The Second Sunday of Advent: Sunday, December 4, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Leigh Mackintosh, Associate Rector of St. Michael’s Church
During the time of John the Baptist, power was centralized in the Roman cities where things revolved around the religious authorities in the Temple and synagogues or the military might of the imperial government. People living on the margins would come to the city because that was the center of what was happening; that was where the power, prestige, and wealth were.
But our gospel reading today describes a dramatic shift towards a new center. Suddenly, people from cities and all over the countryside of Judea are journeying to a prophet in the wilderness—one who baptizes, preaches repentance and proclaims the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Such a dramatic shift mirrors the same changes we are experiencing in our own lives today. Situations either personal or political that push us out of our city of comfort, complicity, and complacency and into the unknown wild. And this Advent, we have the same opportunity to move beyond the normal everyday center of our world and return to the wilderness where we may remember and rediscover our true center in God.
The prophet Isaiah reminds us that the wilderness has long been a place of new exodus and new creation for God’s people. It is where God’s children found renewal; where the revelation of God’s Word was given to Moses on a mountain; where prophets were raised up.
But the wilderness is not an easy terrain to navigate. The wilderness serves as a place of renewal, hope, and redemption. But, John the Baptist also reminds us that the wilderness can be a place of trial and judgment—where Israel wandered around lost for forty years and a hardhearted generation perished for lack of faith.
How do we navigate such dramatic changes and difficult terrain? What do we do when life knocks us off balance and the center of our whole lives changes?
Our Gospel reading today says, “But when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers!”
I don’t know about you, but it struck me as odd that John would rebuke religious leaders for coming to be baptized.
A better translation says, “when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming against his baptizing he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
Sometimes our response to sudden change and adversity is to be like the Pharisees and the Sadducees. To immediately go against the change out of fear or anger. To resist the pull towards the wilderness and those living on the fringes. To remain mentally, emotionally, and spiritually complacent in our comforts and complicit in the corruption around us. Sometimes we enter the wilderness simply to size up the significance of the challenge, danger, or threat that radical prophet poses. Sometimes we prefer to promote our own agenda by aligning ourselves with the powers that be. To rely on our wealth, fame, and status to gain God’s favor.
But John the Baptist reminds us that it is not our wealth, fame, status, power or heritage that grants us salvation—for there is only one with the power to save—he says: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
John tells us “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.”
I mentioned before that the wilderness carries themes of exodus and creation; of judgment and redemption. One way we become more like John is to judge where in our lives are we pointing to God? And where in our lives are we pointing towards ourselves? Put another way, we discern whether our true center is in God.
John the Baptist’s call for repentance means finding our bearings and reorienting our lives in a new direction—a Godward direction towards the One who is loving, life-giving and liberating.
And we are already moving in that direction, because we are here today. But we still have a long way to go in the wilderness. So how can we be more like John—how can we repent and recenter our lives in God.
These days we are blessed with GPS systems in our cars and on our I-Phones. But back in the old days, if you were journeying through the wilderness, you would use a magnetic compass, which would point north. Now, if you were going a short distance, you could find your destination easily with just a compass. But, over long distances, you would miss your mark entirely if you used the compass alone. This is because a magnetic compass only measures magnetic north—that is the north determined by earth’s magnetic fields. True north is actually located at the North Pole. (Show with hands: magnetic north at an angle; true north vertically).
To know true north, you need a compass and a map.
Much like the old days of using a compass and a map, we are constantly navigating between various magnetic fields that tempt us and pull us in different directions. Magnetic fields of work, of family, of relationships, of church, of politics, of illness, of loss. During the short term, such forces can align with God and guide us in the right direction.
But over the long haul, these magnetic fields fail to lead us through the wilderness and make us miss the mark. The goal of the Christian is to use the compass of our life experiences and relationships and the map of our faith practices and spiritual community so that our whole being becomes centered towards True North, which is God. And our lives become so full of God’s grace as waters cover the sea. And suddenly, the whole world suddenly shifts to prepare the way of the Lord.
This Advent, in the midst of darkness and uncertainty, let us listen and heed God’s call to depart from comfort, complacency, and complicity and journey into the unknown wilds of new creation in Christ. This advent let us like John be guided by the Holy Spirit towards something deeper, something brighter, something better and let us help others along the way. This Advent, let us redirect our lives towards the True Center of our being—the true light born to us in the manger who is Emmanuel, God with us. Amen.