A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
"See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,'"
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
When we think about Jesus coming, especially at this time of year, we think of the stories about Mary and Joseph and shepherds and angels. Advent is all about preparing for the birth of Jesus, yet, in Mark’s gospel, we hear nothing about it. Mark begins the story of Jesus with this scene—a strange man standing in a river, proclaiming that the Messiah is about to arrive, and he’s not talking about a tiny baby, but a 30 year old man. It might seem a bit strange for us to focus on this scripture during Advent, since it has nothing to do with Jesus’ birth. But I think it’s here for us to remember…remember what that beautiful birth led to. It wasn’t just Jesus’ existence that was miraculous. It was his teaching, his example, his whole life. So we remember the beginning of his ‘career’ as the Messiah, and listen to the prophets who said he would come to change the world.
Let me be honest: this has been a hard week. Fights with loved ones, a terrible cold, and several days without power left me exhausted and discouraged.
The worst thing about this last week for me was that I didn’t feel like decorating for Christmas. Now, Christmas is my favorite holiday, and I usually do all my decorating the day after Thanksgiving, if not before. I love listening to Christmas music, making Christmas crafts, and watching Christmas movies. I grew up getting a present for every day of Advent. Christmas is in my blood. But this past week, I was in no state to decorate, or prepare, or even feel excited about Christmas. I was sick, and tired, and grumpy, and my house was dark. Candlelight is only romantic if you don’t need it.
So today, I’m making correlations between this first, difficult week of Advent and the reading from Mark we had today. Neither is what we would expect or hope for…neither fits with what we think we are supposed to be feeling as we prepare for Christmas.
A crazy-looking man standing in the middle of a river preaching about a coming Messiah is about as festive as washing your hair in a pot of water warmed on a propane stove!
John the Baptist is a character who shakes things up…his persona and his message were unexpected, and yet, people listened to him. We wouldn’t have this story if he had been standing in the river all alone, ranting and raving to himself. We know the story because people were there to hear it. People came to be baptized by him in the river Jordan, even though he was strange, even though he wasn’t a religious authority, even though he ate bugs! John was a prophet on the margins, and he was preaching about a Messiah who would be on the margins as well.
That’s the thing about Jesus, the thing that many Christians tend to forget…Jesus was as anti-establishment as he could get. He was a rebel, he didn’t fit in. Jesus spoke out against those in power. He challenged people who claimed to have religious and political authority. Jesus spent his time and energy on people outside of the inner circle, on people who were also on the margins of society. The whole birth narrative of Jesus underscores that point. He was born poor and homeless, to a teenage mother…yet people listened to him, too.
Again, this may not be what we expect to hear about during Advent, but the liturgical year is interesting that way. We don’t really tell the story of Jesus in a linear fashion. It’s all tangled up, almost as if it can’t be told in just one way, and one part doesn’t make much sense without remembering both what comes before and what comes after.
We need to remember that the world Jesus was born into desperately needed a savior. People were crushed by an oppressive government, tired and hopeless. They lived hand to mouth, and couldn’t see a way out.
The world that Jesus is born into today is much the same. Wars, epidemics, terrible financial inequity and governments run by people who care more about money than people. As much as we try to make it one during Advent—this is not a perfect, glittering world. It’s a world that needs Jesus, needs his radical teachings, his inclusive love… that’s why he came, and why he is coming.
I’ve been rereading Marcus Borg’s book The Heart of Christianity lately, and recently I came to a chapter where he talks about thin places. He starts out with a quote from the Trappist Monk Thomas Merton:
“Life is simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows himself everywhere, in everything—in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without him. It’s impossible. The only thing is that we don’t see it.”
And Borg continues,
“But occasionally, we do “see it,” do experience God shining through everything. “Thin places” are places where these two levels of reality meet or intersect. They are places where the boundary between two levels becomes very soft, porous, permeable. Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts and we behold God, experience the one in whom we live, all around us and within us.”
Borg says there are many kinds of thin places. Sacred spaces, certain people, worship services, and even whole seasons can be thin places where the closeness of God is more obvious to us. Advent can be one of those thin places, if we let it. Sometimes, the glittering lights and the family traditions and the Christmas carols do help to make Advent a thin place. For those of us with good memories of the holidays, those cozy feelings and familiar sights can remind us of the magic in the world, of our closeness to the Divine.
But that’s not the only way. Sometimes, it takes a really crummy week to remind us how close God is… For me, being sick and without power forced me to slow way down…my evenings felt luxuriously long as all I could do was knit by candlelight. I got a lot of knitting done! It was quiet in my house without the hum of the refrigerator or the noisy companionship of the TV, and I had to sit in the silence and contemplate it. Even at Starbucks, where I was on Friday morning to charge my phone and get hot coffee, people were different. It was a madhouse, with everyone charging devices and working on laptops, but there was a camaraderie, a sense of community, that I rarely feel at a coffee shop.
Strangers were commiserating with each other about their power loss, sharing power strips so everyone had a plug, sitting at tables with strangers and chatting about what they were doing to cope. Now, you wouldn’t think that a bustling Starbucks could be a thin place, but as I sat there on Friday, charging my phone and knitting on my day off, I realized that it was. Neighbors were sharing space, sharing smiles, being kind to each other. This tiny cross-section of humanity from the Santa Cruz mountains had come together for coffee and electricity, and God was palpably present.
Advent is about preparation. Preparing the way for Jesus…preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ into our hearts, into our lives, and into our world. Sometimes Advent is full of glitter and sweetness and fun…and sometimes it is a dark and grief-filled wilderness. Whatever it is for you this year, be present to it.
Pay attention to the unexpected prophets… Pay attention to the voices from the margins…Pay attention to the silence... Prepare the way.
This is a thin place, this season of Advent.
“God is everywhere and in everything …the only thing is that we don’t see it.”