December 9, 2007
All Saints Episcopal Church
Valley City, North Dakota
Romans 15.4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
In the Name of God, Father+ Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well, here we are on the Second Sunday of Advent. I love Advent. Partly I love Advent because we get to hear some of the best scriptures the Bible has to offer.
Today is no exception. One of my favorites is our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In it we find Paul commending scriptures to us. Traditionally, in the Anglican Church, this Sunday is often called “Bible Sunday” because of this reading.
It reminds us that we turn to scripture for hope. In these days when scripture is used as a weapon, as a way of condemning others and hurting others, in this Sunday following the news that the Diocese of San Joaquin has decided to split from the Episcopal Church on essentially scriptural grounds, it is refreshing, on this Second Sunday of Advent, to read this scripture that is essentially about hope. Because it is hope that this Season of Advent is all about—a hope we find in scripture, a hope we live with in our daily lives as Christians, a hope that fortifies us and a hope that we can cling to when everything else goes wrong.
In this morning’s Gospel, we are also faced with the formidable figure of John the Baptist. The impression we get from Matthew is of someone we probably wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. He comes across to us through the ages as a kind of crazy man. He is dirty. He is not very well mannered. He is shouting strange words and prophecies. He is frightening. Certainly it would be difficult for any of us to take the words of a man like this seriously. Especially when he’s saying things like, “prepare, for the Kingdom of heaven draws near” “the axe is being laid to the root of the trees” and “the chaff will be burned in an unquenchable fire. “ Somehow, in the way John the Baptist proclaims it, this is not so much hopeful as frightening.
It is a message that startles us and jolts us at our very core. But this is the true message of Advent. Like John the Baptist and those who eagerly awaited the Messiah, this time of waiting—this time of hope—was almost painful. When we look at it from that perspective, we see that maybe John isn’t being quite as difficult and windy as we initially thought. Rather his message is one of almost excruciating expectation and hope.
If you notice in the Prayer Book, the Latin heading for Psalm 40 is Exptans Expectavi. Used within the context of that particular psalm, it can be translated as “I waited and waited for you, O God.” That phrase really suits, in many ways, everything we experience in this season. Like John, we are waiting and waiting for our God to come to us, to appear to us as one of us.
Recently I’ve been reading a very fascinating book. The book is called The Forgotten Desert Mothers. It is a book about those early Christians who tended to take the words we heard this morning from the Baptist as literally as they could. These desert mothers (and fathers) have a lot to teach us. Like us, they lived in an age of uncertainty. Many had suffered dearly during the persecutions against Christians. Others had previously been pagans who lived lives of excess. It was a time when nothing in the world seemed too stable. Governments gave way to stronger governments. Differing religions battled each other for what each perceived to be “the truth.” And so too did many Christians.
It sounds familiar doesn’t it? In the face of all of this uncertainty, these men and women heard the call of the Baptist. “Prepare, for the kingdom of heaven draws near.” In response they did something we might find unusual. We, as modern Christians, are taught that we must not only live out our faith, but also, in some way, must proclaim our faith to those around us. We take seriously the command to go out into the world and proclaim what we believe. Certainly that is what we will do this morning when we recite the creed. It is what we do when we go out to feed the hungry or to tend the sick. We do it when we reach out to others in the name of Christ.
These early Christians, however, did the exact opposite. They retreated from society and went off to the desert, in this case usually the deserts of Egypt and Palestine. Oftentimes, coming from wealthy homes and positions of authority, they sold it all, gave the money to the poor and went off to live alone. And we’re not talking about a few individuals here. We’re talking about people leaving in droves. The deserts were literally populated with men and women who tried to leave it all behind. More often than not, they formed loosely-organized communities, usually around a church, in which they lived and prayed alone for most of the time, only coming together to pray the Psalms or celebrate Eucharist. Their lives in the desert weren’t, as you can imagine, comfortable lives by any means. Some walled themselves up in abandoned tombs. Others lived in caves. One went so far as to crawl atop a tall pillar and live there for years on end, exposed to the elements.
Even then they couldn’t completely escape what they left behind. Many of the stories tell of these poor souls being tormented by demons and temptations. It’s not hard to imagine that, yes, alone in a dark tomb or cave, one would be forced to face all the darkest recesses of one’s soul. Part of the process of separating one’s self from the world involves finally wrestling with all those issues one carries into the desert.
Few of us in this day and age would view this kind of existence as the ideal Christian life. In fact, most of would probably look on it as a sort of insanity. But at the time, in that place, people began to see this as the ideal. People, I imagine, were tired of the day-to-day grind of working, slaving, fending for themselves in a sometimes unfriendly society. They felt distant from God and they were not able to find God in the society in which they lived. The idea of going off and being alone with God was very appealing.
Of course, even this seemingly simple and pure way of living was soon tarnished by another form excess. Some of the people who went off to live in the desert were simply mentally unsound to begin with. Others went insane after years of living alone in a tomb or a cave. They abused their bodies, sometimes to the point of death, by whipping themselves, by chaining themselves to walls, by not taking care of themselves physically, or simply starving themselves to a point close to death. Some even went so far as castrating themselves for the kingdom of heaven.
But despite these abuses, the message of the desert mothers and fathers to us is still a valid one. The whole reason they went off like they did was to shed everything that separated them from their hoping and waiting for God. They sought to make their very lives a living Advent. They were waiting expectantly and anxiously for Christ. And by mortifying themselves, by chastising their bodies and fasting, they would be prepared for his coming again.
Although I hope no one here is called to a life quite that extreme, I think their message speaks to us clearly in these days before Christmas. We should find ways to prepare for the Incarnate God’s coming to us. We should shed some of those things that separate ourselves from God. We should find our own deserts in our lives—those places in which we can go off alone and be with God. A place in which we can wait for God longingly. It is a place in which we can fully express our hope.
And that is what we are doing in this time of Advent. We are hoping. We are looking longingly for God to come to us. Those of us who dwell here in the darkness—those of us who dwell in our tombs, in our caves, in the darkest recesses of our own souls—find ourselves clinging to that blessed hope, looking longingly for the light to burn away that darkness.
That Light is, of course, Christ. That Light comes into our darkness in the form of a simple, beautiful child. And that Light can be frightening, because it reveals things to us we might not want revealed. It reveals to us aspects of ourselves we might not want revealed and it reveals things about our world that we don’t want to see. But by enlightening us and making us see fully and completely, we know that we are freed. We are freed from those things that keep us in the dark and we are freed to go forward into the Light and dwell there.
So, yes, John’s message in the wilderness is a frightening one at times. It is frightening because the Light he is telling us is coming to us can be frightening, especially when we’re used to the darkness. But it is also a message of hope and longing. It is a message meant to wake us from our slumbering complacency. His is a voice calling us to sit up and take notice.
The kingdom of heaven is near. In fact it’s nearer than we can probably ever hope or imagine. So, be prepared. Watch. Wait. Hope. For this anticipation—this expectant longing of ours—this wonderful and beautiful hope—is merely a pathway on which the Christ Child can come to us here in our darkness and appear before us as one of us.