Year C, Advent III December 16, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
Now that is a bit more like it. A bit more seasonally resonant, at least more resonant with the dominant culture in which we are immersed. And maybe that is not all bad. Grandma’s Christmas fudge does go down a lot smoother with words like these on our tongues than the big Advent “buts…” we’ve had the past two weeks.
It is the third Sunday in Advent, we light the pink candle, a glint of joy in the midst of his penitentially purple colleagues. It is called Gaudete Sunday, Gaudete meaning Rejoice in Latin from the passage from Philippians which has been said on this Sunday forever. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” “You brood of vipers!” (Let’s not get too happy-clappy, it is Advent).
So which is it? “Rejoice” or “You brood of vipers!” Remember what I said last week about prophets being some of the most difficult and unpleasant human beings to ever have lived. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Every tree that does not bear good fruit is thrown into the fire. The chaff cleared from the threshing floor will be burned with unquenchable fire. If that is, as St. John the Baptist tells us, “the good news to the people,” I’d hate to hear the bad news.
Let’s pause for a moment. Think about this story, John baptizing the crowds in the wilderness. He is telling people to share their coat if they own two, to share food if they have it. He tells tax collectors to stop stealing, and soldiers to stop threatening and harassing people, and be satisfied with their wages. Imagine yourself there on Jordan’s bank. Picture yourself there… What do you hear? When John speaks to you, what do you hear? Because that changes the goodness of the news (or at least its palatability).
St. John the Baptist is proclaiming very, very good news. How costly that gospel is, though, depends on who you ask: the person giving up the coat, or the one being given one? The one with the full larder, or the one being shared with? The corrupt tax collectors or the swindled masses? The oppressive occupying imperial soldiery or the oppressed people? For the coatless, the hungry, the swindled and the oppressed this is very, very good news indeed. Where were you in the story, giving up or being given to? Cleaning up your act of having a boot taken off your neck? How good the news seems is much like the old political adage: where you stand depends on where you sit.
What we do with the good news is part of it: sharing, behaving well, receiving, being treated with respect and dignity, even expecting to be treated with dignity and respect, those are all fruits worthy of repentance. What we do with the good news is eminently important, faith without works is dead, right? But the fruits of the good news is not the only part that is good here. The rest of the good news can be found throughout the propers for Gaudete Sunday. Beginning with the Collect of the Day, “…and with great might come among us.” Then Zephaniah, “The Lord is in your midst…” Followed by Isaiah, “…the great one in the midst of you is the holy one of Israel.” St. Paul assures the folks in Philippi that “The Lord is near.” And St. John proclaims that “…one who is more powerful than I is coming.” The good news is Emmanuel, God is with us. Now that is an occasion to rejoice; again I will say, rejoice!
This is the most basic proclamation of Christianity as well as the primary theme of Advent: that God came to us, that God is with us, and that God will come again. God is with us, and that changes everything.
Because the presence of the Lord, as one commentator writes, the joy which results from the presence of the Lord “changes and reorients the life of the believer.” The one who is coming, who came long ago, who is here right now changes the very nature of human life. God, the creator, redeemer and sanctifier of EVERYTHING became of all things human. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. God was one of us. And everything changed. (Though not much is different). Let me explain that more.
Have you ever been in the presence of something so beautiful that it changed your life? Or been so humbled by grandeur that your understanding of everything changed? The great conservationist and writer Aldo Leopold wrote in his masterpiece The Sand County Almanac of hiking along the side of a mountain range and being dwarfed by the very big sky, the Milky Way, the valleys, the vast expanses, and feeling so insignificant that he knew he was but one part of an infinitely larger whole. Have you ever felt anything remotely like that? A storm coming off the sea? Wind blowing across the prairie or through old trees? Water cascading over falls? Some art, some music can do that for us, give us a larger, longer view. People, have you ever encountered someone whose love for and from changed everything in your life? A child, a mate, a parent or intimate friend. Has a relationship ever changed you, changed your nature?
You see, that is God. The awe felt, the beauty encountered, the connection made… those are all ways that love manifests. Love is the fabric of the universe. The creative, nurturing, embracing, all-encompassing nature of the universe is love. It is the tie that binds. And what is our notion of God but that? And that God came into our midst concretely. Is in our midst. Is near, is coming again. That is the promise. That is the experience of so much of our blessed, blessed lives and the in the lives of our ancestors. God is love. God is good. Very good. And God is with us.
That is good news. It is good news for the one being shared with and the one doing the sharing. The one behaving better and the one treated better. Good news. We’re all better off when we’re all better off, in every conceivable way. And it is utterly true that God, that Jesus Christ is with us, has been with us, will be with us again. Patently true. And it is dark out there.
I read two excellent science fiction series recently: Arthur C. Clarke’s Time Odyssey and The Remembrance of Earths Past series by Cixin Lui. Amazing. One of the takeaways from of these books is the expanse of space. This Earth our island home is more like a mote, our speck of dust home in the maybe infinite vastness of time-space. It is actually dark almost everywhere. It is dark around here. It was 36 and like last Friday night, pouring rain as I fell asleep all snugly in my bed. I couldn’t stop thinking of Jerimiah in his sleeping bag on our back porch. When the wind picks up, like it did on Friday, the porch isn’t dry, not at all. And we have inches of rain in the forecast for tomorrow? It is dark out there. And it can be dark in here, in our hearts, especially if memories of our Christmas’ past don’t match the expected level of holiday cheer. Or if this is the first, or only the third Christmas without someone you love, or loved. Or maybe it is 30 years later, but this is when you remember them best. God is with us, always has been, always will be, and our government is teetering, the climate is hemorrhaging, our economy bloating, our culture in tatters, and our own lives are pulled left and right by anxiety, addiction, anomie and just plain old frustrating confusion about how and who we are supposed to be in this world… that is all true at exactly at the same time. There is light shining and it is dark out there.
How do we remember the light? How do we stir the loving fire of Christ in our hearts? How do we remind ourselves and those we love and those we struggle to love and those we really know we should try to struggle to love… how do we bring the presence of the Lord who changes everything back into the center of our field of view, especially in the darkness? We’ve got to be like the disciples in the wake of the cross: scattered, broken, scared, and saved. Everything was different, though the danger still loomed. It is the same for us. Knowing that God is present doesn’t make it any less dangerous, but it can make us a lot less scared. How do we remember that in the flurry of our lives?
I wrote about this in the Tune Up this week, about the beacon that prayer can be in times of darkness. About how it can bring us, or our attention back to the real presence of God in our midst, the reorienting, human-nature changing presence of God in Christ with the Holy Spirit. For some, when I say “prayer”, you light up, you do it, that’s great keep it up. You can skip ahead to the Creed. For others, the word “prayer” shuts you down. It is not something you do, or feel comfortable doing, or know much (or anything) about. Maybe you think you do but maybe you don’t. I’m talking to you, because I used to be there. It didn’t make any sense for me.
Prayer doesn’t have to be a chat with God. I never drive down the road praying, “Hey God, what’cha doin? You know, I’m having a hard time…” That is a fine way to pray, conversation, but it is only a way. A bunch of us went on retreat up the McKenzie river two weeks ago. We prayed in. Not speaking to God but in silence listening for the still small voice. We prayed by walking slowly, mindfully, again, carving out a quiet place to listen to the silence, God’s language, the language of eternity.
And what we are doing right now, is prayer. Common Prayer, our Anglican specialty. Through God’s word being spoken and being heard, through our bodily movements, the joyful noise of music, the toil and bubble of a community gathered, the mystery of the sacrament… prayer happens, God’s nearness is revealed.
I like common prayer. I need it. It is why I am a priest. (That and the cape). Because I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel it sometimes; God’s presence. I don’t have it sometimes; the will to do it on my own, certainly I don’t usually have the words to say or the strength for silence, not on my own. In common prayer, we are not on our own. When we say “Lord open our lips” at morning prayer, it is not a royal “our” it is the common “our” of everyone praying that prayer that morning, the whole ecclesia of Christ is there with you, in that moment, with God. Really.
Now I like my prayers traditional. (Old is another way of putting it). Mostly, what I like are prayers that are shared. Common Prayer gives us forms of prayer that have been agreed upon by ecclesial process, and through the church, are shared. That’s the commonality. They are like handrails, guiding us all in the same (hopefully right) direction, together. You want to go fast, go alone. You want to go far, go together. There is a long road ahead, so pray together.
That’s my sermon. Pray. If you are looking for God in the darkness, pray. This time of year, Advent, at the convergence of the darkest days with the brightest, pray. The solstice is the darkest day of the year, but also the day it starts getting brighter, so pray. In the bleak mid-winter, the Christ child is born; pray. When in the darkness you cannot find the light of Christ, the presence of the loving God who was and is and is to come; pray. When you miss someone, beyond words miss them; pray. You don’t need to rely on yourself, though you can, but you can also rest into the words and spirt, the arms and intentions of this Christian family in prayer, in common prayer. In common prayer our are not alone, really, really you are not. God is with you, and so are we.
I’ll end with the poem I shared in the Tune Up. It is found in the Compline service for the season of Advent in Daily Prayer for All Seasons. It gives the kind of comforting guidance within the framework of communal prayer that can bind our wounds and set us free. It is called “What to do in the Darkness” by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre.
“What to do in the darkness”
Consent to it
But don’t wallow in it
Know it as a place of germination
Remember the light
Take an outstretched hand if you find one
Exercise unused senses
Find the path by walking in it
Watch for dawn
Now that is a way to pray ourselves back into the presence of Christ, no matter how dark it seems, and that is an occasion to rejoice. Again I say, rejoice! AMEN