Today is the second Sunday in Advent, that season in the Church calendar during which we reflect on the question, “what does it mean for God to be born in our midst?” This week I ran across one of those “things that they do not teach you in seminary” moments. On Twitter. Now, before you say “Oh great, Twitter,” I ask you to answer this question: What do each of the four Advent candles represent?
The congregation had an opportunity to respond.
I ask you this because I was intrigued by a Twitter thread, or conversation, that ran like this—
Person 1: Okay folks. WHAT the heck are the four Advent candles again? I was raised: Prophets—Angels—Shepherds—Magi.
But that’s all wrong Magi shouldn’t be until after Christmas. Then there’s:
Peace—Hope—Faith—Love? Meh. What do y’all have?
The first response was—
Reponse #1: Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff. But they’re not necessarily in that order. Each week you have to put on the Sorting Hat to find out which candle you light next.
The next was—
Response #2: Smash the patriarchy, subversion of expectations, listen to the poor, Zoroastrian astrology.
(which… if you understand those four… you can explain it all to me after church)
That was followed by—
Response #3: Aaaand now you know everything you could ever want to know about the diversity of the church’s traditions, and the irreverence of Church Twitter.
As noted in your bulletin, this is the second week of Advent, a time when we reflect on God’s promised day of peace (oh… and by the way… the Advent words and the order we use at Memorial UCC are traditionally Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love).
But yet, in the reading from Matthew, we find ourselves here, with John the baptizer in the desert spewing words and phrases like “Repent!” “prepare,” “sins,” “Vipers!” and “unquenchable fire.” Through his living on the edge, beyond the urban commotion of Jerusalem, John pushes us too. He pushes us out, away from comfort zones, and into a wilderness of discomfort. This is the way of the wild, barren places of our lives. These are the rough edges in life that are demarcated with boundaries.
I will give you three examples:
- Have you ever walked a long hospital hallway to the intensive care unit to see a loved one? Just before you enter, imposing, often automatic doors demarcate the fragile boundary between life and the nearness of death. What will you encounter when you walk through?
- Or, have you seen the high walls and razor wire that encircle our prisons, delineating boundaries between those who are incarcerated and “the world out there”? Who will you encounter when you walk in… or out?
- And then there are the more hidden divisions. There are places in our community where, if you cross the road, you are in a very different place. One of the first community meetings I attended as pastor in Fitchburg was at Leopold Elementary school. There, a heated discussion erupted between Madison and Fitchburg city officials. The issue was: who should pay for the cost of the crossing guards on Post Road (which is the dividing line between Fitchburg and Madison)? The debate was all about who needed to take responsibility for the financial burden—and of course no one would. There was no mention of the fact that the kids from Fitchburg just need a safe way to get to across the street, to school in Madison.
In this world full of human made boundaries, seen and unseen, I want us go back and remember that we are in the spirit of Advent. The waiting. Preparing. Responding. And that this isthe second week of Advent. A week in which to wait for… prepare for… peace. But where is peace to be found in this passage full of a man’s rantings and ravings? Here we have John, a desert person, confronting people from two different Jewish traditions, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. To their faces, before the gathered crowd, John calls out the hypocrisy of rules and regulations. The “this is the way it is” of their practices that was turning the masses away from God, and creating new false idols.
And before us is John, this guy living in the desert. As Belden Lane writes, “people who trust the desert as home delight in its quality of lean simplicity.” In my mind I see images of John’s dusty clothing as he sits down to a simple meal of bugs and honey. Lane goes on to say that, “The desert imagination thrives on the absence of what other consider essential. It revels in negation, attending to what isn’t seen, what can’t be proved, what provides no comforting assurances.” This is the rawness and realness of the desert.
This concept is as challenging for us as it was for the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the first century. There are things that we consider essential. There are things we feel we must have. We want things to “be this way.” We only see a portion of the misery enmeshed in the systemic injustices in our community. In our rush to consistently seek “more,” we miss God-Right-Here. And that is what John is challenging us to see today: God. Right. Here. That’s it. Nothing more. Lane points out that, “The harsh desert landscape can be unnerving and its God even more so.”
In this world full of stuff, that too often hides God’s presence, I remind you once again to remember that we are in Advent. And remember that we are focusing on God’s promised peace. But what does that mean?
It might be helpful for us to be able to grasp the way in God’s peace might be seen NOW if we take a sidetrack to understand this idea of “repentance” John the baptizer calls out. In the original Greek the word for “repent” is metanoeō, which can be defined as “to change one’s mind,” even “to change one’s mind for better,” or “to think differently afterwards” (Stong’s Concordance).
John the baptizer shouts: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here” (Matt 3: 2, The Message).
God’s kin-dom is here.
When we encounter God, encounter God’s kin-dom, how are we changed?
And what would the world look like if this “change of mind” were to occur at a global level?
What would this global transformation, this global change of mind, lead to? Peace? Could it be that if the Holy Spirit were finally to be unleashed with a worldwide burst of jubilation that the way of God, the Living Presence, the embodiment of Love, would be… could be… born in our midst?
In the shouting out, the spewing forth, the movements bursting forth today, and all the scariness of global warming and climate change, as people of Hope… might we actually be witnesses? Are we witnessing the fulfillment of God’s global, relational, time in which we as human beings will begin to “think differently” about our multilayered interconnectedness? Barbara Holmes suggests that, “Those who have been seeking justice are impatient with the rate of progress when, in fact, progress may be occurring in ways that are not easily discernible.”
THIS our Good News! Like birth waters that break forth and the powerful contractions that ensue… in the pain… the Holy is releasing something new.
This is the great hope, the prophecy to which John shouts out and the prophet Isaiah foretold in the 8th century BCE. Therefore, I want to leave you with these ancient, sacred words form Isaiah. And then watch. Get ready. Something new is being born:
A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots.
The (Living Presence)’s spirit will rest upon him,
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of planning and strength,
a spirit of knowledge and (awe) of the Lord.
He will delight in (the awe of) the Lord.
He won’t judge by appearances, nor decide by hearsay.
He will judge the needy with righteousness,
and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.
He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth;
by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.
Righteousness will be the belt around his hips,
and faithfulness the belt around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
the calf and the young lion will feedtogether,
and a little child will lead them. (Isaiah 11:1-10, CEB)
Reflection on Matthew 3:1-12 offered on December 8, 2019
 Lane, Belden C. The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019. 139.
 Ibid. 139.
 Ibid. 140.
 “Lexicons: Strongs=Metamoeō.” Lexicons: Strong’s. Blue Letter Bible. Accessed December 5, 2019. https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G3341&t=KJV.
 “Lexicons: Strongs=Metanoia.” Lexicons: Strong’s. Blue Letter Bible. Accessed December 5, 2019. https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G3341&t=KJV.
 Holmes, Barbara Ann. Race and the Cosmos: an Invitation to View the World Differently. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2002. 108.