Sermon as prepared for delivery at Christ Church (Anglican) Cathedral, Montréal, Québec, Canada.
May I speak, may you hear, may we all reflect and respond, in the name of our God, creator, saviour, and comforter, Amen.
Our ancestors—our forebears in the faith if not necessarily our own genetic lines—looked around themselves, attentively. They knew the flowers. They knew the trees. They knew the animals. They knew the stars.
Their attentiveness went beyond what they could see. They felt warmth from bushes that burned but were not consumed. They heard still small voices in the quiet. Above all, they felt solace, love, comfort when there was no humanly reason to feel any of those.
St. Paul wrote, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things [God] has made.” (Romans 1:20)
They had faith in a God who they did not see, but who they could not, did not deny. This was not an anti-scientific blind faith. This was a hypothesis based on the evidence they saw, continuously tested and re-examined in the lives they led.
But this world is not all beauty and splendour. And our ancestors knew that too. There is life, and it always ends in death. There is love, but there is betrayal and heartbreak. There is promise, and there are lies. There is health, and there is sickness. There is peace, and there is war.
The very attentiveness that can lead to be a belief in a God leads to seeing that all is not right.
And so as long as humans have believed in a God, humans have cried to God.
“Record my lament;” writes the Psalmist. Don’t ignore me, God. “List my tears on your scroll– are they not in your record?” (56:8) I don’t want you to miss or ignore or forget anything. I am suffering, God. Those I love are suffering.
This is the paradox: that there is a God, and this world is not quite right, that our experiences are shadows and not reflection of God’s perfection.
There is a chasm between the goodness of God and the fallenness of our world, and in Advent we liturgically, symbolically together, live into the space of expectation. We want God to bridge that gap, to be Emmanuel, which means, God with us. And when confronted with expectation we can wait passively. What will come, will come. But this Sunday we are invited, as we prayed with the lighting of the Advent candles, to get ready, to be eager, to be joyously proactive.
God is coming to intervene in this world through the Son, Jesus Christ, whose birth we are about to celebrate in memory of his first coming but in expectation of his second.
And the message of the prophets in our Bible readings today is clear: Are you ready? Don’t wait, get ready!
Luke tells us that “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” There will not be a quiz on rulers names.
What you should get from that is that around the year 29, the Jewish people as intensely as ever felt the disconnect between the promise of their God and reality of their lives. An empire ruled over them. But the word of God was not stopped and came to a man named John.
He went into all the region around the Jordan.
In other Gospels, we have an even more vivid image. A wild man in the wild, wearing camel hair, eating locusts, in every way having put himself on the fringes of society. He began sermons by screaming at passers-by, “YOU BROOD OF VIPERS!” I confess, as a visiting preacher today I lacked the courage to try that as my opening line.
John, Luke tells us, was proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Are you ready? Don’t wait, get yourself ready.
John preaches baptism, commanding his hearers to ritually wash away their impurities and sins. He preaches repentance. There is an individual responsibility to prepare. To flee from enabling systems of oppression to the holy wilderness, to wash away that sin, to repent, which means to turn away from, of previous way of living.
As it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Is this world ready? Don’t wait, get this world ready.
Yes, step one is to get ourselves ready, but that is the beginning, not the end.
“Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
What will mean for all flesh, everyone, to see the salvation of God? What will look like when every body experiences a world in which God’s will is done on earth as it is heaven?
It is a radical and comprehensive question. It calls upon everyone’s gifts and talents and passions. Because the answer is not purely “religious.”
Every valley filled, every mountain made low. I do not believe Isaiah was encouraging environmental destruction, an all too tempting overly literalist interpretation. I believe he was being dramatic!
The scale of transformation is key: removing all barriers that unfairly hinder any of our siblings in God’s family from seeing and living justly into the full promise of God’s reign. The scale can tempt us to abandon the effort. It is too much. It is too daunting. I cannot do it alone. You cannot do it alone. But I am not asked to. And neither are you.
A few years ago, the Orthodox Jewish chaplain of my university came to speak to my denomination’s student group as part of a series of interfaith presentations. He emphasised a commonality, that we all were awaiting a Messiah, even if we disagreed about whether or not it was a first or second coming.
And then shared with us two models—two Biblically defensible, yet not identical—models for thinking about when and under what circumstances the Messiah will come. He called them the Ta-Da and Mazel Tov models. Ta-da meaning the world will keep on going, as it has, and one day, suddenly, the Messiah will simply appear and shout, more or less, “Ta-da, here I am! All will be set right.”
Mazel tov is literally Yiddish for good luck, but also used to mean well done or congratulations. Under the Mazel Tov model, the Messiah is waiting for us to set the world right for him. And when we’ve done it, he will appear and say, “Mazel tov! Here I am! All is set right!” But which is right, we asked the rabbi. And he said, “Yes.”
What will look like when every body experiences a world in which God’s will is done on earth as it is heaven? It is a radical and comprehensive question.
It is artistic and poetic and prosaic and musical, because we must envision and communicate the vision of such a prepared world. It is economic, because we must share the gifts God has given to all God’s children fairly among all God’s children. We must define fair. We must distribute. We must safeguard. It is political, legal, and diplomatic. Because we must work together to make the frameworks in which live and cooperate with one another reflect the best this world can be. It is scientific and medical. Because we must heal the sick as we can. We must find cures, share cures, and alleviate suffering. It is engineering, it is construction, it is agricultural. We must clothe the cold, shelter the homeless, and feed the hungry. It is ecological. We must celebrate and protect and preserve God’s creation, because treating it with respect is an act of praise and an act of loving and defending all life. It is a radical and comprehensive call to be peacemakers, not simply stopping violence with violence but tearing down the injustices that fuel it and enable it. To put it Biblically, beating swords into ploughshares.
The events of this past week—I feel like every time I have preached this year, I could say that, the events of this past week—remind us that we are not there yet. What do we about gun violence? About terrorism? Every act of violence against another human is a tragedy deserving our mourning and solidarity. But I admit, this week felt closer to me. I began my ministry career in Southern California. Seeing familiar places on international news just felt closer.
An American senator, Chris Murphy, who comes from just a few miles from Newtown, Connecticut, Tweeted his exasperation at passive waiting quite pointedly. Our thoughts and prayers matter, but they must be active. He wrote, “Your thoughts should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your prayers should be forgiveness if you do nothing – again.”
People of faith can, perhaps even should, have differences in opinion and approach. But I believe we can and must agree that our thoughts and prayers be not passive waiting, but actively preparing for a better world.
Statistics can tempted us to see this violence, at least this particular breed of mass shooting, as a particularly American problem, but we in Canada too must be vigilant. Such things happening here are perhaps rare, or exceptional, but that two of the rare Canadian exceptions have happened here, in Montréal, at Dawson and École Polytechnique—twenty-six years ago today—is something that I, as a university chaplain, here, in Montréal, do not for a moment forget.
The preparation our world needs for the coming of Christ call upon all of our gifts and talents. Whatever your education, your training, your specialty, you have a role to play. It is not clergy, but the whole community of Christ, who will make the crooked paths straight and the rough ways smooth.
In the phrase, Prepare the way of the Lord, we simultaneously acknowledge that we have an essential role, we are called to prepare, but that we do not have the final role, the Lord finishes it.
The preparation John announces was started by a camel-hair wearing, locust-eating prophet, but its fulfilment depends not one a lone voice in the wilderness but upon a movement of people, a community of conviction—a church—who come and work alongside one another, sharing ideas and encouraging one another.
John prepared the first coming of Jesus, but who is to prepare the second?
Who is today’s John the Baptist?
We all are.
We all must get ready. We all must get this world ready.
We are not necessarily being asked to wear camel hair and eat locusts and call others vipers, but we are asked being willing to be on the margins, to be with those on the margins, and proclaim truth in our actions and words, no matter how it makes us look.
It seems too daunting to take upon ourselves.
In our Epistle reading, Paul says,
“I thank my God every time I remember you…
It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me.”
Whatever preparation we are called to, we are called to do together.
As I think about how to prepare, I think of the university students with whom I get to work as a chaplain. Many of whom worship here. Many of whom worship at St James United. Many of whom I encounter from other faiths and from no faith, but who are so eager to ally themselves with our chaplaincy in changing this world, whether in bridging interfaith divisions, feeding the hungry, divesting from fossil fuels, creating safe spaces for the LGBTQ community.
The task of preparing the way of the Lord is too big to do alone, as individual, as a parish, as a denomination, as only Anglicans, or only the United Church, and it requires bright and engaged minds and faithful workers. Among the students with whom I work are musicians, political scientists, social workers, occupational therapists, chemists, biologists, engineers. I see already brilliant, already compassionate young people finding their voices, their passions, and their convictions. I see young people full of ideas and visions needing someone to believe in them, and I get to believe in them. And I see the sort of interdisciplinary conversations the university salivates over and dreams of–biologists and international relations scholars and musicians and theologians and artists and political scientists and engineers and teachers and lawyers–all sitting together, laughing, sharing, and figuring out what God’s reign in heaven would look like if it were on earth.
As Paul said, I thank my God every time I remember them.
Emmanuel is coming.
Are you ready?
Let’s not just wait, let’s prepare the way together.