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.
2 Peter 3:8-15a, 18
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