Sermon preached Dec. 8, 2013 at the Iona School for ministry, The Episcopal Diocese of Texas
A senior student in priesthood studies, I began this Advent 2 sermon – a practicum given before the dean, faculty and students, after standing in silence in the pulpit for the first few minutes.
Interesting, isn’t it – what happens when we wait, especially when we’re not quite sure what’s coming next. Depending on your perception of what was happening the last couple of minutes, whether you figured out what I was doing, or you were somewhat confused, each of you were probably at least a little uncomfortable. You may have thought “Oh no, she’s living out one of those Iona School nightmares: she’s hit the homiletic wall and it is Deer in the Headlights Time”. Now I’m not going to say that will never happen to me, but at least that wasn’t what happened today.
Today I want to invite you to explore with me this feeling of uncomfortable confusion. It’s a feeling that doesn’t set well with us here at the beginning of the second week of Advent. As the rest of the world rushes and hurries into a premature Christmas season, this is the time when we who follow a liturgical progression through our walk of faith intentionally turn down a different path. We pace ourselves, working from the very first day of Advent to be quiet, reflective, peaceful, waiting an entire month to complete lighting one wreath. Putting our trees up late and leaving them up while all the others are back in boxes the day after Christmas or turning brown on the curb. It would drive most people up a wall to wait that long, but to us this annual slow intention is very familiar, very comforting.
Yet our readings this Advent are far from quiet and comforting. The Gospel of Matthew gives us John the Baptist. John, an imposing figure to say the least. The colorful details of his location, clothing and diet form an image of a wild and wooly prophet: Living in the wilderness, dressed in a shaggy camel’s coat with a big, thick leather belt cinched at his waist. He’s lean to the point of that startling kind of gauntness from a diet of honey and bugs.
His speech isn’t any more comforting than this appearance. His simple but startling call to Repent!, and his warning that this foreign kingdom is right on our doorstep cuts across the layered practices of Jewish religious life, disturbing the comfortable, dependable structures of written law, tearing his way through the hedges of the Mishnah to proclaim the arrival of Salvation through the Messiah. “Comfort” and “peace” are not the words that come to mind when picturing an encounter with John the Baptist.
Yet people from all over were flocking to him, drawn to his message, his proclamation of the advent – the coming – of the Lord. We have this idyllic, pastoral scene of people streaming in toward the River Jordan, and John taking them each in turn, one after another, drawing up in his arms soul after soul washed clean of sin in the waters of baptism. But just as we’re settling into that lovely idea, the peace of this image is quickly broken as the John the Baptist confronts the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized, with one of the most venomous direct condemnations by a prophet recorded in Scripture: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
How dare you presume to think you’re going to get a free pass on what the Lord requires of you – just try slip by without true repentance. He’s ready now to wipe you out. I may be using water to baptize you, but he’s going to use the Holy Spirit and fire. He will clear this place out, keeping the good for himself, and burning up the bad.
Not really much room in there for a peaceful Advent. In fact, as we slip into our familiar, cozy practices of preparation and gentle anticipation, few of the rest of our Advent lectionary readings to this point have been comforting or comfortable. Instead they include calls to action, end-time Kingdom visions, fervent, unsettling warnings to stay awake and alert, and to be prepared for the triumphant, unexpected, thief-in-the-night return of Jesus, who brings not a quiet peace, but a peace forged in God’s unexpected justice and mercy, handed out with a love like nothing the world has seen or can understand.
C.S. Lewis filled several notebooks with writings on grief after the death of his wife. Those notebooks were published as the short book, “A Grief Observed.” In it, Lewis is struggling to come to terms with her loss, and finds himself worrying over the accuracy of the photos that he has left of her. He fears that along with the photos, his memories of her, his perception of how he experienced her, are all he has left to define her image – and he is scared that never again will he know a fully real and accurate version of who she was.
His experience of time spent moving through this very uncomfortable grief, transforms his view of his attempts at understanding God, and who he is in relationship to the Divine.“My idea of God is not a divine idea,” he writes. “It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself. God is the great iconoclast.” Lewis goes on to say that the very act of God shattering his own image is one of the marks of the presence of God, with the Incarnation as the supreme example that leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.
As we continue to move through Advent, I encourage you not to be afraid to feel uncomfortable with your thoughts on where God is in your life, and who you are in relationship to him. I encourage you not to be afraid to sit with those who are also experiencing discomfort. This is a season to take courage to look deep into ourselves. This is a time to face and acknowledge the selfish, hateful, sinful things we may find there, and with God’s grace to pull them out by the root, making straight the path for God’s continued entrance into our lives, and the lives of those we serve. This is the time to sit with the uncomfortable grief over what has been or is being taken away from us, so that we can rediscover that God is not only about taking away. In Advent we discover again that God always gives and is giving to us a new life, and a new purpose. He is always about the work of building his Kingdom through us.
Writer Martyn Jones says that in his grief C.S. Lewis’ theology, collapses but is raised again to show the signs of its wounds. I believe it is the collapse that we fear, yet it is in those shattering experiences that we encounter the presence of the Divine Healer, who is always working out his purpose in us. The times in our ministry where we walk with the grieving can be among the hardest work we do – to sit in pastoral care with the uncomfortable, to see up close and personal, and perhaps reflected in ourselves, the fears of the people sitting in our pews and walking our streets, whom we love and serve as ministers of God’s Church.
Advent is the time to take a deep breath and to come to terms with the uncomfortable reality that the Jesus whose body was broken for the sake of the world, this same Passover sacrificed for us, is also the peace-bringer we are quietly seeking. We are called to preach and to teach that a Resurrected, Scarred Savior heals shattered lives. In the course of our ministries there will be times when we will ask the people trusted to our care to enter peacefully into that uncomfortable space of God’s taking away, and God’s restoration. Whether we minister through tragedy or well-being, as clergy we are called to live an active peace, a peace centered in the unsettling confusion of waiting with God’s people for his purpose to be revealed and fulfilled.
Be aware this Advent of becoming too quiet too soon. Of being unprepared by settling too quickly and easily into spiritual practices that fail to offer the gift of discomfort . Peace does not begin with us. It is not of our own making, but comes through the working out of God’s uncomfortable justice. This Advent season we do not start with peace, but daily we are arriving at a peace that will be completed on that silent and holy night, when Emmanuel, God With Us, will shatter the world’s idea of a Savior. Amen.
Excellent, Ashley. I am reminded of that old saying that the role of a preacher is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” You did both.