SERMON – Advent 2b – December 7, 2014
The Rev. Dr. William A. Heisley
Lessons: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
“Let us attend!” I began last Sunday’s sermon with those words that are cried out at liturgies in the Orthodox churches. “Let us attend” calls people to pay attention to the gospel that will be sung. “Let us attend!” is the strident call to pay attention to the coming of Jesus into the midst of the people.
But attending to God’s coming to the people is not a thing that was new with Jesus. The ancient Jews were called over and over to attend to their God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Sarah, to attend to their God coming to them throughout their history. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” Comfort…comfort. In Hebrew linguistics this is called a double imperative. It is not a longing. It is a command. “Comfort my people,” says God. Do it now. Do it well.
But the command is immediately softened: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term.” Speak tenderly. But this powerful passage doesn’t rest at this speaking place. This powerful passage moves and moves rapidly and moves far. Jerusalem needs consolation and you shall provide it. Prepare the way of the Lord by lifting up the valleys and flattening the mountains. Prepare the way of the Lord by moving across the face of the earth and changing the ancient geography God made into a place of peace for the peaceful living of all people. Move across the new plain together, God’s people together, so that all may see, all may know the glory of the Lord that will be revealed there. Remind the people there on that place that they are like the grass, dying and withering away.
But. But – then go up to a high mountain and proclaim God’s glory. Proclaim good tidings. Shout at the top of your voice so that all the people hear these words: “’Here is your God!’”
Attending, according to the prophet Isaiah, has real motion, real movement. It’s not wasted waiting. It’s waiting that is characterized by hailing God’s present glory at every turn. Glory that is coming again, is being renewed, is refreshing the people over and over. Isaiah wrote these words, made this prophecy, for his people, people who were in bondage in a strange land, Babylon. He calls them to attend by living in hope, by comforting each other, by being fully confident that they will not live in bondage forever. Rather, “the word of God will stand forever,” and that word is a word of freedom, of homecoming, a word of hope.
The Israelites who were captive in a pagan country for so many decades refused to assimilate. They did not take on the culture, religious or otherwise, of their captors. Rather, they had faith. They lived by faith. They trusted that God would bring them home, and their faith in God’s glorious victory over their captivity was vindicated. They were made free, brought home, restored to family and community. True exiles don’t assimilate. They are faithful to the end.
This Advent reality should characterize our lives: to live in this barren and strange land, a land increasingly alien to praying, singing, preaching, eating, drinking, washing Christians, a land strangely characterized by injustice and hatred and riots and fear and loathing, to live in this land means that we have the opportunity to use the gift of faith with which we are blessed by God. The movement of the people that Isaiah calls for, the movement from Jerusalem to valley and hill, to plain, to glorious mountaintop, this movement is the essence of our attending.
We as sojourners in this land of racism and distress of every sort are called by the prophet, by God’s words, to live lives of faith. To see God’s glory, to bask on the mountaintop in that glory, and to invite others to join us. That is the essence of attentive, life-long, Advent living. Recognize God’s great gifts and invest our lives in using them.
First there was Treyvon Martin, then there was Michael Brown in Ferguson, then Eric Garner, now Akai Gurley. First, and then. Except that’s not true. None of these were firsts. The deep, the systemic injustices that comfort those who hate others, injustice has always been a part of human society. This is a grievous thing to say. It is the truth of sin and evil. But it is the truth. Injustice has followed the Jewish people through the Old Testament to the Middle East and even to the Upper West Side today. Injustice has followed Africans across the sea and into this strange land for centuries and it lives, healthy, and strangling our communities with the strong grasp of racist hands.
We pray, we discuss, we mourn, we walk, and we lie on bridges and in streets and at the entrance to tunnels. We give witness that God’s will is not being done. That God’s glory is not being fulfilled, in this place, in this time. And it feels like God’s glory is not going to be fulfilled ever. But Isaiah calls us to live in the understanding of that glory that we have been given, by Holy Scripture, by tradition, by our forebears in the faith at this place, in the here and now. God’s glory calls us to sojourn in this land looking not like the land itself, but like the vision of glory that we have been given.
The movement of faith that should characterize our life together is one that does not deny who we are, how broken we are as a people, how divided, how racist, but rather recognizes in all these things that in every molecule of our being Gods’ glory is with us. That we are called to express God’s glory in our lives by breaking down walls of hatred and detestation. We are exiles, no less than the ancient Hebrews were exiles. And no less than they, we should have faith that God’s rich and abundant mercy and grace will prevail.
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness and proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people came to him from far and wide. Came to heed his countercultural call. Came to be washed in the muddy water of the River Jordan. He baptized them in the old water of deliverance, the Jordan itself. This was the water that their ancestors had crossed in order to claim the land as God’s land, a holy land.
John’s baptism was a cry for that same deliverance to come like a brand new thing to this old people. As they stood there in the water they were drenched with history and tradition, they were drenched with faith. How else could they know that this weak washing would make them heirs of God’s in-breaking reign? How else could they know that even though their culture said otherwise, all would be well for them? How else could these exiles in a ghastly, ghostly land, a land in which there was no peace, be given the gift of eternal life?
These were exiles in a strange land who trusted beyond all understanding that God would succeed in bringing them home. They stood there, washed by John, attending to the movement of the Spirit, the vision of God’s glory given to them.
So it can be for us. We stand here, in the mud and murk of our lives, immersed in longing. And we are called by Isaiah, washed by John, guided by the Holy Spirit, to attend by witnessing, inviting, praying, demonstrating, making peace, and living in full knowledge that we, as exiles, shall be brought home with all exiles throughout eternity, brought home to God’s glorious love, through the merciful gift of Jesus, the Christ. He is our Lord, now and forever. Let us attend! Amen.