Sunday, December 7, 2014

"Living in the Tension [Preparing a Life]": a sermon

“Living in the Tension [Preparing a Life]”
Advent 2, Year B Dec 7, 2014
St. Thomas’ Church, Richmond, VA

In the Name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today’s Gospel lesson from Mark is its opening verses.

1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As if we were uncertain, Mark makes it quite clear.   He is setting out to tell us a tale.  It has a place to go, and he will make certain that we get there.  But like all good story tellers, he knows that the events he is sharing had their precedents established long before

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;  3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'"

The prophet’s cry comes the Isaiah text which begins: “Comfort, O comfort my people says your God.” (Is. 40:1)

The time has come for the Lord’s appearing.  The waiting is over, the day has arrived.  There are many moments in my life with that hurry up and wait moment.  Living in that tension is always uneasy.  It gives us moments to fret.  It gives us moments to worry.  Is everything done?  Did we accomplish all that we had to do?

When I was young, we would always go and visit my great-grandmother.  Thanksgiving, Christmas, and a week or more every summer, we would traipse down to Burlington, North Carolina and visit the family matriarch.  She had raised my mother so she was more of a grandmother to me, and some of my favorite memories are of her.  She was a caring and compassionate soul.  When I would get a cut or a scratch outside, I would come in and seek attention more than a band-aid.  She had a phrase, “Don’t you worry.  It will be better before you get married.”

That phrase stuck in my mind when I cut myself shaving on my wedding day.  I was about to say it out loud when it struck me that it would not.  It would not be better on my wedding day.  The waiting was over.  The future, what always had seemed so far away, was now.

This is the cry of John, stretching back to Isaiah’s prophecy.  What was to be future tense is John’s present.

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
The people’s waiting was soon to be over.  The future long awaited was here.

6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." 

John’s unique clothing and food choices were not him being weird or strange.  He was fulfilling the vows of a Nazarite, a person fully committed to God.  So much so, they had a special distinction in the culture of ancient Israel.  He was called to a life as simple as could be.  No spun cloth, just a camel fur poncho with a leather strap to keep it on.  He would scavenge for food.  Locusts, wild honey, and other kosher things he could scrape up in a wild nomadic existence.  In his simplicity, people heard him pointing to something far more complex.  “I have baptized you in water,” he said, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  If we really want to get technical, the word baptize is a transliteration from the Greek, baptizo, to immerse.  He is saying here, “I dunked you in water, but he will immerse you in the Holy Spirit.”  It has a different ring when we take out the word we have become so comfortable with as a one-time ceremony.  When we can do it with babies we may forget its power.

John so wanted that day to arrive, and I trust we do as well.

Jesus came that first Christmas, which Mark’s gospel did not include.  And we know the rest of the story.  We have now been waiting longer for Jesus to come again than the people between Isaiah and Jesus’ first arrival.  For almost two thousand years, we have awaited his imminent return.

In fact, as you read trough the New Testament, again and again, you will see these little moments of frustration of the longing to see Jesus again, RIGHT NOW.  They want the Lord to return.  There are days and times when I feel the same.  I want the Lord of Righteousness and the Prince of Peace to come and clean up this mess.  But Jesus’ return is not about being a Giant Hoover from Heaven, vacuuming away the awful.

In our waiting, the same waiting from the first century of the Church I remind you, we also need the patience that was also expressed in St. Peter’s passage today.

I Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.  10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.  11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire?  13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.  14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 15a and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. 

“Regard the patience of the Lord as salvation.”  Peter is telling us that this is to our benefit, for the Lord to not come again.  He even asks the question.  “What sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness?”    What sort of people should we be?

Most of us know the people we should be.  But there is the rub; we know, but do we want to put in the time and effort for us to be the sort of persons we should be.

As we “Prepare the ways of the Lord, and make his paths straight,” we are not talking about a quick clean-up, a tidying because the relatives are coming over.  We are also not talking about setting up Potemkin villages, to trick the visiting monarch, some Disney facade that gives a feel and not a reality.  What we are speaking of is wholesale change.

In our Preparation for the Lord, we are flattening mountains and leveling valleys.  Or so encourages Isaiah and John.  As John waited for Christ to come, and we are waiting for Christ to come again, are we immersed in the Holy Spirit, steeped with God in our lives?

When we look at who we should be in our Preparation, we need a metaphor shift in our brains.  We are not preparing for an event, but for a new way of being.  When the Lord comes, everything is changed.  We are changed.  That is why a tidying will not do.

We are not looking at waiters setting up for an evening meal.  Those are not the preparations we are calling for.  Rather, think on people who have to prepare for any and every eventuality.  

Think on ER doctors who never know what is going to walk through their doors.

Think Firemen and Soldiers.  They need to train and practice.  They do drills and training exercises.  They are always in a state of readiness, or they cannot be who they are supposed to be.  Firemen and Soldiers do not get to use phrases like, “When I get around to it.”  

Trumpet players and Singers, they get never know what they will get handed.  They practice and take care of their instruments.  I remember when I played tuba in college.  My professor talked about his daily routine.  He played scales for an hour a day.  An hour a day.  He was someone who could do these scales in his sleep.  After so many years, he could probably play these scales in a coma.  I found it amazing that something I took for granted, was something that he took as assumed.   I was the player I was, because a couple of times a week I would warm up with scales for a few minutes.  He was the player that he was because he started his day with an hour of scales before he began to practice.  He was the master, and I was the student.  He still is the Master.  

As the old story goes, a world famous pianist was leaving the stage at Carnegie Hall.  A fan stops him saying, “Maestro!  I would give my life to play like you!”  The maestro, actually taken aback for a moment, says, “Oh, but I did.”  You and I are both giving our life to something.  What are we giving our life to do?  What are we giving our life to be?

In our Preparation this Advent, think on who you are.  Who do you want to be?  How do you practice your faith?  How do you live out what you believe?

There are many places where we could start.  But, we will stay with our theme for the day.  If Jesus were showing up here today, how would you be?  What would you do?  Where would you go?  How would you act?  What would you say to your children?  How would you spend your day?

If Jesus were coming back in, say, 18 days, on December 25, what would you do differently between now and then?

If he were coming back in 100 years, what would St. Thomas’ do the prepare the way of the Lord?  

How about this, why don’t we live today like he is coming back tomorrow, and decide to make Richmond the way we would want him to find it in 100 years.  I think between those two ideas our preparations would be grand.  Amen.

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Blessings, Rock