“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Each of the four Sundays in Advent has a theme. None of it is official, certainly it is not scriptural, but tradition associates themes with each of these special Sundays. Hope is the first theme; hopefully you remember what we talked about last week. (It was hope). Next week, is called Rose Sunday for the rose colored candle in the Advent Wreath and has long been known as Gaudete Sunday, Gaudete being Latin for “rejoice,” which suggests the theme of Joy. The fourth Sunday of Advent is generally associated with Love. Of course every Sunday is a Feast of the Resurrection which is intrinsically about Love, but Advent 4 is really, really about love.
Today is the Second Sunday of Advent and two different themes arise. The first is peace. The beautiful Advent Litany we started with holds that theme up, but the scripture doesn’t mention much of peace. It is there in Romans, ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing…” and there would certainly be peace of mind if your child could play on the asp’s den and the wolf would lie down with the lamb (though I have heard it said that the lamb never gets a really good night’s sleep). So peace is here, no doubt.
At the same time the Second Sunday of Advent is always dominated by St. John the Baptist. St. John the Baptist is striking, indomitable, intimidating even. He is many, many things, but one thing he is not is a bringer or prophet of peace. He is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. He is the exhorter of Pharisees and Sadducees, who were the polite society of his day and were, according to him and Jesus, a notorious brood of vipers. St. John the Baptist is the one who warns us of the clearing of the threshing floor, the gathering of the wheat and the chaff burning with unquenchable fire. Not a lot of peace involved with the ministry of the Baptizer.
The second theme associated with today is found in that passage from Romans 15, “May the God of hope (last week) fill you with all joy (next week) and peace (maybe this week) in believing (that’s it)…” Believing, or the way it is generally rendered in Advent, Faith. Faith is what John the Baptist is talking about, about having faith, and faith is the theme we are working with on this Second Sunday of Advent.
For us of the Anglican persuasion, the concept of faith, of belief, doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with your head, with what you agree with intellectually. I really don’t think God is too concerned with our opinions, unless those opinions help us be who God made us to and helps make the Commonwealth of God real, but other than that, right belief isn’t as critical as some might have us think, at least in the way we do things, in the way we as Anglican Christians do things. Faith is about trust. Not “I believe you,” but “I believe in you. I have faith in you. I trust you, trust in you.” That is a lot different than thinking rightly, having the right ideas about things. Trust, faith, belief is important, very, very important, and that is precisely what John’s ministry is all about, and it is exactly what we need to be focusing today, right now. Faith needs to be in the forefront of our hearts and minds and souls and lips, not only on this day, or in this Advent season, but to get us through the storms that are on the horizon. Be them personal storms of sickness unto death, of shifting constellations of relationships, of unwanted change, or in the more universal storms of the climate, our society and culture, and the persistent uncertainty that is our collective human condition, it is by faith, if not faith alone that will see us through.
The Hope of the Incarnation is for a new world. That world is described for us by Isaiah, the Psalmist and St. Paul: lambs and wolves together, righteousness girding a king’s waist, the Earth with full of the knowledge of the Lord… That is what we are told to hope for. And we must, hope. But hope won’t get us there. Hope orients us and our efforts, it points us towards the Promised Land, the Commonwealth that is our birthright, but hope doesn’t close deals. Greta Thurnberg, that brave prophet of the climate, speaks pretty starkly that “hoping for the best” hasn’t and won’t save us. We can hope that ExxonMobil will choose life over profit. We can hope that our political functionaries will choose us over the donor class which is doing quite well as everything is right now, thank you very much. We can hope for all sorts of things, even things we are promised, but hope primarily serves to point us in a certain direction and a side effect of that is that we feel better about ourselves and our situations with a defined destination.
But you know what, maybe feeling better is not what we need right now, even leading up to Christmas. Maybe we need to be uncomfortable. We need to be a little scared. We need something to motivate us out of our complacency and complicity with how it is right now, because for most of us, things are pretty good right now as they are, certainly compared to much of the world. Today we are talking about faith. Faith that we can do something, that it can be different than it is, that the future is not decided, not yet anyway. Faith tells us that Grace not only can happen, but is inevitable. Faith that Emmanuel, God is with us, and is bringing the Kingdom near, sometimes with a winnowing fork and unquenchable fire, sometimes coming down like rain on the fresh mown field.
The Hope in the Incarnation that fills us with all joy and peace comes to fruition in believing. The Commonwealth of God won’t happen on its own. It is near by grace and grace alone, and we need to act, we need to accept it, we need to surrender to this new way, the Way of Jesus, the Incarnate Word way. Action, acceptance, surrender… like sacrifice and repentance, are heavy spiritual lifts, they require faith of us.
The image of the nativity is such a humanizingly intimate vision of God’s entrance into the world. It human scale, just as God’s departure from this mortal life from the Cross and Tomb is human scale. And that is super important; God isintimately, personally, truly with us, with you, in your heart and mind and soul and body exactly where and how you need God to be there. “As a hen tenderly gather her chicks…” that is an image of God we can bank on.
The incarnation, though, also implies a much more radical, a much more catholic, as in universal, vision. Jesus came because we needed Him to come. There are a lot of really great people in the world, loving people, selfless and giving and generous and kind people. Most people are all of those things much if not most of the time. But most of us can also be lousy some of the time. There are some among us who are pretty wretched most of the time. Evil lurks in the heart of some of our brothers and sisters, leading them to be opportunistic, predatory, to be complacent cogs in evil and oppressive machines. Violence lives in the hearts of most people, some more deeply hidden than others, and violence invariably resides in systems, and cultures, and nations. Remember Murphy’s Law? One that has always stuck with me is “The cream as well as the scum rises to the top.” Read the newspaper for confirmation of that one. Jesus came because for whatever reason, original sin happened and it was not all hunky-dory. (He is coming back because it still isn’t).
John lived that same un-hunky-dory reality. He lived under Empire, a bad one. His execution came at the whim of a corrupt, collaborationist king. He faced ridicule, scorn and alienation from most of his fellows. Can you imagine what the world looked like through his eyes? Every step was uphill. Every word was a gamble. He may have had hope in the resurrection, but what led him to the desert, what pulled him into the muddy waters of the Jordan, what enabled him to proclaim and then to Baptize Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ wasn’t hope, even hope in the resurrection: it was faith. He had faith that he was doing what he was born to do. He had faith that one more powerful than him was coming. He had faith that he could do what he was sent to do.
The entrance into the world of God in Christ was a wholly new thing. It was as civilization altering a moment as capturing fire, as realizing that the divine right of kings isn’t, that all men and women and other are created equal and are endow by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Christ’s entrance was and is and will be utterly revolutionary, orders of magnitude beyond those other advances, because His entrance changed everything. Everything. The Incarnation disrupted and continues to disrupt the old and evil order, the principalities and powers that work against God’s will in the world. But all of that changes in the arrival of Christ. Or it can. It will. That is where faith comes in.
Walter Brueggemann, writing on the Gospel for today, tells us that having faith in, accepting the entrance of God into the world is “…both daring and costly. It is daring because we do not know how to act in a genuinely just community. It is costly because we benefit from and are comfortable with the old, deathly patterns of life.” Baby Jesus in the manger is the outward and visible sign of God’s radical new intention for us, for everyone. Accepting this is an act of faith, because it is not the easy path, not in any conceivable way.
I can’t say that I have a lot of direct, Tuesday-morning type practical applications of the kind of Faith in the Incarnation I am talking about here to offer. My hope is that you remember that Advent is candles and calendars; it is Holiday Markets and Miracle on 34th Street viewings (or the Charlie Brown Christmas next Friday at 6:30). Advent is wrapping presents and family and tradition, candlelit churches proclaiming hope, faith, joy and love. It is all of that and there is a hard edge to it, too. John the Baptist reveals the hard edge of Advent. He reminds us that Jesus comes with a winnowing fork to clear the threshing room floor. There is a granary, and there is an unquenchable fire, too. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” There is hard edge to Advent, and it honed sharp with faith. Have faith. AMEN