Homily for the Second Sunday in Advent
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
December 4, 2022
It’s good to be back in the space with all of you; I can’t help reflecting on the time that I spent here first as seminarian and then when I was serving as a deacon. You all then launched me as a priest, and now I’m working with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, supporting all of those who are preparing for Holy Orders in my role as the Vocational Development Minister. I find myself saying something to those who are preparing for ordained ministry that I often felt while I was discerning and forming in this call: that season of preparation can feel like a very long Advent. That isn’t a bad thing! It attests to the way in which we are emptied, exposed to new ideas, formed and reformed, awaiting something new. As we prepare for the season of the incarnation in the Church, we’re doing the same thing: the vast transcendence of God becomes immanent, real, tangible for us in human form. The words of the prophets speak of this great mystery and divine intervention, the magnitude of which humanity has been longing for. Prophets like Isaiah give us visions of a world in which we hope to live but that is yet to come. Advent immerses us into the prophets who reveal the past, present and future of God’s vision for God’s people.
Prophets reveal what we need to hear, not just what we want to hear. Prophets rise up when difficult truths need to be spoken; prophets speak those truths to those who need to be shaken out of complacency; prophets offer us an opportunity to crack open the status quo and move into alignment with a new way of being. This realignment is all about relationship: the desire God has to be in relationship with God’s people, and the desire we have to realign ourselves with God’s vision for us. We need the prophets: today, not just in history. There are areas of our lives and in this world that need the light to shine into the darkness so that the darkness does not overcome.
In our Gospel lesson today, John the Baptist is speaking with those gathered to be baptized with water for repentance. John was preaching the Good News of the coming of Jesus, “who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John was a prophet in the long lineage of prophets in the Hebrew tradition; like the prophet Isaiah, he stood in the precarity of preaching hope and repentance to a yearning people. John’s voice called out not only in the wilderness of Judea, but in the wilderness of people’s lives: exhaustion, occupation, political and cultural marginalization of the people of the temple living under the reign of the roman empire.
The Holy Spirit in Judaic tradition is the source of Divine Wisdom and Prophecy, present across time with God, moving across the waters of creation. John speaks of Jesus as the one who comes after, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Think of that combination: the holy fire that purges away the impurities, the holy spirit who creates and renews. We think of John as a lone wolf of sorts, out there like a wild man in the wilderness. But, John stands in the lineage of the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew people, inviting them to readiness for the one who is to come on whom the Holy Spirit will rest. He does this as a prophet, not as a poet. John is helping those who have gathered for a baptism of repentance prepare their hearts instead of building up expectations in their minds. John, like Isaiah, has a divine and necessary message to deliver which requires open hearts to receive.
Isaiah began this foretelling, and today our first lesson invites us into that space through images that seem contradictory: wolves and lambs living together; calves and lions grazing together. I’m taken in by these words of Isaiah, because while the images are beautiful, they run so counter to the ways in which we logically operate. Why not just keep the wolves and the lambs in their respective places and keep the kids playing on the playground instead of over snake holes? Our logical brains tell us that this doesn’t make sense. It isn’t what our eyes see, or our ears hear. It’s just not how we do things.
Our prophets speak across time: God who is Wisdom says, there is another vision of creation.
When our Advent season comes around each year, we find ourselves faced with a choice: do we move through this season in business as usual mode, assured that we know the story and are ready to celebrate the magic of Christmas? Or, do we open our hearts to the prophets who tell us that maybe we don’t know everything that we think we do about what it means for God’s love to so profoundly infuse this world that God’s own self, in the Person of Jesus, would come to join with us as one of us, to show us a glimpse of the world that could be?
As I’ve been preparing this homily and our adult forum today, I’ve been thinking about the Advent moments that I’ve had in this space. There were ones that you might expect, of beautiful music and the delight and wonder of our children. There were also Advent moments that caught me completely off guard. It turns out that I wrote about one of them in an Ember Day letter, the quarterly journal of our formation that those who are preparing for ordination write to their Bishop. I’m going to read you a piece of my Advent Ember letter, from December 2016, while I was serving as a seminarian here. I was aware that I was learning, but it is only in retrospect that I can see a glimpse of the incredible transformation that was taking place;
Context: I had a cold, and was very worried that my lack of voice was going to keep me from being able to cantor the Magnificat on Sunday.
When I sat down to Morning Prayer today and we began to pray the Magnificat, I had an image of Kate come to my mind. Kate is a Red Door regular who has been homeless for several months; she also has a cold, perhaps even the source of my own. She greeted me with a big hug on Friday all the while coughing and sneezing, but telling me about how she was finally starting to feel better after several days of having to sleep outside in the rain when her tent was leaking until she could access some safety pins and duct tape to fix it, and then telling me how grateful she was for the extra-warm sleeping bag she had been given here and other warm items helping her through this unsheltered time in her life. We sat, and talked, and prayed as we do most weeks; her story is complex and filled with personal disappointments and system failures. She listens intently at every Friday noon-day service and her voice always comes through in the litany of prayers; I can watch her face as the Gospel breaks open when I am preaching and it changes both of us. She told me today that to her I was pastor first and social worker as an afterthought…it made me realize that it is all blending together for me, as happens more and more. I’m grateful to her for telling me that. Her gratitude for what she has seems disproportionate for how little she has, at least on the world’s terms. Her weekly faithfulness challenges me to move beyond simply trying to fix or fulfill basic needs, and instead to be present, patient and persistent in prayers, support, and the love of Christ. I know she prays for me, just as I pray for her. It is Kate’s face that I saw today as the words of Mary’s song echoed in my ears: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in you, O God my Savior, for you have looked with favor on your lowly servant.”
Just like Kate’s depth of gratitude in a living situation that seems unfathomable to many of us, Jesus’ life and teaching often don’t make sense to us in rational terms: the last will be first; the meek will inherit the earth; those who lose their lives will find them; those we think we are serving reveal to us the face of Christ. It’s humbling and vulnerable to open ourselves to a world turned upside down where God is revealed so profoundly apart from the structures of power, wealth and opportunity that we have come to believe are the signs of God’s favor because we live in a society that values those creature comforts. Advent reminds us that our vision is more limited than God’s vision: God’s favor rests with all of us, word made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.
Isaiah the prophet speaks of the fullness of this divine vision he has seen revealed in the celestial temple; John the prophet tells the people to prepare for the one who is to come; the Epistle to the Romans speaks to the new hope in Christ that unites us and brings us to live in harmony with one another so that with one voice we may glorify God. Truly living out this Advent hope in all of its revelations means that we begin to see a world that makes no logical sense but is filled with heavenly grace. It means that we delight when the lion and lamb are living in a peaceable kingdom, and when those who we would least expect to show up as Christ in our lives suddenly appear, melting our preconceived notions about where we find Jesus in today’s world. These unpredictable moments, these inbreakings of divine paradox renew our understanding and wisdom to glimpse the world and each other as God sees us.
So, while I’m here with you today in this holy space and community that has shaped and formed me, I wish each of you Advent moments that surprise and delight you. I challenge you to open your hearts to the ways in which God is being revealed to you in the unlikely people and places that you encounter. And, I pray for you and for all us to be the conduits of divine love and grace that speak with Advent hope through all the corners of this world.
All-powerful God, increase our strength of will for doing good that Christ may find an eager welcome at his coming and call us to his side in the kingdom of heaven, where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God, forever and ever. Amen.