Sermons For These Times
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mk. 1).
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) wrote the following words in the middle of the twentieth century. “The rain I am in is not like the rain of cities. It fills the woods with an immense and confused sound. It covers the flat roof of the cabin and its porch with insistent and controlled rhythms. And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer.”
“I came up here from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain… The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies…”
“What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world…”
Merton quotes the 5th century Syrian mystic Philoxenos (d. 523) who writes, “You too go out into the desert having with you nothing of the world, and the Holy Spirit will go with you. See the freedom with which Jesus has gone forth, and go forth like Him.”
This is one way of summarizing the spirit of Mark’s Gospel. In this Gospel Jesus frequently retreats like this to the wilderness for periods of prayer and renewal. He seems to instinctively know that as in the story of Noah, God’s covenant is not just with human beings but with “every living creature,” and all creation (Gen. 9). Of the four gospels Mark uses the most compact, direct and simple language. He speaks in a forceful, abrupt, and repetitive way that is difficult to appreciate in translation.
My friend the New Testament scholar Herman Waetjen says that it is written in the “Hellenistic Greek of the uneducated lower-class residents of the rural countryside.” More importantly he points out that Mark is not writing a biography of Jesus. This is not intended to be a documentary record of the past (in the style of someone like Ken Burns).
Instead this is an aesthetic literary creation. Like a novel it forms its own world. Although Mark uses materials from the first century (places, ideas, political relations, forms of life), his world is not the past world. In many respects it is more connected to us and to our story than an ancient history could be. It is a story of us.
Mark writes about Jesus coming from an obscure, even despised region and being baptized by John in the Jordan River. The heavens are ripped apart. A voice says, “you are my son, the beloved, with you I am well-pleased.” This spirit immediately drives Jesus into the wilderness where he is “with the wild beasts and the angels minister to him.” John is arrested. Jesus returns to the Galilean countryside and gives his first sermon.
In this symbolically important statement Jesus says four things: 1. The time is fulfilled, 2. The kingdom of God has come near, 3. Repent, 4. Believe in the good news. Let me talk briefly about what each of these statements might mean today.
- The time is fulfilled. This week the people around me are at a breaking point. They are talking to me because they have had enough. They are sick of being at home, of working remotely, of having businesses and schools closed. They desperately miss seeing their friends and loved ones. A few people this week told me the same thing, “I just can’t take this anymore.”
And to us Jesus says, “the time is fulfilled.” Whatever it is that you enjoy about this strange COVID time, make the most of it, because soon it will be a faded memory. Whatever you want to accomplish during these days, whoever you wish to connect with by phone, do it now because these days will not last. We’re not going back to the way it was before and it certainly won’t be like this for long. This is true of any historical moment and is especially the case right now.
- The kingdom of God has come near. During his lifetime, the Roman Catholic church banned the theological writings of the Jesuit priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). He died on Easter Sunday in 1955. Only ten people attended the funeral and only one person accompanied his body to the graveyard. No one yet knew that he was one of the most profound religious thinkers of the twentieth century.
Yes, he had made arrangements to have his ideas published after his death. Teilhard believed profoundly that God lies absolutely near at the heart of everything and that the world addresses us by name. He writes, “without leaving the world, plunge into God.” He prays, “O God… in the life which wells up in me and in the matter which sustains me, I find much more than your gifts. It is you yourself whom I find.”
According to Teilhard Jesus helps lift the veil, so that we can see, “the transparence of God in the universe.” We can see God in physical matter. Teilhard writes about what he calls “ex-centration” where we leave behind our ego, become free of our own individuality, so that we can find ourselves in others and in the whole world. Over the years my experience of the nearness of God keeps growing stronger. I love the Lord. I feel God’s presence in prayer.
- Repent. Jesus asks us to repent. The Greek word is metanoia and it means literally to change your mind, to alter the habits which shape how you think about the world and perceive it. For me a person doesn’t repent and then start experiencing the goodness of God. God’s generosity always comes first and then we move toward God in love and this motion changes our way of thinking.
In the 1940’s a blizzard made traveling next to impossible for the avant-garde composer John Cage (1912-1992) and the dancer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009). They performed in Chicago, parked their car in Sacramento flew to Arizona, then Denver, returned to California to pick up the car and from there drove through ice and snow to Columbus, Ohio. They arrived just in time for the performance and went right up on stage without even resting.
The people at the party afterward told them how miserable their work was and asked how they could possibly devote their lives to this. Cage himself wondered why do we go to such trouble for something that people don’t even enjoy. And then ten years later he received a letter from someone who had been at that exact performance who thanked him and said that it had changed his life.
Cage once said, “Thoreau got up every morning and walked to the woods as though he had never been where he was going to, so that whatever was there came to him like liquid into an empty glass. Many people taking such a walk would have their heads so full of other ideas that it would be a long time before they were capable of hearing or seeing. Most people are blinded by themselves.”
- Believe in the good news. The good news is that we don’t have to blinded by ourselves. Like Jesus we can be fully God’s children. And when we are consciously in God – the world, every person and creature in it, will be transfigured miraculously to our sight.
The Dalai Lama tells the story of a king who invited the Buddha and his friends to lunch. On the way, the Buddha passed a beggar who praised the king and talked about the magnificence of the palace. After many courses of rich banquet food it came time for the prayer that would dedicate the karma of the meal. But the Buddha, instead of dedicating the merit to the host, to the king for his generosity, the Buddha chose to bless the beggar outside.
When his senior monk asked what he was doing. The Buddha replied that the king was proud of his kingdom, but the beggar was exceptional because he was able to rejoice in the king’s good fortune. Can we believe in God’s good news so sincerely that we take joy in others’ blessings? Can we begin to realize that we ourselves have and are enough?
My friends during this holy Lent I dare us to not be blinded by our self. Let us live by the rhythms in the world that we have not yet learned to recognize. Let the rain be something new to us. Let whatever is come to us like liquid in a glass.
The time is fulfilled. The kingdom is near. Repent. Believe in the good news.
“You too go out into the desert having with you nothing of the world, and the Holy Spirit will go with you. See the freedom with which Jesus has gone forth, and go forth like Him.”
 Thomas Merton, “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” Raids on the Unspeakable (1964) also published in The Norton Book of Nature Writing ed. Robert Finch and John Elder (NY: Norton, 1990) 598-607.
 Ibid., 604. Philoxenos of Mabbug.
 Herman C. Waetjen, A Re-Ordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014 originally published in 1989) 1-3.
 John Philip Newell, Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul: A Celtic Guide to Listening to Our Souls and Saving the World (NY: HarperCollins, 2021).
 Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (NY: Penguin, 2012) 192, 187.
 Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (NY: Penguin, 2016) 141-2
“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…” (Isa. 58).
How can you be healed spiritually this Lent? In 2003 it would have been hard to predict what was about to happen in professional British bicycle racing. Since 1908 British riders had won only one gold medal in the Olympic Games. In 110 years they had never won a single Tour de France. Their performance was so mediocre that some top manufacturers refused to sell them gear because they thought it would hurt sales if other pros saw them using it.
But that year they hired Dave Brailsford as a coach. He had a really simple philosophy. He reasoned that if you can just break down everything involved in riding a bike, and then if you could just make a 1% improvement in each relatively small thing, and you kept doing that, all those gains would end up making a significant impact on the team’s success.
So they got better seats, put alcohol on the tires for a better grip, wore electric shorts that kept their muscles at the optimum performance temperature. They even tried different kinds of massage gel. They learned the best way to wash their hands to prevent colds. They got the best pillow and mattress for each rider’s sleep.
These may seem like silly things but the results were spectacular. From 2007 to 2017 British cyclists won 178 world championships, 66 Olympic or Paralympic gold medals and captured 5 Tour de France victories.
Today we observe Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Season of Lent. What small change could you make to your daily life that would have a transformative spiritual effect in forty days? My mission tonight is to offer you a suggestion. The ancient prophet Isaiah writes, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly” (Isa. 58).
For two thousand years Christians have used the forty days before Easter to focus on spiritual growth. It is time to move more deeply into the life of God. For that reason I love Lent. It gives me the chance to take on a spiritual discipline or focus that will change who I am for the better.
Usually on this day in church a priest will put ashes on our foreheads and say, “Remember that from dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return.” Ash Wednesday reminds us of our death, not out of some morbid preoccupation with our finitude, but in the recognition that nothing other than God will last forever. It is a reminder of just how precious the people, the experiences of this moment are. It is God’s way of saying “this is YOUR time!”
Jesus gives instructions about how to be transformed spiritually. He talks about giving money to the poor, prayer and fasting. He reminds us to be careful, not to ruin the power of our faith by using it for another purpose (for instance to impress others). He says, “whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to pray… so that they may be seen by others” (Mt. 6). Jesus is not saying that you should keep your faith a secret, only that we should use our spirituality for its intended purpose
The Greek word upokritai back then meant just what it does today – a hypocrite, someone without what we call integrity, someone whose actions don’t match what they say they believe. But the Greek word also had another meaning. It meant interpreter or actor.
We do this kind of acting all the time. We pretend to be something that we are not. We act as if we are competent, smart, desirable, successful, righteous, friendly, normal, perfect when we are not. So much of what we do comes out of this desire to control how others perceive us. So much of our life is simply pretending.
Instead of this acting, Jesus encourages us to be who we really are as children of God. He invites us to return to our true self, to that part of us that doesn’t have to be afraid about how others perceive us.
One important way that Jesus does this is by reminding us of a truth. He says that, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6). Your treasure may be mansion in Pacific Heights, a prestigious career, a huge social media following, a perfect family, or being happy. Jesus teaches us to redirect our energies from a focus on accumulating physical things or social standing to spiritual well-being and wholeness.
There is a falsehood that nearly all of us live by much of the time. We talk and act as if our outward circumstances are what will really make us happy. We say that we will be happy after we make the varsity baseball team, or get accepted to a prestigious college, pass the bar exam, make partner, receive our degree. We say that we’ll be happy after we retire. In doing this we wish our lives away. In particular we assume that success will make us happy.
The truth however is that we were not made to be satisfied by these things. Happiness does not come from outside in. It begins in our heart. It is only by being in harmony with God that we will ever feel whole. Hoping to derive joy out of success is like trying to put molasses in the gas tank of an automobile designed to run on petroleum fuel. We are made to run on God’s spirit, nothing else will be enough for us.
I have known people who are successful beyond all imagination – but mostly they are not any happier than others. Here is the secret. If happiness is defined as something that is only possible on the other side of success, we never really get there. As soon as we achieve that success it is almost instantly not enough because we are already longing for the next thing. The goal posts are always moving, the sales quotas are always being adjusted.
This approach to life teaches us to exist in a universe where joy is always put off and deferred. It is never present to us in the moment. And as a result it trains us to never be happy. So what can we do?
Happiness, or to be more precise, joy comes from being as fully in God as we can be in the present moment. The secret that no one tells you is that we can fall in love with God. If we can learn to pause and see, we can be in love with the one who is nearer to us than our very selves.
Prayer over time teaches me to come back into the presence of the holiness that is our only real hope. When I was a young person, I would have a transcendental experience of beauty in an art museum or in a Sierra sunset or in a great cathedral or in a connection with a friend. But the older I get, the more this kind of experience of God is with me through the whole day.
All this brings me back to what I promised at the beginning when I wondered if we can make a little 1% change that could transform us spiritually. Jesus teaches us to pray in secret. My suggestion to you for these forty days is to adopt a simple practice. Every day during this time pray to God. Every day thank God for three things you are grateful for, three new things that you noticed about how the spirit is alive in our world. You might even write them down in a kind of spiritual journal.
Do not store up your treasures on earth. Leave them behind as you journey inward into the heart of God. Let prayer, let gratitude change your life over the next forty days. I look forward to hearing about your spiritual adventures.
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6).
 James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones (NY: Avery, 2018) 13-15.
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“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1).
These words summarize the entire Gospel of John and perhaps even what it means to have faith. What is this light shining in the darkness?
Al Zolynas writes about the experience of light and darkness in his poem “Under Ideal Conditions. ”Under Ideal Conditions / say in the flattest part of North Dakota / on a starless moonless night / no breath of wind // a man could light a candle / then walk away / every now and then / he could turn and see the candle burning // seventeen miles later / provided conditions remained ideal / he could still see the flame /”
“somewhere between the seventeenth and eighteenth mile / he would lose the light // if he were walking backwards he would know the exact moment when he lost the flame // he could step forward and find it again / back and forth / dark to light light to dark // what’s the place where the light disappears? / where the light reappears? / don’t tell me about photons / and eyeballs / reflection and refraction / don’t tell me about one hundred and eighty-six thousand / miles per second and the theory of relativity // all I know is that place / where the light appears and disappears // that’s the place where we live”
In a recent sermon Stephanie Paulsell describes a painting from 1480 by Sandro Boticelli (1445-1510) called “Augustine in his Study.” She imagines Augustine (354-430) in it trying to figure out how to begin his Confessions perhaps the greatest autobiography of all time. In the end, Augustine decides to start by paraphrasing scripture, Psalm 48. “Great art thou O Lord, and greatly to be praised…” A few sentences later he writes about human sin and pride, but also about the pleasure we were made to experience when we praise God.
She asks where do we begin the story of our life? Do we begin with our grandparents, how our parents met, with a description of the world we were born into? She goes on to ask about the beginnings of this Pandemic. Does this story begin with the defunding of public health initiatives, or patient zero, or the first news reports a year ago, or when London Breed instituted the Stay at Home order in March and the store shelves and streets were empty, or when we lost someone we love? Where did this season of darkness begin?
Stories about beginnings matter. The Gospel of Mark does not even have the Christmas story in it. It starts with words from Isaiah, with John the Baptist and the deepest human longing for justice. The Gospel of Matthew begins in a lengthy genealogy, a jealous king, magi from the East and the prophecies of holy scripture. The Gospel of Luke tells the story of people who are close to Jesus, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph. Luke cares about political implications and asserts that the most important event in history happened in the most obscure corner of the Empire – Bethlehem.
This brings us to the Gospel of John which begins with an ancient hymn whose origins are lost to history. In my early twenties I memorized this hymn and used it as a meditation passage. These are the first passages I ever translated from Greek. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God… The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1).
The word gospel means good news. And from the first syllables John asserts that at the center of all things, at the very beginning of the universe, there is a light which gives us power to become children of God. In English it repeats that the word was “with” God but the Greek is actually much more dynamic. The Word is not static but it is literally moving “toward” God.
Studying to prepare for seeing you today I learned something that should have been obvious to me. I have always recognized that this hymn echoes the first words of the Bible. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1). But I didn’t realize how many other books begin with the Hebrew expression “Davar (Adonai) Jahweh” translated as “The word of God came to…” and then the prophet’s name: Hosea, Micah, Joel, Zephaniah, Malachi, etc. The Hebrew word “devar” means “word, speech, thing, matter, affair.”
The word creates. The word reveals the truth we long to understand. The word cries out for justice in the darkness that confounds us. It is written in Deuteronomy that, “The word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deut. 30).
For Augustine we need Christ because there is a darkness at the center of our being which he calls original sin. According to him our pride always separates us from God. Denise Levertov’s (1923-1997) Christmas poem “On the Mystery of the Incarnation” expresses this view.
“It’s when we face for a moment / the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know / the taint of our own selves, that awe / cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart: / not to a flower, not to a dolphin, / to no innocent form / but to this creature vainly sure / it, and no other is god-like, God / (out of compassion for our ugly / failure to evolve) entrusts, / as guest, as brother, / the Word.”
But not all Christians believe in original sin or that darkness is at the core of our being. John Philip Newell has a forthcoming book on Celtic Christianity in which he writes about Augustine’s opponent Pelagius (366-431). He argues that Augustine’s idea of original sin was perfectly suited for an empire that wanted to control bodies and manipulate the earth.
But Pelagius drew on a more ancient tradition. He moved to Rome in the early 380’s and was criticized for teaching women holy scripture and theology. Not only did he believe in the sacred feminine. He also felt convinced that when we hold a newborn child, when we feel the softness and smell the sweetness of the baby’s skin, when we look into that baby’s eyes we are seeing a being from a deeper place. We are seeing God. Pelagius believed that what is deepest in us is “of God not opposed to God.”
After the sack of Rome in 410 Pelagius fled to the Middle East where Augustine sent an emissary (his student Orosius) to accuse him of heresy. Two local diocesan conventions examined Pelagius’ teaching and found him innocent. But after the authorities in Rome who supported him died, he was excommunicated and banned. He returned to his homeland in Wales and continued to write. He had a sense of humor because he sometimes under the pseudonym of “Augustine.”
I’m briefly going to summarize Pelagius’ teaching. First, he believed in the inherent dignity of every person, that a kind of light of goodness burns in each of us. This inner nobility can get what he called “buried” by falseness and delusion. But we are fundamentally good. We experience this light by receiving the gift of illumination, the gift of the present when we see that this goodness is also at the heart of creation and in every creature.
For Pelagius no person or tradition owns the truth. There is wisdom in us but also in other cultures and religions. We can learn from other traditions of experiencing God. Pelagius also taught spiritual practices mainly around discerning the light in us. And finally he understood that what one believes is less important than becoming like Christ who had compassion for all people and all the world.
On Christmas morning we celebrate this light. We thank God for being so intimately involved in the world. In an ecstatic moment the theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes about what it feels like to know that Christ is already with us. He writes, “The word became flesh… This is the beginning of all beginnings in Christian thinking… When we say Jesus Christ, that is not a possibility which is somewhere ahead of us, but an actuality which is already behind us. With his name in our hearts and on our lips, we are not laboriously toiling uphill, but merrily coming down…”
My dear friends, where does the story of your life begin? Does it all start in original sin or in the light which does not need ideal conditions in order to shine? We have been through so much darkness this year and we are still here because God has carried us.
The light in our hearts, in every creature and all the world, the light we see in a new baby is not static. It moves toward God. The word creates. The word reveals the truth we long to understand. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Merry Christmas!
 Al Zolynas, “Under Ideal Conditions,” Under Ideal Conditions (San Diego, CA: Latherthanever Press, 1994). https://capa.conncoll.edu/zolynas.ideal.htm
 Stephanie Paulsell is a professor at Harvard University and one of my favorite religious thinkers. This winter she gave a paper at the American Academy of Religion on Virginia Woolf. She is also currently serving as the Interim Minister to Harvard University. Because she mentions broken quills which do not seem to be in this image. I’m not completely sure which painting Paulsell is describing. Stephanie Paulsell, “Searching for the Beginning,” Harvard Memorial Church, 8 December 2020. https://memorialchurch.harvard.edu/blog/searching-beginning
 “Great art thou O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is thy power, and thy wisdom is infinite. And man wants to praise you, man who is only a small portion of what you have created and who goes about carrying with him his own mortality, the evidence of his own sin and evidence that Thou resisteth the proud. Yet still man, this small portion of creation, wants to praise you. You stimulate him to take pleasure in you. Grant me, O Lord, to know and understand which should come first, prayer or praise; or, indeed, whether knowledge should precede prayer. For how can one pray to you unless one knows you?” Augustine, Confessions tr. Rex Warner (NY: New York, New American Library, 1963) 17 (italics retained).
 My friend Herman Waetjen translates the Greek word “pros” as “towards.” Herman C. Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005) 67-8.
 ‹hDkyIm_lRa hGÎyDh r∞RvSa —h∞Dwh◊y_rAb√;d.
 Denise Levertov, “On the Mystery of the Incarnation.” https://www.journeywithjesus.net/PoemsAndPrayers/Denise_Levertov_Incarnation.shtml
 John Philip Newell, Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul: A Celtic Guide to Listening to Our Souls and Saving the World (NY: HarperOne, Forthcoming 2021) 22-43.
 “Jesus Christ is the name at whose remembrance the event arises as such, so that if Christian knowledge and Christian life are worthy of the name they can never lose their astonishment at the participation in the act of becoming which – as the Son of God once became man in time – can never become past or cease to be His act. Incarnation is the actuality of this work of God.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.2 The Doctrine of Reconciliation tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1958) 46.
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God” (1 Thess. 5).
In America we have come to the darkest days of the pandemic. 290,000 have died. Each day we lose almost the same number of people as those who perished in the September 11th terrorist attacks. And yet it’s business as usual in so many places even when it is as if ten to fifteen passenger planes were crashing every day. On Thursday someone close to me threatened to take his own life, so many terrible things are happening to those I love. There are many temptations to despair.
And yet the Apostle Paul in the oldest section of the New Testament gives us a simple instruction. He says, “rejoice without ceasing… give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God” (1 Thess. 5). My question today is simple. What does it mean to rejoice and how can this become the center of our life?
As a young child I spent summers with my grandparents in Chelsea, Vermont. I felt so loved in that place. It was like a world of its own, or rather like several worlds. They had an old barn behind their farmhouse that was gradually succumbing to the laws of entropy. It felt like a completely magical place. I remember the comforting musty smell of old hay and dampness. The light came in rays through uneven boards and filtered through the dusty air. It seemed somewhat dangerous. You had to be careful because there were missing stairs up to the hayloft and a few floorboards had rotten through. There were rusted tools, old farm equipment, toys and forgotten objects from another time like an old Victrola record player and other similar treasures.
The barn collapsed long ago and the house was converted into condos, but even if they were the same, I would not be able to return – because I have changed. I am no longer that little boy experiencing life in the shelter of my grandparent’s love.
Plato and Aristotle agree that the beginning of all philosophy is wonder. The theologian David Bentley Hart suggests that all thought even, begins in a “moment of unsettling or delighted surprise.” He writes, “Not, that is, [in] a simple twinge of curiosity or bafflement regarding some fact out there not yet in one’s possession: if anything, it is the sudden awareness that no mere fact can possibly be adequate explanation of the mystery in which one finds oneself immersed at every moment.”
“It is the astonishing recollection of something one has forgotten only because it is always present: a primordial agitation of the mind and will, an abiding amazement that lies just below the surface of conscious thought…” He goes on saying, “It may be that when we are small children, before we have learned to forget the obvious, we know this wonder in a more constant, innocent, and luminous way, because we are still open to the sheer inexplicable givenness of the world.”
I think this is what it means in Mark’s words “to receive the Kingdom of God as a child” (Mk. 10:15). As we age the world seems more worn out. That urgent immediacy disappears. The seventeenth century thinker Angelus Silesius (1624-1677) writes, “Die Rose ist ohne warum, sie blühet, weil sie blühet.” “The Rose is without ‘why’ it blooms because it blooms.”
As a child I remember sharing this feeling of mystery and amazement that the world exists and that I felt so at home in it, and trying to explain this to my mother. It is not about what action causes which particular result, but about the way the world can feel like a pure gift. A few weeks later my mom gave me a book explaining the birds and the bees and illustrated with cartoon drawings of a sometimes naked middle aged couple.
Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was one of the teachers at my seminary. He writes that while happiness seems to depend a great deal on our current circumstances, joy lies much deeper. He writes, “Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression or even death – can take that away.” Joy and sorrow are not opposites but can co-exist in us at the same time.
The famous civil rights leader and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once defined faith as primarily a faithfulness to a time when we had faith. So practically speaking how do we recover this wonder, this rejoicing in the intimacy of God? We cannot become children again but how can we experience the world in this way more often?
This week I found an answer to this question in a long-familiar figure who I suddenly saw in a new way. At Bible Study this week Craig said what a blessing it was that God placed Jesus in a community of people who cared for him and that John and Jesus shared so much in common and must have had a deep friendship. Suddenly John the Baptist didn’t seem so isolated or severe.
John plays a role in all four gospels. Each in some way refers to Isaiah 40:3. “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” Before this year I never noticed the uniqueness of the John in the fourth gospel. In other gospels he is called John the Baptist or “the baptizer” but here he is primarily a witness. He is called a voice who testifies to the truth that a light has entered our world of darkness.
The other gospels have him ordering people to repent or proclaiming a gospel of repentance – but not John. The New Testament scholar Herman Waetjen contrasts the Gospels of Mark and John. He points out that in Mark, John “prepares” the way of the Lord. This means improving or resurfacing the road bed, eliminating potholes. But the Gospel of John has him “making straight the way of the Lord.” This involves eliminating detours and digressions.
Metaphorically it means dispensing with all traditions and practices that qualify or make more distant our relationship to God. The word John uses is one that the ancient witness (Philo and LXX) uses to straighten one’s way, heart or a ship. It is related to the word “immediately” and “immediacy.” John believes no structures should stand in the way of being in union with God.
When the religious authorities persist in asking if John is the Christ, he uses an emphatic form of Greek to explain that he is not the Messiah. This John reminds us of the importance of humility. Our ego cannot remain at the center of our life if we are going to be people who rejoice.
As Paul writes we can work toward making all of our life a prayer to God. Reaching beyond our ego, offering prayers of thanks to God throughout the day, we return to the child’s sense of wonder at the sheer reality and beauty of this world.
A rare illness came close to killing the American poet Christian Wiman (1966-). He says fear is not the reason why there are no atheists in foxholes. He writes, “You don’t turn to God in a crisis because you are afraid, at least not primarily. You turn to God because, for once, all that background chatter in your brain, all that pandemonium of blab ceases, and you can hear – and what some of us hear in those instances is a still, small voice.”
Imagine what you might hear in this pandemic Advent as we wait for the coming of the one who speaks so tenderly to us from our very first moment to now? I want to close with a poem from Wendell Berry (1934-) called “Remembering that it Happened Once.”
“Remembering that it happened once, / We cannot turn away the thought, / As we go out, cold, to our barns / Toward the long night’s end, that we / Ourselves are living in the world / It happened in when it first happened,/
“That we ourselves, opening a stall / (A latch thrown open countless times / Before), might find them breathing there, / Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw, / The mother kneeling over Him, / The husband standing in belief / He scarcely can believe, in light / That lights them from no source we see, / An April morning’s light, the air / Around them joyful as a choir. /
“We stand with one hand on the door, / Looking into another world / That is this world, the pale daylight / Coming just as before, our chores / To do, the cattle all awake, / Our own white frozen breath hanging / In front of us: and we are here / As we have never been before, / Sighted as not before, our place / Holy, although, we knew it not.”
Brothers and sisters, a light has entered our world of darkness. Let us thank God for our own memories of childlike wonder, that an abiding amazement at beauty lies just below the surface of our conscious thought. Let us thank God for the example of John’s humility and the desire for immediate experience of the Holy One, and that one day the chatter that separates us from Christ will be quiet. And let us seek to rejoice always, to give thanks in all circumstances because this is the will of God.
 Isabel Togoh, “More People Died From COVID-19 In The U.S. On Wednesday Than From The 9/11 Attacks,” Forbes 10 December 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/isabeltogoh/2020/12/10/more-people-died-from-covid-19-in-the-us-on-wednesday-than-during-911-attacks/?sh=52989e677136
 David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013) 87-8.
 Henri Nouwen quoted in Matt Boulton, “Magnificat: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week Three,” SALT, 8 December 2020). https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2017/12/11/magnificat-lectionary-commentary-for-advent-week-three
 Christian Wiman, He Held Radical Light (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018) 34.
 Herman C. Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005) 88-90.
 This passage begins with the following: “It has been my own experience that the reason there are no atheists in foxholes, so to speak, is not because of the roar of death and destruction that makes a person terrified, but because when one is truly confronted with one’s own end, everything goes icily quiet.”
Christian Wiman, He Held Radical Light (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018) 68-9.
 Wendell Berry, “Remembering that It Happened Once.” https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/11/26/remembering-that-it-happened-once-by-wendell-berry
The Friday morning after Thanksgiving, as my eyes scanned across the New York Times at my door, I saw a color picture of a little boy…walking along the highway, pulling an unwieldy suitcase behind his slender, masked body.
His red plastic shoes were glowing in the twilight as he pulled the suitcase which weighed almost as much as he did.
The next photo captured Sebastian almost blown off his feet as a truck whizzed by on the highway.
“ Where are you going?” someone asked Sebastian. “To Venezuela,” he shouted,
Six year old Sebastian and his 4 months pregnant mother, were among hundreds of MIGRANTS on the road that morning,
attempting to walk back home to Venezuela after spending some month in refuge in Colombia.
Jessika and Sebastian had originally fled Venuzuela to escape the oppressive conditions and the raging virus there. Now the virus had caught up with them in Colombia, and Jessika had lost her job as a florist’s assistant, and lost their apartment, and Sebastian had lost his first schooling and his new love of reading.
There was ,of course, no guarantee of safety back home in Venezuela, but there was HOPE, and family, even though Jessika had learned that the little house she left in her village when she fled to Colombia had been taken over by the same
Criminals who had killed her husband and left her a pregnant widow at 22.
So Mother and Son kept walking…day after day, every night hoping to find a thicket or hidden place behind a sign to sleep.
Nights were the worst times on the road…Jessika began worrying about where they would sleep as soon as she waked up…and always, always, what they would eat.
The miles turned into hundreds over the next months…and Jessika’s belly grew round and heavy with child.
Even though Jessika kept hearing dangerous stories about conditions in Venezuela, she was still HOPEFUL, and she did not give up.
They even decided to give their last $30 to some smugglers who promised to take them to the Venezuelan border. The next night, pregnant Jessica and Sebastian piled into the truck with other travelers, and it began to climb over the mountains,
In the middle of the night, the truck stopped abruptly…right at the edge of a river.
Jessika knew it was still a six hour walk to the border of Venezuela,
but the smugglers insisted:
“Get out! Get out! This is as far as we go!”
“Get out and walk.”
Eventually, after many disappointments, the worsening circumstances in Venezuela persuaded Jessika to turn around and return to Colombia…
So…the young family was on the road again.
Finally, her nine months had passed, and Jessika knew her time had come to have the baby..
She gave birth back in Colombia, still homeless and poor and hungry, in her crowded detention shelter with 600 other people.
Her water broke as she slept in a tiny twin bed she shared with her son.
When I read Jessika’s story, and saw the pictures of this young mother and her son, I could not help thinking of Mary…
…and how she must have dreaded her own journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem,
Even with a donkey, or maybe especially with a DONKEY!, the journey must have been unbearable…. For one ”so GREAT WITH CHILD”( as we used to say).
Like Jessika, Mary and Joseph were on their own journey…
They also were making their journey because of circumstances beyond their control. The CENSUS, of all things.
They, too, were facing childbirth alone in a makeshift bedroom,
— an animal stall with a manger as a bed
In a certain sense we, TOO, are on a Journey, ALL OF US, an Advent Journey.
Our journey is not as hazardous as theirs for most of us,
but a journey just the same.
On our ADVENT JOURNEY this morning,
We HEAR the ADVENT Prophets :
Second Isaiah and John the Baptist
Someone wrote this week that these two prophets are
“Splashing COLD WATER on our faces” to get us ready!
It IS ADVENT!! They seem to say!
“ WAKE UP,”
“PREPARE the way for the King,”
BE READY WHEN HE COMES!
Are you ready? …How is your ADVENT preparation going?
Not to worry, there are still three weeks left to prepare!
What do you want to change in your life to make the way
smooth for the birth of Jesus, the Christ Child, in your life?
Have you been looking around you for the signs of God’s actions in your world and for God’s people?
GOD’s PEOPLE like Jessika,
…longing for HOPE,
…longing for HOME,
…Longing for SAFETY and FOOD for their children.
The first Prophet we hear this morning is the voice of Isaiah.
Most scholars agree that this Isaiah lived with the people in Exile during their years in Babylon, and is now preparing them for a new day of freedom and return
Isaiah, is preaching to a people…
who have known suffering
WHO have felt the deep loss of their homeland.
WHO have been in Babylon, in EXILE, for almost fifty years.
WHO have seen their homes and their BELOVED TEMPLE DESTROYED.
AND WHO have even felt so despondent that they felt deserted by GOD.
Isaiah speaks God’s WORDS to them:
Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
And cry to her that her warfare is ended,
That her iniquity is pardoned,
That she has received from the Lord’s Hand double for all her sins.
Don’t we long to hear these words spoken to us, especially after nine months of
Covid uncertainty and suffering and death and loss.
I was surprised to realize as I pondered these prophecies for the second Sunday of Advent, and told the stories of two young mothers, that it had actually been EXACTLY NINE MONTHS Since the PANDEMIC started taking over our lives ( much as a first pregnancy takes over our bodies).
I counted on my fingers NINE MONTHS since that auspicious night of March 4 when my own daughter called to say that we would have to begin immediately to shelter and isolate because her own high risk pregnancy and birth were threatened by the Pandemic.
Nine months had signaled to Jessika …walking the highway between Venezuela and Colombia, that her time for birth was near.
Nine months had signaled to Mary on the Road to Bethlehem that she must be prepared be to give birth on the journey, maybe even alone.
On this Second Sunday of Advent, nine months after we were shocked by the first “STAY in PLACE ORDER”, we hear to words of John the Baptist,
coming out of the Wilderness, (Camel’s hair and locusts and all!)
inviting the people of Judea and Jerusalem…AND all of US…To Prepare the WAY of the Lord.
What exactly did John the Baptist mean when he said to them,
“To Prepare the Way of the Lord”…?
–REPENT and receive forgiveness of your sins,
–GO IN ANOTHER DIRECTION on your LIFE JOURNEY!
REPENT? What does that mean?
…the WORD really just means,” CHANGE YOUR MIND”,
Rethink your priorities,
Receive the forgiveness that comes with repentence,
Renew your commitment to God’s Covenant with you.
John the Baptist says:
Be PREPARED for the NEW BIRTH that is coming to YOU this
CHRISTMAS…It has been nine months after all:
Your body, your LIFE has been turned upside down these last nine months, …
Your body is longing for change this Advent.
YOUR BODY is Ready for a new life,
And for new air, God’s breath,
to fill your lungs as you are REBORN.
Hear Isaiah’s Words for YOU this morning:
‘COMFORT, O COMFORT my People,
Says our God.
SPEAK Tenderly to Jerusalem
And CRY to her that her warfare is accomplished,
A BABY is waiting to be born in your life this Advent. The Christ Child.
Prepare the way,
SPLASH YOUR FACE WITH WATER
AND WAKE UP,
Because…God is here this morning, speaking TENDERLY to YOU. AMEN