Sermon for St. John the Evangelist, December 8, 2019
Guest Preacher Jay Hornbacher
Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19;
Romans 5:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
In the name of God, Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
I think I can say without fear of contradiction that no one EVER accused John the Baptist of failing to speak his mind. We just heard again his words that come to us in the season of Advent: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to escape from the coming wrath? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!” No one could possibly mistake the tone of his message.
The Greek root of the word “repent,” you may remember, means “turning around.” So often the word “repent” is associated with rants about the end of the world from the mouths of street preachers or TV evangelists. Not only has the word become caricatured, it is mistakenly heard only as a harsh command rather than an earnest and loving invitation to go in a different direction. In her book The Dream of God, the late lay theologian Verna Dozier puts that thought succinctly when she writes, “God’s law is fulfilled not just by refraining from negative acts, but by living out new relationships with other human beings.“ So, we are invited not only to turn away, but turn toward. But turning away and turning toward both involve one important gesture: we have to ……….. pause.
Did he say “pause?” PAUSE??? Are you kidding me, it’s the eighth of December and we have less than three weeks, only 16 days, to get ready for Christmas and we haven’t even gotten the decorations down from the attic, and what in the world are we going to get for your brother-in-law who never likes anything and we’d better watch what we eat this year or else we’ll look like overstuffed pandas when we go to church on Christmas Eve and …… AAARGGGHH!
And there you have the Advent dilemma: we are called to pause for self-examination at a time of year when the culture in which we live begins to move at warp speed, so that we may feel we don’t have time to turn away from or toward anything, because we’re too busy spinning in circles.
If we were to somehow pause more than a nanosecond, in that pause something may very well happen, because there is such a thing as the Holy Spirit who will find her way to us if we let the clutter, compulsions, and commotion of a frenetic, commercial Christmas get out of the way.
Of course, pauses are not always ours to manage; they can intercept our best laid plans. As we all know, God’s favorite joke is our five-year plan, and I’d amend that to say that the joke might well be our one-day plan. Pauses have a way of coming unbidden: serious illness, losses of all kinds — job, relationship, death — anything that intercepts our momentum and introduces prayers of intercession that go way deeper than anything you might have on your Christmas wish list. Our pauses are not always ones we choose.
Now, the fact that I’m your guest this morning is because, as you’ve heard I’ve written a Christmas book about Saint Nicholas. I‘ve done several readings in October and November, and that brings us to Advent. My Advent calendar is crazy, because between Advent 1, and Advent 4, I will have done 12 book events in five cities in four different states. And lest anyone think I’m complaining about being too busy to observe a quiet, reflective Advent, please know that I actively sought this madness, and I’ll take more bookings if they come my way, so I have no stones to throw.
Because I think preachers should preach first to themselves, that’s exactly what I’m doing. The very commotion of my life, which is self-created, not imposed, leads me back to the absolute necessity of pausing. When what feels like our personal non-stop action movies starring ourselves are put on pause in Advent, it may not feel welcome at first, but then it can change into a feeling, not of wasting time, but savoring time; time to turn around, to turn away, to turn toward, to turn within. There we might find not just direction, not just a compass, but compassion for self and others susceptible to the many empty seductions that confront us at this time of year.
Turning. Turning back. Turning around. Turning toward. John’s message of repentance is not a solo voice shouted into the unhearing emptiness of the desert. After John was arrested, according to Matthew, “From that time, Jesus began to proclaim, ’Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,’” an exact echo of John’s words. The words “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” appear countless times in the gospels and other books of the New Testament, and there are any number of times when Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like ….” But I am close enough to the end of my days that I want to know what the kingdom of God looks like! I don’t want a description, I want PICTURES! And to my everlasting gratitude and surprise, I got them. As I was preparing this homily. I kept drifting back to the passage we heard from Isaiah, and then, in a moment of clarity I can only ascribe to the Holy Spirit, I realized that Isaiah’s words were a beautiful description of, yes, the kingdom of God. It’s a place where a shoot can come out of a dead stump and be alive once again. A place where the poor and the meek are favored. Where wolves can live with lambs, calves with lions, and where cows and bears can graze together.
Where children can be in the company of snakes and remain unharmed. Above all, it is a place where — in Isaiah’s words — “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
I imagine many of us, including me, tend to take that passage as a metaphor for that which is ideal but not possible. But something else in me — call it a yearning child, perhaps — says, “No. I agree with Verna Dozier when she titles her book The Dream of God: it is the dream of God for this world that God created and loves so dearly. We are called to make God’s dream a reality.”
Two days ago, December 6, was the memorial day of St. Nicholas. Perhaps I have loved him for so many years because through his servant heart, his sacrificial giving, and loving charity I have been given a glimpse of God‘s dream.
(Let me interject that I am talking about the man who was born in the year 270 and died in the year 342, a major figure in the early Christian church, who became Bishop of Myra, a city in what is now Turkey. I am NOT talking about a jolly, overweight man in a red suit holding a can of Coca-Cola. I want to be very clear about that).
While the passage from Isaiah may remind us more of St. Francis, Nicholas’ life and legends are rich in actions that were and are life-giving, and are a clear sign of his desire to bring about the Kingdom of God. Legend says he secretly gave three bags of gold to an impoverished family, so that the daughters would not have to become slaves or prostitutes; his action gave new life. Legend says that he saved a ship in a storm; his action preserved life for all the sailors aboard. Legend says that he was able to guide a shipload of grain to a city threatened with famine; his action restored hope and brought life to a place where death loomed.
Perhaps we remember him more as bringer of gifts at Christmastime than for any other story, but we would do well to remember him as one who brought joy and goodness wherever he went, and does so to this day through his example of love, kindness, and selfless charity.
I have not forgotten the notion of turning in another direction as an Advent practice, and I have an idea to which others might relate. I doubt that I’m the only person within earshot who is often awakened at 3AM battling night terrors and churning through “things done and things left undone,” as we say in our words of confession. What if we were to see the terrors as chimeras that do not enrich our lives? What if we were to let go of the things done, not because they are inconsequential, but because they can be forgiven through the grace of God, with the clear words, “Go, and sin no more.” And what if we began to DO the things left undone rather than lie awake worrying about them? It’s a matter of treating ourselves more lovingly, which will help us treat others more lovingly.
As surely as I know anything, I know that each soul who wants to follow Jesus is called to make some sort of turning, now, in this Advent time, as urged by both John and Jesus.
As I close, I break my own rule about not singing Christmas hymns in Advent, by offering a bit of my favorite Christmas hymn. The reason will be obvious.
A stable lamp is lighted, whose glow shall light the sky,
the stars shall bend their voices, and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry, in praises of the child,
by whose descent among us, the world is reconciled.
Might I suggest, even implore, that our turning in this Advent be toward reconciliation, both with self and with others. Reconciliation is surely necessary to every one of us in some way great or small. Beyond ourselves, our wounded world desperately needs reconciliation, and we are called to help make God’s dream a reality, in God’s good time, if not in ours.