Advent 3, Year A
Rev. Katie Pakos Rimer, Ed.D.
December 11, 2016
St. James’ Episcopal Church
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us. Amen.
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way
-Isaiah 35, v. 8
In this morning’s gospel I read tension between John the Baptist and Jesus. John the Baptist is in prison; lately preparing the way for Jesus has been getting him into trouble. John the Baptist is having second thoughts about Jesus. He sends Jesus a message, “Are you really the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And in this morning’s reading Jesus is angered by John’s question. He reminds John he’s been busy restoring sight to the blind, making the lame walk again, fulfilling the prophesies set forth in Isaiah. Come on, John the Baptist, Jesus seems to be saying, you know I’m the one.
It wasn’t until this year that I appreciated the STORMINESS of these Advent readings. Conflict between John the Baptist and Jesus, tension, impending death. John second-guessing Jesus, Jesus getting perturbed. Not to mention the whole exile in Isaiah. Real lives on the line. Previously I had absorbed the Peaceable kingdom readings of Advent, when the lion lies down with the lamb, and of course we all know where we’re heading this season, to that stable in Bethlehem…(maybe we can see the star already… and the angel dance)…but this year I have noticed the storminess of these readings.
Where is the good news in the storm?
For things are stormy for us in our climate right now, aren’t they? Politically stormy, socially stormy, economically stormy, ecologically stormy. Real lives on the line, with more storms on the horizon. In the storminess of this morning’s gospel, we see our own storm reflected. Our own anxiety and doubts. I believe the scripture readings remind us, as my kids would say, the struggle is real, and it always has been. And as Christians we are equipped for the struggle. There is, still and forever, good news.
Our neighbor preacher at Old Cambridge Baptist church, the Rev. Cody Sanders, whom I learned about from our own Olivia Hamilton, spoke last Sunday about how hard it is for progressives when things don’t seem to…progress. With Martin Luther King we progressives like to think the moral arc of the universe is bending toward justice. But sometimes the moral arc of justice seems to be in a free fall. And then what?
Let’s telescope into the life of John the Baptist for a moment. Recall that John the Baptist, this central figure of the season, was the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Elizabeth and Zechariah were faithful people who had prayed for a child but had remained childless. Long before the days of in-vitro fertilization, sperm donation and surrogate wombs, this couple lived with infertility into old age. Yet there they were, Elizabeth and Zechariah, in advanced age, and the story goes that the angel Gabriel announced Elizabeth would bear a child! Wrinkly, menopausal Elizabeth – pregnant! Can you imagine? And an oft overlooked detail about this story (at least by me) is that Zechariah, upon hearing this news, was struck dumb! His tongue simply froze in his mouth and he remained mute for nine months until John was actually born – so deep was his shock at the blessing of this child. I believe this story holds an important message for us here and now. John the Baptist – this prominent figure in our Holy Scripture, who prepared the way for Jesus the Messiah – his WHOLE MINISTRY, came out of decades of waiting, of barrenness – physical, and probably spiritual. Talk about a shoot of life coming out of Jesse’s tree stump!
These archetypal, mythic stories and figures tell us something about the sacred scale of things … perhaps Elizabeth and Zechariah’s decades of waiting are like the blink of an eye when it comes to the birth of Christianity. We learn: God’s time is not our time. Faithfulness is rewarded. Having trouble in middle school? Wait a minute. Struggling with illness? Bide your time. Tough presidential election? Stay alert.
In God’s time we are slow-cooked, not flash frozen. In God’s time reality has hidden dimensions, our prayers and intentions knit together with God’s movement in ways we can hardly imagine. Hope gestating in the darkness. With our help and God’s, the moral arc of the universe still bends toward justice, even if we can’t see it. We set our hearts on this truth. This is faith. And this faith sets us apart from those who are secular progressives. Thank God for the gift of faith.
Faith is the bedrock, and then, as Christians, we act. We watch and wait for invitations from God and like Elizabeth, we say yes.
In Olivia Hamilton’s Advent reflections on the life of Anne Bredin, a white, Episcopal civil rights activist in the deep south in the 40s, 50s and 60s, I learned about a pivotal moment for Anne, when in her early twenties she decided to dedicate her life to dismantling racism. She received a letter from William Patterson of the Civil Rights Congress, and He wrote to Anne, as she wondered what in the world she would do when she woke up to the racial injustice that had informed her whole life. Patterson wrote, “You do have a choice. You don’t have to be a part of the world of the lynchers. You can join the other America. There is another America. And it’s always been here, ever since the first slave ship arrived. The people who have struggled against injustice.” Anne says she realized, “it’s a long chain of struggle, that stretches way back long before I was here, and will stretch into the future long after I’m gone”. And in that moment, in her twenties, Anne chose to be part of the other America. She discerned her piece in the larger struggle, felt the call to action, and said yes.
For the call to act is as urgent as the call to trust in God’s goodness.
How about you? What choice is God presenting to YOU, in this time of struggle? Perhaps you are mired in the larger cultural storm that we read about in the morning’s headlines (it’s hard not to be). Or perhaps your particular storm right now is more personal, closer to home: the loss of health, the loss of a relationship, struggle in school, or a job. What are YOUR choices? In what ways do you need to remember and trust in the sacred scale of things – God’s time is not our time – God’s light burns in the deepest darkness? And in what ways do you need to act? Step into the just-right-sized responsibility that is yours, and identify what you can do, like Anne Bredin did, and say yes. For we always have choices.
This kind of discernment is deeply personal. It is the discernment that reveals to each of us that for which we are honestly and truly responsible for, and that which we need to give to God in hope. That for which we have to passionately, actively wait, and that which we have to pursue with urgent commitment. I am convinced our salvation depends on this discernment.
Advent is a beautiful season that illuminates the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be. As Christians in 2016, this is our season! We have the faith to trust that what we are waiting for has already arrived; Emmanuel, God-with-us. In Advent we set our hearts on the Peaceable kingdom and we wait on God, trusting in things unseen, anticipating the birth of Jesus. In Advent we step courageously into the storms of our lives and bear witness to our own and others’ suffering (we Christians are not in denial). Jesus never promised we would not have pain or feel loss, in fact He didn’t promise anything concrete except: do not be afraid, for I am with you always. And in Advent we discern those precious in-breakings of the Spirit here and now, those thin places, when God speaks to us directly, like He did to Anne Bredin through William Patterson’s letter. Like he did to Elizabeth, and to Mary. In Advent we wait for what has already begun. You have already walked through the church’s door. Your heart has already answered God’s call. The seed has already been planted. Now, say ye. You have what it takes. Amen.
Click here for information about Anne Bredin.
https://soundcloud.com/old-cambridge-baptist See “The Storm Before the Calm,” December 4, 2016, by Rev. Cody Sanders.