8 December 2013, 2 Advent
Last week Mother Leyla tried to wake y’all up. Do you feel awake yet? She reminded us that we have work to do as followers of Christ and that Advent is a time to refocus, to return to our vision which keeps us going, to remember what Christ has done for us and what Christ has promised us. Advent is thus a season of waking up, anticipation, and preparation. One of the things we are preparing for is new life, the life we have already, but not yet fully. Christ is with us, but Christ is coming. We are currently living in one life, but we are preparing for the new life that awaits us, which we anticipate. It is mutual waiting for new life to come. We live in a time full of tension. Yes, no, yet, but not quite yet... Maybe?
Advent is doubly tense, since it tests our resolve to have Advent at all. We could just skip, quick and easy, from celebrating Christ the King to Christ the Incarnate God! We live in between the secular year and the church year, the secular world pulling us to Christmas and the church world pulling us to remain in Advent. This tension is so apparent right now. The secular world has been celebrating a version of our holiday already for a couple weeks. Yet we still have a couple weeks to go before the holy day actually shows up. We still have much to prepare. This tension pulls us out into the wilderness.
The Gospel reading for today meets us in the wilderness. We need to wander in the wilderness sometimes. Physical, emotional, or relational, the wilderness can be scary, empty, lonely, can cause us to question our survival skills and our place in the universe. There is great emptiness, stark cleanliness, and lack of life in the wilderness. Yet, sometimes there is surprising life in the wilderness, like cactus flowers or John the Baptist. Sometimes the wilderness is created by ourselves, by our sins, by our problems, by our physical ailments. Sometimes the wilderness is created by things beyond our control. Wandering in the wilderness usually pushes us to see what we really need, to be truthful with ourselves. The wilderness is there to help us reevaluate. Historically, the wilderness has great significance. The wilderness is a place of testing, judgment, and renewal before returning to the world. We need this type of place for preparation and renewal in our own lives. The Israelites experienced so many defining things in the wilderness, receiving the law, wandering, eating manna, hearing a call to be a nation set apart for God.
And it is in the wilderness that we find John. So strange and striking. Offering a wake up call from God. God calls for our repentance through John because God does not want to be estranged from us. Advent is the perfect time for this call because we are preparing and waiting expectantly for Christ, but we don't always know what to do in order to prepare. John the Baptist answers our uncertainty, “Repent! Return to God!” More R-e- words, inviting us over and over again to return to God. Once we are reconciled with God and with our neighbors, we can be filled with the joy and awe appropriate to the coming of our Savior. Repentance is the contrition and act of confessing our sins. We follow through with our repentance in reconciliation when we reconnect with the people and things we have hurt. How can we be excited and prepared for God's coming if we are in tension with God? It's like preparing your house for the coming of an unwanted or disliked relative or guest. It's not joyful, it's frustrating, it's annoying! God's coming should not be like that! John meets us out in the wilderness today, knowing the troubled history between Israel and God, knowing our troubled history as people with God. In our tension between church and world, our current life and the life to come, John calls us to strengthen our relationship with God. A stronger relationship with God is exactly what we need to make it through all the confusion. Being reconciled is not being a push over or letting others walk over us for the sake of peace. That is avoidance or compliance. We want real reconciliation, requiring hard questions and hard conversations. There are many ways to start this process, recognizing what we are responsible for, opening conversations, or even using the rite of reconciliation in the prayer book. We are called to repentance today, to feel the tension between us and God and travel through the wilderness to reconcile ourselves. John calling out in the wilderness reminds us that God wants us to realign ourselves with Christ and not get hung up with all of our human standards. We do not have to worry about living up to anyone else's standards. God promises us forgiveness. We do not need to be afraid, God loves and forgives us simply because we are God’s children. However, what we do also matters. We are responsible for what we do, in our relationship with God and in our relationships with others. Many times we need to forgive others or ourselves so that we can move on with our own lives.
However, if we are not ready to forgive, the church, the community, is here for us. It doesn't matter how many times our relationships hit the rocks, repentance and reconciliation with God are always available, like relationships with relatives we cannot ever really disconnect ourselves from. We use a lot of courage, vulnerability, and love in the number of times we return to each other over and over after fighting. It takes courage and vulnerability to admit your own fault, to speak to others about the pain you have caused them and that they have caused you.
Perhaps by design, courage involves hope, hope for something better, something new. Our hope in the face of sin is reconciliation with God. Our hope in reconciliation is opening our hearts, taking responsibility for ourselves, and strengthening our relationships. Reconciliation is one way hope is at work. We hope that with God, we will make it through the wilderness.
As we prepare with our friends and relatives, ironing out all the details before we meet so that we can be fully present and enjoy the time we have together, we are also working with Christ to prepare for Christ in our hearts and lives. This way we can greet God on Christmas morning with one of the greatest r-e- words, rejoicing!