Homily: In the Midst of Suffering, We Live in Joy
There are undoubtedly many of you in our pews this week who are beginning to wonder about this whole season of Advent. The contrast between the tone of our lectionary readings and the mood – however harried and stressful – of the world around us is stark: the baby is already in the manger of many Nativity sets, the greens are hung (even in many of our churches), Christmas carols are in the air, and the shopping is now being followed by gift-wrapping, parties, and perhaps opportunities to “give back” by working in food pantries, toy drives, and visiting shut-ins.
Why, then, is the church making us listen (two weeks in a row!) to stories about a wild-eyed preacher from the wilderness who doesn’t yell just at the powers-that-be (the religious authorities, the puppet rulers, the empire) but at all of the sincerely open people who have bothered to come out here in the middle of nowhere to listen to his message warning of a coming judgment? Admittedly, it’s hard to connect this message easily with the theme of “Joy” given to this Third Sunday in Advent.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us the beautiful and familiar stories surrounding the birth of the baby Jesus. We would like to get to those stories, steep ourselves in them, share the joy and hope with which they reassure and comfort us. But the church makes us listen first – not instead, but first – to this rough-voiced, almost reckless, prophet who wouldn’t last five minutes in most of our pulpits.
That’s Advent. Right alongside the “merry” of the season that calls us to shop and decorate, cook and celebrate, is this other kind of preparation for the coming of the One promised to us.
But this season of preparation in the church is not burdensome or depressing to our spirits. On the contrary, we are led slowly and thoughtfully toward this great celebration of the Incarnation, the mystery of God taking on flesh and being among us, with us in the most ordinary of our days, the most overwhelming of our griefs, our most profound joys, our deepest hopes.
This life, our lives and communities and the world as we experience it, right here, is where that long “church-y” word, “Incarnation,” happens. Maybe it’s a word that we don’t use very often in our day-to-day lives, but we experience the Incarnation every moment of our lives in our relationship with Jesus, that “Word made flesh” that dwells among us. The Bible translation called The Message’ translates it, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood”
Right here, in our midst, day in and day out, not just at Christmastime. Immerse yourself, then, in this season of preparation: If you do not walk the Advent road, the destination you arrive at at Christmas is reduced to half its meaning. Withdraw from any occasion the anticipation of it and even an event of great importance is much impoverished.
John came preaching a message of challenge and exhortation. The powers-that-be had arranged a world very much like today, with those at the top grabbing, through force and greed, the lion’s share of power and material wealth for themselves. It wasn’t just the Roman Empire and their puppets that experienced his wrath, but the religious institutions as well felt the sting of John’s rebuke. John’s message about the forgiveness of sins and being baptized in a river made the Temple and its elaborate systems run by powerful priests sound rather unnecessary. The high priests could not have greeted his preaching with enthusiasm. As rulers also, they abused their position to increase the debt load on the people of the land. The abuse of position and power for profit is nothing that we’ve invented ourselves. Things were all out-of-whack, they had gone awry, the world was being held “upside-down” by the ones on top, and John calls the people to prepare for what they had been waiting for all these years.
I believe this is the message of good news. We are bombarded with all sorts of other news, much of it bad news, from more sources now than we could have imagined even ten years ago: TV, radio — now even the internet. There are countless sources of information about the suffering and injustice and disasters of the world, and they come at us now 24 hours a day.
And if those reports aren’t worrisome enough, we can check our bank balances online and see how they reflect what we read about in the world around us. It could make you want to run out to the wilderness in search of better news, a word of hope, something to come that’s worth preparing for.
In the meantime, what then should we do? John jars us with his message into looking afresh at our lives, our priorities and preoccupations, our style of living. Check out your life in the mirror of how others might see you: ask yourself, can anyone tell, by observing our lives, that we bear the mark of Jesus and that we are living as his faithful disciples?
Those are the kinds of basic justice and goodness that would knock the supports out from under every out-of-whack, awry, misaligned, upside-down, oppressive structure and system that we’ve built. This kind of justice and goodness would take the air, the power, out of every process and habit that we humans have practiced and perfected and with which we have hurt one another, and one another’s children.
John puts it simply: ‘It’s your life that must change; what counts is your life.’ What counts is your life. Isn’t it good news that our lives count?
John would definitely be a winner on a TV show called, ‘So You Think You Can Preach’. This Gospel sermon is exactly what we and the world need and ought to hear, and then, in turn, proclaim: In this season, and in our times, the prophet’s cry must again become our cry. This is our work, to go out into the wilderness, to proclaim to a weary world that the hunger, the poverty, the inequity as we know it will not have the final word.
That is the good news we preach, the hope that sustains us, the vision toward which we work, and it is no wonder then, or not so very difficult to understand why, we live in joy as well. Kate Huey