Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8
For this sermon series I’m asking each Sunday’s quartet of lessons to sing the theme “Come, Lord Jesus,” and make music about how he comes into our lives and how we know it. But these last two weeks both quartets of lessons have answered my chosen theme with not just harmony but a counter-melody, with a strong theme of their own, the theme of repentance.
So that if we say “Come, Lord Jesus,” then how we meet him and greet him is with our repentance. Not just recognition or acknowledgment, but repentance, which means we have to learn a kind of repentance that is a welcoming kind. Call it making space in your life for your unconditional welcome of the Lord Jesus.
The repentance of Lent is more familiar. It means contrition and remorse. The word “remorse” suggests an inner death, with its penance and penalties and consequences. But last week we heard about a different side of repentance, repentance as an awareness, a sensitivity, a watching, the kind of active waiting you do when you are watching something moving and developing. Lent looks towards a death and Advent looks towards a birth.
And now to this Advent sort of repentance I am adding a new idea, that this awareness and sensitivity requires an attitude and a habit, an attitude of peace, a habit of peace, your choosing for peace, especially in the midst of turmoil and tumult.
We live in a day of global upset and cosmic revolution. The epistle offers apocalyptic images of what we experience daily in the world. When the epistle says “elements” it does not mean hydrogen and oxygen, but the basic structures of politics and power and the iron laws of economics and ownership, which are dissolving with a bang and a whoosh and fire.
It's partly the usual "raging of the nations, and the peoples imagining vain things," but strange to say, it's also the judgment of God coming into our world to shake it up.
Human power prefers the orderliness of oppression and the enforced stability of empire, a peace imposed by the force of arms. But the judgments of God come into our world like explosions of the settled order of things. They disrupt the laws of the market, they disrupt the controlling settlements of power and wealth and class and order and even of our sexual identities. The turmoil being caused by women who are saying “Me too” against the men who had power over them is partly the judgment of God against them, and it judges both conservatives and liberals.
The judgment of God upsets conservatives because its dissolves so much of cultural value that we’ve developed over the centuries. The judgment of God upsets liberals because it discloses the arrogance of humanistic self-sufficiency. The grass withers, the flower fades, and surely the people are grass. The turmoil upsets our stability and the tumult threatens our safety, and yet we are to live at peace.
Not a peace protected by our conserving structures, but a pregnant peace of something yet to come. The epistle says, While we are waiting for these things, we are to strive to be found by him at peace when he arrives. And the disruption of humanistic self-sufficiency gives you the space to lead lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for the hastening of the coming of the day of God.
This peace is a kind of repentance because it can feel like you are doing nothing, and not fighting back. You might be accused of submission. But peace does not exclude resistance and persistence. It’s a non-violent kind of resistance, it’s persistence without vengeance, it’s speaking truth to power with humility. It’s a peace that is not afraid of suffering, and the suffering that comes with it is the penance that’s in it. The suffering is the labor pains. It’s like you’re expecting. It’s Advent.
This week, after three powerful men were suspended from WNYC, I posted on Facebook how this felt both bad and good. A reply came from my former parishioner in Hoboken, who’s now a professor, and she’s had to face these things in her career. She wrote this: “I keep thinking about all of the women whose careers have been derailed, steam-rolled, or never even gotten off the ground to begin with, because of hostile, inappropriate, or unsafe workplaces and industries. Too often people make excuses that women don’t rise to the top of their professions because they aren’t as talented, as skilled, as committed, as whatever, when in fact it’s a wonder that ANY women can survive in any profession. Think about the reserves and resolve and emotional work that just persisting and staying afloat entails, never mind thriving or rising.”
To persist in peace is emotional work. It’s draining and discouraging. So to sustain your practicing peace you need comfort. To be found at peace when he comes you need some comfort in the meantime. Not a cushy kind of comfort, a plush comfort, but fortifying comfort, strengthening comfort. And where’s that comfort to be found? Not in our usual places, whether conservative or liberal.
When the hot wind of God’s judgment sweeps through our achievements to clear them away it leaves behind what feels like desert. Exposure. A terrifying openness and a fearful freedom. In the wilderness comes the wild man, John the Baptist, in dress and diet not within our element. He calls you to repent, that is, to realize that you are in the desert, to accept that everything is exposed, even in the US Senate and WNYC, even in our private lives.
And yet do not be defensive, nor arm yourself like a desert bandit, but be peaceful, and to stay peaceful, seek God’s comfort in the wilderness.
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise. (W, H. Auden)
Look behind John the Baptist and notice a highway in the desert, a highway stretching off into the distance, beyond the horizon into the future, through this wilderness of thousands of years of time. It’s a high road, an ancient road, like a Roman road for human feet. It is a highway for our God, and it's a highway built toward you, for the Lord Jesus to come to you on. It’s illuminated, it’s shining with the glory of God.
It is the glory of the Holy Spirit, poured into your heart to strengthen and encourage you. The Spirit comforts you with an inner illumination that remains a mystery to you even when you have it in you. The Spirit gives you the inner conviction, not so much of having as desiring, the conviction of desire, the inner longing, the longing that confirms in you that what you want is true, even in the tumult and turmoil.
The Spirit gives you the power of humility and the knowledge that comes from your desire and your longing. The Spirit comforts you in your weakness (Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf), with sighs too deep for words. Advent repentance is choosing for God’s Spirit to have her way in you, for her comfort to sustain you as you choose for peace in turmoil and tumult.
The glory on the highway is the glory of the Shepherd, who comforts you with his voice. He reminds you of his promises, his promises that counter so much of what the world would rather say. His promises may differ from what you wanted from him, so that to repent is to accept his promises instead. His voice reminds you that even in the tumult you may lead lives of holiness and godliness as you wait for and hasten the coming of the day of God.
Repentance is the call to admit the truth, and truth itself is a kind of comfort. We human beings are the creatures who are designed to be comforted by the truth. What truth means is fidelity, what truth means is faithfulness. And what is faithfulness but a sign of love. I think that’s why we take comfort in the truth, because behind truth we can read love. That also is what we human beings are designed to do, to sense the love behind the truth. Even in the tumult of the world you still can read the love of God. Come, Lord Jesus, we welcome you unconditionally into the waiting spaces of our lives, and we accept the comfort of your love for us.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.