Advent 2 – December 7, 2008

December 9, 2008 at 8:19 am Leave a comment

We begin at the beginning – in the wilderness.

“John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a Gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

Our Advent journey takes us to the wilderness to hear John’s message anew.

Last week we began with need. We spoke of our need for God in a world where God seems absent. The prophet Isaiah spoke with passionate fervor, begging God to make himself known in the world. To become Advent people is to uncover that longing in our lives for God’s unadulterated presence, to refuse to get used to life as it is, for us, or for the world.

To become Advent people is to begin in the wilderness; at the place where God can make a new beginning. It has always been true that God leads his people to the wilderness, away from the centers of power, away from the settled ways of becoming used to life as it is.

Moses was an Israelite brought up among Egyptians, living in the court of Pharoah. He was taken out of that busy life to become a sheep-herder, tending the flocks of his father Jethro. And it was there, in the wilderness, where he encountered God in a burning bush, a God who had torn open the heavens and come down, answering the cries of his oppressed people, but speaking to them tenderly, in words of comfort.

At the bottom of Mount Sinai, where, according to legend, Moses came face-to-face with God in the burning bush, stands St. Catherine’s Monastery. The Chapel of the Burning Bush encloses the bush that according to tradition, blazed with God’s presence. There have been monks living at St. Catherine’s for seventeen hundred years. Visitors come from all over the world to see the monks and the holy sites.

But if they are merely visitors, they come only to take pictures – to see the site, to experience a new experience. All come as visitors, but some come as pilgrims – expecting to be transformed, expecting to hear God’s voice – perhaps not as literally as Moses heard the voice from the bush, but to hear God’s voice nonetheless: a voice which speaks to the heart, satisfying it like a spring of water which bubbles up in a dry and arid desert satisfied the parched mouths of those who come to drink of it.

What the tourists don’t realize is that to hear the voice takes repentance.  “Repent” is a word that maybe we know, maybe we don’t.  I always tell the confirmation students that to repent means to “turn away from sin,” and that “sin” is whatever takes away from God.  To repent is simply to “turn back to God.”

“John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a Gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  Thousands of years after Moses, hundreds of years after God’s people returned from exile in Babylon, he showed up in the wilderness, dressing like the last prophet was supposed to dress, acting like the last prophet was supposed to act, and showing up where the last prophet was supposed to show up – in the wilderness: the place at the margins where God leads his people, away from the city of Jersualem and the Temple, away from the center of power, away from the settled ways of becoming used to life as it is.

“And all the people of Judea and Jerusalem were going out to him.”  No doubt some of them came as tourists, snapping pictures with their digital cameras of John dunking people in the Jordan River, and getting their souvenir program of the occasion so that they could show their friends back in Jerusalem that they had been there too.  But some came as pilgrims, to listen for the voice of God, to turn away from the sin and alienation that plagued them, and to wait for a word of hope – that God would come to his people, that God would tear open the heavens and come down, that the earth might quake at his presence.

We begin at the beginning – in the wilderness.  Our Advent journey takes us there – away from the busy-ness of the holiday season, away from the world as it is with its infernal lies that if we do not have more this Christmas we have somehow failed our children, our spouses, our parents.  Away from the world as it is with its businesses that refuse to give our low-wage workers even Thanksgiving Day off, for the only thing that matters is our ability to get more for less.  It is not simply that Christmas decorations show up earlier and earlier in our temples of consumption – it is that Christmas has become only about consumption, not that it really is, but that Christmas is used for the sake of the bottom line.  Christmas music is played in the store not to glorify God, but to remind you to buy Christmas presents, and if you don’t believe me, when was the last time you heard a good Advent jingle over the loudspeaker?

We must somehow get away from the noise, away from the frenetic activity – but it surrounds us and permeates our very lives.  If we cannot escape to the wilderness, then somehow the wilderness must come to us.  Here, we remember that at our baptism into Jesus, the one who baptizes not with water alone, like John, but with water and the Holy Spirit, we were called to a different kind of life, not to worship money and things but to acknowledge God as the maker and owner of money and things and to use them for his glory.  Here, we encounter the Word of God, calling us to patiently await his revealing to the world, and to consider that perhaps the reason he has waited all this time is out of patience, that no one that could be part of it might miss out.  Here, we take the bread and wine as a foretaste of the feast to come, and receiving the living Christ into our bodies, we are transformed more and more into the image of the Son of God.

The wilderness must come to us – even in the midst of our own homes.  Annette started a tradition with the kids that I am highly in favor of.  Every morning and evcening in Advent, we are doing a little service of prayer.  It is simple, involving the lighting of the Advent candle, a hymn, a Scripture reading, prayer for others, and the Lord’s Prayer.  It is simple, yet it is compelling.  With it, we remember that we are called to a life that is beyond the one that is visible to us in the world, and we start to live that life now in the present.

May you find your way of living in the wilderness of Advent, of “preparing the way of the Lord, and making straight his paths” so that you may hear the call of God to repentance and faith, until the day of God destroys all idols and comforts his people.  Come, Lord Jesus, quickly come.

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