Sunday, December 6, 2015

2 Advent

December 6, 2015

Luke 3.1-6
+ Today is a special day. December 6, I mean. It’s been a very important day in the history of the church. For some reason, we, as Episcopalians, have somewhat lost the importance of this day. But I think we can regain our respect of this day.

Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas. Yes, that, St. Nicholas. I know exactly what images are going through your head right now. Jolly St. Nick, all roly poly, decked out in his red, fur-lined outfit. OK. I’ll give you that.

But that’s not what St. Nicholas was at all. In fact, St. Nicholas was a very important saint in the church, a very important person in the history of the church. And he is one of the most appropriate saints to be commemorating during the Season of Advent. A lot of people don’t know this, but he was a Bishop who, the story, once slapped the heretical priest, Arius across the face at the Council of Nicaea because Arius denied Jesus’ divinity.

I’m happy I’ve never had a bishop slap me across the face.

But, despite that outburst, he was also known for his almost radical kindness. He provided grain to starving people in his diocese during a famine, he rescued women from slavery, he saved sailors from storms at sea and he saved innocent people from being executed.  He also tossed gold into poor people’s houses, which sometimes landed in their shoes. And it’s from this we get the idea of Santa Claus delivering presents to people who have been good.

But, St. Nicholas was a rebel. He stood up for what he believed was right, even when it was unpopular. He was a real example of radical Christianity.  And he’s a good model for all of us, as a good saint should be.

Today, in our Gospel reading, we also encounter another person kind of like St. Nicholas. A firebrand. Someone who said and did things that made him unpopular.  A prophet. One of the great and one of the last official prophets. In this morning’s Gospel, we are faced with the formidable figure of John the Baptist.

I used to not like John the Baptist. He always seemed kind of frightening to me. He was kind of crazy, after all. But over the years I’ve really come to like John the Baptist. He is actually an incredible saint. And someone very important to the story of Jesus.

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 the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  How could WE do any such thing?  How do we make pathways straight?  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—whether we like it or not—is the true message of Advent.  Like John the Baptist and those who eagerly awaited the Messiah, this time of waiting 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.

For us, as followers of Jesus, we too are living with this excruciating expectation.  But our expectation is not something we do complacently.  We don’t just sit here and twiddle our thumbs in our patient waiting.  Rather, in our expectation we do what John the Baptist and other prophets did.

We prophesy.  We proclaim.  We assess the situation, and strengthened by what we know is coming to us, we make a guess at how it will all turn out. And we profess and proclaim that message. Our job as prophets is to echo the cry of the Baptist:

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

We should find ways to prepare for the Incarnate God’s coming to us. We do it in many ways during Advent. We light the candles of the Advent wreath. We listen to the message of the prophets from the Hebrew Bible. We slow down and we ponder who it is we are longing for. And we wait…

As prophets, as fellow seers of the future, of that moment when the Messiah will come to us, the most common prayer we seem to pray during this Advent season is:

Lord Jesus, come quickly.

But it is also the perfect summation of this Advent season.

Lord Jesus, quickly come.

It is the prayer we should all be praying as we prepare the way of the Lord. It should be the prayer that is on our lips constantly in these days before Christmas. We know he is coming. We know his coming is imminent. But sometimes he seems so agonizingly slow in his coming to us. In our impatience and our expectation, we cry out:

“Lord Jesus, come quickly.”

Sort of like those Christmas stories we always see or hear or share every year—like Dickens or “The Christmas Story” or the “Charlie Brown Christmas”—your weird priest often shares another story around the feast of St. Nicholas.  It was on this day—December 6—140 years ago, in 1875, that a German passenger steamer, The Deutschland, on its way from Bremerhaven to New York, ran aground in a blizzard on a sandy shoal in the Thames estuary near Harwich, England. After
several hours of being trapped there, early on the morning of December 7 the ship began to take on water and the captain ordered the ship to be abandoned. The passengers panicked and people began falling into the freezing water. Among the several hundred who died were five Franciscan nuns who were fleeing the anti-Catholic sentiments that were sweeping Germany at the time under Otto von Bismarck. All five nuns died in those waters. That shipwreck, of course, inspired one of the greatest poems written in the English language—“The Wreck of The Deutschland” by the poet and Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

This is a poem I find myself reading again and again in my life, especially at this time of the year. And the lines from that poem that I find myself reciting around this time of the year are these. On that day in 1875, as those nuns floundered in the water, they were heard crying out one prayer. As Hopkins puts it in his poem:

“And they the prey of the gales;
She the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly
Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails
Was calling ‘O Christ, Christ, come quickly’:
The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst Best.”

Those lines haunt me.  For me, personally, many times in my life, I have quoted those lines. When the waters of my life have risen about me, I have remembered those lines from Hopkins.

To some extent, our Advent is much like the freezing waters that rise about this poor nun in Hopkin’s poem. In this season, overwhelmed by all that is happening around us, we too might find ourselves crying out as that sister did in those freezing waters.  Both places are frightening.  Those freezing waters are frightening.  And our own lives can be frightening.  And at times, these moments of expectation are frightening.

But, still, even in these frightening moments, we are prophets.  We can assess the situation—as ugly and bitter as it is—and see that there is a positive outcome.  Always.

Jesus is coming. Yes, not at the speed we want him to come.  But he is coming.  And in that moment, prophets that we are, seeing into the dark of the future, we too can say,

“Even so, Lord, Jesus, come quickly.”

Or in the words of the drowning nun on The Deutschland,

“O Christ, Christ, come quickly”

In it, we find our hope and our longing articulated. We, the prophets, find that we can now see the goal for which we are working. We can look into the gloom, into the frightening future and see that all is not lost.

He is coming. He is coming to us. He is coming to us in this place in which we seem sometimes to flounder. He comes to us in these moments when we feel overwhelmed. He comes to us in those moments when it seems we have lost. He comes to us in our defeat. And when he does, even in those moments, we know.Truly the summation of our prophecies is upon us. And that summation?

It is the fact that, in his coming “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” in our midst. And with that realization, with that actualization, we are listed from those waters and from mire and muck of our lives, and we restored.

Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly!


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