A Call to Active Waiting – a sermon

Yesterday’s Advent 2 sermon is now available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

“Preach with the Gospel in one hand and a newspaper in the other.”  Those are words of wisdom, spoken by Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of all time, that I try to live by.  As I prepare my sermons, I do my best to balance the weight of the gospel with what is happening in the world around us. Newspapers may be out of fashion, but it doesn’t take obsessively watching the 24-hour news networks to figure out that things in this world are not the way God intended them to be.  People are suffering all over the place.  From the ongoing genocide in the Sudan to ISIS in Iraq; from Ebola in West Africa to growing racial tensions here at home; it is clear that there is still much work to be done in order to fulfill the prayer of our Lord which asks that God’s kingdom be present on earth as it in heaven.  In last week’s Psalm, we heard the psalmist’s cry out to God and ask, “How long O Lord?”  Thousands of years later, many are still asking the same question.  How long, O Lord, how long?

As a season of waiting, the season of Advent is a microcosm of larger life.  During the four weeks leading up to Christmas Day, we wait not just for the Christ-child who was born in a manger, but for the full unveiling of God’s Kingdom.  We wait for Jesus to come to us as Emmanuel, and we wait for Christ to come to us as King of kings and Lord of lords.  Through the lessons and prayers of the season of Advent, we are invited to imagine what it looks like to make waiting a verb; to actively engage in the work of the Kingdom and to be part of the answer to our own question, “How long, O Lord?”  This morning, as we celebrate the Second Sunday of Advent, we hear the same call to active waiting from two different prophets who lived hundreds of years apart: John the Baptist and Isaiah.

John arrives on the scene early in Mark’s Gospel, a book that begins almost as strangely as it ends.  Most scholars believe that the actual ending of Mark leaves us with the women who had seen the risen Lord seized with terror and amazement.  There is no exclamation of the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, just silence and fear.  Some scholars have attempted to get inside Mark’s brain by suggesting that he left the story open ended in order that we, the readers, might turn back to chapter one and start over. When we do so, we find ourselves confronted by a very strange first verse, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”  For a Gospel writer obsessed with keeping Jesus’ messianic secret, his first verse doesn’t mince words.  This account of the life and ministry of Jesus is 1) only the beginning of the story, 2) most definitely good news, and 3) about a man who was, who is the Christ, the Anointed One and the Son of God.

Unlike its counterparts, Matthew and Luke, the Gospel of Mark doesn’t begin with a heavenly chorus or a royal lineage.  Mark’s Gospel doesn’t even really begin with John the Baptist.  For Mark, the good news of Jesus begins six hundred years earlier in the midst of the Babylonian Exile with a quote from the prophet Isaiah.  The fortieth chapter of Isaiah opens a new phase in the life of the people of Israel.  For 39 chapters, the prophet has been warning them of the doom to come.  Finally, after refusing to repent of their sinful and selfish ways, God uses the Babylonian army to destroy his own Temple, sack the holy city of Jerusalem, and carry off the vast majority of his chosen people into exile as slaves in Babylon.  The good news of Jesus begins with the people of Israel facing a fate worse than death.  In the midst of this heartache, God speaks to the prophet and says, “Comfort, Comfort my people” and “I am sending a messenger to prepare the way for the Messiah.”  The cry of the prophet is a call to active waiting.  In the midst of the wilderness, a dark and scary place in which it feels like God has forsaken his people, the prophet commands that a highway be built to usher in God’s Kingdom; a highway that will allow for God to restore his people, to feed his flock like a shepherd, and to carry his lambs with gentleness.  The good news of Jesus Christ begins in Babylonian Exile, but it doesn’t remain there.

The good news of Jesus Christ also begins with Roman occupation.  Nearly six hundred years after the prophet Isaiah, a new prophet is on the scene speaking to a people suffering under the hand of oppression.  Mark’s audience is living a life of exile-in-place.  They pay taxes to Rome in coins that violate the first two commandments.  The Temple of God has been relegated to the second tallest building in Jerusalem: the palace of Herod, the Roman Puppet King of Israel, is bigger.  The people are living out the judgment of God for their sinful and selfish lives when a new prophet comes and calls them to active waiting.  Standing beside the Jordan River, the waters that Joshua parted to allow the people of God to enter the Promised Land, John the Baptist says, “Prepare the way of the Lord.  Repent and be baptized.”  In the midst of the wilderness, a dark and scary place in which it feels like God has forsaken his people, the prophet commands that the people turn from their sinful ways and prepare for the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Savior of the World.  The good news of Jesus Christ begins with Roman occupation, but it doesn’t stay there.

Even today, the good news of Jesus Christ begins in wilderness places.  The good news of Jesus begins in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri and the caves of southern Sudan.  The good news of Jesus begins in the infusion room of the local cancer treatment center and in the free breakfast line at Foley Elementary School.  The good news of Jesus begins even at the grave as we make our song, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia,” and in every seemingly God-forsaken place because the good news is that God has not forsaken his people.  God is here, and more often than not, a wilderness experience is the first time we’re caught short enough to notice his presence.  It isn’t the abjectness of the situation, but what the wilderness does to us that allows us to enter the good news.  It is in those moments that “our disappointments and failures lead us to acknowledge our dependence upon God alone.”[1]  It is there that we all have a decision to make.  Will we continue down the path we have chosen and walk further and further away from the dream of God and deeper into sin, or will we repent, literally change our minds, our hearts, and our direction, and make a God forsaken place an opportunity to enter into the Kingdom of God?

The good news of Jesus Christ begins in wilderness places, but it doesn’t stay there.  They invite us to change.  They allow us an entry point into the good news of Jesus, and then, as forgiven, restored, committed disciples of Jesus, the bearer and bringer of the good news, we set about the work of the Kingdom.  Once we repent and enter into the good news, then, as the prophets have said for thousands of years, we get about the work of active waiting: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.[2]

The world is full of wilderness places.  It is rife with men and women who cry out, “How long, O Lord?”  As disciples of Jesus, we are invited to enter into the good news, to work alongside God, and to be the answer by offering comfort to God’s beloved people.  Amen.

[1] General Thanksgiving, BCP 836

[2] Micah 6.8


The Glory to be Revealed

I can’t be sure, but I’d be willing to bet at least a couple of dollars that more than 80% of the funerals that I’ve been a part of in my seven years of ordained ministry have included a reading from Romans 8.  The assigned passage for Sunday doesn’t include all of the lesson suggested in the Burial Office, but it does capture the key line for preaching, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”  On this day, as the 24 hour news agencies can’t keep up with the carnage between a Malaysian Airlines 777 being possibly shot down over the disputed region of the Ukraine and Israeli Defense Forces beginning a ground assault on the Gaza Strip, this word of hope that Paul offers the struggling Church in Rome seems so very far away.

On days like today, it is easy to make Romans 8:18 into a nice platitude, “Oh, don’t worry hunny, this ain’t nothing compared to the glory to be revealed.”  Heck, we can even turn it into a beach scene suitable for social media.

grumpy cat


But I think most of us agree that people who say that sort of crap should be punched square in the mouth.  Yes, it is true that joy and glory is a secure promise for those who are in Christ, but the reality is that suffering still happens on earth.  People still do terrible things to other people.  Sometimes nature is a force too strong to fathom.  Violence and war are still a part of even our most progressive cultures.  Weeds still grow alongside wheat.

Pointing to the glory that is to come is a nice thought, but what matters more in those moments of grief and pain is the presence of another human being, who’s #1 job is to just be.  Skip the platitudes.  Don’t share the pretty picture. Sit with those who are suffering and offer them a hug and a shoulder to cry on, and maybe silently say a prayer for the glory to come sooner rather than later.

O merciful Father, who has taught us in your holy Word that you do not willingly afflict or grieve your children: Look with pity upon the sorrows of those for whom our prayers are offered.  Remember them, O Lord, in mercy, nourish their souls with patience, comfort them with a sense of your goodness, lit up your countenance upon them, and given them peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

The Pain of Living

As a general rule, I don’t watch the news.  I know this seems to go against my Barthian theology of preaching that has “a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other,” but honestly, who subscribes to newspapers anymore?  Of course, the reality is that this isn’t to say that I don’t know what is going on in the world.  I talk to people, I listen to the radio, I’m on Facebook and Twitter, and I know how to access the CNN.com homepage; I’m aware of current events enough to suggest that I preach with “a Bible in one hand and my smartphone/laptop/iPad in the other.”  I’m also aware of current events enough to know that life is full of pain.  A brief glance at this week’s top stories brings nearly two weeks of waiting to know what became of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370; the domestic violence/murder trial of a man who was for two week’s the world’s sweetheart, Oscar Pistorius; the ongoing violent struggle between Russia, the Ukraine, and Crimea; and the Rolling Stones’ Tour cancellation as their lead singer mourns the suicide death of his girlfriend; just to name a few.

The reality of life is that it comes with pain, which, to me, is why faith is so important.  If there is no point to all of this other than to be born, experience life, and die, then the pain doesn’t seem worth it, but if there is a God, whose Kingdom is perfect freedom, then the pain is, at the very least, a motivator toward making this world a better place: a world that more closely resembles the Kingdom.

Which is why, as I say all too often, I love this week’s Collect.  We can’t fix the problems of the world.  Laws won’t keep bad people from doing bad things.  Medical advances can’t keep new ailments from springing forth.  Even good intentions can’t keep us for accidentally hurting the feelings of those we love.  Pain is inevitable, but God is there to remind us that even in the midst of our pain and sadness, we are his beloved children.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.