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Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church

An Episcopal Church in the Anglo-Catholic Tradition Where All Are Welcome

The Second Sunday of Advent (B)
7 December 2008

A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume

Merciful God, who sent thy messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.Amen.

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85
2 Peter 3:8-15a, 18
Mark 1:1-8

Advent is a season for prophets and prophesy. It is a time when we look to what is not yet accomplished and that which we can only see dimly. We look to the time when God unites himself with ourselves in the Incarnation on Christmas Day and we look to that time when God will fulfill his promise to reconcile all things to himself. As we wait and watch, we make ourselves ready and we look for signs of what has already been accomplished and signs of God making himself present with us.

We seek guidance in times like these—Advent times, and indeed we are living now, as perhaps we always do, in Advent times regardless of the liturgical season. We seek guidance and we listen for voices to help us on our journey. We do this not because we have no resources to do this for ourselves, but because we are called to live in community, called to be part of something bigger than ourselves, called to a life open to new possibilities.

Scripture reminds us, however, that there will be false prophets and we are called to put some work into the process, discerning with the best of our hearts and minds whom to follow. Indeed, this is where our own resources, our training and practice in the faith, come into play. We are called to listen for the prophetic voices, the prophetic speech that will help guide us along our pilgrimage into deeper and deeper relationship with God, deeper and deeper into relationship with Love itself.

Living in Advent times as we do, we hear many, many voices. We hear them on television (whether you follow the guests of Keith Olbermann or Bill O’Reilly), we hear them on the streets (we see and hear those people with the sandwich boards or we talk to cabbies), we hear them from our civic and religious leaders. We even hear these voices from the very place upon which I am standing. These voices speak in contradictory ways as to what is best for us personally, spiritually, and as a nation. We are called to listen, listen with open hearts and minds and discern what to do.

John the Baptist came on the scene and he “was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey.” He looked more like one of those people we see on the street and ignore more than a suave, grey haired talking head on television or eloquent preacher in church on Sunday morning. In fact, we know more about how John the Baptist presented himself than about Jesus’ mien. All those pictures of Jesus with the long hair and the robes and sandals are not particularly Biblical. The picture of John the Baptist, bedraggled and eating locusts and honey, is right there in the book. And he went around vigorously dunking people in water (that’s what “baptise” literally means) and saying that there was someone greater than he who would come along, and baptise with the Holy Spirit, baptise with that which is believed to be the very source of all life and health, the very breath of God. This new birth, this regeneration into a new life of repentance, turning your life around and reorienting your life towards God’s will, is something that John promises will change the world. Who would buy that?

Yes, this was “a voice crying in the wilderness,” a voice from someone on the margins, a voice saying unbelievable things. I am not sure that I would have been convinced if I were there. I might have walked right past him, head straight ahead, eyes cast down, wondering if I should call the authorities, or just wait and see if he was still on the 87th Street steps by the time we had to open up for Mass. But the lesson of John the Baptist reminds us that true prophesy, real speech that tells the truth to a world that might not be ready for it, comes from unexpected places. It comes from the margins, it comes from those whose voices may not always be heard. And what it has to tell us is not always what we want to hear.

Discerning true prophetic speech and seeing the true prophet requires that we examine what is being said and hold it up to what we know about God’s desires for his creation. Those who heard John the Baptist and responded were the people who could discern the words of the prophet Isaiah and his reminder that the voice we hear will be “one crying in the wilderness,” and not one from the centres of power. They could hear the words:

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. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

They heard God say that the world will be turned on its head, that which is low will be high and that which is uneven shall become level—and we do not simply talking geologically. The Lord shall be revealed by one on the edges and everyone will now be included. This message from Isaiah is also the message of the Gospel—the very “good news” of Jesus Christ that Mark announces in the opening words of his text. We discern true prophesy by how it stands up to the cold, hard light of the Gospel of love and reconciliation and inclusion that Jesus preached and for which he lived, died, and was raised from the dead.

This week in Wheaton, Illinois a group of powerful, privileged, mostly white men have been gathered to discuss their future participation in the Episcopal Church. These men speak the language of prophesy. They speak as if they were prophets heralding a new age, a new reformation, they even claim. They note that what they are doing is so prophetic, so extraordinary, so true and right, that they do not even care if the Archbishop of Canterbury ever recognises them as the “real voice of Anglicanism in North America” that they claim to be. And yet, if we listen carefully to their message, we have the power within ourselves to discern whether or not these are false or true prophets. These men speak from a position of privilege and power that they feel is threatened by new things happening in the church, things that I believe are truly of the Holy Spirit. They seek a community of the like minded, more than that, they seek a community of the like minded that wishes to quash, limit, and contain the voices and the power of baptised and faithful Catholic Christians who happen to be women and/or homosexual. In short, they seek to keep those that have been kept on the margins on the margins and to do so by schism by excommunicating themselves from the body of the Catholic Church.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ that I know from my friend John the Baptist—my friend in camel’s hair proclaiming a baptism of repentance and humility from places like a pile of his own stuff on the steps of our church where he has spent the night—and the Gospel I know from Jesus himself, incarnate in the Sacrament and among us in the faces of love that I have known, is not a Gospel of exclusion. It is not a Gospel that always speaks from the centre nor is it a Gospel for the faithful remnant. It is not the ark of salvation. No, it is a Gospel of love and inclusion, a Gospel preached from the margins that has slowly brought the outside in to one intact Body.

True prophesy, my brothers and sisters, can be heard and discerned today. True prophesy can lead us more powerfully into relationship with God and with each other. I pray that we spend no little time this Advent reflecting on the heart of the Gospel rather than the words of texts. I pray that we seek to hear the kernel of God’s message to us and that it draws us into community with each other, community around the Sacrament, so that our church may truly be the Body of Christ. It is as a Body, not as a remnant or an ark, that we can stand firmly in this life for all those things to which God call us, and towards which God is pointing us.

We must look for true prophets in whatever package they may come, and yes, even among the privileged. We must remain open to prophets and prophetic speech and when called upon, add our voices so that we may all speak and act as a cacophony heralding the Advent of peace and love.

Andrew Charles Blume+
New York City
John of Damascus, 4 December 2008

©2008 Andrew Charles Blume