A Sermon preached by the Reverend Beth Lind Foote, Interim Rector, on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2019
My friend who’s a children’s book illustrator worked over a year to create some 300 paintings for a new children’s bible that was just published this fall. It was fun to be one of her theological advisors. When she realized there were lots of Johns and Marys in the Gospels she asked me for some help: How could she make them look distinctive?
I was happy to let her know that John the Baptist was a very distinctive guy, and that she could have a lot of fun drawing him since the gospels say he was something of a wildman who wore a camelhair tunic, leather belt, and ate bugs and wild honey.
Every Advent John the Baptist shows up and takes us out into the wilderness. Who is John the Baptist and what is the message that he preaches to us today at All Saints’?
John the Baptist is a figure on the hinge of the Old and New Testaments. He is the last prophet in the tradition of Old Testament prophets; he calls for repentance, and calls the religious establishment—the Pharisees and Sadduccees– to account. And he is the first Evangelist, who preaches “the kingdom of God has come near,” and calls us to anticipate the coming of Christ.
John is a counter-cultural figure. He might fit right in on Haight Street, but not in 1st century Judea. In John’s time Jewish religious authority was centered in the Temple in Jerusalem. So John’s appearing in the wilderness to preach and perform his type of baptism was way outside the religious establishment.
In those days, most people lived in walled cities for safety. Outside those walls, bandits roamed. The people of Jerusalem, left the safety of the city and went into the wilderness to hear John and to be baptized by him in the river Jordan. They were hungry for a new spirituality; they were hungry for God’s presence in their lives.
It was also countercultural for people to venture into a large body of flowing water like the river Jordan because it was dangerous. You could easily drown, and folk legend said that the old Canaanite gods and demons lurked beneath the surface. So to purposefully go down under the water was a risky thing to do.
The Wilderness plays an important role throughout the biblical story. Moses encounters the Burning Bush and the living God in the Wilderness. God leads the Hebrew people out of Egypt into the wilderness where they wandered for 40 years. Moses received the 10 Commandments out there in the wilderness. And God feeds God’s people Manna in the Wilderness. The Wilderness is a holy and challenging place.
Today, the Wilderness is still the place where God calls people to grapple with their faith, and to seek spiritual growth. The wilderness of faith is not an easy place to be. It’s edgy. It’s uncomfortable.
Every Advent John the Baptists calls us out into wilderness of faith, and calls us to repentance. John is not an easy character and Advent is not an easy season in the church. We’re called to be quiet and contemplative in Advent when the rest of the world is already singing Christmas carols and partying. We’re called into the wilderness of Advent to experience our spiritual hunger, our longing for God’s presence.
For some reason, the Advent texts seem especially challenging to me this year. We’re called to be contemplative and hopeful in a world where ugly old demons like Anti-Semitism and white supremacy have emerged out of the deep waters of the past. We live in a world where truth, moral leadership, and intelligence is mocked and undermined. Our world can feel like the biblical wilderness full of bandits.
Our Interim time can feel like the wilderness, too. We are walking in unfamiliar territory as a parish. Being here at All Saints’ for the past 10 months has been a great adventure for me. I’ve also felt challenged by the realities of ministry in our time and place. San Francisco and the demographics of our neighborhood are changing, and going to church is not a social expectation anymore. Who are we now in this era? How do we engage people in the wilderness of their everyday lives in 2020?
But then I realize that we are out in this wilderness together, you and I. Isaiah and John both say, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” We are called to prepare the way of the Lord here in this place, together as a parish.
John’s call to Repentance asks us to let go of our burdens of the past and turn towards the future where Christ beckons us into newness of life. Both our readings from Isaiah and Romans say, a shoot of new growth shall emerge from the stump of Jesse, a new branch shall grow out of its roots. God is working below the surface and initiating new growth among us. We are in the wilderness anticipating where it will emerge. But I believe we are in a wilderness of hope.
Hope is one of the themes of Advent, and this Sunday we lit the second Advent candle, the candle of Hope. Emily Dickinson famously wrote,
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -That perches in the soul –And sings the tune without the words -And never stops – at all –
Hope can seem elusive in our day to day lives. Its melody is muffled below the static of anxiety that becomes loud and distracting. Sometimes we need to intentionally turn up the volume knob on hope to hear it, and I think this is one of those times. But how?
This week I studied our Gospel in The Message, a modern version written by Eugene Peterson, a biblical scholar and pastor. Sometimes Peterson’s interpretations throw new light on a familiar passage. Listen to John the Baptist according to the Message:
“I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next. The main character in this drama—compared to him I’m a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out.”
Do you hear John’s message of hope?
Today, out here in the wilderness of Advent in the Interim time, I find hope that the Holy Spirit will come within us and change us from the inside out. I find hope in the vision of a new shoot, new growth emerging from the Stump of Jesse in the reading from Isaiah.
I find hope in Isaiah’s vision of wolves, leopards and lions lying down with domestic animals and playing with little children. This is a vision where God lift upends the usual pattern of aggressor and victim; God lifts up innocence, love, and hope. Isaiah says, “A little child will lead them.” The presence of children is always a sign of hope. Together, we can prepare the way of the Lord, and make the way straight before us.
This Advent Season, may you hear the song of hope more clearly. May you intentionally tune into it, turn up the volume, and sing along with it. It’s something we all need to hear and to share as we prepare for the coming of the Christ Child.
As Paul says in our reading from Romans today, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”