Sermon Preached by the Rev. Colin H. Williams
Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh
The Second Sunday of Advent, 5 December 1999
"Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God."-Isaiah 40:3
John the baptizer would never get hired by today's Episcopal Church. He was just too weird. Of course he wore camel hair, but it was not a Brooks Brothers sport coat. Of course he wore a leather belt, but surely it was not made of fine aniline calfskin. His culinary tastes favored bugs 'n honey over cucumber sandwiches (with the crusts cut off). John would never show up on the cover of GQ, and People magazine would not vote him "The Sexiest Man Alive." He failed charm school. His version of the book "How to Make Friends and Influence People" did not made it on the New York Times Bestseller list. He would never be hired by either George W. or Al G. as their political spin doctor. And never in a million years would a business school invite him to teach Marketing 101. John the baptizer, like all the prophets that came before him, spoke with clarity, with power, and without ambiguity, without regard as to how he would be received. "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God."
Of all the people to announce "the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God," the long-expected Messiah, why this bizarre, even berserk, character from the desert? The gospel recounts that John "appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Now we know that, before the time of Jesus, baptism was reserved for non-Jewish, gentile converts to the religion of Israel. Baptism was their special rite of purification before Christians made it their own too. So for John to adjure his fellow Jews that they, too, needed to be baptized was a slap in the face. When people came to John for baptism, he doesn't say anything like, "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You;" rather he says, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father'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."
John the baptizer is a prophet-a kick-in-the-pants, afflict the comfortable, overthrow the-status-quo, away-with-your-oppressive-institutions, prophet. Although he was an affront to many who heard him, he remains a model for today's Christian witness, preaching, teaching, and practice. In our recent history, I believe that we could have seen John marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., for civil rights in the 1960s, and fighting for women's ordination with Carter Heyward in the 70s. Today, John probably would have been among those protesting the University of Pittsburgh's refusal to offer benefits to same-sex partners. And this week if you looked at CNN close enough, you could have seen John there among the hoards in Seattle protesting the World Trade Organization, right or wrong. Wherever and whenever there is an opportunity to address issues of justice in the world, John is there.
The image of God presented by John stands in sharp contrast to that presented by Isaiah. Unlike John who challenges the self-righteous and the pious, Isaiah writes about God's comfort, consolation, and peace. Yet the two images of God belong together. The good news of God is always disquieting to those who have become too comfortable, too complacent, too rigid, too self-absorbed. And the good news of God is always consoling and comforting for those who are oppressed, for those whose burdens are heavy.
The Israelites and first Christians knew affliction and discomfort all too well. 600 years before Jesus' birth, the people to whom Isaiah speaks had suffered much, having been exiled from their homeland and hometown of Jerusalem. Now, as their freedom from captivity is imminent, Isaiah proclaims, "Comfort, O comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her termGod 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." Even the psalmist says that "I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him."
Harassment and affliction were no strangers to the first Christians either. In the first century Roman Empire, Christianity was illegal and cause for execution. Christianity was a threat to the prevailing culture and its institutions. To make matters worse, Jesus promised his followers that he would come again, and that is the main purpose of the second letter of Peter: to undergird faith in the second coming of Christ. The faithful hearers of Peter's letter, like us today, were living in a kind of Advent, waiting for the Lord to come, and his arrival couldn't come soon enough. Peter promises that, "The Lord is not slow about his promisebut is patient with you, not wanting any to perishIn accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home."
Words of comfort, consolation, and hope. Christians are called to be a patient lot, believing that all good things will eventually come to pass in God's own time. The Church is called to be that quiet place of rest, sanctuary, preservation, nurture-the shelter from the stormy blast and the hope for years to come-in the midst of the chaos, violence, and oppression of life back then and life today. Church as sanctuary, Church as escape.
So Isaiah and Peter offer one vision of the faithful life while John the baptizer presents another. But whom is the Church to follow, John or Isaiah.? Or in other words, is the mission of the church exclusively one of provocation, like John, or is it rather one of preservation, like Isaiah? The answer is both. The Church has always been both a place of sanctuary, a place where the afflicted are comforted, and a place where the too-comfortable are afflicted by the likes of John and anyone who is not afraid to say of the status-quo, "This stinks!" Faithful people from Old Testament times to today have rejoiced in their special relationship with God, and have sought refuge in her loving bosom, but have periodically become complacent, and forgotten the least, the lost, and the last of the world. This is when God sends prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and John the baptizer to wake-up and shake-up the faithful. The Church preserves and the Church provokes. And if the role of the Church is exclusively to preserve the unity, constancy, and peace of status-quo, then the time for that Church has comeand gone. Or if the role of the Church is solely to destroy the status-quo and all our institutions that go with it, then the time for that Church has comeand gone too. Preserve and provoke-never one exclusive of the other, but each according to God's will in time and place.
Today, more so than ever, this Advent season of preparation for the Lord coming into the world is compromised by our not refusing to fall victim to those who take advantage of our penchant for consuming. And when we worry too much about gift buying and adding and adding all the holiday details, we forget the real importance of Advent. If John were our guest preacher today, and he were in a somewhat conciliatory mood, he might suggest this. "Wait to celebrate Christmas until Christmas, which begins on the 25th, not ends. When the world is feeling let-down and depressed on December 26th, call the radio station and request "It's the most wonderful time of the year!" because it's only the second day of Christmas. Consider giving and opening some of your presents on January 6th-the Feast day of the Epiphany when the three kings bring their gifts for Jesus. In Advent, where we are now, prepare the way of the Lord."
Finally, John the Baptist's message for us this Advent is one of simplicity. He had little, he wore little, he ate little, he spoke little. But what he did say and do spoke volumes, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God." Antoine de St. Exupery said this, "In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything left to add, but when there is no longer anything left to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness."
And to this I would add-as naked as John the Baptist and as plain as his challenge; as naked as the baby Jesus, and as plain as God's love for us.
Please feel free to contact Fr. Williams if you have questions or comments about this or any sermon.
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