Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Second Sunday of Advent
December 8, 2019
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
The second Sunday of Advent always brings us to the story of John the Baptist, that rough and ready cousin of Jesus. We picture him with his scruffy clothing and wild mountain-man hair. He is wearing uncured animal skins, and scratchy camel hair, and he probably smells bad. And it seems he doesn’t eat like a normal person either, but as a forager in the desert hills. He drinks no wine, eats no fine foods. He doesn’t want to live with his own family, or even in the community at all, but out on the mountain. He sleeps rough. John’s harsh words make him frightening. Repent! he cries and talks about a winnowing fork and an unquenchable fire for the chaff. It’s not clear that he is completely in his right mind as he rails against the religious authorities and warns of a dreadful day approaching. He is talking about preparing the way for the coming of the Saviour, but he is hardly Christmassy. He’s disruptive. In our northern climate in December, even the thought of mass baptisms in the river sends a shiver through us. The world of John the Baptist is not cozy like the stable, or lovely as the night sky filled with angels.
But there is something oddly satisfying about this. When he calls us all to bear fruits worthy of repentance, it may feel right. There is a certain type of Christian piety that rejoices in hating the commercialism of the season, and longs for more focus on the true meaning of Christmas. Focus less on garish decorations, less on noisy music or false good cheer, less on buying stuff. People long for more of family and friendships, more of gratitude, more of kindness to the neighbour and to the stranger. And probably most of us feel that way at least part of the time. These would be the fruits of repentance.
And not just in our personal circles. In Advent, John the Baptist also calls us to look around us and see what kind of a place the world is, what kind of a place the holy child would come to live in. And with the state of the world, there is lots to be alarmed about, and discouraged. Thirty years after the killings at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, the government announces that that kind of gun will be banned. But how could it take thirty years to reach that conclusion? Or to find that violence against women is still minimized and underreported? In our own city, as rental costs for everyone keep going up, homelessness rises to new levels, as we can see within feet of our sanctuary door – while the cold weather makes the thought of street life even more unbearable. Farther afield, refugees languish waiting for possibilities to ripen, while in the town of Bethlehem, where the child Jesus was born so long ago, there is no sign that the conflict between Palestinians and Jews could ever cease. The Baptist has a point when he talks about an axe that is needed to cut through the weight of the world’s sorrow and sin, and a winnowing fork to sort it all out. And a great bonfire that could burn away everything that stops humanity from loving.
He does say all this, and with all the pent-up anger and grief of a prophet. But John the Baptist also points us to something beyond our own need for reform and preparation in the weeks of Advent.
We may have our perspective on John the Baptist wrong. Perhaps there is more to him than what we have imagined. Perhaps it’s not that he is a strange angry hermit. Perhaps instead he is a person unusually attuned to beauty. We can see in the slide what his home may have been like, a mountain cave looking over the valley. (That is Israel) The unearthly quiet and the endless sky may have been the stuff of prayer for him. The absolute simplicity of his life is a spiritual and an aesthetic choice. He wanders alone, he listens to the birds, sees them dip and soar in the updrafts. Watches the wilderness bloom in its season, as he lives in blissful solitude among the million sudden blossoms of the desert rose. Easy to imagine the exquisite flavour of the wild honey he gathered. Perhaps a little harder to think of locusts as gourmet fare, but they are considered a great delicacy in many places in the world. And they are high in protein. You have to know how to prepare them. John has learned to live with great attentiveness and discipline in an environment that is challenging, but also starkly beautiful. Think of him as an artist. He is about thirty years old when we meet him – a strong young man, autonomous, living out his own dream of the world described by Isaiah in our Call to Worship. In harmony with the plants and animals and stones of the natural environment. On his own rhythm of solitude and compassionate reaching out. He has learned to live by conviction and creativity rather than by convention. He wanders where the desert blooms, on the Holy Way, where the redeemed walk with gladness and singing.
It is perhaps also in this way that John the Baptist can guide us into the spirit of Advent. Even in the midst of the harsh world, or even when overwhelmed by the emotion of this overwrought season, we can remember that God’s world is beautiful. Even if you aren’t a painter or a poet or a prophet, it is possible to live as an artist, searching out and sharing that beauty. Possible, or even essential, to let the beauty of a rose, or a snowflake – or of a song, or a painting, or a poem – nourish your spirit with God’s love. Every one of us is invited to live out of conviction and creativity rather than convention. Within the deep darkness of these winter nights, deep under the snow, and under the ground, the work of new life is going on. This is what we wait for, what we long for, in Advent. Love, the rose, is springing from the ancient root. The earth itself waits and watches for the time of flourishing.
Our Advent practice is to attend to that new growth – to listen for it, to look for it, to sniff it out, to feel for it, to taste it, to find it. Look for what is beautiful. Be ready to share what you discover. As you do this, be patient, says the Apostle James in the letter that Jim read. Wait for the precious crop from the earth. Prepare the way, says John, make the way plain. Make it simple. Let love, the rose, bloom unadorned. For God is entering in.
(Photo Credit: pixabay)