Homily for Advent 2 2008
Isaiah 40:1-11 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 Lord, you were favourable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin. Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.
2 Peter 3:8-15a But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 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. 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. 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, 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? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given to him.
Mark 1:1-8 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
You know already that part of my personal history involves an encounter following a church service a long time ago, when I was told that my shoes – suede Hush Puppies known as “desert boots” – were not appropriate for church. My reaction was to leave the church and not return for about 10 years.
I was 13 at the time, which explains a lot, and so was the person who made the comment, but I saw it as much more than an insensitive person engaging in a little cruelty just for the fun of it. I saw it as characteristic of the church in general, a symbol of its failure to be what it promised and proclaimed itself to be. I saw it as characteristic of the nit-pickiness which causes the church to stagnate and lose its way. I took it as a larger injustice, as symbolic of the way those who consider themselves insiders go out of their way to enhance their own status at the expense of others, especially those who don’t conform. One little comment, from one rather pathetic and insignificant (albeit mean-spirited) person, had quite a ripple effect in my life.
But I want to tell you another desert boots story, with a different ripple effect. In the mid-90’s, sales of the Desert Boot I helped make famous were down to 30,000 pairs a year, and the urban market had virtually dried up – so Hush Puppies was thinking of phasing them out for good. Two Hush Puppies executives were at a fashion shoot in New York, when they met a stylist from New York who was not only wearing desert boots but told the executives that the shoes had suddenly become hip among a few people in the New York fashion scene. People were buying them from second hand stores because they couldn’t get them in retail stores. The famous designer Isaac Mizrahi wanted to use the shoes in showing his 1995 spring collection. Totally by word of mouth, person-to-person contact, the humble desert boot made a miraculous come-back. From 30,000 pairs in 1994 and on the verge of being axed, they went to 430,000 pairs in 1995, 2 million pairs the next year, and more the year after that – the irony is that the shoe is now so commonplace that no doubt the cool people will no longer want to wear them. Malcolm Gladwell tells this story in his book Tipping Point, a book about “contagious behaviours,” how little causes can have huge effects, and how change happens not necessarily gradually but often very suddenly.
Seinfeld fans will remember the episode in which one person’s weird habit of eating chocolate bars with a knife and fork soon becomes a fad that everyone is doing. At this time of year it is obvious to see how one person’s decision to put up Christmas lights has a contagious and pleasant effect on the rest of the neighbourhood, as others follow the lead.
It is interesting that we often focus and marvel upon the enormous damage that a few thugs or terrorists can do. But I believe there is a potential tidal wave of good that could transform the world, if people would only believe that their own efforts and actions can make a difference. Like 13 year olds, we sometimes find it hard to put things into perspective.
John the Baptist is a powerful and compelling figure we hear from every year during Advent. It occurred to me that what John the Baptist does every year is invite us to put on our desert boots and take a little walk with him into the wilderness, where you have to take a close look at your baggage and your priorities and sense of direction. It’s not really a convenient time. I am usually about ready to put on my DESSERT boots at this stage, and if I have dreams of food, it’s usually about turkey and mincemeat, not locusts that hop and fly faster than I can run, and honey you have to fight with bees to acquire.
If you think back to your elementary school days, you know that the strange guy whose claim to fame was a willingness to eat insects didn’t exactly have a lot of standing. John was certainly unorthodox and unique, but he is sometimes dismissed as a lunatic. But John’s weirdness is actually meant as a sign of credibility and authenticity, linking him with the ancient prophets, who were revered, Elijah in particular (see 2Kings 1: 7, 8). The odd reference to John’s clothing is actually a very specific symbolic connection, because Elijah, one of the great prophets of old, was expected to return when the kingdom of God was about to be established (see Malachi 3:24). So the reference to John’s strange diet and clothing is meant to tie John the Baptist to Elijah, and thus he is an even larger presence, representing the dawn of a new age.
What can a guy like John – a guy in desert boots, who chased flying locusts and fought off angry bees to get his lunch – have to say to us in the 21st Century? We can learn a great deal from John about how to enter the kingdom: willingness to listen; a sense of hope; willingness to change or repent; humility; faith; passion; courage; persistence; willingness to go your own way. John may be wild and seemingly weird — but he’s grounded – he’s real – he is who he is.
As well as providing a precedent for strange clothing, John the Baptist has historically been held up as a model for ministry, a reminder of the importance of retaining the prophetic dimension. Tomorrow, I celebrate 27 years of ordination as a priest, and I recognize I have always attempted to do that – to be a voice in the wilderness (and not just when I lived in Saskatchewan), challenging the church not to lapse into complacency and conformity, encouraging the people of God to believe in who they are, cultivating a sense of accountability and what they are meant to accomplish, and enabling people to connect in a real way with God.
“Prepare the way of the Lord” is very much the theme for today. When we talk about preparing the way of the Lord, let’s be clear that we are not talking about geography or road maps, but about becoming authentically connected with God. Unlike my bovine conformist friend who felt he just had to comment on my shoes, John’s life is not consumed or distracted by things that don’t matter – spiritual bric a brac or religious trivial pursuits. John’s focus is entirely on things that DO matter. In Advent, even though it’s against the grain of the so-called “holiday season,” John walks us away from the externals of the season and points us directly toward the heart of the matter: how to respond to the coming of the divine into the midst of human life.
When the voice of the prophet cries out: “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God …. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain”, it is not a literal desert that is the real focus – it becomes for us a comment on the terrain of the human spiritual landscape. It is a promise of and summons to a renewed covenant of justice and equality, where there is no “higher than/lower than” or “better than/not as good as,” and where there are no dispossessed and de-valued. And the promise is that, in God, the arrogance and the domination of the strong will be ended, and a new era will be established, in which lion and lamb find a way together.
John is definitely a person associated with the desert, with the unknown, the wild, and the desert is not merely a geographical space, but represents that empty, unknown and unexplored dimension of our own lives. In the terms of the Christian spiritual life, John issues a summons to put on our desert boots and go on a journey-into this often deserted and unknown place in ourselves. It is there that we need to prepare the Way. When John’s voice from the desert confronts us, as he confronted the people of his time, the message is often seen as rather stern and harsh and negative, but I find it essentially positive, because he is saying, in no uncertain terms, you can turn this around, and it’s not up to someone else to do it – it’s up to YOU – it’s in you to do this.
“See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” The announcement by the prophet Isaiah must have struck more than a few people as unrealistic, even insane. Israel felt helpless and powerless – they had been rendered infantile by years of slavery and exile; they had developed a victim mentality. Sitting there in chains in Babylon, who could have conceived that within a few years, they would not only be free but returned to their homeland? Similarly, John does not allow us the luxury of remaining children forever, but in giving us the message that it’s time to grow up and step up, he is not just stirring us out of complacency, he is empowering us. Sometimes, things need to be changed, and the good news is that things can be changed – transformed – by a new spirit.
A recent headline said: “Joy to the World is contagious.” It reported on a British Medical Association study which found that joyful, happy people have a transforming influence on those around them, as do gloomy, negative, snarky people like my conformist friend of many years ago. James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego says: “The pursuit of happiness is not a solitary goal. We are connected, and so is our joy.”
A recent Harvard University study says pretty much the same thing. It suggests that “your happiness is remarkably contagious and can be felt by strangers up to three degrees of separation away. Your joy, like a rock dropped in the water, sends out ripples of well-being that have measurable impacts on the contentment of other people, even your friends’ friends’ friends,” says Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a professor of medical sociology at Harvard and the lead study author. “It’s not that we’ve shown that emotions spread from person to person. We kind of knew that already,” says Christakis, whose paper appeared in the British Medical Journal. “What’s interesting is that emotions spread from person to person to person, and from person to person to person to person.” And the feeling that spreads most vigorously is happiness, says Christakis, who calls the phenomenon an “emotional stampede.” Frankly, that’s the kind of stampede I want to be part of, and to which we as Christians can contribute a great deal.
I think we seriously underestimate our influence – our power-our capacity — to make the world different, and we seriously underestimate the Spirit of God to inspire and enable and guide us on that way. From Elijah and John the Baptist, and Jesus himself, we inherit the great spiritual tradition which prophetically challenges the way things are, against a vision of the possibility of the kingdom of God, and so we don’t (if we are healthy) just passively sit there in the face of injustice, oppression and indifference. Because we have been nurtured in that prophetic tradition, we respond, we do something about it.
There are many things we can learn from John the Baptist – he is amazingly relevant. Maybe most of all, he reminds us of the impact ONE person can make. The scriptures are full of examples of nobodies, obscure, out of the way, unlikely people, who found it within themselves to step out and make a difference.
A voice – a single voice — cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Prepare the way for God within your own heart, allow God room in your life. And take heart in the belief that, often as not, only one voice is needed to tip the scales, to start a ripple effect. Let your life be that kind of life, and your voice be that kind of voice, for God’s sake.
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