Sermon delivered by the Rev. Cristina Rathbone
Luke 3:1-6 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Last week I spoke a little about the difference between waiting and longing. And this week I’d like to speak a little about just what it is that we long for… We have so many needs, most of us, deep down, so much that we lack. And we have a real, deep-seated hunger – a true longing – to fill these needs. As I spoke about last week, this longing seems to me to be both powerful and sacred. First because it is birthed by the acknowledgement of our real and innate poverty, and second because I believe the power of it – the energy of the longing itself – expands our hearts to the possibility of real healing and growth.
We are finite and incomplete – this is just the truth of who we are, and how we are created. And the longing we experience for wholeness or completion when we come into contact with this truth leads us to God who alone is capable of bringing us to completion.
But it can also pose a problem, this longing I have to say, because sometimes those of us who dare acknowledge the gap between who and how we are right now, and who and how we long to be, get scared and we rush to fill that gap with things that will never be able to do it. Most often these are things like food, or drink, or drugs, or work, or power, or wealth. And if we are honest we will most of us be able to find at least one or two idols like these in our own lives – things which are perhaps not bad in and of themselves, but which have come to claim a space in our lives that would normally be reserved for the mysterious and unimaginable power of God. Hence the word ‘idol’ which is defined by Webster’s as: ‘an object of extreme devotion : a false god.’
I use this term in part, I think, because for many of us this same rush to fill the hole in our center can happen with religion too. We can look at Holy Scripture and to the ways God has become present to us personally in the past, and in our fear, and our need, and our longing for healing, we can sometimes cling to the God of our memories so tightly that we fail to notice the new way God is preparing to burst into our lives, and into the world around us.
In today’s Gospel, for example, we hear with tremendous specificity about the way God’s word was expressed in Judea just prior to Jesus’ arrival on the scene:
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius,” it tells us, “when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
There can be no mistaking exactly where and when God’s word was proclaimed at that time, in that place – right? It came through John, Son of Zechariah, and it came through the wilderness — and next week we will learn more about what and who it was John became. But here’s the thing: anyone back then who was powerfully moved by John, and who therefore thought that the one they were waiting for would be someone just like him, was going to be sorely disappointed – or worse. Because, of course, Jesus was not remotely like John. And those who believed that the one who was to come would be just like the one they had already met ran the risk of missing out entirely on the startling resurrection power of Jesus himself.
And as for them – so also for us, this is what I’ve been thinking about this week. Because isn’t it true that we too can make an idol of the way God has come to us in the past – and then, especially when things are hard, cling to that idol for dear life, searching for replicas of it wherever we go, even as the power of the living God freshly arrived blows right past us, unnoticed?
I surely have. Perhaps you have too..?
Of course, we are here in church in the first place because we’ve come to know that the fullness of God’s power has already arrived among us, once and for all, through the expectation-shattering birth of a poor and vulnerable baby two thousand and some odd years ago in Bethlehem. But now, this season of Advent is helping to remind us that the story isn’t over yet. Jesus came once, in Bethlehem, upending every expectation and overturning every imagining – this is true. And: Jesus is preparing to come again in ways that are sure to be just as surprising and new and beyond our imagining as the first time.
The knowledge that God has already come and that God remains, in other words, should lead us to trust not that we know exactly how it is that God will come to us again – that is what I was calling idolatry earlier – but at least that God will come again, in ways we will surely be surprised by, but which – if we remain open to it – we can at least recognize, and then affirm, and ultimately join with our own bodies, our own actions, our own word in the world around us.
And maybe this is what faith really is; the growing trust that while we cannot ever know exactly how it will happen – not really – because we cannot ever confine, or define, or encircle the truth that is God, we can at least stand, open armed, even in all our weakness and poverty, because we are strengthened by the knowledge that God who is beyond anything we could ever imagine, will appear again soon and act again soon. And with that, as I said last week, we can let ourselves see all there is to see around us: not the beauty only but also the suffering, not the peace only but also the anguish, and even in the face of the darkness that sometimes seems to surround us, let our shoulders unhunch, and our breathing deepen, and our own fear be contained – because we know that God has come already in ways that upended most everything that was – and so we are able to trust that God is coming again to do the same.
And this gets close to the heart of Advent’s work I am beginning to believe. It is a month-long reminder that we are both with and in God already, right here and right now, and that we are also on the very edge of God’s coming anew. By bringing us together in this way, Advent helps to hold us in the tension of this being right on the edge, right on the edge, right on the edge, in order that the new thing we anticipate with so much hope has a real chance of actually being new – which is to say, being God-godself rather than merely a pale shadow of what has already been, pretty and soothing for a moment perhaps, but mostly stale and predictable and of our own making.
The tension of waiting like this – even as we acknowledge that we don’t know and can’t predict exactly what it is we are waiting for, is not always easy to hold – and I for one slip all the time. But it is important to try nonetheless – if only because it reminds us that we are who we are: finite, impoverished, wounded and incomplete; and that God is who God is: endless and unconfinable, and immeasurably greater than anything we could create in our wildest dreams.
Always new, always surprising, God dwells at once closer to us than our own breath, and also so far beyond the horizon of our imaginings that we cannot ever hope to predict the ways God will break into this world and into our hearts this Christmas – that’s the bottom line. And while the God of history, and the god of memory and even the God of the present moment can and must help prepare us for the truth that God will come again, (and come again soon!), we must resist the temptation to give way to the urgency of our longings and attempt to fill ourselves with lifeless replicas of the One we already know, and instead, hold the course and prepare only to let ourselves be taken off guard, and swept off our feet, and transformed, and filled, and healed by the living God whose power knows no bounds and who – even now – is preparing to make all things new again.
Hear, once more, Isaiah’s words: “Every valley shall be filed and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh – all flesh — shall see the salvation of God. —- Amen