A Sam Laurent Sermon for Advent

A Sermon preached by Theologian-in-Residence, Dr. Sam Laurent, December 14, 2014. The Third Sunday of Advent.

 

I begin, as is our sometimes habit here, with a poem, this one by the English poet/priest/scholar Malcolm Guite. It’s called “The Singing Bowl.” Consider it an invocation.

Begin the song exactly where you are,
Remain within the world of which you’re made.
Call nothing common in the earth or air,

Accept it all and let it be for good.
Start with the very breath you breathe in now,
This moment’s pulse, this rhythm in your blood

And listen to it, ringing soft and low.
Stay with the music, words will come in time.
Slow down your breathing. Keep it deep and slow.

Become an open singing-bowl, whose chime
Is richness rising out of emptiness,
And timelessness resounding into time.

And when the heart is full of quietness
Begin the song exactly where you are.

The world makes us want to change it, and fast. News of institutional racism, of disregard for the value of black bodies, of the dark and dehumanizing torture inflicted by our nation… these put us in the mind for something sweeping and radical and fast that will fix things. Numerous religious leaders have called on us to talk about these issues in our congregations, and we have done some of that here. I’m sure we will do more. But the change will not come as fast as we’d like.

Isaiah’s audience would probably relate. Scholars think that this passage addresses the Israelites who had just returned from exile, as they survey Jerusalem and lament how much of their city and their religion was lost.  Isaiah has been sent to rally the troops, so to speak, to remind them that God’s covenant with Israel still stands.

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,

and the day of vengeance of our God;

to comfort all who mourn;

to provide for those who mourn in Zion—

to give them a garland instead of ashes,

the oil of gladness instead of mourning,

the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

 

These people, Isaiah says, will be called “oaks of righteousness,” “the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.” And then, the kicker. Listen carefully:

They shall build up the ancient ruins,

they shall raise up the former devastations;

they shall repair the ruined cities,

the devastations of many generations.

For I the LORD love justice,

I hate robbery and wrongdoing;

Did you catch what happened there? Yes, the temple will be rebuilt, Jerusalem will be restored to something of its former glory, but it will be done by the faithful people, not by divine edict. God seems to stand next to them and say “wow, this is really a mess, huh? Guess you’d better get to work. You have my support.” It’s hardly the comfort we seek in the face of despair, as we mourn the brokenness of our society. The Israelites, having persisted through the exile and at long last returned to their home, were excusably tired. One could imagine their enthusiasm for their relationship with God starting to wane a little bit, perhaps even some wandering eyes looking curiously at the gods of other peoples, gods who appeared to be a bit more effective.

But not Isaiah. Isaiah rejoices even in the ruined Jerusalem, because his experience of God has filled him with hope, with a sense that a spark of divinity can find dry kindling among these people. Isaiah rejoices in God because God has poured the Spirit out on him, lighting him up with prophetic fire, calling him to turn God’s people back toward their covenantal relationship. Isaiah has experienced God. The others, maybe not so much, maybe not in a long time, maybe not with such clarity. We all need our prophets.

Now, the world does not need—and more to the point, you do not need–a sermon where a straight white guy compares his experiences to Israel’s exile, or to the very real violations of humanity that straight white guys have been engineering. The world needs that even less than it needs a sermon in which a straight white guy unburdens his guilty liberal conscience. That’s not what I’m trying to do here. I own my guilt. I just want to say, in what is surely a privileged observation, that if you bother to take notice of the injustice in the world, it can wear you down. It can make you stop paying attention or stop feeling outrage. Even the realization of privilege, which itself can inspire deeply unnecessary sermons, can dispirit us.

We feel a deep tension in these times, when hope turns into restlessness turns into fatigue. We might feel tempted to throw our arms up in despair and cross over to the more cynical side; the side that doesn’t seem to wear itself out trying to consider the interests of those outside a narrowly defined tribe. That’s our secret horror at all the dehumanization we see happening, right? It’s just so easy, so much simpler than examining your instincts and your prejudices. All that examination and righteousness seems only to present you with a world that looks something like the ruined Jerusalem. There’s a perverse seductiveness to letting your guilt-ridden bleeding heart off the hook. With so much needing fixing, that underlying hunch of faith, the hunch that something here is sacred, can seem deeply ridiculous.

And the paradox of God’s presence does not let us off hook. God was present with the Israelites; the Spirit had been poured on Isaiah in particular, and yet what they got was not a divine zap that fixed their city. Instead they got a promise that God would delight in their successes. No quick fix; just abiding love. Enormous brokenness makes us long for superheroes, and today’s Advent readings largely just give us ourselves. There is, it turns out, tremendous grace in that.

John the Baptist, as told in the Gospel of John not-the-Baptist, cuts right to the chase. Asked who he is, he tells them who he isn’t. He’s not the messiah. He is not Elijah, nor is he the prophet. He is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness “make straight the way of the Lord.”  He is there to prepare the way for the one who will come after him.

John the Baptist is our great Advent role model, the one who spends his days preparing the world to follow Jesus. And he famously does it pretty enthusiastically. Other gospels describe him wearing camel hair and eating locusts and honey. The business of preparing the world for Christ rarely entails a lot of conformity. And yet, for all his incredible fervor and passion, it is those denials of grandeur that sing to me today.

John the Baptist makes it clear that he is not the messiah, Elijah, or the prophet. Maybe this is a good moment for all of us to take a second and acknowledge that we, too, are not any of those things. It’s a good thought experiment. Something very much along the lines of Lisa’s image last week, of one bucket at a time. “I baptize with water” he says. Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit.

Before we can make straight the way of the Lord, we need to remember who we are, and who we are not. You will not rebuild the temple on your own, nor will you right the world’s wrongs by yourself. And yet you are called. You are called to notice those wrongs, to cry out against them and name them and to heal them, and to feel the tension of being one person in a society with big problems.

John the Baptist’s next sentence is a show-stopper, I think. “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” That first phrase: Among you stands one whom you do not know. There. That’s Advent, for me. Possibility Incarnate.  Among you stands one whom you do not know.

You who look to the skies for hope, who pray for a superhero, who despair at your own smallness, who feel gloom as the days grow shorter and the news grows bleaker… among you stands one whom you do not know.

You who have fried your circuits with rage and sadness, you who are already exhausted without even reading the news, who seek some quiet corner in which to restore your coping mechanisms… among you stands one whom you do not know.

You who feel helpless and complicit in a society that is deeply broken, and which tilts toward you… among you stands one whom you do not know.

The one who stands among you is not you, and you are not tasked with being that one. You are tasked with making some space. The smallness that we feel when we start to realize how big the world’s problems really are is a very real smallness, but it is not a hopelessness. That one is among you, emerges in your midst, and you are not called to be that one. You are called to make straight the way, and to welcome that one into the world.

John was not Jesus. John was the first follower of Jesus, and the great irony here is that he is also the one whom Jesus followed, the one that came before Jesus. Likewise, the Israelites were tasked with rebuilding a holy city for the glory of God, an act that would galvanize covenant with God. Big work, for sure, but also human work. None of these people was asked to be more than who they were, not even Isaiah, and Isaiah actually was the prophet. They were called to create a space in their lives and among their people for the realization of God. God would follow.

We are called to the same. We are called to feel heartbroken at the things that happen in the world, to feel betrayed, guilty, and complicit at our own privilege. We are called to yearn for a great transformation, and to feel impatient and impotent when transformation comes far slower and smaller than we’d hoped. We are also called to be in our own skin, to know who we are and who we are not. The Incarnation, for all its importance, was not a very big thing as things go, and we are called to announce it, and to make space in this world for it to matter. It’s crucial work, but it’s human sized and so are we. So let me submit this Advent that the gnawing tension and outrage we feel in these weeks might not be the futility of the human condition. I mean, it could be if we aren’t careful, but it could also be the opening up of some space for the Incarnation, for God’s grace coming precisely as a marginalized body.

Among you stands one whom you do not know. How do you welcome that one? Start by remembering who you are.

In lieu of an “amen,” let me read Malcom Guite’s poem once more.

Begin the song exactly where you are,

Remain within the world of which you’re made.
Call nothing common in the earth or air,

Accept it all and let it be for good.
Start with the very breath you breathe in now,
This moment’s pulse, this rhythm in your blood

And listen to it, ringing soft and low.
Stay with the music, words will come in time.
Slow down your breathing. Keep it deep and slow.

Become an open singing-bowl, whose chime
Is richness rising out of emptiness,
And timelessness resounding into time.

And when the heart is full of quietness
Begin the song exactly where you are.