The Holiday Season is in full swing. Those who braved Black Friday have survived. As I watched the news reports last week, the throngs of shoppers lined up for hours in front of stores, trampling anyone in their way to get to their treasured bargains, I lamented with a heavy heart: “Why aren’t they lined up to get a good seat in church on Sunday mornings this time of year? Wasn’t this ‘holiday’ originally conceived as a ‘holy day’ - to celebrate the birth of Jesus in our midst? Has the true meaning of Christmas been totally lost? What happened to Jesus?”
And then this week “Breaking News” flashed across the air waves: “A Staten Island grand jury declined to indict a white NYC police officer whose choke hold on an unarmed black man led to his death.”
It felt like deja vu all over again. Twice in nine days. How can this be happening? Throngs of humanity once again took to the streets - this time, not in search of a bargain. They lined up to stop traffic, the best way they knew to draw attention - not only to the police brutality we witnessed thanks to smart phone cameras, but to centuries of economic inequality, racism, and unjust laws and legal systems that are biased against people of color.
Charles Blow wrote in a NY Times opinion piece this week: “We must acknowledge - with eyes wide open, the world as it is if we want to change it.” Most of the time we’re walking around with blinders on - those of us, myself included, who live privileged lives. It’s easier that way to justify our life style - those trips to the mall- not only during the holiday rush.
It’s a tragic state of affairs when the father of six who’s illegally selling cigarettes on the street, and a bored 12 year old boy playing with a toy gun in a playground, lose their lives by the hands of overzealous police officers.
It’s a tragic state of affairs when this is what it takes for the blinders to come off and our country to wake up and start to see the world as it is, to raise their voices, and begin to do something to change the world we live in.
As I watched the thousands protesting on the streets, and anticipate walking with fellow Newtonians this afternoon, the answer to my question, “What happened to Jesus? came to me. He’s right here - in the streets. We’re living in a “real” Advent season this year, with a real Advent message. There’s no escaping it. Our eyes have been opened once again.
The scripture passages today speak of Advent seasons that cried out for peace, justice, and repentance, much like our own. The first of our readings comes from the prophet Isaiah in Chapter 40:1-11. Nebuchadrezzar II of Babylonia has destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, and all that it symbolized, and hauled off most of the Jewish population into exile where they remained for 70 years, many of them as slaves.
Along comes Isaiah with a message of comfort and forgiveness, the promise of restoration and anticipation of a great homecoming.
Would you join me in singing the first verse of “Comfort, Comfort, O My People” #101 in the NCH.
Isaiah 40: 1-11
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 for ever.
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.
We now jump ahead to the first century CE. The Jewish people are back in their homeland, the temple has been rebuilt, but once again, they are ruled by a foreign empire. As in the time of Isaiah, they are longing for a better life, for a Messiah to lead them out of their oppression. Another prophet, John the Baptist, comes on the scene preaching repentance, (which means turning your life around, back towards God) in preparation for the one who is to come - an Advent message to be sure.
Please join me in singing the second verse of “Comfort, Comfort, O My People.” Mark 1: 1-8
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.’
We now jump ahead to 2014 CE. Like the people of Isaiah’s time, and those of the 1st century, and the centuries to follow, far too many are still oppressed, and suffer at the hands of those in power. We look for answers, for hope in the midst of despair. And answers and solutions are not easy to come by. Where are our prophets today?
The voices of the protesters surrounding the annual tree lighting in the Boston Common shouting “I can’t breathe” compete with an a cappella version of “Have yourself a merry little Christmas.” The voices of the protesters are largely ignored by the spectators. Our mayor makes no mention of the protesters as they march up the hill toward the state house. The Advent message clashes with the early Christmas one in our streets.
During this season, while the world has started it’s celebration: the parties and music, shopping and decorations, we Christians have some work to do before we get carried away by holiday cheer. The church, like a salmon, swims against the cultural stream.
Ann Weems says it so beautifully in her poem that I included on the front of the bulletin:
“Too often our answer to the darkness is not running toward Bethlehem but running away. We ought to know by now that we can’t see where we’re going in the dark. Running away is rampant … separation is stylish: separation from mates, from friends, from self. Run and tranquilize, don’t talk about it, avoid. Run away and join the army of those who have already run away. When are we going to learn that Christmas Peace comes only when we turn and face the darkness? Only then will we be able to see The Light of the World.”
That begins by looking inside of our own selves. John the Baptist tells us to take a good look inward, confess our sins, repent, turn our lives around, prepare ourselves for Christ’s coming. Where are each one of us complicit in the systemic problems facing our country today? Are we willing to look at that?
Then Isaiah tells us the way to clear a path for God to come into our lives is by removing the obstacles and impediments, whatever they might be, to clear old animosities and grievances, to cut back the weeds of prejudice and greed, to clear a path in the wilderness of our lives for God to enter in.
I can’t help but think that those marching on our streets, and writing op ed columns, climbing those mountains to make their voices heard, are helping to clear a path in the wilderness we live in, so the voice of Jesus has a way to get through.
This month has brought back so many memories; the Vietnam demonstrations when I was in college; the reactions in LA where I lived when four white police officers were acquitted of assault and excessive force in the beating of Rodney King (also recorded on video for all to see).
The masses turned out on the streets then, demanding change, repentance, and end to war and injustice. Some progress was made, but our attention spans are short. Today we’re faced with wars that multiply instead of ending; 51 million refugees, and here at home: Ferguson, Cleveland and NYC. And the problems extend well beyond their borders. We mustn’t allow these tragedies to become just another bleep on our news cycle.
I’m not here to tell you if those police officers should have been indicted. I have my opinions, but I wasn’t sitting on those grand juries. But I will say, if we can’t trust the police who are there to protect us, or the criminal justice system that is here to defend us, where does that leave us as a country?
Into these darkened times comes the season of Advent once again - a time for us to reflect on those rough patches in our lives, in our communities and our country, those mountains we still have to climb.
It is during such times I thank God for the prophets, who rant about our wrong doings, but also share with us God’s voice of comfort and reassurance. Isaiah tells his people; “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand for ever.”
Isaiah sends comforting words to his people, and to us. God hasn’t abandoned you. The God of Israel is portrayed here as a gentle shepherd, feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms and carrying them close to his heart. God wants us all close to God’s heart.
Advent is a time to get our priorities straight, to fine tune our hearts and minds so we can see the many ways God enters our lives and the life of the world around us. The incarnation of the Holy happens each day. Events happen that speak of God’s presence renewing us and moving us toward God’s reign, “where righteousness is home,” as 2nd Peter proclaims.
What do we see in the world that affirms that there is a way being prepared in the wilderness? Can this Advent be one that opens our eyes to see where there is injustice; that opens our hearts to feel the pain of others, and strengthens our wills to do something about it?
What happened to Jesus this holiday season? He’s around, waiting to be born in our hearts. His arms are open - waiting. But whether or not that happens, and how that happens and where that happens, is up to us. How will you invite Christ into your life this sacred season?
Please join me in the third verse of “Comfort, Comfort, Oh My People.”