December 9, 2018, Second Sunday of Advent

MUSIC Prepare the Way of the Lord arr. Michael Larkin Chancel Choir

BULLETIN COVER. Wadi Rum from the top of Rum Mountain, Jordan. Photo by Ester Inbar, December 2007. Wikimedia Commons.

Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness
True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are….

….Belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone is a wilderness—an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it, or what people think about our choice of whether to venture into that vastness or not. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you’ll ever stand….

….Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don’t belong. You will always find it because you’ve made that your mission. Stop scouring people’s faces for evidence that you’re not enough. You will always find it because you’ve made that your goal. True belonging and self-worth are not goods; we don’t negotiate their value with the world. The truth about who we are lives in our hearts. Our call to courage is to protect our wild heart against constant evaluation, especially our own. No one belongs here more than you.

Malachi 3:1-4
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

John the Baptist in the Qur’an
“Then Zecheriah prayed to his Lord: ‘O Lord! Grant me from Yourself out of Your grace the gift of a goodly offspring, for indeed You alone heed all Prayers. As he stood praying in the sanctuary, the angels called out to him: ‘Allah gives you good tidings of John, who shall confirm a command of Allah, shall be outstanding among men, utterly chaste, and a Prophet from among the righteous.”

“Zecheriah exclaimed: ‘My Lord! How shall I have a son when old age has overtaken me and my wife is barren?’ [The angel] said: ‘Thus shall it be; Allah does what He wills’.
(Quran 3:38-40).

“‘O John! Hold fast the Book with all your strength. We had bestowed wisdom upon him while he was still a child; and We also endowed him with tenderness and purity; and he was exceedingly pious and cherishing to his parents. Never was he insolent or rebellious. Peace be upon him, the day he was born, and the day he will die, and the day he will be raised up alive. (Quran 19:12-15).

Luke 3:1-18 Scholars’ Version
In the fifteenth year of the rule of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of the district of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, while Annas and Caiaphas were chief priests, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the desert. And he went into the whole region around the Jordan, calling for baptism and a change of heart that lead to forgiveness of sins. As is written in the book of the sayings of Isaiah the prophet,

The voice of someone shouting in the desert:
“Make ready the way of the Lord,
Make his paths straight.
Every valley will be filled,
And every mountain and hill leveled.
What is crooked will be made straight,
And the rough ways smooth,
Then the whole human race will see the salvation of God.”

So John would say to the crowds that came out to get baptized by him, “You spawn of Satan! Who warned you to flee from the impending doom? Well then, start producing fruits suitable for a change of heart, and don’t even start saying to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ Let me tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham right out of these rocks! Even now the axe is aimed at the root of the trees. So every tree not producing choice fruit gets cut down and tossed into the fire.

The crowds would ask him, “So what should we do?”

And he would answer them, “Whoever has two shirts should share with someone who has none; whoever has food should do the same.”

Toll collectors also came to get baptized, and they would ask him, “Teacher, what should we do?”

He told them, “Charge nothing above the official rates.”

Soldiers also asked him, “And what about us?” And he said to them, “No more shakedowns! No more frame-ups either! And be satisfied with your pay.”

The people were filled with expectation and everyone was trying to figure out whether John might be the Anointed One. John’s answer was the same to everyone:

“I baptize with you water; but someone more powerful than I is coming. I’m not fit to untie his sandal straps. He’ll baptize you with holy spirit and fire his pitchfork is in his hand to make a clean sweep of his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he’ll burn with a fire that can’t be put out.”

And so, with many other exhortations he preached to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been denounced by John over the matter of Herodias, his brother’s wife, topped off all his other crimes by shutting John up in prison.

There is nothing that puts us into the Christmas Spirit faster than by having John the Baptist call us “spawn of Satan.” It is just not Christmas until a wild-eyed prophet in the desert calls us out on our sins. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!”

“Oh, and by the way, Merry Christmas!”

John the Baptist always seems a bit off-key amidst the Christmas carols and the tree, the decorations, shopping, and holiday parties. Who invited him, anyway?

Reverend Billy reminds me of John the Baptist. Although Reverend Billy is a lot more funny. Reverend Billy is a fake reverend. He is an actor who pretends to be a minister. He has his own fake choir. They do demonstrations in front of shopping malls and banks. Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir preach and perform a message of no more shopping. This is from his website

Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir is a New York City based radical performance community, with 50 performing members and a congregation in the thousands. We are wild anti-consumerist gospel shouters and Earth loving urban activists who have worked with communities on four continents defending community, life and imagination and resisting Consumerism and Militarism.

Preaching an anti-consumerist message is a tough gig. No one wants to hear that. In fact, the entire apparatus in which we live and move and have our being creates and promotes the exact opposite message.

I have an interview coming up with Brad Gregory, a professor of church history at Notre Dame. He wrote a book on Martin Luther for the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, when in 1517, the uppity monk posted his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg.

Gregory’s book is how the Reformation changed the world, but not at all in the ways that Luther and Calvin would have wanted, although they might have expected it. For Luther, freedom did not mean freedom to believe anything you want or freedom to shop until you drop. Freedom meant freedom from the bondage of sin and debilitating guilt so that you can be in service to God and neighbor with radical love.

In the course of religious wars that followed because after Luther no one could agree on the source of authority, Pope or Bible, the solution eventually after a few centuries, was to relegate religion to the private sphere. This solution was enshrined in the constitution of the United States. Believe what you want. Worship how you want or don’t at all, but don’t interfere with the state.

Religious ethics, the kind preached by the wild-eyed prophet in the wilderness, “If you have two coats or extra food, share with another” is not expected to be followed by a society as a whole, but is a private ethic. The public ethic, the ethic that drives us is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in which happiness means property. The acquisition of material goods is the creed that binds us together regardless of our individual religious beliefs. Brad Gregory writes in his book, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World:

To judge by most people’s actions today, they believe the goods life is the good life, and they devote themselves to this whether or not they also believe in God or engage in worship or prayer. In public culture and society as a whole, in both the United States and Europe, the consumption of goods and pursuit of enjoyment has essentially replaced religion. Whether you happen to be religious has no effect at all on the dominant culture. This would have horrified—if perhaps not surprised—Luther and Calvin and other sixteenth-century reformers. P. 255

The difference between Luther’s time and ours, or between John the Baptist’s time and ours, is not that people are greedy and materialistic now but not then. People could be materialistic then as well as now. The difference is that then public religion provided a check on that materialism. We were called out on it. Brood of vipers. Spawn of Satan. Lending money at interest was a sin. Now religion is a private matter. Materialism is our public religion.

John the Baptist wasn’t preaching new, unheard of things when he called people to give of their extra coats and food, to stop the shakedowns and the frame-ups, not to charge more than was due, not to pad one’s wages on the backs of others. John the Baptist was preaching wild-eyed in the desert the obvious things of religion. He saw an evil force ascend that for him indicated the end of time itself. He saw an increase of this materialistic behavior as a sign of impending doom. He saw this increase of sin also as a sign of the dawn of the coming kingdom. It would be darkest before dawn.

If we were to prepare ourselves for the coming kingdom of God, according to John the Baptist, then we need a change of heart and to bear fruit that comes from a changed heart. He could say that and people would come out to hear him say it, because the language of religion still could be heard as normative. We are greedy but we are not supposed to be.

Today, we hear that greed is good. The measure of success is the amount of goods one has. The goal of life from education to career to end of life is to get on the treadmill of acquisition until death do us part. The rich are not vilified today as they were in biblical times or in medieval Christian times. In those times, the wealthy would have been called spawn of Satan or brood of. Vipers, today, they are praised as examples of American success stories.

We find ourselves contemplating on this Second Sunday of Advent some interesting ironies.

The first irony is that the beginning of the season to celebrate the birthday of Jesus begins with a day called Black Friday, the day when stores hope to go into the black, that is to make a profit based on the shopping the holiday season will encourage. The irony is that the shopping season is based historically at least on the birth of a peasant, Jesus, who called us all to a life of simplicity and justice.

The second irony is that John the Baptist, who is always featured during Advent, preaches a message that sounds so strange, quaint, impractical, out of touch, and rude to modern ears, is and always has been the message of Christmas, the mass of Christ, the birth of Jesus.

The third irony is that materialism and its cohort, militarism, are nearing the point of imploding because of Earth’s inability to sustain the lifestyle that they have initiated and supported. The irony is that the apocalyptic warnings of John the Baptist may ring more true than we might have expected.

The fourth irony is that it takes a fake reverend, Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir, to preach the true message of Christmas because the real ordained reverends know better than to preach against the gods of materialism because they know they will receive harsh scoldings or loss of pulpit for preaching too much about all that justice stuff.

The fifth irony, and the irony I love best, is that despite our culture’s headlong rush over the cliff to self-destruction, radical individuals and movements, some born within institutions and some outside of them, are beginning to coalesce into real movements. The Christmas spirit is waking people up to the madness of war and acquisition and to the liars who promote it. The Christmas spirit is finding its voice in Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists and the None of the Above as they are willing to take an honest look at where we are and what we value and what we want to leave for our future generations.

Right smack in the middle of the holiday shopping season are Christians right here at Southminster reclaiming Advent by reaching out to neighbors with Christmas baskets, spending a night with a homeless family, and making music to inspire the soul. Whether the Advent activities are listed in the bulletin or not, that spirit of simplicity and generosity is alive and flourishing in this congregation.

The light of Christmas which is the light of conscience never goes out. It gets passed from hand to hand, generation to generation, because in the end, it is never about us, but about the one whose sandals even the martyred John the Baptist felt he was unworthy to untie.

The light is revealed in Jesus. Whether you consider Jesus a wise teacher, a prophet, or the second person of the Trinity, he is both guest and host at this Christmas party. The appropriate response to that truth is silence, acceptance, and gratitude that this life has been given to us and that we have the opportunity to live it.