Isaiah 12.2-6 (Canticle)
Now it is time to awake out of sleep,
for the night is far spent and the day is at hand.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, John the son of Zechariah was in the wilderness; so the story goes, as we heard last Sunday. John was, in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah and also, as the story goes, as his father Zechariah said upon his birth. John was, in the wilderness, knee deep in the River Jordan (or so I imagine), waiting.
The crowds too—gathered perhaps out of curiosity as much as anything else—were, in the wilderness, waiting and watching, but for God knows what or whom. God knows, and perhaps John knows, but he wasn’t being very specific, our surly sage, wading in the water, like—one gets the distinct impression—a crazy person.
And yet. And yet, here we are, by the water in the wilderness, waiting and watching for—one gets the distinct impression—someone who is already here, closer than we know.
It is the Third Sunday in Advent. We are called, throughout this season, to wake up and to keep vigil; to wait and to anticipate; to be patient and to prepare for the coming of God who is already and ever with us, who is ever approaching and never ceases to arrive.
We are—Christians are—not unaccustomed to paradox; and this one, between the already and the not yet, between fulfilment and expectation, is certainly a familiar and recurring theme. And so it is, that according to the prophets Zephaniah and Isaiah, the Lord is and will be in our midst; the Lord has become our salvation, and we will draw from salvation’s wells; the Lord has taken away the judgements against us, and we will be gathered and brought home.
And so it is, that in Advent we simultaneously recall what the Lord has done and anticipate what the Lord has promised to do; we simultaneously look backwards and forwards, not least to the birth of Jesus and to his coming again in glory.
And so it is, that Advent is—among other things—an occasion for joy. Rejoice inthe Lord, exclaims St. Paul, “Rejoice”. And then, almost as if whispering, surrounding his words in gentleness and peace, he provides us with a reason to rejoice, the foundation of all joy: “The Lord is near”. Near; the word, both in English and in Greek—like the word advent,which in English and in Latin connotes both approach and arrival—is ambiguous. In the same breath: presence and promise. The Lord is near. And so we rejoice, we sing aloud, as Zephaniah exhorts us; we exult with all our hearts. And so we give thanks, we shout aloud and sing for joy, as Isaiah bids us; we proclaim the Lord’s name.
It is the Third Sunday in Advent, and we are told, on this day in Advent to rejoice. And then, we are also told, by our cantankerous prophet John, that the one who is coming, for whom we wait has, in his hand, a winnowing fork to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, and to burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. And then, without skipping a beat, this is called good news. John is—one gets the distinct impression—like a crazy person.
Rejoice; the Lord is near, and with the Lord, judgement. Joy and judgement; strange bedfellows, it would appear. And yet. And yet, as John suggests, judgement is the consummation of justice. Having verbally abused those who had come seeking baptism, our curmudgeonly baptizer paints his vision of the world as it ought to be. It is, fundamentally, a just world: a world free of embezzlement and extortion, to be sure, but also a world in which we take care of one another’s needs. It is fashionable—and has been for a very long time—to distinguish sins of commission from sins of omission, and it is often implied that the former are somehow worse than the latter. We intuit, for example, that it is more despicable to intimidate as the tax collector might or to threaten as the soldier might, than it is to withhold our coats and food from those who are cold and hungry. This is, of course, very convenient, since few of us are bullies as such, and most of our coat-giving has as much to do with wardrobe clearance as it does with anything else. But these are both acts of injustice—direct aggression and desensitized apathy—and both are denounced by John, both destined for unquenchable fire.
[On Friday, a 20-year-old man—boy, really—walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and opened fire. Twenty-six people were killed—including 20 children and his own mother—before he turned the gun to himself. In the face of tragedies like this, the call to joy seems hollow and the temptation to judge is acute. The word evil has featured prominently in the news and social media, used to describe Adam Lanza, the shooter, as well as his actions. But, by all accounts, he was also ill; and we have failed to notice, failed to step in, failed this boy in the wilderness. We are, all of us, for our aggression and apathy alike, indicted and judged. But if judgement is the bringing forth and consummation of justice, then it is not predominantly about blame and goes far beyond it: it is the putting right of things, the redemption of a broken and heart-breaking world. In this sense, in the face of tragedies like these, only judgement could possible bring joy.]*
And so, the world that John imagines and, by the waters of baptism, prepares is a joyful one, as difficult as that might be to see. He is saying, with the prophet Isaiah—as we hear daily in the Advent liturgy for morning prayer—“Be strong, fear not, your God is coming with judgement, coming with judgement to save you”. This passage from Isaiah goes on to say that the eyes of the blind will then be open, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy; waters shall break forth in our wildernesses, and streams in our deserts, and we shall return with singing and everlasting joy. We, with the weary whose hands we are commanded in the same Advent liturgy to strengthen, whose feeble knees we are commanded to make firm. We, with cold and hungry and sick, to whom we are to give our warmth and nourishment, our care and attention. There is, in this world that John proclaims, no place for our aggression or apathy, our pettiness and possessiveness, our self-defensiveness and self-centredness; rather, our joys are bound up with one anothers’, from the greatest to the least, the strongest to the weakest, the healthiest to the most vulnerable.. This is the world for which we are preparing, which we who have gone through the wild waters of baptism are called to prepare, even as we wait for the ever-coming Christ, whose judgement will save us all.
Joy and judgement; that is to say, the arrival of the love that creates, out of nothing, goodness; out of chaos, peace; out of darkness, light. Now it is time to awake out of sleep, for the night is far spent and the day is at hand.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, John son of Zechariah was in the wilderness, in the water, waiting for the God who calls and comes, who invites and arrives, who promises and is present. And the crowd too, they waited and watched, not knowing quite what to expect. These centuries later, we join them and with the Church past and present, no more certain than they what God will do next. But whatever it is, whatever it is we are preparing for—it is good news, and occasion for joy. Amen.
*The draft of the text had been more or less fixed for a few weeks by the time the Newtown, CT shooting happened. Like many other preachers, I rushed back to re-write (parts of) the sermon in light of the incident. This section—an insertion—is the biggest change, but minor amendments flank it. New meaning was brought to both “aggression” and “apathy”. Before, the references to the Advent liturgy about the strengthening of weak hands and feeble knees were used as metaphors for economic justice; now, physical—or, at least, medical—weakness emerges as a theme too.