December 4, 2016 — Second Sunday of Advent
Rev. Alison Quin
The Spirit of Advent in the Wilderness
Advent is a time of cognitive dissonance for me. At home, I’m getting tons of catalogues, pondering gifts for friends and family, thinking about Christmas cards and celebrating Christmas. When I go out, it’s Christmas everywhere—the culture supports the decorating and the gifts, the carols and the warm family celebrations.
But at church, we are flung into the wilderness with John the Baptist. He is a strange figure, hanging out in the desert eating locusts and wild honey, wearing camel’s hair. I imagine him to be a little intense and wild-eyed. He’s preaching fire and repentance. The kingdom of heaven is near, the messiah is coming, and he will bring judgment. The ax is at the root of the tree, every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire. He reminds me of the subway preachers that cry out in the urban wilderness of the Port Authority, calling people to repent.
The question is, how do we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, and express our hope of his return? Warm, cozy, Norman Rockwell Christmas scenes, or out in the desert with a strange, fierce preacher?
Is the church down on Christmas traditions?
The answer is no. We hang Christmas lights to remember the Light that came into the world and still shines in the darkness. We sing carols to express our joy that God has joined us in our human journey and can never be separated from us. We give gifts to those we love to share the Love that came down at Christmas. We cherish children at Christmas because we remember that God came into the world as a child. We share what we have with those who are in need, because Christ was poor and cared for the poor.
Our culture is sadly subject to materialism and excess and that affects the way Christmas is celebrated. However, at the heart of Christmas traditions is joy that Christ has come into the world.
Nevertheless, the wisdom of the church is that until we know we are empty, we can’t know what will fill us. Until we know our need for Christ, we can’t know the joy he brings.
Advent is the church’s version of the Zen story about a cup of tea. The university professor visits a Zen master to inquire about Zen. The master pours a cup of tea for him and keeps pouring so it overflows. Finally, the professor can’t restrain himself and says—it’s too full. Why do you keep pouring? The master says, like this cup, you are too full. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?
Likewise, the church invites us to leave behind the noise and activity of our lives, and enter the wilderness of our hearts and learn about our emptiness. What do we hunger and thirst for, what is in need of healing, what do we hope for?
Our specific circumstances differ, but deep down we long for the same things, for healing and reconciliation, for hope and a sense of purpose, and above all for love. We know all too well our need and our brokenness.
Sometimes we are not in touch with what we need or what the world needs, because we don’t dare hope for it, and we can’t even imagine it. Isaiah blows open the door to an even bigger dream than most of us dare to dream. He gives voice to the longing we hardly knew we had, for a world where the poor find justice, and peace prevails, and there is no more domination or predatory behavior.
“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them…They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
Isaiah teaches us what to long for—what would really fulfill us. Let yourself imagine for a moment a world in which leaders lead through example and servanthood, like Jesus. A world in which the weak and the strong are all honored and included—in fact, a world in which those who are weak are recognized to have strengths, and those who are strong are understood to be vulnerable. Imagine no despised minorities, no scapegoating, no harassment or abuse. Isaiah paints a picture of a world without violence, a place that is safe for children, where children can flourish and exercise their gifts for leadership. Power relationships are transformed in Isaiah’s vision—the strong do not dominate.
What does this look like in practice? A comparison of two recent church meetings illustrates the point. At one meeting, there was a mix of clergy and lay leaders and the clergy dominated the discussion. It was not intentional—they are good people, and they had a lot to say, but they were not conscious of the power that their role gives them, and they did not intentionally step back and listen more than they talked. By the way, I’m a big talker too, so if you notice me dominating a discussion, please elbow me.
The other meeting was a gathering of youth from four parishes. The previous year, the adult leaders had organized all the meetings. But this year, a young person (age 14) trained in facilitation led the meeting. The adults were politely excused, and the young people worked out what they wanted to do in the coming year and how they wanted their meetings to go. Among other things, they adopted a method of hearing from each person, and arriving at consensus. The adults had a great time in the next room, and joined the young people at the end for fellowship. The adults offered to serve as a resource, and of course, provide transportation. It was a beautiful reversal of the normal relationships of power that exist between older and younger people.
The repentance that John the Baptist is preaching is much more radical than listing our sins. The call to repent is a call to completely reorient ourselves to God’s vision for the world. As people of God, we are called to be aware of power relationships as much as we can, and be part of transforming them so that all are honored, all are heard. All people and indeed, all living things, are needed to bring about the peaceable kingdom, the transformation from predator and prey to brothers and sisters.
A warm Christmas celebration is a blessing—it implies a home, heat, food, people to love, and the traditions are there to honor the Christ child who came into the world for us.
But Christ’s birth, as earthshaking as it was, was only the beginning of God’s healing the world. Christ shows us the path of transformation—in his vulnerability and poverty, in his embrace of all people, in his renunciation of violence. His willingness to lay down his life for others opened the floodgates of the life force and healing power of God. Through him, we are being healed and transformed and so is the whole of creation.
So, take a few minutes away from the hurry and bustle of preparing for Christmas to join John in the desert. This Advent, open yourself to your longing and emptiness, because that is the only way we can begin to take in the enormity of grace that God longs to give us.