Here’s the text from yesterday’s sermon, or you can listen here.
Every Advent season we hear the story of John the Baptist: oftentimes, more than once. Every Advent season we hear of his desert home near the Jordan River, his diet of locusts and wild honey, his odd wardrobe choice of camel’s hair and a leather belt, and his dangerous message of baptism, repentance, and new life. Every Advent season we are reminded that the life of a prophet is never dull. A brief glance through Biblical history confirms this fact. Hosea was called by God to marry a prostitute who would cheat on him so that he could experience the pain God felt as Israel worshiped idols. Ezekiel was told to lay on his left side for 390 days while God laid the iniquity of Israel upon him. Isaiah walked around naked for three years to show Israel’s enemies the shame that was to come upon them. Either a prophet was speaking words of correction and rebuke to relatively comfortable kings and nations, or they were promising restoration to people who only knew hardship, sadness, and oppression. Their work was all about overcoming Newton’s First Law of Motion. An object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force, or, conversely, an object at rest will stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. Prophets are that outside force, and anyone who has ever tried to get out of bed on a cold morning knows that sometimes it takes a whole lot of force to overcome Newton’s First Law.
Take, for example, the author and subject of the book our first lesson came from, Isaiah. The Prophet spends the first part of his ministry calling the people of Israel to repentance. They have fallen into sin, again, and God, through Isaiah, calls his people to remember the promises they had made at Sinai, that they would worship him alone, that they would follow him, that they would be his people. But the momentum was too strong, the people were too set in their ways, and even with Hezekiah the reformer as king, their leadership was just too fat and too happy in their palaces, and so while some lip service was given to Isaiah’s call to repentance, nothing really changed. Finally, in 587 BCE the Babylonians came to town, destroyed Jerusalem and took most of the people into exile where they lived as slaves in a foreign land.
Cue our lesson for this morning from Isaiah forty. The Israelites are crushed. Their God is nowhere to be found. Their Temple and hometown have been destroyed. They have failed to live into their role as God’s chosen people and they wonder if God would ever take them back. Would God just pick another group of people and try again? Was there any hope? The same prophet whose call to repentance they had long ignored reenters and makes new promises. “You have paid your price. You have done your time. And though, in God’s eyes, you are like the grass that withers away in a moment, God will restore you, your city, and the throne of your great King, David.” But still, the momentum is hard to overcome, the hopelessness is winning, the weight of their oppressors has nearly crushed them.
Oppression, real or perceived, is perhaps the hardest form of momentum to overcome. When an outside force is capable of bringing a people to the point of hopelessness, it is almost impossible to imagine any other way of being. Which is what makes the role of the prophet so important, so powerful and so dangerous. To speak hope into a people oppressed is to make them believe that a better life is out there, and doing that will put you on the outs with the powers that be in no time. On Wednesday afternoon, Keith and I sat in his office with the Bishop of Kadugli from The Episcopal Church of Sudan, the Right Reverend Andudu Adam Elnail. For nearly two hours Bishop Andudu told us the story of him and his people in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. On January 1st 1956, Sudan gained independence from Egypt and Great Britain: an event that history shows was both good and bad. The good thing was they gained independence. The bad part was that while independence came in 1956, the First Sudanese Civil War begin in 1955. Call the various military actions that have occurred since then what you will, but essentially the people of Sudan have been under the threat of or in the midst of civil war ever since, and the main battle ground has often been the natural resource rich, central region known since three-thousand-five-hundred BCE as the Nuba Mountains. After South Sudan finally gained its independence in July of this year, Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, realizing that the rest of the Black Sudanese, as opposed to the Arab Sudanese of the extreme north (of which Bashir and his government are counted), would soon be clamoring to secede and join the south. Utilizing every dirty trick at their disposal, Bashir and his troops have continued their practice of genocide and cultural extermination in several predominantly black regions of Sudan including Bishop Andudu’s Diocese of Kadugli.
Since coming to the United States in May of 2011 to share the story of violence against his people, Bishop Andudu has had to watch from afar as his Cathedral was ransacked and burned, his home was shot up by pro-Bashir, armed vandals, a Fatwa essentially placing a price upon his head was nailed to his door, and his mother and all his clergy were forced by fear and force to leave their homes and flee to caves, high in the Nuba Mountains where mosquitos, malaria, hunger and lack of clean water threaten to finish the work that Bashir and his troops began. Hope, it would seem, is in short supply for the Nuba people in the Kadugli Diocese, and yet, when you hear the Bishop speak, you get the real sense that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him. His ability to prophecy hope into what seems to be a hopeless situation is astonishing. In many ways his work is two fold: first, it is overcoming the momentum of hopelessness his people are apt to feel and second, to overcome the momentum of a complicated geo-political climate in which it is easier, politically, to ignore the genocide in Sudan than it is to confront it. There is no CNN.com headline for it. There is no Twitter Trending Topic. There is barely even an organized international alliance. It was a mere blip on the radar internationally when on Wednesday, Kenya issued an arrest warrant in accordance with the International Criminal Court for President Bashir on charges of genocide. Speaking hope to a hopeless situation is one thing. Speaking action when it is politically inconvenient is entirely another. But Bishop Andudu takes his role as prophet very seriously. No matter how dangerous it might be, he continues to speak to and ask for prayers from whoever will listen. As Bishop Andudu waits to hear the status of his request for political assulym, wondering if his wife and children will remain safe in Uganda, hoping that his mother will find a way out of Sudan, and praying that the Nuba won’t become extinct, I am reminded, yet again that the life of a prophet is not one most are suited for.
Every Advent Season we hear the story of John the Baptist standing in the wilderness calling on the people of Israel to repent and be baptized. Every Advent Season we hear the echo to Isaiah 40, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Every Advent Season we prepare, again, our homes, our churches, and our hearts for the newborn King born on Christmas Night. We join with Christians across the globe and throughout the ages in doing the work of making straight the path of God. That word “path” is not the majestic, raised highway of my imagination, but rather it comes from the root meaning “to rub.” It is the well worn path, trod over and over again by the faithful from age to age, that leads directly to the heart of every human being. Part of creating that path, unfortunately, is doing the work of the prophet. It is the work of getting folks out of their comfort zones to feed the hungry, visit the sick, welcome the stranger and share God’s love with the seemingly unlovable. It sharing the story of Bishop Andudu and his people even when the politically correct thing is to paste on a smile and pretend everything is OK this Christmas season. It is keeping Christ in Christmas not by demanding everyone say “Merry Christmas,” but by being like Christ this Christmas and sharing the Good News that thanks to the miracle of the Incarnation, the Kingdom of God is available right here and right now. The work of a prophet is hard. The life of a prophet is even harder. But the reward, to see Newton’s First Law be overcome, to see momentum shift and the Kingdom of God enter where it has never been seen before or long since been forgotten, that is the best gift anyone could ever receive. Thank you Lord for Isaiah, for John, and for Bishop Andudu, help us to not just heed your prophets, but when the situation calls for it, to be one too. Amen.