St John’s Episcopal Church, Kirkland
Advent 2A, Dec 4 2016
Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12
Advent. Liturgists have tried to take some of the sting out of the season, we’ve gone to blue hangings instead of the purple that we use in Lent. But the lessons just won’t let us wriggle off this uncomfortable season’s hook. Instead of cooing babies, or sparkling lights, or pretty decorations we have a couple of irascible prophets. As we’re trying to make sense of the lessons today I think it might be helpful to talk a little bit about how Advent came to be. For the early Jewish followers of Jesus there was no Advent, or Christmas. The earliest Jewish followers of Jesus kept to the Jewish practices, adding a Sunday meal together to their religious calendar. Easter was the first feast added to the church calendar. Lent soon developed as a time to prepare folks for baptism at Easter.
These early Jesus followers spread into the Roman world, and became mostly Gentile, and found themselves every solstice surrounded by the over the top celebration of Saturnalia. The festival for the Roman God included lavish feasts by the wealthy elite, enormous gladiator spectacles where hundreds fought one another to death or maiming and where thousands of animals were killed. While the poor literally starved to death, wealthy Romans ate and drank until they could eat and drink no more, at which point they threw up, so they could start all over again. They spent lavish amounts of money on gifts, offerings, and parties that went on for days. The early Jesus followers began to fast during these wild celebrations in solidarity with the hungry poor who begged for even a scrap from the riotous parties and as a way to set themselves apart. They dressed in mourning attire to stand out from the revelers in the streets. They took on heavy spiritual practices as disciplines in times of excess.
When the Romans woke up after their festival season, hung over and grumpy, the Christians had their own celebration where rich and poor sat down together to break bread and drink wine in celebration of the birth of a very different kind of God. And so the celebration of Christmas and the solemn season of Advent took shape. And this is why our lessons are about reformation of life, and justice, and the overturning of expectations instead of tinsel and glitter.
The counter-cultural season of Advent began as a time of self denial in the face of gluttony, of caring for the poor in the face of conspicuous consumption, of examining the soul and making changes to invite God deeper into one’s life in the face of meaningless living. It all stood in stark contrast to the inequality and consumer excess of the Roman world around them. History repeats itself. We’ve hit December, which means for the secular world around us the festival season called “Christmas” has begun with all its wild excess, it’s drunken parties and lavish food, it’s wild spending on bigger and bigger gifts. While the poor are freezing on the streets, and scrounging for scraps the TV is encouraging the wealthy to buy one another sports cars that cost as much as a decent house and the middle class to go into debt for bigger and newer stuff we don’t need. Saturn would recognize the revelry.
Now, we could be liturgy grumps about how folks around us (and even folks in the church) spend their December, but that’s really not the point of Advent. We don’t refrain from Christmas until December 24th because we’re grumpy, we do it because Advent matters as much today as it did when the early Christians stood in stark contrast to the world around them. It matters because Isaiah shows us today what the Kingdom of God is meant to look like and it doesn’t look anything like 2016. The Kingdom of God is a world in which the one who has power wields it for the sake of the poor and the oppressed. It is the sort of world where those with power do not make judgements from their own feelings, but from the slow working of God’s mercy. It’s an backwards world where the lamb has learned to roar, and the lion to lay down peacefully.
It isn’t Christmas yet. The world is still full of suffering, inequality, violence, and fear. The days grow shorter, and times more desperate, winter is coming. But something else is coming too. Amid all the fake twinkle of tiny strings of lights, and the ear assaulting din of canned holiday songs, and the body bulking glut of unhealthy binging there is a hint of light on the horizon. Because God doesn’t give up. God continues to send messengers into the darkness, to shout “prepare!” to stir up trouble, to point out the evil of human greed and violence. God continues to demand justice, to call us to peace.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Once against we stand at the gate of a darkening world. And once again it is the active, upside down hope of the Church that points to the coming light. That hope looks like feeding the hungry, and comforting those who are afraid. It looks like standing side by side with the oppressed, the endangered. It looks like living as faithful, caring stewards of a world that does not belong to us, but was entrusted to us.
It is the sort of active, tenacious hope that could envision a world where the powerful and the violent have learned to share the same simple meal as the poor and the meek. Where those who have hurt and torn, and those who were once the victims could stand at last together, one humbled, the other uplifted. It doesn’t happen by magic. It happens, as John tells us through the hard work of repentance: nothing to do with feeling guilty, and everything to do with changing our lives. With healing the wounds we have caused to others. With building, piece by peace the Kingdom of God. This is what we are waiting for, this is what we are working for. It is hard, deep soul work we are called to in these darkening days of the year. But it is badly needed.