that people are not behaving how God intends. Prophets open the “thing drawer” in the kitchen, that place where you stuff all the junk, and reveal that not all is well.  They look at God’s people and shout, beg, whisper, cry whatever they can to get us to see something we do not want to or cannot see for ourselves.

One time with a group of four- and five-year-olds I asked about believing in things we cannot see. So, we talked about things that we know are there, but we cannot see with our eyes. There were answers like germs and wind. Some kids mentioned love and God. One child looked at me incredibly intently until I called on her.

“I cannot see my face.” she said. “Oh,” I said, “but you can see yourself in a mirror.” To which she replied, “But that’s just my reflection. I’m not really seeing my face. And I can’t see my own eyes.”

Prophets take us by the shoulders, look at our faces and tell us what we cannot or will not see about ourselves.

The words of comfort we hear from Isaiah today come after 39 chapters of Isaiah taking God’s people by their shoulders and telling them what their faces look like.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (1:16-17)

The first portion of Isaiah speaks to the leaders and people and shows them the ways in which they have failed to live in God’s justice and righteousness. How instead of living in the Covenant God had made with them, they had ignored the needs of God’s people and sought their own power in arrogance.

But prophets speak out not to obliterate God’s people, but because they have the imagination to see how things can be different. Prophets can tell of God’s love that passes all understanding for the same reason they can tell us where we are off track, because they can see our faces.

So, Isaiah also speaks words of God’s saving grace. Of hope. Which is what we heard today. Which is how Mark begins his whole story of the life of Christ …

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.

A voice cries out:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,

John came proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins. Which is to say John came proclaiming that he could see God’s people in ways they could not, reminding them of the ways that they were not living into the Covenant God had made with them so long ago. He looked into their faces asking them to change, to repent meaning to turn their hearts towards God’s love.  And he told them that God was at work bringing the power of God’s love and righteousness into their very midst.

I often wonder if John the Baptist were to appear today if I’d go out into the wilderness to hear him. The Gospel says that many people were going to him. I wonder what drew them there.  Was it the power of his clarity, knowing the nearness of the proximity of God’s love? Was it that the people who came were desperately tired of the way the world was working?

It may seem a strange juxtaposition in the midst of preparing for the birth of Jesus to in this Gospel be placed on the banks of the Jordan River with John. I suppose no less strange than last week’s Gospel either, grappling with when the world will cease and begin again.

There is a want, at least for me, to just to rest in the comfort of knowing that sweet baby Jesus is on the way. Not so easy, according to the prophets.

It is good and right to wrestle in these coming weeks as we await the birth of Christ with John’s call to repent and ask for God’s forgiveness. To prepare for Jesus’s arrival with anything less that this would be cheap grace.

What would John the Baptist say to me were he to look at my face? What would John the Baptist say to all of us? That is a question worth turning over in these next weeks.

I confess that I am disheartened by what I imagine John would say. Not only by what he would say to me but about the state of the world. I can see how prophets throughout the ages have looked around and let loose with harsh and painful words. I don’t think a one of us would say the state of the world today is our best effort. And I lack the imagination to begin to think of how things could ever change.

But then I remember that the prophets speak hope too. A hope that imagines…

Valleys lifted and mountains laid low.

A hope that promises us that

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,

and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

And in this sense of hope, I’m struck that Mark’s story begins by calling people to be baptized, one at a time, to begin again.

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

I do not want to come to the wonder of Christmas morning without stepping into the Jordan River with John.

I want to be willing to heed the warnings of the prophets, willing to acknowledge and bewail the ways in which I have fallen short, the ways in which this still tarnished world falls short of making pathways made straight for all of God’s beloved creation.

This Christmas I want to peer into the manger, ready to meet the gaze of the one who sees my face, the one who sees your face, and in great love shines on us all the Light that will never go out. And then our faces although we cannot see them for ourselves may reflect that love, that light into this broken, tarnished world and we together begin again.

Amelia McDaniel