Mark 1:1-8, Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-14
John the Baptist joins us each year on the second Sunday of Advent to beckon us more deeply into this journey toward Christ’s birth. It is clear that he never learned how to win friends and influence people. He has a habit of calling people a brood of vipers which makes it tempting to ignore John and light another candle on the wreath. We are never quite sure what to do with this wild person with a strange sense of fashion and very undiscriminating taste buds. In Mark we encounter a kinder, gentler John. He is still calling people to repent and confess, but he isn’t calling them names.
None of us would suggest that repentance and confession are crowd pleasers, and yet people are coming from all over the countryside to hear him. Clearly, John is tapping into some deep longing in people. Somehow in the quiet, darkness of the season, we begin to encounter some of the deep longings we carry within us. I appreciate the invitation in Advent to grow deep. I am always eager to enter the season in a way that is meaningful, hoping that I will be ready for Christ to come into my life in a powerful new way.
But I noticed something different this year as I sat with these texts. First, I imagined the people gathering to hear John’s message. It reminded me a bit of us gathering for worship each week. We need individual spiritual practices to sustain us and help us grow, but we were created to be a body and to share this journey with one another. The people came together and they came from all over the place. I wonder if they were empowered and encouraged by the community. Maybe the message about repentance and confession was intended for them as a body rather than just their individual sins.
Isaiah was speaking to the people of Israel who had lost so much – their homes, their city, their security. He brought wisdom and hope to them collectively. Hope was rooted in God’s goodness and it would bring healing to all. “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people shall see it together.” (Isaiah 40:5)
Did you hear the words from 2nd Peter “The Lord is…patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” The good news isn’t for a few individuals, but for all. Who we are in the waiting impacts others.
It really isn’t news to anybody that Christmas isn’t about us. People are more generous this time of year. But what if Advent isn’t meant to be a private experience? What if we are called to prepare for Christ’s coming as a body rather than just giving more attention to our individual prayer practices?
I am struck by the message in all three of these passages that we are all in this together.
How do we wait collectively for Christ to come in our midst? How do we tap into our communal longing for incarnation? I am not suggesting that we can clearly articulate our yearning as a community of faith as much as I am inviting us to come together and make room for Christ to be born among us.
The Called Back to the Well Living Water program finished this week. You may know that Living Water is a spiritual deepening program for congregations and part of its richness is in the way relationships are built between people from different churches in the community. The Disciples, Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians openly shared their lives over the last year and as they did so, they realized that together they are the body of Christ that Paul talks about in Corinthians. When one congregation suffered, all suffered. When one rejoiced, all rejoiced. Out of that sharing, a wonderful community was born.
We simply cannot call ourselves Christian and live as if others don’t matter. All of us are connected (whether we realize it or not). Do we know how the churches in our neighborhood are doing? What about the folks in the other services here each Sunday? Are we aware of the people who are sharing our pews? A real community is tuned in to one another and feels the impact of our shared life together.
Here we are in Advent once again and we are called to make room for Christ to be born among us. How do we do that? It seems to me that we come together as the early church community did. We pray, we care for those in need, we come to the table Christ has set for us and then we go forth to feed others. I believe we glimpse it every time we share our lives together.
One of the most beautiful things I saw this week was the food pantry in action on Tuesday morning. A large group of volunteers came together and worked in tandem to make food available for the community. There was a wonderful spirit in the group and I was very impressed at all they offered in terms of food and hospitality. Before they began serving people, Bill Hoezel prayed that they would see Christ in each person they met and it seems to me that they did. Part of the beauty for me was seeing how many people it took to pull off this ministry and how happy people were to be serving together. The people coming to get food seemed to feel that warmth and kindness.
Each week, we come to the table to receive sustenance at the hand of a God whose generosity is shocking over and over again. As we walk away from the table and out of the sanctuary, I begin wondering about how we will feed the world. I know that the food was not intended for us alone, but for all and it is our job to make sure everyone receives goodness from God’s gracious hand.
Fred Craddock tells about going to the University of Winnipeg in Canada to give two lectures in October one year. “As we left the lecture hall after the first lecture, it was beginning to spit a little snow. I was surprised, and my host was surprised because he had written, “It’s too early for the cold weather, but you might bring a little windbreaker, a little light jacket.”
The next morning when I got up, two or three feet of snow pressed against the door. The phone rang, and my host said, “We’re all surprised by this. In fact, I can’t come and get you to take you to the breakfast, the lecture this morning has been cancelled, and the airport is closed. If you can make your way down the block and around the corner, there is a little depot, a bus depot, and it has a café. I’m sorry.” I said, “I’ll get around. I put on that little light jacket; it was nothing. I got my little cap and put it on; it didn’t even help me in the room. I went into the bathroom and unrolled long sheets of toilet paper and made a nest in the cap so that it would protect my head against that icy wind.
I went outside, shivering. The wind was cold, the snow was deep. I slid and bumped and finally made it around the corner into the bus station. Every stranded traveler in western Canada was in there, strangers to each other and to me, pressing and pushing and loud. I finally found a place to sit, and after a lengthy time a man in a greasy apron came over and said, “What’ll you have?” I said, “May I see a menu?” He said, “What do you want a menu for? We have soup.” I said, “What kind of soup do you have?” And he said, “Soup. You want some soup?” I said, “That was what I was going to order – soup.”
He brought the soup, and I put the spoon to it – Yuck! It was the awfulest. It was kind of gray looking; it was so bad I couldn’t eat it, but I sat there and put my hands around it. It was warm, and so I sat there with my head down, my head wrapped in toilet paper, bemoaning my outcast state with the horrible soup. But it was warm, so I clutched it and stayed bent over my soup stove.
The door opened again. The wind was icy, and somebody yelled, “Close the door!” In came this woman clutching her little coat. She found a place, not far from me. The greasy apron came and asked, “What do you want?” She said, “A glass of water.” He brought her a glass of water, took out his tablet and said, “Now what’ll you have?” She said, “Just the water.” He said, “You have to order, lady.” “Well, I just want a glass of water.” “Look. I have customers that pay – what do you think this is, a church or something? Now what do you want?” She said, “Just a glass of water and some time to get warm.”
“Look, there are people that are paying here. If you’re not going to order, you’ve got to leave!” And he got real loud about it, so that everyone there could hear him.
So she got up to leave. And almost as if rehearsed, everyone in that café got up and headed to the door. If she was going to have to leave, they were as well. And the man in the greasy apron saw this happening and blurted out, “All right, all right, she can stay.” Everyone sat down, and he brought her a bowl of soup.
I said to the person sitting there by me, I said, “Who is she?” He said, “I’ve never seen her before.” The place grew quiet, but I heard the sipping of that awful soup. I said, “I’m going to try that soup again.” I put my spoon to the soup – you know, it was not bad soup. Everybody was eating this soup. I started eating the soup, and it was pretty good soup. I have no idea what kind of soup it was. I don’t know what was in it, but I do recall when I was eating it, it tasted a little bit like bread and wine. Just a little bit like bread and wine.” (from the book Craddock Stories by Fred Craddock, Chalice Press, 2001 pp. 83-84)
In this season, we prepare ourselves for the one who comes among us. We do this as Christ’s body because we know that the gift of Christ was not intended for us alone. The invitation is for us as a body to make room so that Christ may be born in us and together we may bring healing and hope to the whole world.