Second Sunday in Advent
Year C, RCL
December 9, 2018
North Fork Ministries
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
In the waning days of the year of our Lord, 2018, in the second year of the presidency of Donald Trump, when Andrew Cuomo was governor and Kirsten Gillebrand and Chuck Schumer were Senators from the region of New York. During the high priesthood of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and when the Most Rev. Justin Welby was the Archbishop of Canterbury. So it was that the word of God came to voices crying in the wilderness, echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah:
Prepare the way of the Lord,
Every kitchen shall be filled with groceries for the hungry,
High armies of occupation will be made low,
Crooked politicians will be made straight,
The warming earth will be cooled,
The sick will find affordable heath care,
The unemployed will find well paying and meaningful labor,
The alien will be welcomed at our borders,
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
I have no doubt, that the vision of a better world proclaimed by John the Baptist, seemed as outlandish and unattainable to John’s Judean followers as it does to us today.
John the Baptist was telling his listeners, and we hear the same proclamation, that change is on the way. The vision of John the Baptist is not, however, one of doom, but of a better world, where all shall see the salvation of God. And we are invited to be a part of the creation of that prophetic vision.
During this second week of Advent, we hear John the Baptist, freshly emerging from the wilderness, a man on a mission from God.
Luke begins the telling of this story by calling to mind the leadership of the day – both secular and religious. But the utopian vision that John the Baptist proclaims did not come from the lips of a member of the established order. William Herzog writes, "The Word of God came to a nothing son of a nobody in a godforsaken place". And our souls are in peril if we fail to listen to the nobodies.
John is asking us to take a hard look at the world and at ourselves. He warns us that the time has come for a change of mind and of heart. John is telling us that the way the world works is completely upside down and is calling for a reversal in the way we live our personal lives as well. But how do we do that? It’s evident to most of us already, that the rough needs to be made smooth, and that the crooked could use some straightening, and that the highs and lows may need to be reversed. Herzog provides an interesting perspective on the kind of changes that we can make that lead to transformation, to the metanoia (in Greek) that John the Baptist speaks of:
"We think of repentance as a great, life-changing action, but metanoia can refer to a small change as well, and if one projects a small change over a long-enough time, then a small change can become a life-altering event. Metanoia is something like the mid-course corrections that were part of the Apollo space program. The space capsule would burn its rockets only a few seconds, but the course change was immensely significant".
Sometimes change is incremental, both global change and change on a personal scale as well.
A few years ago, Robert Wright wrote a book called, The Evolution of God. It is Dr. Wright’s argument that God, or at least humankind’s conception of God, has evolved through the ages from the god of the hunter-gatherer, to the god of the tribe, to the god of the chiefdom, to the god of the nation-state.
The gods of the hunter-gatherer were really just bigger and more powerful versions of the humans that imagined them. They lacked morality, yelled at their human subjects, castigated them for reasons as quirky as combing their hair in the midst of a storm or for gazing upon mating dogs.
Dr. Wright regards the god of the Hebrew Bible as not much better, describing Yahweh as a warrior god, often behaving savagely, insecure when confronted with the faithlessness of his people, and ready to commit mass murder in order to demonstrate his mighty powers.
Wright doesn’t let Jesus off the hook either, claiming that when Jesus talked about loving your neighbor, he really just meant that. Neighbors were those who lived next door. And that the sermon on the mount, containing the beatitudes “blessed are the peacemakers, the meek, the pure of heart, and the merciful were added to the Gospel of Matthew some years after Jesus death and that it was later the Apostle Paul, who extended Christ’s invitation to the Gentiles, who moved Christianity away from a exclusive tribal religion and toward a Christianity based on love, compassion, and justice for all the world’s inhabitants.
I think I will leave it to Biblical scholars to sort out the exact historical sequence of events that have led us to a faith where love for God and love for our neighbor are intricately linked and at the foundation of our expression of religion.
But it is worth taking seriously Wright’s contention that human history is moving in an increasingly moral direction, arguing that as we become more connected globally, we move naturally toward mutually beneficial human relationships. Likewise, Wright argues that as we move in the direction of “goodness”, our conception of God moves toward the good, the expansive, the inclusive. Religion becomes less narrowly focused on the well being of only “those like us”, those who believe like we do, act like we do, and look familiar. Wright says that each of the Abrahamic faiths become more moral as they are compelled to interact, and that this “expansion of the moral imagination reflects a higher purpose, a transcendent moral order.” Every encounter, every potential conflict is actually an opportunity to bring into realization the promise of the kingdom of God.
This “ever widening circle of morality”, a vision of humankind that is moving, albeit unevenly, toward a increasingly moral universe is much like that described by Isaiah, and echoed by John the Baptizer, where
“the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
It is a world that is difficult to imagine, particularly at this juncture in history, but that, my friends, is the essence of Advent. It is a season of promise, of hope, of new birth - new birth embodied in the Christ child we await.
As a people of God we are still moving forward toward a realization that we are one, that we are all a part of the One, and that when one suffers, all of us suffer, and the joy of all creation is our joy as well.
I am convinced that we, you and I, are included in this ever-widening circle of compassion and love. We have a role to play in the fulfillment of God’s promise.
Whether that role is in the checkout line at the IGA or the Mattituck Marketplace, worshiping at a Mariachi Mass, or sharing dinner at John's Place we have the opportunity to break out of the limiting confines of our tribe and find communion.
And what better season, as we await the coming of the Christ child, to wait with hope, with expectation, for a better world.
As one of my favorite characters in American fiction, J.D. Salinger’s, Seymour Glass said, “I think there is a conspiracy to make me happy.” God is part of that conspiracy – a collusion of forces, allied to move us all toward that which is good, just, and beautiful and blessed. We are asked, as Jesus followers, to join in that conspiracy.