St. Paul’s Congregational Church
December 6, 2020; Advent 2B
Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8
Once upon a time, a man and his family learned a valuable lesson about life. They were driving along on a hot, steamy Carolina afternoon when they passed an orchard of “pick your own” peaches. He thought, “I doubt that any bargain peaches would be good enough to take us out of this comfortable, air conditioned car into that heat to pick those peaches.” But they did pull over, paid their money, and selected a basket to fill with fresh, ripe South Caroline peaches.
As they set off into the orchard, an old man, wrinkled as a peach pit who was tending the orchard said, “If you want the best fruit, go deeper into the orchard. The peaches here are picked over, but deeper in, you’ll find the best fruit.” So the family walked further in, - they set the basket down – but they heard the old man yell, “Go deeper!”
Two more times they went a little further in but when they started to pick, the man said again, “No, go even deeper…the best fruit is even farther in. Go on! Go deeper!”
I’m sure they sighed a little but they kept walking, right into the very midst of the orchard – and they found the old man was right. The finest, sweetest, plumpest peaches were untouched and waiting right there for them.
You know, maybe this season of Advent invites us to look at our lives and ask the same question: have I gone deep enough? Am I only skimming the surface, staying on the edges of real living? Maybe that’s what the prophet Isaiah is telling us – maybe that’s what John the Baptist is telling us – go deeper! Don’t settle for second best – if we really want “in on” the Christmas story, go deeper. Go deeper still.
It’s the second Sunday of Advent – we ‘re into the preparations for Christmas, different maybe from prior years, though. We’re doing our gift shopping, maybe starting our traditional holiday baking, we’re thinking about getting our tree or maybe it’s already up.
In my neighborhood many of the houses have their Christmas lights up – I’ve been remembering how my dad would bring out the big candles he’d made and string the lights on my childhood home – always so beautiful – maybe this weekend I’ll even get mine done! The beauty of the dark night with lights shining is just so spectacular – it has a way of making the tiredness, the sadness, the worry, the frustration, the loneliness we’re feeling fade away – take the time to look at the lights – it’s worth it!
Don’t we all want in some way to be in on the expectant, joyful, hopeful feelings of this Advent/Christmas season? But life, reality, so often hits hard – especially this year when we so often feel down, disappointed, alone, and anxious. Too often instead of feeling joy we feel despair. Instead of rejoicing, we fret and worry. Instead of feeling hope, peace, joy, love, we are overrun with scheduling nightmares – so much to do that we miss the coming of the Light.
In our own church community this is true, isn’t it – there are those who are sick. Members of our own families suffer as we watch. Others are waiting anxiously for test results. Relationships are strained in some families – and that brings such pain. We’re so deeply missing in person contact, craving the touch, the hug, of another human. Some members of our church family are mourning the loss of a family member or friend, mourning the anniversary of the death of someone dear. The light seems so dim for too many these days.
And all of us are bombarded with bad news every time we turn on the TV, listen to the radio, read the papers: the death toll keeps rising from COVID, hospital workers are overwhelmed, people are hurting in our wider community: families are stuck in darkest poverty, more job losses, more foreclosures, and we get so frustrated with governmental systems unable and perhaps even unwilling to help them find their way out.
We can get overwhelmed in the doom and gloom, can’t we. We miss the light that shines in the darkness. Maybe we need to go a little deeper.
Advent is such a season of contrast. And we see that contrast in our scripture readings this morning: from the gentle words of comfort from Isaiah to the sharp warnings of John the Baptist.
We love to hear and take in Isaiah’s words: Comfort ye, O comfort, ye my people, says the Lord. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Then there’s the message of John the Baptist: his image is very different from the images Isaiah calls to mind. Even in his own time John was strange – imagine how he must have looked with the camel’s hair dress, belted with leather – and he ate locusts and honey. And even more, his very message is anything but comforting – he speaks of repentance. He speaks of baptism for the forgiveness of sins. It is time to get ready for the one greater than himself who is coming – he’s the prophet, not the fulfillment. There’s no soft comfort here – there is no ringing of joy and peace. It is time to turn around. It is time to be open to the new, the unfamiliar. It’s no time to rest and rejoice in safety, in comfort. John the Baptist pulls us back, pulls us out of our comfort zone, and tells us that we must repent.
Maybe that’s another message of Advent – putting the grace and mercy so loud and clear in the Isaiah passage against the harshness of John the Baptist. We’d sure rather skip over that harshness, wouldn’t we. We’d rather concentrate on the grace and mercy, the softness of Christmas, the sentimentality of Christmas. But to get there, we have to go through the tough texts of Advent.
Advent can be a time of harshness – a time when the heart hurts – our scripture this morning attests to that – it can also be a time of wondrous promise, wondrous joy, wondrous peace. But we have to go through the wilderness to get there. Advent also holds the promise – that God is with us – Emmanuel is to be born again and again and again in us. I think we make a mistake, I think we are not true to our calling, I think we’re wrong if we don’t consider both the highs and lows of Advent. Because the whole point of Advent is to connect with the longing, the waiting, the discomfort, the pain and fear – because it’s then that the love and faithfulness can meet, the righteousness and peace can emerge.
Maybe Advent is God calling us to go deeper. Maybe we have to let ourselves be a little more vulnerable. Maybe we have to face our own wilderness places, those things that hold us captive – in order to get to a place of peace and a deep joy that truly is lasting. Maybe the thing about Advent is this: it’s a time of allowing ourselves to be transformed – for life changing transformation. It’s a time to recognize anew that yearning deep within us to have a deeper relationship with the God who created us, protects us, loves us, wants the best for us – and who will walk with us in all that vulnerability. And then act on it!
A young man appeared at the Glen Ridge church office one day and asked to see the pastor. Most churches get requests for food or financial help, especially at this time of year from people who stop in – that’s not so unusual. But when I met him, I knew there was something was very different here. Yes – he asked for some food and I could give him that – but it wasn’t just cereal or peanut butter and jelly that he was looking for. After I brought him a bag of groceries, he didn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave. There was something else on his heart. It was quiet as he seemed to be thinking, struggling. I asked him if he’d like to go into the sanctuary for a few minutes. He quickly stood up – oh yes - and we went in and sat in one of the pews. He was quiet for a little while and then his painful story came out. As I listened to him I heard the words of Isaiah ringing in my head – Comfort, O comfort my people.
Advent is about allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and opening ourselves to the rebirth of hope in our lives. Advent is about being transformed – about sharing our deepest selves with the God who waits for us always and who will always welcome us home. I had no answers for this young man’s why questions – but I was honored to share and witness his vulnerability, his courage in going so deep. When he left a little while later, he was smiling, he stood straighter, and I could see the dawn of new hope in his eyes. His wilderness was a little less frightening. God is good. All the time. God is good. Comfort, O comfort my people.
I like to knit – I especially enjoy making afghans – lots of stitches on them, and they have to be long enough that you can really wrap yourself in them. At the end of the project, you “bind off” the stitches – one at a time – it seems to take forever, this process. But then slowly, or maybe it’s all of a sudden, there’s only one stitch left – when it is bound off, the project is finished. Now it’s time to “cast on” stitches for another project. It seems to me that this is a description of Advent too – a time to bind off, a time to cast on – a time for turning around – a time for starting something new. A time to go a little deeper and perhaps let go of what is familiar and comfortable, a time to be ready for something new. Oh yes, it is an anxious time for us – but here’s where the message, the promise, of Isaiah can ring loud and strong for us – then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.
In the midst of the harshness of Advent there is also the promise of grace and mercy of Advent.That’s especially true this year, I’m afraid, but every Advent the road to Christmas leads through the wilderness – if we choose to take that road and I pray we will.Because on the other side of the wilderness is the promise, the joy, we have in the words of Isaiah.And of course, this is not a one time event, is it.Advent comes upon us every year to stop us short, we hear the words of John the Baptist every year to challenge us, and we hear the words every year of the promise of that Baby born in the manger.God keeps calling us – God keeps calling us out of our comfort zones into new life, into new relationship with God and with each other.May we go deeper, may we be open to the transformation Advent offers.May we not be afraid to respond.May we each answer God’s call with all that we are and with all that we have.May we know the peace that passes all understanding – and may we share that peace with all we