This sermon was my second during the Advent season at the Deer Creek Charge.
Scripture: Luke 3:1-6 (NRSV)
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”
I must confess to all of you this morning that I spent most of my sermon preparation this week dancing around to the soundtrack of the musical Godspell. It is one of my favorite musicals (I prefer hippie musicals). The song “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” is sung by John the Baptist, calling people to repent. If you have seen the musical live, you may associate the rushing forward in the song--- which, if the production you see includes a huge cast, sounds like a herd of elephants--- with the forward motions of the crowd, proclaiming as loudly and joyously as you have to do to sing “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” So to me, John the Baptist's words in our scripture this morning take on a musical and physical quality to them, bringing them up off the pages to lead me in a dance toward repentance. Not to worry--- I will not demonstrate this dance. I think our dancers this morning did much better demonstrating this than I could.
So let's tap our feet a little as we pray together:
Patient Teacher, we give you thanks for the voices out of the wilderness
toe-tapping voices, at times, but voices that call us to repentance.
As we come together this morning, help us to better hear the voices of the prophets. May these voices guide us in this Advent season. Amen.
So our timeline is a bit off this morning. We expect to read stories of angels appearing to Mary and Joseph. At the very least, we expect that the prophecies we read to be the ones about the prince of peace, the little child leading them. We don't expect a hairy, camel-hair wearing, locust-eating guy on the edge of the wilderness. (Sidebar: Luke doesn't talk about John the Baptist's diet or clothing like Matthew and Mark do, but still, that is our image when we think of him, no matter what Gospel we're reading.) And besides, aren't John and Jesus supposed to be about the same age? So how come we are talking about John's ministry before we get to the baby in the manger? Just last week we were reading Zechariah's prophecy about John a prophecy showing a joyful expectancy much like what we hear in that Godspell song, and now John is all grown up preaching in the wilderness.
But this is the thing about Advent. We aren't just preparing for the birth of a baby. We are preparing for all that Jesus' life and ministry meant. We are preparing the way of the Lord.
But Ann Howard, a pastor and director of an organization called the Beatitudes Society, makes an important point. She writes, “I can’t hear the Baptist’s call to prepare until I get out there to the wilderness, out beyond the edge, beyond the usual, the conventional, the expected. So where’s my wilderness in this moment in time? Where am I being called beyond my comfort zone? What might I leave behind? When do I choose safety over risk? What new questions could I be asking? What old answers do I settle for? What fears hold me back? What encounters await?”1
This is what draws me to the song from Godspell, I think. Why I can't get it out of my head. Music has a way of pushing us beyond the edge--- particularly dance. It forces us to relax and open up and risk. The uninhibited nature of all those people rushing to be baptized in Godspell, dropping everything to start a new life, that is what we are moving towards. But first, we have to stop. Listen. Get out there to the wilderness.
Most of us are not currently living in ways that we can stop and listen. I am one of those people, going going going all the time until I think Aaron considers hiding my computer and my car keys from me. And part of that, for me, comes from being in school for so long. In school, there is always something you could be doing: a paper to write, another essay to read--- and you aren't finished when it is five o'clock. Of course, ministry is the same way, housework and yardwork are the same way, taking care of kids is the same way: many of us are very good at finding excuses to be busy all the time.
In seminary, though, I read one of those books that smacks you upside the head. It was called The Circumference of Home by Kurt Hoelting, a seminary graduate who ended up becoming a commercial fisherman in Alaska. It is a beautiful book about his decision to live within a one-hundred mile radius of his home. He did not drive within that year, only took public transportation, biked, kayaked, and went on hiking trips. In the book he talks about what he calls the three-day rule. He says that he noticed it takes three days on a retreat to “dispel the clutter in our minds and settle the scattered energy in our bodies.” He says that “it simply takes this long for the soul to catch up with the body.”2 How can we hear John the Baptist's words to prepare if our souls have so much work to do to catch up to our bodies?
Do you feel like your soul is out of sync with your body? I know I am one of those people who is constantly making lists in my head, constantly thinking about what else I need to do, what can I check off the list next. So three days for our souls to catch up with our bodies? I don't have that kind of time! Our souls really need to learn to move a little faster. So are we just stuck hoping that voices from the wilderness like John the Baptist's will just be loud enough to break us out of the busyness for a moment. Can we find a way to skip the stopping and listening part?
Besides that, we are moving too fast to even know what to listen to, where it is we ought to be listening. We don't know where the edge is. I really love how Ann Howard links the wilderness to the place outside our comfort zone. It really brings the place to life for me. We aren't just talking about a desert out in the Middle East somewhere. The thing about the bible is that though it is describing particular events in particular times, those particularities seep into our own lives. So when we talk about John the Baptist speaking from the wilderness in the first century, we are also talking about prophets today speaking to us from different kinds of wilderness. Where are those wild places we tend to ignore or avoid, those places outside our comfort zones?
So many big questions this week and we haven't even gotten to repentance! First, stopping and listening, then seeking someplace outside our comfort zones in which to listen--- these are the first steps in preparing the way of the Lord.
My first challenge to you this Advent, then, is to try being still. There are other ways we can slow our bodies down, I think, besides dropping everything and going on a retreat longer than three days right before Christmas. During Lent, the season before Easter, we talk a lot about spiritual disciplines--- and we ought to be talking about them in Advent too. Instead of starting with three days, try three minutes, then thirty, then maybe even three hours. Pray, read the bible or a devotion like the Upper Room, journal, just be still. Listen for the prophet's voice. We cannot prepare unless we can first listen and slow down.
But we can't just listen. John the Baptist's ministry shows us that risk is involved, that going beyond our comfort zones are involved. Don't just sit and listen, but go and listen. John the Baptists can't always comes to us anymore, as walled in as we are by our busy schedules. But we can go, opening ourselves to hear those messengers, knowing they come from the wild places outside our comfort zones. Come with us to serve at the Day Shelter in Edgewood on Christmas Eve. Come to me for the address and phone numbers of our homebound folks so you can call or visit them this Christmas. There are many ways you can step outside your comfort zone, change things up a bit, to place yourself in that place of wildness and possibility from which God's prophets like John the Baptist seem so often to speak.
As many of you know, I served as a chaplain last year in a hospital in New Jersey, both on a regular medical/surgery floor as well as on the behavioral health unit (psych ward). My experience there, more than anything else had in the past or has since, taught me these first steps of Advent preparation. See, the hospital was a wilderness place for me. You face your worst fears of illness and death and loneliness every day in a hospital. And besides that, we didn't start our work by shadowing the regular chaplains or anything like that. We were just thrown into the midst of it without a clue how to begin.
Well, maybe we had a little clue. Pray. That is always the best place to begin. Every morning I entered the hospital, I did not do anything until after I had gotten what we call a census, the list of names and room numbers, and prayed over each and every name, asking both that I could be the presence of God for each person I encountered and that I could see the presence of God in each person I encountered. Then, before I left for the day I would pray again over the names, including any prayer requests I had from patients or nurses I had talked to.
This time in prayer opened me to go into the wilderness that to me was the hospital. Every day on my way to the hospital, I had these horrible knots in my stomach, and I was so fearful. But after I prayed, I felt this strength guiding me.
So the practice of prayer guided me to the wilderness, and it opened me up to hear God's voice in those I met. In the voice of the man younger than I was suffering from alcoholism telling me he would keep me in prayer: this was a prophet showing me that God was always with me. In the voice of the woman suffering from psychotic episodes trying to learn to pray: this was a prophet teaching me of God's healing power, renewing power. In the voice of a man with a strange head injury who called me pastora, Spanish for woman pastor: this was a prophet reminding me of God's call on my life. And in the voice of the young woman as she tenderly held the hand of her husband in a coma: this was a prophet saying nothing can separate us from the love of God.
These were Advent moments for me, moments of God breaking in on me to show me new life. They were moments in which I was opened up to hear that song, Prepare ye...
Next week we'll talk more about John the Baptist, about that dance of repentance, but this week, I want you to go into the wilderness. Listen to those voices on the edge, to discover what, in this new year, you are being called out for.
In the scene in the movie Godspell in which John the Baptist sings “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” people hear his words echoing as they go about their daily lives, driving cabs, waiting tables. Their feet tap to his message of repentance. And I don't think their feet get tapping because it is an easy message. Instead, it is a message that gets under their skin, a message they can't get out of their heads. May this message of preparation get stuck in you my friends. May the voice crying out from the wilderness move you to action in this our Christian new year. And, as the scripture says all flesh will eventually see, may you see the salvation of God.
1Ann Howard, “Advent 2: Into the wilderness,” A Word in Time, The Beatitudes Society, 3 December 2012, http://www.beatitudessociety.org/blog/14-advent_2_into_the_wilderness.
2Kurt Hoelting, The Circumference of Home: One Man's Yearlong Quest for a Radically Local Life, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: De Capo Press, 2010) 205-206.