Second Sunday of Advent 7 December, 2008 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

Second Sunday of Advent Textweek

Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Christmas is an amazingly simple revelation; Christmas is a time where we celebrate that simple revelation. However, we and many are likely to miss the point because it’s been oversimplified into the birth of Christ. Christmas is seen as someone’s birthday, and of course, we can’t resist any excuse for a party, and that’s where we’ve gone with Christmas. Advent, however, gives us an opportunity to prepare, to become aware of where we are going and what we are doing. What is it that we are going to celebrate? And to consider the meaning of Christmas as part of our faith story and part of our life journey, we have the weeks of Advent to become aware.

Today it’s as if we receive an invitation to the party. Today we’re invited into the vision of a new heaven and a new earth. ‘Come to celebrate a new heaven and a new earth’. Isaiah invites us to prepare the way – it’s an invitation toward Christmas - prepare the way so that ‘the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together’. And for those invitations, Mark gives us the figure of John the Baptist to contemplate those invitations. It’s important to see exactly what’s been selected in today’s verses, to see that it’s John the Baptist, not the baptism of Jesus that we read about in our preparation for Advent. The baptism of Jesus is in the next two verse and they’ve been deliberately left out. John the Baptist participates in the unfolding of the gospel; he does much, much more than just point towards Jesus. He prepares the way for. Arguably, John the Baptist brings Christ to birth, which is perhaps why Mark’s gospel begins with John the Baptist. There is no Christmas story in Mark’s gospel. Today we read it from the very beginning; it is the beginning of the book, the beginning of the good news: chapter 1 verse 1, John the Baptist. John the Baptist in Mark’s eyes is the Christmas event. As a nativity event, John echoes Isaiah in preparing the way and that, I think, is the call that calls to us. We are called to also be events in the nativity of the Divine. We’re not called to watch Christmas, we are called to be the event of Christmas.

How? How are we going to be the nativity? How do we realize the simplicity of all that is revealed at Christmas? And I think that’s also identified through the person of John the Baptist. And according to John, it’s a very simple process – one word, ‘Repent’. Turn, turn and look again, seek a new orientation. It’s a simple message, a simple message that has been so complicated by the unimaginative succession of church leaders, who have been unable, for various reasons, to let go of those early flat-earth understandings of Christmas. In order to repent, we must become heretics; we must leave behind the truth we have been given. How can we turn again if we’re going to hold onto that which already determines our orientation?

When Einstein proposed his theory of relativity, he called into question the orthodox doctrines of Isaac Newton. There was an understanding, a measurable understanding, there was faith in the sciences of Newton; it’s still taught in schools today. Einstein called it into question; he saw a new way, another understanding of the universe. Galileo announced that the earth went round the sun rather than the sun going round the earth. In doing that he called into question the orthodox doctrines of both science and religion. He was denounced as a heretic.

If we are going to accept today’s invitation towards a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, we must question the religious landscape that we’ve inherited from Augustine, embrace a reality and a truth that at present are not within the blinkered orthodoxy of the church. We must look beyond, we must turn from, we must seek again. And today’s readings, if you sit with them for the week, will give you ample opportunities to question those beliefs that keep us from realizing the revelation of Christmas. Fascinating really, isn’t it – the church has set up a set of beliefs that actually stop us from realizing Christmas, from realizing what Isaiah invites us to, what Peter speaks of and what John the Baptist got and sought to move into. Augustinian theology is the basis of so much church teaching, so much of our liturgy, most of our doctrines and ninety percent of the teachings in Sunday school. Augustine teaches us that through Christ, God will bring about the New Jerusalem, because you and I are fallen, we are so steeped in sin that the only thing that we can contribute is to beg for forgiveness, and hope that when God brings it about he will include us, if we are forgiven.

Isaiah and John the Baptist call us, they call you and me to prepare the way. They got it: God’s not going to do it. It is not in the hands of God – that’s revealed at Christmas. God gives it all to us - the Word became flesh. So rather than us being the fallen puppets of God which is how Augustine saw us, we are the active participants in relation with the Divine, that will bring to earth a new heaven and a new earth. That actually requires a huge change - we must repent if we are going to grasp that. Augustine also calls us into separation - managed somehow to skew repentance into becoming a mechanism for salvation. Repent, and you can become Christianised, you can become clean and saved, apart from all those who are fallen and unwashed and who’ll stay in sin.

You can see why when they put together the lectionary, they clearly left out those last two verses from Mark, because if we today went with the baptism of Jesus it would almost underline that separation. Repent, get to the font, become a Christian, preferably an Anglican, you’ll then be saved, sit down, do nothing, wait for God and he’ll sort it all out. That’s where Augustine was coming from; that’s where the church has taken us.

Isaiah, voicing the Divine - Isaiah’s not a bloke from the past, Isaiah’s one of those images in the story of faith that seeks to make clear that the word of God be heard by the heart. The voice of the Divine speaks clear: ‘the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people’ – that actually even means those horrible boat people that try and get in without a ticket, even them – ‘all people shall see it together’.

To repent is to look again, to seek anew, to take the risk of becoming a heretic, being burnt at the stake. And what repentance asks of us is to seek a new orientation of life. Repentance is actually the action of development. Yes we are seeking to renovate, but we are also repenting here. In fact, if you’ve got a lisp you could say we’re repainting. We are bringing about change because we have seen something new, we are looking beyond the boundaries that we have been confined to for a hundred-odd years. That doesn’t mean we’re going to ditch it, we’re just going to go beyond, we’re going to take it further; we’re going to move outside of the orthodoxy into something of our creation. The action of repentance is the action of invention, it is the action of creation, it is that which makes all things new, it is that which brings about a new heaven and a new earth.

Isaiah’s words - if you look at the history - Isaiah’s words are spoken in a time of trial, the nation is in turmoil; and Isaiah reminds them of the movement of life. Isaiah gives them the equivalent of the Financial Times’ stock index analysis. And he sums it up this way – he doesn’t even use a graph. Day after day after every news bulletin you get the graph of what’s happened today. Those of us that are in our tiny, small, self-centred little worlds only worry about the price of petrol. Some go beyond that and look at the financial indices of Japan. This is what Isaiah’s doing and he says, ‘The grass withers, the flower fades’ – gosh, more gloom and doom, we must be heading for a recession - ‘but the word of God stands forever’. That’s the ‘j-curve’ that they keep talking about - the word of God stands forever.

If ever a nation needs reminding it is us and many others in today’s world today. And so today we’re called to look away from the interpretations of Augustine. Be rude for once in your life, give the church the flick; call them, say I don’t believe it, you’re not going to suck me in any more, because I have an invitation in the divine word to participate in bringing about a new heaven and a new earth. We’re called away from a past, we’re called away from a past that has delivered a church filled with pews, a church that provides nothing more than a place to sit and wait. We’re called away from that today.

We’re invited, like John the Baptist and with John the Baptist, to prepare the way, to repent, to change our worldview, to change our life direction. We’re invited today to bring about a new heaven and a new earth. And as we contemplate that through Advent, the possibility is that when we get to Christmas we will realize the gift. It’s not the birthday of a baby: it is revealed that the word became flesh. All that the Divine has and is, is given to us.

The Lord be with you
Peter Humphris.