(A sermon on the Second Sunday of Advent, Year C, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church 12/6/2009)
This morning, we continue with the strange Counter-Cultural season of Advent. Last week, I talked about how the Church Year of the Gospel of Luke begins not with the beginning of the Gospel, but with it’s 21st chapter: Jesus’ vision for the coming Kingdom of God.
This week, we move closer to the beginning of Luke, but still a long way from the Christmas story: shifting our focus to John the Baptist for the next two weeks.
This, again, must seem odd with society’s focus already firmly set on Christmas. In terms of Advent and the new Church Year, however, it makes a lot of sense to focus on John the Baptist. The lectionary writers acknowledge that Advent marks the time of preparation: not only of the coming of Jesus into the world at his birth, and the coming of reign of God’s kingdom that Jesus points his disciples to, but also prepares us to once again begin the journey of Jesus’ ministry in the world. John the Baptist sets the stage for the start of this ministry by giving us clues as to what was happening in first century Judaism.
We are told that the word of God comes to John, the son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. Luke doesn’t go into detail to exactly what happens, but we are told that it moves John into action. John goes throughout the region proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
A quick look ahead to next week, for just a moment: I’ll be letting Richard, our North Country seminarian who’s preaching next week, sort out John’s words if he wishes to. I want to point out that we are told the crowds come flocking to experience John’s message firsthand. This points us to the conclusion that there was some measure of unrest in the Judean world. Whether it was the oppression of the Romans, or perhaps corruption of the temple leaders, it’s fair to say that the people were searching for something: perhaps a sign, perhaps new revelation, or perhaps just clarification to their place in it all, but definitely searching for something.
John the Baptist, on some level, provides the sign. The Gospel of Luke quotes Isaiah 40 to describe what John is doing: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!’” The prophet Isaiah suggests that the day will come where all barriers to the salvation of God: be it the empty valley...the vast desert...the high mountains and hills...and even the uneven ground; will no longer hide the glory of God. John directs our attention to thinking about what God’s salvation might look like.
As a preacher, this is an opportunity to bring in focus one’s understanding of God’s salvation: be it Jesus the Messiah, or fulfilling the vision of the Kingdom of God for the world, or understanding Jesus as salvation for the sins of the world, renewing the covenant between humanity and God, the power of Easter resurrection, Jesus as the Son of God, or simply the radical message that Jesus is Lord.
I, for one, am intentionally turning down this opportunity to tell you what God’s salvation for the world is.
I am doing so in part, because we as Episcopalians do not insist on a singular understanding of the Kingdom of God, only that Jesus is our way...our truth...our light. Part of what makes Episcopalians is that we share different understandings of Jesus and God, and yet together we still come around a common table in common prayer.
The real reason, however, that I’m not focusing on a particular vision of God’s salvation is that I believe the season of Advent calls us to something different.
The Advent moment isn’t about final decisions. It’s not the time to answer Jesus’ question: “who do you say that I am.” It is, instead, the time to pause, and turn around with open ears, an open mind, and an open heart. Advent calls us not so much to find an answer, but instead it refocuses the question. We are redirected from wherever the world and our lives have taken us, and called to turn our attention back on Jesus and the Kingdom of God: holding on to what each of us believes, while at the same time considering what’s still to be seen.
Advent calls us from the misconception that any one of us already has a complete understanding of the Kingdom, Jesus’ role, and even our own place in it. We are called, by the season of Advent, to first pause, and ultimately reengage in making God’s dream for the world a reality.