December 10, 2017
Mark 1:1-8, Isaiah 40:1-11
“Are We There Yet?”
A priest and a rabbi from local parishes were standing by the side of the road holding up signs. The rabbi’s sign read, “The End is Near!”
The priest, on the other side of the road, held up a sign which read, “Turn before it’s too late!” They planned to hold up their signs to each passing car.
“Get a job,” The first driver yelled at them when he saw the sign.
The second driver, immediately behind the first, yelled, “Leave us alone, you religious freaks!”
Shortly, from around the curve, the two clergy heard screeching tires and a splash followed by more screeching tires and another splash. The rabbi looked over at the priest and said, “Do you think we should try a different sign?”
The priest responded thoughtfully, “Perhaps our signs ought to say simply ‘Bridge Out.’”
We have arrived at the second Sunday of Advent. Every year on this Sunday, John the Baptist shows up and tells us to prepare for the one who is coming after him. John is a fiery, unconventional character with a strange sense of fashion and an even stranger diet. He always seems a little off putting and his message isn’t easy to hear. Yet huge crowds trekked into the wilderness to hear his message of repentance. They responded to this message by confessing their sins and being baptized. It is tempting to soften this a bit in the retelling. None of us want someone else to tell us we should repent (even if they are right).
In reading some sermons this week about John, I was surprised to hear that John shows up to tell us what we already know. He’s telling us to practice what we believe. I had never thought of that before, but it made so much sense to me. It is not like it is a secret that we should treat others with compassion and kindness. It’s no secret that we need forgiveness and we need to forgive others. It is no secret that we need to speak up for justice. Even though we may understand intellectually that the way to peace is to clear out the clutter in our minds and hearts, we often add more clutter instead. We continue to think mean things or judge others. We can’t let go of bad feelings toward someone who has wronged us. We may be too busy to do what we know is right. John comes along every year to remind us that the way to Jesus involves some inner work on our part. Today, we lit the candle of peace and we said we would live peace this week. That doesn’t just happen. Living peace is a choice we will make many times in the coming week and it is much harder than it sounds.
When I think about peace in the world, I think of all the hostility and resentment that must be cleared for peace to inhabit that space. The same is true in our own lives. We carry our own resentments. Both Isaiah and Mark (who quotes Isaiah) talk about preparing a way/a road for God. Isaiah calls people grass as a reminder that we are impermanent. Sometimes we need to be reminded that God is forever and we are not. Maybe peace is possible when we know that ultimately, the world is in God’s hands.
The God in Isaiah is a God of strength and tenderness. This God pours out compassion on our suffering. The first words in the reading from Isaiah today are “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” (40:1) So many need to hear those words of comfort today. My prayer is that the people of Aztec, New Mexico are hearing them this morning.
The shooting in Aztec reminds us that we need to hold the words of comfort alongside the words of repentance. This week in text study we asked why someone like John would be followed by so many people. It is interesting that he spoke in the wilderness, far from any temple. Clearly his difficult, but truthful message struck a chord with people. Yet, he was not welcome in the mainstream religious world. With so many competing voices, how do we know who to listen to? One of the measures I learned a long time ago was that the gospel exists to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Maybe that was part of his success. He spoke a truth that went deep and people recognized their need to clear out the baggage they carried so that something new and beautiful could be born in them.
We have four different gospels and very few things show up in all four, but one thing all four agree on is that the way to Jesus is through John. John does make us uncomfortable but he reminds us that we really do want to clear out that closet full of resentment and that we do want to sweep out the disappointment we have carried for too long. He knows that when we stop and clear a path, there is something waiting to be born in our lives and in our world. Sometimes that means telling a truth that has been silenced for too long.
In a very unusual move, Time Magazine announced its person of the year this week, only it isn’t a person, it’s a movement called #MeToo. Time is recognizing the ones who have broken the silence and come forward with stories of sexual harassment and assault. The story begins with actress Ashley Judd who tells of the head of Miramax studios and the maker of many movie stars trying to coerce her into bed. She escaped and later learned that he is known for that behavior. The article says, “When movie stars don't know where to go, what hope is there for the rest of us? What hope is there for the janitor who's being harassed by a co-worker but remains silent out of fear she'll lose the job she needs to support her children? For the administrative assistant who repeatedly fends off a superior who won't take no for an answer? For the hotel housekeeper who never knows, as she goes about replacing towels and cleaning toilets, if a guest is going to corner her in a room she can't escape?”
According to a 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 47% of transgender people report being sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, both in and out of the workplace. (http://time.com/time-person-of-the-year-2017-silence-breakers/)
John the Baptist calls us to bring painful truths to light. There are others who are doing this, other unusual prophets in our midst. One might be Lady Gaga. My first impression of this singer was simply that she wore outrageous outfits. I didn’t know at the time that she sings a powerful message and is striking a chord in people. She has been a healing balm for people who have been outcast. Her latest album is called Joanne after her aunt who died of lupus. At a concert this week, she said, “Pain is an equalizer. I ask you to go back down the rabbit hole to that pain...for me, that pain has just one name, and that's Joanne. However you choose to deal with it, that belongs to you, all that pain makes us the same.” (https://www.timeout.com/austin/news/lady-gaga-brought-all-the-feels-to-tuesday-nights-emotional-concert-120617)
Perhaps it is no coincidence that John the Baptist shows up in our service in the same week that the #MeToo movement is recognized and Lady Gaga calls us to acknowledge our shared pain. Peace is found on the other side of incredible pain. The way to peace is through not around. On Saturday, we will offer a Service of Loss to acknowledge that this time of year is difficult for many of us. The service is one of the ways we prepare for Christ to come. In January, we will offer a Passages group to name some of the losses we carry and to find deep support in community.
In this season, we prepare for Christ’s coming when we acknowledge the obstacles to peace in our own lives and in our world. When we are in pain, God is near to comfort us. When we are too comfortable, we find God comes to us and calls us to difficult work. It is that difficult work that helps us prepare a space for Christ to be born in our midst once again. Our task in the coming week is to prepare peaceful places in our lives and in our community. In the words of Jan Richardson, “May we be the road Christ takes.”*
*May the path
that Christ walks
to bring justice
upon the earth,
to bring light
to those who sit
to bring out those
who live in bondage,
to bring new things
to all creation:
may this path
run through our life.
May we be
the road Christ takes.
~ written by Jan L. Richardson posted on http://paintedprayerbook.com/