December 4, 2016
Advent 2, Year A,
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
The primary message this morning is that the Messiah is coming, and we have some work to do as we prepare to celebrate this birth. This morning’s first reading – taken from the Prophet Isaiah - speaks of the coming Messiah as the Root of Jesse – a branch that shall grow out of his roots. This name connects Jesus to the line of David – Jesse being David’s father – the long awaited return of David’s line to be found in the arrival of Jesus. And, in this first reading from the Prophet Isaiah we discover a description of this Messiah that includes everything anyone could ever wish for:
- A leader who embodies God’s own Spirit and God-given gifts that will assure good and wise and just leadership
- A leader who champions the afflicted and the poor, a leader whom all the nations of the earth will acknowledge and accept
- A leader during whose reign there shall be no animosity, harm, or ruin
- A leader for whom knowledge and wisdom about God will prevail ... in time: all qualities that were to be found in Jesus
As we look at this impressive list, all we have to do is look at life as we know it, personally (within the context of our own lives) and beyond, and we know that this state of perfection is not a reality that we know. All we can say about this is that Jesus embodied it; for one brief moment in history - through him - the world caught a glimpse, and every once in a while we - too - may catch a glimpse. I truly believe that any time we have experienced forgiveness, generosity, extreme selflessness we have caught a glimpse of this state of perfection. (Yesterday I read an article written by Richard Leggett from the Diocese of New Westminster where he said that this past week had been a really tough week, and when he looks around at the wider world, he sometimes despairs at the state of things. “However”, he said, “occasionally I catch a glimpse of God’s perfection, and that is enough to give me hope.” And, as we look at this impressive list of anticipated Messianic qualities, which Jesus eventually embodied, we need to remember that our role is to prepare for his second coming by doing our best to live according to his ways.
But before the arrival of this leader (who was, in time, to be Jesus), preparations had to be made, and to that end God sent a long line of prophets – Isaiah, of course, one of those prophets, and the last of those prophets... John the Baptist whom we heard about in our Gospel this morning... as he is telling the people to repent... The message he is giving to the people is, “As you prepare for the coming of this long awaited Messiah, take time to recognize those things that may be defined as sinful, allow your heart to be sorry - truly sorry, and find ways to change those patterns of behavior.
This message is also carried out every time we renew our Baptismal vows, when we are asked, “Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” Response: “I will with God’s help.” Notice: Not it's not “... if you sin,” but “when you sin.” And, of course, we also tend to this each week as we say together confession, and receive absolution. During the Season of Advent we are called to focus on this commitment more fully and intentionally.
As we carve out space and time for self examination, we probably need to do so within the context of a type of desert experience. It is significant that John retreated to the desert. So much of Israel’s relationship with God took place in the midst of a desert setting.
Called out of Egypt, Israel was led by God through the desert where their relationship was formed, broken, and renewed. It was in the desert where Israel discovered an intimacy with God they would remember and often long for during later periods in which there was a sense that this intimacy had been lost. Although the desert was full of dangers which caused Israel to feel vulnerable and terrified, it also reminded the people that this is where they had first discovered an intimacy with their God.
Each Advent, we are called to follow Israel’s lead and John’s example and withdraw to the desert – those places where there are perhaps fewer luxuries, fewer distractions, fewer indulgences – we are called to withdraw to those places, where we will discover / rediscover God, ourselves, and each other in fresh new ways.
In her book, “The Forgotten Desert Mothers,” Laura Swan describes the desert as a place to rediscover the Presence of God in our lives and in our midst. In the desert, we can work through the lifelong process of integrating the faith we profess with our lips, with the faith we proclaim with our lives. The annual desert experience we call Advent invites us to empty ourselves of every obstacle to God, and, in that emptiness, examine and refine our values, beliefs, and passions.
So, what does that mean to us here, today, on December 4th, 2016?
Well, I think a good place to begin is to ask ourselves, “What is it that most strongly influences our Advent wilderness experience: the teachings of our faith, or the cultural norms in which we live.” In other words, “is our Advent time a good balance between time in the desert and time consumed with the busy-ness of preparing for Christmas.
As we engage in the desert - the self examination experience - we may recognize in ourselves a consumer, market driven focus as we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth; if so, perhaps we are called to repent...
We may recognize that we are not sharing adequately with those who are hungry and poor; if so, perhaps we are called to repent...
We may recognize that there is someone who we feel has treated us badly and we have not yet found in our hearts a willingness to forgive; if so, perhaps we are called to repent...
Maybe there is someone whom we have not been treating in ways that are fair and kind and just; if so, perhaps we are called to repent...
As we consider the possibility of embracing – really embracing – this Advent wilderness experience, some further guidance may be helpful. And to this end – I was remembering something that Rod passed on to me a couple of years ago; something known as the Advent Conspiracy... This is a world-wide movement to help us embrace this Advent desert experience in this particular way. That is, to slow down, examine our lives in terms of our relationship with God, each other, and the world around us, and repent. Apparently it started in 2006 with just four congregations and has now spread to well over 20 countries where tens of thousands of Christians are now preparing to celebrate this great and glorious birth. In an attempt to guide the church into resisting the consumer, market driven cultural norms and reclaiming the Season of Advent as a time of waiting, preparation, self examination, The Advent Conspiracy movement follows four principles: (1) Worship Fully; (2) Spend Less; (3) Give More; (4) Love All.
- Worship Fully – This means that we are to open our hearts and minds to God’s Word through Scripture – Discover God in the midst of our sinfulness and frailties and recognize that God is the light that shines into the very darkness of our lives, and through us, into the world – Open our hearts and minds to God through prayer – Open our hearts and minds to God through the Sacrament of the Eucharist (that is, the meal that binds us together) - Recognize the God who nurtures us through this meal. Through worship, the Season of Advent deserves our full attention as we prepare to celebrate the birth of God in Jesus.
- Spend less – As we examine our lives, perhaps we might examine how much we spend on items that we don’t particularly need. How much do we spend at this time of year on items that others don’t need. According to the Advent Conspiracy web site, Americans spend around $4450 billion dollars during the Christmas season, and much of that goes right onto a credit card. The Season of Advent calls us to redirect our attention.
- Give more – One of the ways we can faithfully and effectively give more is to be intentional about how we spend our money. Proportionately, how much do we give to support God’s work in the church, in our communities and beyond? Another way in which we can give more is to be intentional about where we spend our money. I talked a little about this last week as well. When we look at the items we have in our homes, and the clothes that hang in our closets, or the items we have purchased for gifts... how many of those items do we know anything about the individual(s) who made them or the communities from which they came? How many of us actually know who we are supporting when we purchase the clothes we wear, the furnishings in our homes, the fruits and vegetables we eat? Those of you who hear me preach often, know that this is something that enters into my messages from time to time, and it just seems to me that the Season of Advent is a particularly important time of year to remember the importance of supporting artisans and merchants locally and globally.
Many of you may also be aware that the business practices of Fair Trade organizations (locally and globally) are significantly different than the kind of retail most of us have been familiar with throughout our lives. Rather than working through intermediaries (multi-national corporations), F.T. organizations foster direct connections with artisans, creating healthy working relationships and mutually beneficial trading partnerships. They know the people who produce their products. They value direct connections so they can verify that working conditions are safe, standards are met, and people are being paid fairly and are not being taken advantage of.
Realistically, of course, we may not be able to purchase everything we need from Fair Trade organizations, but even still, we can also effectively and faithfully create change in the retail sector by becoming more intentional about knowing the conditions in which the items were made and where they came from. This is one way in which we can give more even as we purchase items for ourselves and for others.
- Love All – The Advent Conspiracy web site says, “The Bible doesn’t tell us that God so loved the world that God gave us Black Friday and extended shopping mall hours. The Bible says that God so loved the world God sent the Son in order that we might have life.” Embraced by God’s love and empowered to live abundantly we, in turn, are invited to love others. Love is what the season of Advent is all about, because throughout this liturgical season we prepare to celebrate God’s gift of love made known in Jesus. And we embody that love by living lives of kindness and compassion, forgiveness and generosity.
So, during this Advent wilderness - this Advent desert experience - let’s keep this in mind ... in our gift buying and giving ... in our charitable giving ... in our service to and ministry with others ... in the way we treat those with whom we share our lives (and that includes family, friends, fellow Christians, co-workers, even that person who so rudely cut you off in traffic...). During this Advent wilderness let’s allow this particular brand of love to inform all the decisions we make. If our Advent desert experience results in nothing else, let it be a time to prepare for the coming of the long awaited Messiah: a time to Worship Fully / Spend Less / Give More / Love All...