The Second Sunday of Advent ~ “Birth Planning: Neglected Essentials”
Isa. 11: 1-10 & Mt. 3: 1-12 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United Church ~ Dec 8, 2019
This is the season of Christmas parties. And these festive gatherings provide an opportunity for colleagues to gather, for friends to unite, and for new acquaintances to be made. We gather: over festive food, over favourite Christian beverages, and of course…we gather wearing our most colourful broaches and blouses, Christmas neck-ties and ‘ugly sweaters’. Yes, Christmas is a season for a party! If we were to imagine a 1st century Christmas party, we could begin by imagining the guest list. This Christmas party would include well…Jesus and Mary and Joseph. It might include Mary’s sister Elizabeth, and her husband Zechariah. Perhaps, the 12 disciples and their families would be there as well. This imaginary open house is getting increasingly full. But there is an odd character who, I just wonder, who we might consider leaving out. Perhaps we might (accidentally) allow his invitation to ‘get lost in the mail’. The person I’m thinking about is the central character in this morning’s text, Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. Now, I know that leaving someone out is not very Christian. And I feel bad for even bringing this up. But I wonder if you might feel as uneasy as I do with John the Baptist as he enters this morning’s Advent story.
Think about it…every year, on the second Sunday of Advent, we hear John the Baptist’s cry and I wonder if you feel as uncomfortable as I do with his presence? To be sure, John is an ‘odd’ character. We can anticipate John’s entrance a mile away with his bad breath from eating locusts and honey in the wilderness. His camel hair cloak and thick leather belt seem to clash with our festive holiday attire. And, frankly, his angry, outspoken, judgmental comments are something that every holiday party can do without. I wonder if we would be wise to consider leaving John off the guest list this year. Don’t you?
Perhaps, I am suggesting something that we all have silently been wondering every year on the second Sunday of Advent. Perhaps we all just turn a deaf ear to John’s wild ways or avoid coming today? John doesn’t look like us; John doesn’t think like us. So, when John actually arrives at the Christmas party, we tend to make polite, but quick, chit-chat and hand him off to an unsuspecting bystander. “Hey John, great to see you again. You are looking (umm…) well…nice to see you. Love what you’ve done with the camel’s hair cloak and the wilderness hair. I really want you to meet a good friend. His name is Judas. Hey Judas, this is John. I’m just going to freshen up my drink. I’ll let you chat. Be right back, guys.” All kidding aside, I know we don’t want to leave anyone out. And CERTAINLY, we don’t want to take away from the depth and integrity of a full preparation for the birth of Christ. So, we find ourselves pondering…why is John such a central figure in this grand narrative announcing Jesus’ coming. Why is he so harsh and unpolished? Why does his presence seem to rub us the wrong way? What is John’s purpose in our spiritual preparations?
I would like to suggest that John calls us into a place of uneasiness…John calls us to a place of tension in our soul…John calls us to those places where we feel separated from God. Simply put, John threatens us for he takes us into the wilderness. And, if we were to be honest, none of us like the wilderness, do we? For our faith ancestors, the good news of their liberation from Egypt was quickly forgotten as they began a new life in the wilderness. The wilderness was a time of fear and uncertainty. But it was also a time where, in their fears, they became close to God. They complained when there was no water; they grumbled when there was no food; they sinned and rebelled; they drove Moses crazy. And during those 40 years of wilderness existence, our faith ancestors truly established a new relationship with God. They learned to trust God; they learned to obey God. Yet, in the end, it was in the wilderness where they found a deep covenant with God where they knew ~ deep in their bones ~ they knew God’s love. It was in this trusting, in this knowing, in this loving…that they became God’s people. It took our ancestors a ‘long time’ 40 years ~ the typical biblical understanding of the usage of the number 40 ~ to give up their old ways and learn the new ways of God, to fall in love with God, and to walk in God’s light. In our few weeks of Advent, we are given but a brief and passing season to do this. We are invited to walk in our wilderness.
Last week, we entered Advent with an invitation to be ‘on the ready’; an invitation to be surprised by the little Christmas births that are happening around us and within us as we journey towards the birth of Jesus. I wonder if this morning’s text offers our next invitation in birth preparation: A call to risk walking in the wilderness. I wonder if it is a call to go with John into the wilderness of our lives; a journey that we so often avoid. For many of us, Christmas comes at a very difficult time. This year may have been a literal wilderness where we feel lost. Is it difficult for you this year? Have you had a loss that makes this season challenging? Have you had a challenge in your life that doesn’t seem fair? Health issues…job challenges…brokenness in relationships…not enough food in the cupboard. These are but a few of the many experiences of ‘wilderness’ that many are feeling in our midst. It is my 10th Christmas without my own Father and that table still feels empty without his presence refusing brussel sprouts and bringing joy and laughter. What does the wilderness experience look like for you this year? And perhaps our wilderness isn’t as pronounced as that. I had a pastoral conversation with a member at the church recently: ‘Rev. Scott, you will not see me very much during Advent and Christmas. No offense, but I don’t ‘get’ Christmas. It is the same thing every year. The same let down every year. You will see me in the New Year, when things are back to normal.’ I wonder if the call to wilderness is to walk in and meet this God anew who yearns to guide us in those areas where we need to be led.
I think that an essential part of planning for the birth is take a little walk in the wilderness…to be open and honest to our pains and sufferings…to how lost we may feel…to how let down we may have been in the past…and allow God to tend to us as God did to the Israelites ages ago. John’s baptism was one of repentance where people confessed their sins. It is always helpful to re-visit our doctrine on sin and repentance. What do we understand by this concept? I would like to suggest that sin and our subsequent repentance is less about the standards we set around our moral worthiness and more about God’s desire to realign us in accordance with Christ’s life. Sadly, sin and repentance has been reduced to feelings of human guilt rather than God’s amazing grace and its power to transform us further towards Christ. In the wilderness, the Hebrews met a God who they came to have full trust in: God provided, God guided, God gifted them the Promised Land. The same opportunity is available for you as we bravely enter into our wilderness struggles. Wherever we are, God will meet us there; whoever we are, God recognize us and loves us into a new creation. This is truly what peace Sunday is about. Peace is not merely the absence of war as many philosophers have pondered: Einstein, Spinoza, King. Spiritual peace is found when we bravely take a walk in our wilderness and allow God’s birthing of new life to come. The birthing of deep levels of trust…of knowing that God is with you…Emmanuel…and that in our following of Jesus’ Way, the Promised Land lies ahead.
A hymn we sang earlier this morning, “There’s a Voice in the Wilderness” was written for this very passage. And many look forward to singing this victorious hymn each year. There is a line we sing: “There’s a voice in the wilderness crying, a call from the ways untrod; prepare in the desert a highway, a highway for our God! They valleys shall be exalted, the lofty hills brought low; make straight all the crooked places where God, our God may go!” Whenever I drive the Sea to Sky Highway to Whistler, I find that tune singing in my head. I think we all marvel at the engineering miracles that created that winding road: cutting through rock and forest and providing a path to the paradise of Whistler. This text, indeed, calls out the necessity for the discernment in our use of power. Some of the powerful need to be brought down low and some of the neglected need to be lifted up. We are seeing this right now at work in the reviews of some of the NHL coaches’ behaviour. As I have been following this story with interest, I see this as being a wilderness time where justice, integrity and inclusion are being lifted up as core values. Walking in the wilderness means that we allow God to reconstruct a path that is one of justice and peace.
Some of you know that I like to take retreats at Westminster Abbey for prayer and study. The most delightful thing occurs each evening at the conclusion of the monastic day. At the evening Vigils service, following the singing of the Psalms and the prayers, comes the asperging of all in the sanctuary. The monk leading the service goes around flinging holy water upon all who are gathered. The Abbot, all the monks, and all the visitors like myself receive the gift of this baptismal renewal. Cleansing us, from those ways we had gone astray; blessing us in those ways we faithfully follow; re-baptizing us into the tomorrows we are given. I was intrigued when I was reading a marketing magazine that interviewed an executive responsible for launching the ‘Gatorade’ sports drink. The biggest hurdle in their launch was that they knew they would be competing against people’s reliance on tap water. Tap water, in and of itself, is also a hydrating beverage that is completely natural and is free. Gatorade needed to convince people that this perfectly natural beverage is not good enough. I think the same danger is at hand with our culture which seeks to take us away from experiencing the true blessings to be found in the wilderness. The temptation is to get dazzled by the bright lights of Christmas; to indulge in retail therapy and numb ourselves with a little too much holiday cheer. Meanwhile, the most natural and beautiful gift to be found in this season will be found in your wilderness. It is free and available to all who come to seek this gift of grace and peace. It comes without ribbon. It comes without tags. It comes without packages, boxes or bags. It comes when we take a chance and wander in the wilderness and allow God’s for grace to meet us there.
Come, let us join John and walk in the wilderness of our lives, for it leads to the humble Bethlehem birth and the new life that is ours in Christ.