The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Advent 3—Year A video link
Canticle 15 (The Song of Mary)
We are making the turn toward Christmas, which means that we are deep into the season of preparation. Trees are going up; decorations are coming out of boxes; cards are being mailed; letters to Santa and wish lists are being dreamed about, formulated, written, edited, rewritten, edited, and offered in hope; Christmas cookie and gingerbread house smells are filling kitchens; folks are perusing stores, both real and virtual ones, to find gifts for loved ones; carols are being practiced to be shared—lots of preparation.
The church is preparing us too, but it’s a very different sort of preparation. The preparation we hear about here is about doing our work, as individuals and as a people; it’s about clearing away and carving out space in our being, so that something new can be born. This preparation is hard, and we need really skilled guides to help us. Today is all about those guides and the work they call us to.
The collect tips us off that this ain’t gonna be easy. Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us…We’ve got some stuff in the way. The church calls this stuff “sins,” but sins are just the patterns we live out that get in our way of loving God and our neighbor and even ourselves. It’s the stories and perspectives and patterned actions that hinder our capacity to love as God loves and live into the abundant life that God longs for every creature to know. And because we are sorely hindered (what a great phrase!), we need the Lord to stir up divine power and come among us in a big way; we need to be showered with bountiful grace and a ton of mercy; we need help; and we need God to show us the way forward.
And that’s just the opening collect.
That section from James reminds us that we’re going to need a ton of patience, with ourselves and with one another. James reminds us that precious crops need time to come into the fullness of their being, that you’ve got to be willing to receive the early rain and the late rain—there is no rushing a process; this is as organic as growing human beings. It’s going to take a strong heart, and grumbling against one another is not going to help us get where God wants us to go, nor is judgment. And engaging this soul work goes hand-in-hand with suffering. And if you want to know how much suffering and patience are going to be involved, James says, just take the prophets as your example.
Enter Isaiah, enter John the Baptist, enter Jesus of Nazareth.
Isaiah is speaking to God’s people at an unbelievably tumultuous time. He’s already watched the northern kingdom fall to Assyria, and Judah isn’t doing so hot. The elites of Jerusalem are living the high life, and the poor are being crushed. Isaiah knows that nothing is for certain and that Jerusalem could well fall to Babylon. He’s painting a picture of what is possible and what needs to shift if they are going to come into alignment with the Holy Way of God, as he calls it. You see, the prophets task is always twofold: to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.
So, the first thing Isaiah does is offer hope. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”
“Strengthen weak hands, firm up feeble knees, oh fearful heart, take courage and fear not. God is here.” That all sounds good and comforting. But God coming with vengeance and terrible recompense? That sounds scary, and honestly, a bit dualistic. I’ve always heard this passage as God getting Israel’s enemies, but let’s remember, Isaiah is speaking to God’s people, too. And, frankly, Isaiah probably is a little dualistic. It’s the casualty of having a really sharp eye for good and evil, and then delineating really clearly where the boundaries are between what is good and holy and lifegiving and what is not. At times, Jesus talks that way, too, you know, that sheep and goats stuff, and when Jesus talks this way, it’s usually in relationship to how the least of these are being treated.
But let’s come back to this vengeance and recompense stuff. The hebrew word for vengeance does have that connotation of revenge, but it can also have connotation of quarreling. And the root word for vengeance also holds this idea of breathing forcibly. That’s fascinating. That almost sounds like God has a quarrel with us, like God is exasperated with us, but let’s remember that breath, for God, is first and foremost about creation. When our sins are sorely hindering us, when we are not living out as a people that peaceable kingdom that God envisions, maybe God does have a quarrel with us and wants to forcibly breathe us into a new creation.
And recompense is just a fancy way of talking about making amends to someone for loss or harm suffered. Why is it terrible? Because looking at how we’ve harmed others and how they’ve harmed us and making amends is just plain hard.
But when we’ve wrestled with the quarrel God that has with us, when we’ve looked at how our sins are sorely hindering us, when we’ve engaged the hard work of amends-making, both individually and collectively as a people and society, then amazing things will happen.
Then, the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped.
Then, we can see clearly God’s vision, then we can hear clearly God’s call.
Then, we can discern and identify clearly the Holy Way.
Then, we are ready to let that which is unclean, and I don’t mean people who are unclean—Isaiah, in his dualism might have meant that, but Jesus in his wisdom did not—I mean that which we perceive to be unclean in ourselves or unclean in others, the untouchable part of ourselves and others, let’s leave that sense of uncleanness and unworthiness behind because on this Holy Way, God is clear, the beasts—both the external ones and the ones that live deep inside of us—they can’t consume us here; you can’t get lost on this Holy Way, not even fools can go astray. And then the promise that makes our heart leap comes—joy and gladness shall be upon our heads and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Isaiah sets before us an example of what is being asked of us.
John the Baptist stands in this prophetic tradition, as does Jesus. John is in prison, and he’s sent word through his disciples to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answers them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they go away, Jesus turns to the crowds and speaks to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
John the Baptist challenged the Jerusalem elites of his day, just as Isaiah had done in his day. No soft robes here, and certainly, no soft words. John is not wishy washy; he is piercingly clear about what is of God and what is not. And John is not afraid of the winnowing process that is necessary if we are to come into the fullness of life on the Holy Way. And Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of the vision proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah—what was hoped for is happening! The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and restored, the deaf hear, the dead live, the poor have good news brought to them (not earned but brought to them), and blessed is anyone who doesn’t take offense at the one who embodies and enacts all these things.
For Jesus, no one born of women has arisen greater than John the Baptist, and he says so, but then he says a curious thing, “yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Puzzling thing to say, ehhh? But Jesus is doing something very important here. The prophet’s job isn’t to get us hooked on the prophet; the prophet’s job is to get our eyes oriented from the perspective of heaven; it’s about getting us to look at this world as God looks at this word, look from God’s eyes with God’s vision. Prophets can and do have blind spots—we see that in Isaiah and even John’s dualistic language—and when you have piercing clarity about what is right and what is not, you sometimes can’t see what God sees, what Jesus sees, and that’s that ultimately everything belongs.
Jesus is reminding us that we’ve got to strive to see from the perspective of heaven; we’ve got to strive to see with the eyes of God; we’ve got to heed the prophets and transcend the dualisms to move to a larger field of vision where everything is woven together in the Love that knows no bounds.
So, big, big work ahead of us, as individuals, as a community, as a society, as a people. Amidst all of your Christmas preparations, do not neglect this work that the prophets are calling us to do. Christmas doesn’t matter a bit if we aren’t doing the work of preparation that will clear the way for us to be born anew. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 11, 2016