Advent I What are we waiting for . . . ? Isaiah 11:1-10 Matthew 2:2-11
You probably know the tune from Godspell, from the very first scene, the words are “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” the very words in our scripture reading this morning, from the prophet Isaiah, sung in the musical by John the Baptist.
Do you remember the scene—the Baptist blowing the shofar, singing while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, random people hearing him, dropping what they’re doing and following—just great with everybody gathering at the Bethesda Fountain (in Central Park) in a runaway baptism scene.
That’s not the way it was, needless to say. Sketchy as the historical details are, we know enough to distinguish between scripture and—Broadway! But nevermind, it is a great movie.
We know enough about John the Baptist and Jesus to realize that the gospel account reveals a close relationship between the two, a mixture of competitiveness, rivalry, mentorship, political jockeying, and in the end, divorce.
The gospel account is a partisan interpretation favoring Jesus, of course. But John the Baptist opens the gospel in the most dramatic appearance and has some of the best lines in the whole gospel, of which these are just a few:
Repent, the kingdom of heaven has come.
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Don’t bother to claim Abraham as your ancestor—God will raise up children of Abraham from these very stones.
The ax is ready for trees that don’t bear spiritual fruit.
I am not worthy to carry the sandals of the one who is coming after me.
He will divide the wheat from the chaff, and the chaff he will throw into the unquenchable fire.
People heard these words and came in droves for his baptism, a symbolic act of purification borrowed from physical cleansing. This was attested to by outside sources. We actually know more about the historical Baptist than Jesus himself.
Jesus came, too. The Baptist’s prophetic ministry possibly sparked Jesus’ own ministry.
Jesus then came into his own prominence. Jesus began to speak 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. Jesus anticipated the violence that was to come. He warned against it and perhaps consciously took another path to his own radical vision.
Later, after being arrested by Herod for sedition, John asks from prison, are you the one who was predicted?
John’s question originates from passages like the one in our Responsorial this morning: “a shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse.” Who was Jesse, for heaven’s sake? What is meant my a shoot and a stump anyway? Jesse was the father of King David and so the start of Israel’s royal line. Isaiah’s point here is, Israel’s kings had failed. But out of the dead, desiccated roots of the royal line will spring a fresh branch. This king will reach toward the most fundamental needs of human society where conflict and combat fester. This king will not only have the key to his society’s needs, he will harmonize all the warring nations. He will have the spirit of the Lord upon him.
John the Baptist asks, are you the One, the one we’ve been promised and are waiting for?
And that’s right where the season of Advent breaks into the church year. Advent starts the new church year reminding us that for a long time Israel waited. It waited for deliverance from bad and unworthy kings. It waited for the balm that would heal human discord. It waited for a spiritual leader whose powers would be irresistible and invincible.
The followers of Jesus found that leader in Jesus and moreover, unlike John, this man Jesus was descended from King David. He had a pedigree—which Matthew was at pains to establish with that long genealogical list in his Nativity narrative. Their waiting was over.
The four Sundays of Advent, the month leading up to Jesus’ birth, recaptures the painful state of anxious anticipation of those who were like lost sheep. But for us, we know the story and have lived it, so we are not waiting for Jesus, literally, we are just remembering what it was like to wait. Advent positions the church, as the anniversary of Christ’s birth approaches, as if we were preparing and anticipating the baby Jesus’ arrival.
However, even though many today have heard of Jesus, he has still not arrived in their hearts. That may include church members who think that church attendance completes their spiritual journey. Like that brood of vipers the Baptist refers to who relied on their temple credentials.
But for most of us here, I hope, I don’t believe we are waiting. I’m not, anyway. We are actually just remembering when the world was waiting and what that was like. Remembering what it was like when we were waiting for Christ to come into our lives. But Jesus is already here.
Oh, we are still waiting for the problems of the world to be solved alright and for him to complete his work. And we are waiting for our relationships to be perfected. But we can get stuck in the same feeling we have waiting for the bus. What Jesus changed is that the waiting is not passive, like waiting for the bus. It is active—we take in the “already” and pursue the “not yet.”
People are not supposed to complain about imperfection and just dream of the perfections listed in Isaiah. Jesus asks us to live the dream, and he gives us the reason and the power to do so.
Today, I will translate Isaiah’s dream for you in Eliot terms. You already have the royal scion in Jesus, and you will feel the spirit of his wisdom and might, his discernment and compassion. What are we waiting for?
Eliot church can lead this community in upholding the cause of justice and equity for all people. What are we waiting for?
Eliot church can lead this community to form common cause with the indigenous peoples. What are we waiting for?
Eliot Church can become a safe haven for the expansion of the soul and the nourishment of the spirit. What are we waiting for?
Eliot Church can uphold the legacy of the Rev. John Eliot by articulating our faith without disrespect to the listeners. What are we waiting for?
Eliot Church can be a destination for the seeker and for the doubter, for the politically tempest-tossed and those who just want to sit next to someone who has faith, even if they don’t— What are we waiting for? We already have Jesus who got caught up in a political struggle himself.
Eliot Church can present a religion as beautiful as art. What are we waiting for? We already have Jesus, the poem of the universe.
Eliot Church can fulfill its identity as an owner-operated, equal opportunity, total participation gospel mission center. What are we waiting for? We already have Jesus our teacher and guide.
That’s how I translate Isaiah’s prediction of perfection. That’s how I translate John the Baptist’s call for our lives to bear good fruit. Your Jesus is already here and waiting for you. What are you waiting for?
Let this Advent be a season to grow our confidence in the spiritual role that we as Jesus’ disciples can have in this community.
There is time for everything. Revelation 1:4b-8. John 18:33-37
Everybody remembers the scene of Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times” when he was caught in the relentless assembly line and winding up in the actual gears of the machinery. He made comic fun out of the tragedy of our enslavement to measured time.
But fundamentally it was no joke—beneath Chaplin’s antics lay the torture of the time table, the time line, the deadline. Since the invention of clocks, time has been our master. I just learned the other day that when the sundial, the first chronometer, was invented, the Roman writer Plautus bemoaned its existence saying, “We don’t need this—my stomach tells me what time it is.” Time was St. Augustine’s least favorite subject—he said, of course I know what time is, until somebody asks me what it is.
Now that society measures time, we feel trapped by it. So there are a few myths about time that I want to dispel.
They say, time flies. Wrong, a crow flies.
Time is running out. Wrong again, only people and dogs run.
Prisoners do hard time. Time is neither soft nor hard.
What do we mean when we say, there is no time like the present? What other kind of time is there?
We speak of quality time, hang time, high time, crunch time, and payback time. Where on your watch are these indicated?
We tell someone, “Take your time.” But isn’t it everybody’s time?
Even in our New Testament, it is written that the “end of times” is approaching, that the world is coming to an end—but it hasn’t. Yogi Berra confirmed this when he said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” That is, when somebody says, “time’s up.” Of course, time is neither up or down!
So we have conferred upon time an importance in excess of its reality and have managed to make it an instrument of our own exploitation.
We only have to look upward to the heavens, as has been done since time immemorial (!), meaning way before clocks existed, and see the sun passing every day and the stars wheeling by every night. And so it is that, inescapably, we have completed another, measured year. A church year ends today, and a new year starts next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent.
Christians recognize the passage of time, but not as torture. Christians look at time rather as fulfillment. Christians took up a distinction that the Greeks made between chronos, measured time, and Kairos, the fullness of time. The Kairos puts us in a dimension when something unique happens or is possible—a fourth dimension. Chronos is a function of nature relentlessly the same, whereas Kairos signifies time pregnant with potential difference, like when you walk down the street and your feet don’t touch the ground. For Christians the fullness of time represents any point in your life when you know that redemption is possible, when the experience of forgiveness reveals completely new possibilities for you. It is a “moment” that has no duration, when truth makes itself known and purges accumulated lies. Christ is another name for redeemed existence. When we know Christ, we live in the fullness of time.
I don’t think we can live in both chronos and Kairos at once. I believe we live in one existence at a time, while being aware of the other. We can be stuck in the workaday world, competing, maybe living from paycheck to paycheck, or riding high on the ever-rising stock market, and only suspect there is another way of being.
Conversely, we can live in the redeemed “moment” which has no time span, and still have to earn that paycheck or bank that fortune. I pray there are many who drive themselves every week from pillar to post to make ends meet whose feet don’t touch the ground because they are redeemed; the same even for some millionaires who are not making their big money for themselves.
Christ is another name for redeemed existence, I said. When we know Christ, we live in the fullness of time, we are residents of another “kingdom,” of which Jesus is the “king.” That’s why Pilate was confused about Jesus. Pilate was of course asking if Jesus was a king, like Pilate’s boss, Caesar, was a king. Jesus appears to evade the question, but he was actually only trying to communicate a counter-intuitive answer to Pilate. And many times, Christians get confused about this, too. We take “kingdom” literally when what it means is community, a community not of this world, as Jesus said, in that it doesn’t play by this world’s rules, or clocks.
By the time that the Book of Revelation gets written in 90 CE, the Christian community has begun to realize the enormous significance of Jesus for this world. And so the small figures of the peasant Jesus and the ragtag apostles and the persecuted martyrs and the harried church get magnified and portrayed on a huge canvas, in very emotional tones. Because Jesus has shown us a door to true life, he has revealed the life abundant, the Kairos, that was always there, though perhaps not labelled before as such. John of Patmos introduces Jesus in the same terms as the Lord God, as the Alpha and Omega, as the beginning and the end, he is the bookends, so to speak, of timelessness, what we call eternity, a quality that does not stretch forward in time, because there is no more time, but rather stretches inward.
However, we are not free of the imposition of chronos—we look at our hands, our bodies, our faces in the mirror every year, and not just once a year—nature will still have its way with us. Nor are we free of the combat between two competing visions of America—we can’t avoid the anguish and the anxiety of a nation that has just legitimized armed vigilantes.
But we can—we should, we must—choose to live in Jesus’ Kairos community, that place of rich and ever-surprising possibility, that we simply access through the door of forgiveness. Imagine, a whole book like Revelation with its images and emotions, based on so simple and small a human matter as forgiveness. Jesus didn’t invent forgiveness, neither did Judaism. But each, in succession, expanded its power and importance for human society exponentially.
Pilate asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Well, no, they don’t acknowledge me as such. But, yes, inasmuch as God’s mercy and lovingkindness is enthroned in me, the same God who said, “I am that I am,” “I will be what I will be,” “I am the One who endures.” When Jesus said there would be no more Temple, and when John of Patmos said there would be no more Temple, it was meant that the Kairos community has no need of walls. We are such a community, Eliot Church is—we may have walls for a temple, but the walls are not the point, are they? We are here today, and we welcome everyone and anyone here every Sunday, to get a taste of the fourth dimension and come on through. God has chosen you before you have chosen God.
Will it be bitterness, or love? Revelation 21-22
What happens when relationships shrink?
We have been witnesses to this in real time during Covid. And not just witnesses. We have suffered this shrinkage. Conversations over coffee—gone. Planned lunches with old friends—gone. Trips to see distant relatives—gone. Chance encounters—gone. The number of friendly contacts is way down, and so is the quality of those that remain.
What recourse do we have in such deprivation? What do we have to fill those holes? Are you among the many today reported to feel increased loneliness? As even the college and young adult population experiences now! Like the young woman pictured on the bulletin cover. Although it could as well be a young man. Or someone middle aged. Or like anyone here this morning.
It could help to think of the difference between loneliness and solitariness. You can be solitary and not feel lonely. It all depends on being able to see alone time as prime time. Only in a solitary state do we get acquainted with ourselves and, ultimately, with God. In a truly solitary state, we get down to basics.
But when we are lonely, the pain of it can be so acute that it drives us to make bad decisions and into the arms of disaster. I could tell you some of my stories, but suffice it to quote the great Roy Orbison’s famous song--
Only the lonely, Only the lonely, Only the lonely Know the way I feel tonight Only the lonely Know this feeling ain’t right There goes my baby, There goes my heart They’re gone forever, So far apart But only the lonely Know why I cry Only the lonely Only the lonely Only the lonely Only the lonely Know the heartaches I’ve been through Only the lonely Know I cry and cry for you Maybe tomorrow A new romance No more sorrow But that’s the chance You gotta take If your lonely heart breaks Only the lonely
Orbison’s lyrics don’t mention bitterness, but it is the next emotion in the sequence. Deprivation has a way of souring us on life. Think of people who have isolation forced on them. How do they possibly cope? As they will tell us, it is difficult. Losing a spouse, people here know about that. Or being incarcerated, we can only imagine. Being a prisoner of war, or when as a nation entire, the Israelites were taken captive and marched off to Babylon.
Bitterness is a real option and one frequently taken. How real is proven by Psalm 137 in which Israel laments having been ripped from Jerusalem, forcibly exiled in a foreign nation, and mocked for their religious needs. The psalm begins, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept as we remembered Zion.” By the end of the psalm, they are bitterly wishing the same misery upon their captors, and worse. The Bible is honest enough to admit that bitterness is natural. But it need not and should not be permanent.
Companionship is of the essence of being human, of course, so the lack of its comforts propels the reckoning with ourselves. Those who have loss forced upon them can teach us who endure relatively minor deprivations so much. Without a vision, our souls perish.
We require under these deprivations some vision, some hope for the future to sustain us. We need a vision that, even when postponed, still has the power to animate us. And we have it, in the Revelation of John of Patmos. By 90 CE when it was written, Rome had destroyed Jerusalem and dispersed its population. The Temple was razed. Jewish worship was terminated. It was Babylon in place. John fled to the little island of Patmos off the coast of Turkey where a seeming fever in his brain ignited his epic account of what was at stake in the world. This is what love looks like, painted on the largest possible canvas. Love inspires opposition, even violent hatred and yet nothing changes the divine constitution of the world.
Whatever and however much John of Patmos may have lost, his response was not to be bitter. In his exile, his solitary confinement, love made its claim upon him.
To lodge his vision within us, conceived as it was in solitariness, may well require of us a period of solitariness. This is when solitariness replaces loneliness and becomes a vocation. If we ever go through this experience, it secures us in a place only we recognize and others bemoan and bewail. This is what love wrought, to paraphrase our passage from Revelation--
There is no Temple in the city because God’s presence is the temple. There is no need of sun or moon because God’s light shines on the path of our decision making. The light is there to guide the nations and their rulers, so needed everywhere, especially Glasgow today. The doors of God’s hospitality are never shut to anyone in need. The wealth gap will be disappeared. And evil thoughts won’t even occur to people. Because while you think you live in Newton or Boston, you actually live in the City of God.
This is what love wrought. You can persist and endure here, because you are nourished by living water, surrounded by healing flora, a constant remedy for the human and political conflicts of daily life. We may have voted for mayor or President, but the one on the throne is God. Any of us who see this and know it, are deeply capable of the love which passes all human understanding and exceeds in its powers all that we may ask or think or even imagine.
That’s why a famous philosopher could write: religion is what the individual does with his or her solitariness. What a curious notion, because we normally think of religion as being social, something practiced in public and visible from the outside. But there is an inside to religion as well as the outside. The inside of religion is known only in and through your solitariness. Without the solitariness, you don’t have any religion worth the name, just the forms observed for their own sake. “If I just do this, if I just do that more often, my loneliness will go away.”
It won’t go away. Loneliness will master us and madden us, and make us bitter, unless we make our solitariness a vocation. That’s when we can face the unknowns, like the ones so vividly portrayed in Revelation, like the ones we already are experiencing in the double emergency of this worldwide pandemic and climate crisis.
When we are lonely, we rush to quench that feeling by grasping at relationships, or at group activities where we are still lonely. But if you have mastered your solitariness, you will be prepared for anything.
What will it be? Bitterness, or love? Let it be love—amen!
I. “You can’t take it with you.” We repeat this proverb regularly, don’t we? It’s the standard rationalization for spending money on ourselves, or giving a little to charity. “You can’t take it with you.”
But the real truth is worse, and it haunts me. When you die, I feel you do take it with you‒I mean, you take all your experiences, all your memories, all your accumulated wisdom, all the things that make you YOU with you. When I die, suddenly the so-many-odd years of experiences that add up to Rick Chrisman are gone. I will leave a family I created. I will leave some assets for them. I will leave some memories in their memory bank. But their memories of me are just an infinitesimal fraction of what I went through living my particular life. Each of us takes the equivalent of a long novel, many long novels, with us into that good night.
That thought haunts me. Even though some people leave behind enough money to get their names inscribed on a college dorm or on a hospital wing, even they will be taking everything meaningful away with them, like those fishing trips with dad, or the struggle with divorce, and Things [as Wallace Stevens wrote] to be cherished like‒passions of rain, or moods in falling snow; grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued elations when the forest blooms; gusty emotions on wet roads on autumn nights; all pleasures and all pains, remembering the bough of summer and the winter branch.
Every drop, the myriad events of life experience, too many to be shared with others, do they just evaporate when we die?
Other anxieties about death haunt other people just as much, and always have, evidenced by the fact that cemeteries are among the oldest cultural artifacts of every civilization. Their graves and monuments, the contents of the biers, the rituals that attend burial attest to the anxiety we feel before the reality of death.
Death has inspired endless curiosity, perplexity and abhorrence. Halloween, the night before Christians celebrate the departed, was thought to be the time when evil spirits wandered the earth looking for a home. It was believed that other spirits rose from cemetery graves to unite in a carnival called danse macabre. That’s why today’s Halloween costumes include skeletons and ghosts. Also, many grotesques with misshapen faces and bodies are common costumes—and these have invaded our movie houses and tv screens with frightening portrayals of the subhuman or uncanny. These make our friends with physical differences wince with pain at this time of year. Yet people seem to enjoy being frightened so much that horror movies have become a staple of the entertainment industry. Is this, too, a sign of our anxieties about death? Yes, and not just in this country—the Egyptian Book of the Dead, sky-riding chariots of Taoist China, the intermediate states between this world and the next, called Bardo’s, of Buddhism, the Seven Palaces of Jewish mysticism--all exhibit the worldwide obsession with “what’s next.”
Death became the ultimate enemy to be vanquished by any possible means. We moderns have resorted to drugs for altered states of consciousness, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, parallel worlds. Anything to glimpse what the after-world has in store for us, maybe to reunite with loved ones even. The ultimate visualization of this was given to us by Dante in his Divine Comedy, reporting his travels through Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise in the most lurid detail.
The sufferings of the present world caused immortality to become the wish ultimately longed for. We succumb to desperate speculation, looking for hope, mostly in the wrong places. Immortality figures throughout Christian piety and theology. It’s a selfish doctrine that quiets our fears of the unknown, often not amounting to more than saving our own skin, so to speak.
II. Meantime, little noticed is a contrary image in the Bible, it’s an image of life, called the Book of Life. You heard it referenced in the selection from Revelation and from Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
The Book of Revelation resembles a fever dream, and its images shimmer with vague meanings and ambiguity. The origins of the Book of Life go back to the Old Testament genealogical lists, lists of peoples’ deeds, records of those born in Jerusalem, etc. The image reappears in a vivid amalgam in Revelation, as the record of the dead and their deeds. The Book of Life, in one commentator’s words, is a kind of “heavenly citizenship list” of the righteous, perhaps also of those who believe, or who want to believe.
The Book of Life is the positive incentive for right action, by contrast with the usual negative ones of punishment and fear. The faithful life is not to appear to do good by conventional or pious standards, but for love to inspire every action of yours for others and for yourself. St. Paul also converts the negatives of life, its sufferings and injustices, into the positive light by saying, “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” The evils you endure and death itself will be part of the glory—unite with Christ in this life and you unite with God in the next. Christ on the cross is the “open Book of Life himself, the book of the art of God’s love.” Luther held that Jesus Christ was himself the Book of Life. Nothing in life is wasted at death, all is well and all manner of thing will be well, wrote Hildegarde of Bingen.
Certain costs come with such faith‒decisions for or against the fads of culture must be made—the things to be resisted or rejected that Ecclesiastes called “Vanity”—“Seek the things that are above, where Christ is,” Paul wrote. Followers of Jesus find such decisions necessary to make. No action is morally neutral—it says even buying and selling have moral meaning. It may well require the non-conformism of a Henry David Thoreau and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Muhammad Ali. We need to let ourselves be interrogated by the image of the Book of Life.
Perfection and punishment for imperfection are exaggerated misreadings of scripture. We always make mistakes. The point of the Jesus-based life is to learn from our mistakes to become a better author of one’s own life story. To have one’s name inscribed in the Book of Life at the time of death.
III. It’s a way of saying, human histories become God’s history. God creates and goes on creating, co-creating with the universe and its human parts. You could say that we augment and enrich God’s reality as we die, not only our spirits return to God’s spirit but our complicated histories as well. The Book of Life symbolizes the cumulative nature of God. God is the sum of history, our histories. It is not the memories that are permanent, but the actions, the points of contact between human beings. This building will come down, but the fact that we worshiped here and touched each other will never go away.
Let’s end the Christian’s morbid obsession with the afterlife, and make an offering of our lives, mistakes and all. Because you do take it with you. And before you go, you know what you should do? Give it all back to God. And do this with joy and love, as St. Ignatius did—in this part of the Spiritual Exercises called the “Suscipe”—meaning, donation or gift.
First Point - This is to recall to mind the blessings of creation and redemption, and the special favors I have received. I will ponder with great affection how much God our Lord has done for me, and how much He has given me of what He possesses, and finally, how much, as far as He can, the same Lord desires to give Himself to me according to His divine decrees.
Then I will reflect upon myself, and consider, according to all reason and justice, what I ought to offer the Divine Majesty, that is, all I possess and myself with it. Thus, as one would do who is moved by great feeling, I will make this offering of myself:
Take, Lord, and Receive - Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O Lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and Thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.
I believe the point of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day is that our names will get inscribed in the Book of Life. Is this just another theology of wishful thinking? Not at all—call it my personal testament of faith in Christ whose God gathers us all up in glory.