This sermon was impossible to write.
See, it’s Advent. We get the same texts, more or less, every year. This year is Year B in the Lectionary Cycle when we get a lot of Isaiah and the Gospel of Mark in Advent, and to be honest, it’s hard to go wrong with those two. In fact, for me personally, if you have to pick two books—one from the Old Testament and another from the New—Isaiah and Mark would be the ones I’d pick. And yet, the words would not come.
|Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
December 4, 2011—Second Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
Now, I usually plan these sermons out months in advance with a worship plan for the semester that the Worship Committee uses in planning the services. But even when I looked at the little synopsis paragraph, rather than be inspired to write as usually happens, all I could think was: meh.
To pry loose the inspiration, I even looked at the sermons I preached on these same scriptures in 2008, 2005, and 2002. And my reaction to those was the same. Meh.
I was suddenly possessed of the feeling that here I was, back again in the same spot in the lectionary again. And it was all so ordinary. Every thought that leapt to mind was just… ordinary.
Now, maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world. I had a professor in seminary who used to say that one of the biggest problems in preaching is when pastors think they need to be original and creative on major holidays, when those are precisely the times to go with the traditional proclamation of the church. And so, maybe my task here was to take these beautiful, old, familiar passages of scripture and preach the ordinary message. That’s what people are expecting to hear, isn’t it? And, in any event, most of you are probably here for the chili dinner afterward anyway. I should just talk about Isaiah’s message of comfort for a people living in Exile, longing for home. How, after a generation of living in Babylon, the people of Judah have been given hope of restoration to their land. The humiliation and suffering at the hands of their oppressors is coming to an end. Deliverance is coming.
Or perhaps I should just talk about Isaiah’s cry: “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” I should mention the Exodus imagery there and explain how in the ancient world, the way you got a king to visit your city is that you built a road out to the highway and that we’re supposed to do the same thing.
I should just talk about John the Baptist, being the one “in the wilderness” crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” and how we’re all called to be like John the Baptist, preparing the way for Jesus at Christmastime. You know, something ordinary.
Perhaps my desire to do otherwise is simply vanity; I should heed the advice of Dr. Stookey and stick to the basics.
Besides, most of you know the drill with Advent and Christmas. You’re smart and educated. You know what this is all about. It’s not like Christmas takes anyone by surprise anymore. There’s little I could add to what you already know. And the aroma of the chili is already starting to waft up from the kitchen downstairs.
So, something ordinary. Just an ordinary Advent sermon.
II. TWO ORDINARY TEXTS
There’s just one problem with that: there isn’t really anything ordinary about these texts. When you look at them, they are quite out of the ordinary.
Isaiah speaks of a message of comfort after a time of exile but does so by declaring that “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” All this in a time 2,500 years before the invention of the bulldozer. The leveling of mountains and the filling of valleys is hardly something ordinary.
And in Mark’s gospel, we get the very strange character of John the Baptist, “clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist,” and who, we are told, eats locusts and wild honey. Does this sound like someone… ordinary?
No, I’m afraid the reality is that these texts are dealing with something quite out of the ordinary.
III. AN ORDINARY FAITH
Now, I really believe in an ordinary faith. I believe that the ordinary things of life are how we experience God. It is the conversations with friends, the meals shared, the road trips, the difficult times, the good times. All the aspects of life, the parts that we would consider mundane, are ways in which we can encounter the love and grace of God. I believe in the sacramental nature of life, that all life has the potential to be a sacrament, a means of grace, if we allow it to be. That a cup of coffee and some donuts with a friend can be sacramental if in it God’s love and grace are experienced.
I really do believe that. And it’s why I am always gratified when you share “God sightings” in services that involve the ordinary things of life. It is an affirmation of how God is known in the ordinary and the mundane, in the material and the physical.
But I wonder if we don’t run the risk of relegating our faith to the “ordinary.” Is our faith in danger of becoming too ordinary?
I suppose that’s always a problem. Religion often starts out radical, radical enough to get the early followers crucified or beheaded by the Empire. But eventually, it becomes co-opted to serve the interests of the Empire. After a while, faith becomes seen as something that ensures the status quo—the ordinary—not something that challenges it. New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson once said that there are a lot of Christians for whom the central meaning of Christianity is “support your local sheriff.” I think that’s what he meant by that.
Christianity is safe. It’s respectable. It’s a group of decent, moral, law-abiding, tax-paying people who keep communities in good order.
In the novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Earth’s entry in that Guide was two words long: ‘mostly harmless.’ I sometimes wonder if that’s an appropriate description for the church. “What’s the deal with the Methodists?” “Oh, they’re mostly harmless.”
Has our faith become domesticated and ordinary? Are Christians just a group of nice, well-meaning, but ultimately harmless people? Have we conformed to the culture and become part of the status quo?
IV. A FAITH OUT OF THE ORDINARY
Because I have to be honest with you here, folks: I don’t see that in these scriptures. No, these scripture lessons are speaking about something so much more than the individualistic, spiritualized religion of the status quo that passes for Christianity in many quarters. These scriptures are talking about the very world itself changing.
V. ALL FLESH
And in that, there is something important to note. Because perhaps the way that Christianity has become the “safest” is that it has become primarily a spiritual thing. An individual way into salvation.
It’s hard not to argue that. I think if you were to ask most people on the street what Christianity was for, that is, what purpose it served, you’d likely be told that it was about getting into heaven when you died. You believe in Jesus, you do all the right things, and then when you die you go to the good place where there’s a big reunion going on. Christians reinforce this idea when they ask “Are you saved?” or when they say things like “I got saved when…”. Have we reduced our faith to a simple hope that when we die, it won’t be so bad? Is that the Christian message: Jesus was born at Christmas, he died on the cross and was raised again, and if you accept him as your savior, when you die you will go to heaven. Is that what my Advent sermon should be? A message about how soon we’ll celebrate Jesus’ birthday, which is important because it is what led to us getting into heaven?
But what does Isaiah say: “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people shall see it together.” All people. This is not an individual affair. All people shall see it together. Christian faith is not just about me. It’s not just about you. It is about us. All of us. The hope that we embrace during Advent is a hope for all of us. And even more.
Because while the very fine translators of the New Revised Standard Version have rendered the translation as “all people,” the Hebrew text actually says “all flesh,” which encompasses a whole lot more than people. In the Bible, the term “all flesh” is used frequently to refer to all living things. So, when Second Isaiah writes, “all flesh shall see it together,” it is a recognition that the appearance of the Lord is not for us individually, nor is it for us alone as humanity, but all living things will see the coming of God.
The whole world will see—all living things. That is decidedly out of the ordinary. It is a radical vision not of abandoning the world for some spiritual afterlife but of the transformation of the entire world. It is not a vision that supports or even just accepts the status quo; it judges it. It challenges it.
See, maybe the typical Advent sermon is right: we are supposed to prepare the way for Jesus in the wilderness. But we do it not in a spiritual way but by preparing the world to reflect the world-changing reality we expect God to bring to us. A reality that began with Jesus and will be culminated in that reign of perfect peace and justice.
We find ourselves in Advent, a season of waiting. It is perhaps appropriate to note that the Sundays of the year other than the great seasons are often referred to as “Ordinary Time.” But Advent is no ordinary time. Because what we await is not something ordinary. It is not more of the status quo. It is not about affirming the powers and principalities of the world: religious, economic, cultural, political. It is not about something that happens to us as individuals on a purely spiritual level after death. It is a turn-the-world-on-its-head kind of reality and no ordinary thing.
And what that means is that we as a community are no ordinary community. We reflect in our being and in our doing the world-changing reality we see begun in the Christ who arrives at Christmas, and that is fulfilled in the Christ who, having died and risen, will come again. We reflect that extraordinary reality of the Kingdom of God.
Hate and indifference in the world are ordinary, and so we reflect love. Injustice is all too ordinary an occurrence, and so we work for justice. Exclusion, narrow-mindedness, and bigotry are ordinary things of the world, and so we model inclusion, openness, and welcome. Reliance on material wealth and greed are ordinary in the world; we will model trusting in God with generosity with what we have. It is ordinary in the world to seek one’s own advantage and to hell with all the rest. We shall proclaim a salvation that is so grand, so wondrous, so world-changing in its scope and implications that someday all flesh will see it together.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”