What Should We Do?, Advent 3 (C) – December 16, 2018


[RCL]: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, traditionally called Gaudete – or Rejoice – Sunday. It comes from today’s lesson from the Letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”

In the other two lessons, the prophet Zephaniah also calls for shouts of joy: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” It is because the King of Israel is in her midst. The prophet Isaiah also tells people to rejoice and sing the praises of the Lord, “for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.”

Advent is a season of waiting, expectation, and preparation for the coming of the Lord. We know that Jesus the Christ will be born very soon. We certainly need to rejoice.

However, in the Gospel reading, there comes the straight-talking prophet, John the Baptist. He is yelling at those who came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers!” It does not sound like he is rejoicing, though. What has caused John to call others vipers?

After this outburst, John continues his theme of repentance. He tells the crowd not to take for granted their status as children of Abraham as a guarantee of salvation. He tells them they need to bear fruits from repentance. He warns them that an ax is waiting by the roots of the tree, should no fruit be borne. It is not who they are or who their ancestor was, it is what they do that is most important.

One might have thought that those who came and were yelled at would turn around and leave. Nevertheless, they did not leave John. John may sound harsh to us, but people probably felt his sincerity, his telling the truth with love, and his concern for the people.

There is a joke that people like to go to Episcopal churches because there is absolution of sins every Sunday. They say that people can do whatever they like and sin during the weekdays and be absolved every Sunday. Is that what confession and absolution are about? Only doing lip service? It is probably these kinds of people that caused John to call them a brood of vipers. In the confession, people say, “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.”

We are truly sorry and humbly repent. This is a confession from the heart. It is not lip service; it is not just showing up and reciting the Confession of Sin.

These people not only do not leave, but rather they stay and ask John for an alternative: “What then should we do?” — a true wish to repent, to get into action so as to turn from their old ways of life. John the Baptist knows the Messiah is coming soon. He feels the urgency, he wants people to be prepared and to bear fruit. He gives them advice.

John’s advice to the crowd is much easier than Jesus’. John tells people to share what they have—an easier task than when Jesus tells the young man to sell all he owns. John says if they have two coats, share. If they have food, share. In other words, care for others who have less than they do.

Then come the tax collectors. They too ask, “What should we do?” At that time, the tax collectors were mostly Jews hired by the Romans; these collectors were paid a portion of whatever they collected, so they tended to collect more than was required from the people. John tells them to be fair and not to collect more than they should.

Here comes the third group, the soldiers, probably Roman. They ask the same: “What should we do?” This time, John tells them not to exploit people or make false accusations. That is, they should live with integrity and honor.

This passage shows the diversity of the group. The crowd seems to represent the Jews who have enough; the tax collectors, the outcasts; and the soldiers, the gentiles. They all seek to change their lives. Even though John is harsh in the beginning, he gives advice to them all. John’s advice is not dramatic, he just asks them to turn from what they are doing their own way, and instead to start doing things the right way—God’s way.

The people want to change and are waiting for their Messiah to come. With John’s urgent teaching, they suspect him to be that Messiah, but he knows his call is to clear the way for the real one to come. John is to introduce the coming of Jesus, guiding people to see God’s way. He tells the people that the Messiah, the Christ, is coming with the Holy Spirit and fire. Jesus the Christ will come with the power and great might of God to be among us. The great fire is to cleanse us from our wrongdoings.

John the Baptist is teaching us to care for those in need, to seek justice, and to have integrity. Actually, those are part of what following Jesus the Christ is about. With true repentance to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, rejoice!

John the Baptist is preaching in the wilderness, a place where one may get lost, a barren place that seems to have no life or hope. Wilderness is a good metaphor for us right now. We are in a world bombarded by media, especially social media. We are certainly bewildered by news and fake news, truth and alternate truth. There seems to be no peace in the world. Natural disasters seem to be occurring more often than usual. Hope seems to be dwindling in the world.

We Christians need to ask a question: “What should we do?”

We should carry the prophetic voice of John the Baptist, calling out to the brood of vipers for true repentance. We should change our way of life. The gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” is increasing in society; are we willing to share with those with less? Or are we to continue taking more from others who are already struggling to fill their pockets? Are we to continue to benefit ourselves? Are we to elevate our status at the expense of hurting others? Are we to offer false accusations by telling half-truths or even totally lying? Are we willing to call out ourselves and those who do these things?

John the Baptist has given us the direction to be prepared for the coming of Christ. Are we willing to turn around? Are we courageous enough to hear and heed his prophetic voice?

The third Sunday of Advent is also called Stir-Up Sunday because today’s collect says, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.” May God the Almighty with the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit also stir up our hearts to truly repent and to follow Christ. Amen.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Ada Wong Nagata is priest-in-charge and director of Ah Foo Jubilee Community Center at Church of Our Savior, Manhattan, a bilingual congregation with English and Cantonese in Chinatown, New York. She is a board member of Li Tim-Oi Center, an Asian Ministry Center of the Episcopal Church based in the Diocese of Los Angeles, and honorary canon of the Cathedral Center of St. Paul, Diocese of Los Angeles. Ada earned her Doctor of Ministry from Episcopal Divinity School in 2015. She served as Convener of the Chinese Convocation of Episcopal Asiamerican Ministries (EAM) from 2009-2016. Ada loves hiking and meditative walk.

Download the sermon for Advent 3 (C).

Rejoice and Seek, Advent 3(C) – 2015

[RCL] Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

“The rural quiet you encounter at Mepkin Abbey is a thingish presence, the texture of all that can be experienced. To pass through the gates is to move into ‘another intensity,’ a spreading flatland park of live oaks that dips suddenly into the waters of the Cooper [River], which run beside it for three miles: imperceptible in its flow and impenetrable at its surface.”[1] These are the images Dr. Frank Lentricchia uses to describe the Trappist Monastery Mepkin Abbey near Charleston, South Carolina. The contemplative monk, Thomas Merton, visited Mepkin. Many seek this place today for a deeper encounter with God. It is an enchantingly sacred wilderness.

John the Baptizer is in the wilderness by the Jordan River, “imperceptible in its flow and impenetrable at its surface,” preaching repentance and baptism. John’s words to the crowd are harsh, rather uninviting, and somber rather than joyful. “You brood of vipers! Even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree.” (Luke 3:7ff) Theologian Joseph Fitzmyer said, “John’s words are a warning against their smugness of salvation, which is their undoing.”[2] This is the poison or venom in their destructive behavior.

John’s images are the opposite of what many expect to hear for Rose Sunday on the Third Sunday in Advent. This is traditionally is Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin, “Rejoice!” taken from Philippians 4:4. John the Baptizer in Luke 3 sounds more like he is raging and not rejoicing. John is raging in order to punctuate the importance of his message of repentance, the importance of seeking and returning to God. John baptizes with water. The Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. John preaches that Jesus’ baptism will have the two-fold benefit of purification and refinement. Repentance in John’s mind resembles the actions in Luke 3:11: share your coat, do not overcharge, do not extort money, and do not bring threats or false accusations. In other words, do share but do not swindle, strong-arm, or support scare-tactics. John’s words invite the crowd to examine their personal actions that stand in the way of a deeper relationship with God and humanity.

The African American artist Jonathan Green is one of American’s great painters. He has ties to the community near Mepkin Abbey. The head of the monastery commissioned Jonathan Green in 2006 to create a work of art honoring a newly discovered burial ground on the monastery’s property, holding the graves of Africans and African Americans from the time during and after slavery. As Jonathan and Abbot Francis walked the grounds of this once rice plantation, Jonathan thought about his spiritual awakening growing up with the Gullah community off the Charleston, South Carolina coast. He reflected on his experience of “seeking,” the Gullah community’s process for preparing early adolescents for baptism. These adolescent “seekers” entered the wilderness for a week as part of their rite of passage. Seekers took a vow of silence, only speaking with a community elder during their wilderness experience. The seeker picked a tree in the forest where she or he went to meditate, pray, and meet the elder. Seekers could not kill any insect or perform any “worldly” task during this period of fasting and prayer. After a week, the seeker re-entered the community, telling those gathered about a transforming encounter with God. After meeting the approval of the community, the adolescent entered baptism at a time in the near future. As a teenager, Jonathan, walking in a similar path of his ancestors, made his way to living waters wearing “regular clothes.” Immediately after his baptism, a group shuffled the newly baptized from the congregation’s sight. They returned wearing shiny white robes; symbolizing leaving behind a “regular life” while embracing a new life is Jesus Christ. One observer noted, “There was a great difference in their looks when they came into the church the second time.”

John the Baptizer invites all who seek a deeper relationship with God to examine what stands in the way of that relationship. Perhaps the joy or rejoicing in John the Baptizer’s rhetoric is that our present condition does not have to be our future reality. John admonishes the crowd not to rely on their status or smugness of salvation but to repent. Repentance is sharing, being honest, and exhorting or encouraging others in John’s eyes. Consider thinking about repentance as meaning, “to look anew.” What does it mean to look anew at life? The Trappist monks at Mepkin looked anew at a once abandoned rice plantation to see a monastery of prayer and worship. The artist Jonathan Green visited that monastery to look anew at a “spreading flatland park of live oaks” to create a breathtaking painting pulling together his encounter of “seeking” Jesus Christ with the voices from the African cemetery. Listen to God’s call to examine our lives. John’s delivery is deafening. His message is clear. Be open to God’s Spirit of transformation and await the coming of Jesus Christ.

Download the sermon for Advent 3C.

Written by The Rev. Jemonde Taylor
The Rev. Jemonde Taylor is the eleventh rector of Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church, Raleigh, North Carolina. Jemonde serves the Diocese of NC by being a part of Diocesan Council. He is a consultant to the Office of Black Ministries of The Episcopal Church. Prior to serving Saint Ambrose, Jemonde was priest missioner at Saint Michael and All Angels Church, Dallas, TX as a part of the Lilly Program. Jemonde studies the spirituality, worship, and history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and leads pilgrimages to Ethiopia for Epiphany.


[1] Ferraro, Thomas J. Catholic Lives, Contemporary America. Frank Lentricchia. “Making it to Mepkin Abbey.” p. 110.
[2] Fitzmyer, Joseph, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX of The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985), 467.

3 Advent (C) – 2012

Complex darkness

December 16, 2012

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12:2-6); Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Technically, Christmas lasts 12 days. It starts at sundown Christmas Eve and continues until January 6, the Epiphany. In the old days, Christians refrained from Christmas celebration until Christmas Eve. Not even the tree would go up before then, as people respected the holy anticipation of Advent.

However, faith often follows practice, and practice has effectively changed the timing of Advent and Christmas Advent no longer occupies the four weeks before Christmas. To the extent it exists at all, Advent falls between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Christmas is inaugurated by a regal Santa floating down 34th street, at the end of the Macy’s parade. It continues until Christmas Day, when it stops cold in its tracks.

So here it is, nine days before the end of pop Christmas, and we’re weary-worn, tired of hearing “Silver Bells” waft through the canned-goods section at the grocery store.

But why complain like Scrooge? This isn’t the first time Christians have folded to pop culture. Both Christmas and Easter arrived at their current locations on the calendar in part because of pagan celebrations: Easter, mimicking both popular spring fertility rituals and the vernal equinox; and Christmas, honoring winter solstice celebrations. So what if retail stores command Christmas observance long before the exact day? Who are we to complain?

The problem is, John the itinerant Baptist does complain. He refuses to let you or anyone else skip Advent.

John is shouting at the top of his lungs: “You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?”

You just wanted to buy one more Christmas present.

“I’m talkin’ to you!” John continues as you walk down the sidewalk toward him.

Who? Me? You look up to see this homeless guy pointing his boney finger at you, spittle coagulating at the edge of his thick beard.

“God doesn’t need your so-called-faith,” he continues. “God can turn these stones into Christians!”

You can tell – this guy is crazy.

Only he isn’t crazy. He is tenacious; but he isn’t crazy.

Time to live your faith.

You mutter to yourself about the city and how it won’t take care of the riff raff, all the while fishing in your pocket for a $5 bill to drop into the Salvation Army bucket.

“That paltry donation isn’t going to buy anybody anything! I’m talkn’ to you. Who told you to flee the wrath to come?”

The man is exhausting your already waning Christmas spirit. If he hopes you’ll give him a ten, he’s sorely mistaken.

Only, he doesn’t want your money; he wants your soul. He wants to know: What difference do you really make? In this confused world of complex darkness?

The man’s eyes are God’s eyes, and now you can’t help but wonder the same thing: What difference?

Complex darkness.

The winter solstice takes place this coming Friday, December 21, at 11:12 a.m., Greenwich Mean Time. At the solstice, the complex darkness of an empty winter expands like bellows inhaling light, exhaling darkness. Darkness overwhelms and crushes; the soul is lost in a sea of nihilism. It is winter yet again? And your imagination wonders, just like John asks, What am I doing here? Do I have purpose?

Seasonal affective disorder, holiday blues, simple self-questioning. What’s it all about, anyway? Winter darkness can seem so very, very oppressive.

Only, don’t you know? Darkness is not the same as eternal night. Paradoxically, light is hidden within darkness, in its corners, beneath thick blankets. Playing hide and seek, light waits eternally for you to discover grace.

In her poem, “Twelfth Night,” Laurie Lee writes:

“No night could be darker than this night,
no cold so cold …
O never again, it seems, can green things run …
from this dark lung of winter.”

Darkness and cold, night and eternal sleep. John the Baptist frames the darkness for you: What are you doing here, anyway?

What you don’t know is this: Hidden in the dark words of John’s question is resplendent light. When John wonders, “What are you doing here?” he is actually claiming, “You have purpose.”

But John is not one to let you off the hook easily. Meaning: Faith is not simple; it isn’t easy; it takes attention. “God can turn these stones into Christians!” he reminds us. Don’t take your faith for granted.

But this is Christmas, and all you want is a little peace.

“You brood of snakes.”

The Revelation of Peter is an extra-biblical text that was discovered in 1945 among the Dead Sea Scrolls. When written at the end of the first century, Christians faced fierce persecution, and many, Peter included, were being tortured and killed. Christians needed to know that God had not abandoned them – in the stadiums, facing lions, being crucified upside down. They needed to know their life was not being given in vain, that they had purpose.

The times were dark, and these people needed light.

The Revelation opens with a visit to Peter from Jesus. Peter sees himself in the Temple, when a murderous hoard of people run up to attack him. Peter is afraid, but Jesus reassures him: “Put your hands … over your eyes, and tell me what you see.”

Peter covers his eyes, and answers, “Nothing.”

Jesus tells him to do it again.

This time in the darkness, Peter sees a bright light – brighter than the sun. Only the light is not new, it is a light that had been there all along, only Peter couldn’t see it. This light infuses Peter with strength and hope, enough to face persecution and ultimately death.

Enough to share with the other Christians, also facing death. Light – hidden under the thick blanket of darkness.

Light – and hope and confidence that there is more to reality than what you see.

This is the same light neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander observed and described in his new book, “Proof of Heaven.” During his very real, near-death experience, Dr. Alexander was ushered into a pitch-black void, a darkness that Alexander described as paradoxically and simultaneously brimming with light. Complete darkness containing absolute light.

Later, Dr. Alexander quoted the 17th century poet Henry Vaughan to explain his experience: “There is, some say, in God a deep but dazzling darkness.”

In God, a dazzling darkness.

John the Baptist, full of the Spirit of God, interrupts your dull light of Christmas cheer with disturbingly dark words. But these dark words are meant not just to break, but to heal; not just to crush, but to build.

Do you need real light this Christmas season? Do you need real hope?

Perhaps you will find tucked deep into John’s dark accusation some ray of hope. For there you will find the promise that God refuses to leave you, or anyone else, alone.

Laurie Lee continues her poem: “For see, beneath the hand, the earth already warms and glows.”

And it is out of utter coldness that the babe is born. That hope is born. Which is what Isaiah meant when he beat John the Baptist to the punch and proclaimed, “The people who lived in deep darkness, on them a light has shined.”

Fear not, for I bring you good news of great joy.

 

— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the interim rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, California. Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years, he is the author of The Episcopal Call to Love (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.

3 Advent (C) – 2009

God is still calling us to transformation

December 13, 2009

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12:2-6); Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Have you ever heard the saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”? Networking has been an established social function in society for as long as there have been people. We often use our connections to get us into social circles and places we might have difficulty getting into alone.

On television shows and in the media we see people getting things they want because of their family connections or social circles. Most of us have probably done the something like that too. For example, we would rather go to someone we know or to someone recommended than go to a stranger for a haircut or to get our car fixed. That sort of networking is harmless, right?

But when does it cross the line? What about when we find ourselves connected to an individual or a group that demands respect when, in fact, they are driven by arrogance and a misplaced sense of entitlement? Have you ever heard someone say, “Don’t you know who I am?” Have you ever witnessed someone being excused from what would normally be inexcusable behavior because of their connections to a family, a community, or even a belief system?

It doesn’t just happen on TV; it happens anywhere there are people. And it isn’t just a modern-day issue.

We hear John the Baptist in our gospel today chastising the crowds before him for this very thing. “You brood of vipers!” he accuses.

“Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

What vivid imagery! What a dire warning. But most of all, what a reminder of the power of God.

John is telling the crowd and telling us that what our ancestors have done in the past doesn’t matter now. It is what we do in the present that matters. There is an immediacy in John’s declarations. God’s power is being stirred up, and we don’t know what form it is going to take or what the outcome will be. We are powerless before the mystery of God.

Like anyone who feels threatened, the people in the crowd listening to John wanted to avoid judgment, avoid God’s wrath, and avoid pain. They panicked. Human nature hasn’t changed much over the centuries. We still feel the same way in the face of the unknown. We want to control it, we want to analyze it, and we want to have power over it. When we can’t do that, we transmit our anxieties to others who we think we can control and have power over. Exploitation makes us feel better.

It seems as if greed, accumulation of material things, and apathy toward others can create a protective shield around the fearful trembling of our distorted hearts. Like the strange, frightening picture in Oscar Wilde’s story of Dorian Gray, our true selves, our inner selves that should be turning to God, end up atrophied and diseased as we slowly become monsters of our own making, while everything on the outside seems to be going along swimmingly.

“What then should we do?” We ask with the despairing crowds.

John tells us we must bear fruits worthy of repentance. We must turn to God – our hope and our salvation.

This calls us as individuals to decide how we will open our hearts, tearing down our useless shields, to let the love of God, through righteousness and justice, bear our fruits of repentance. It is through righteousness that we restore the relationship between us and God, as well as the relationship between each other; and through justice that we restore our relationship with material things – being good stewards of all that we have.

John, in essence, tells the crowds, the tax collectors, and soldiers that the first step to a restored community as God intended is to redistribute wealth and stop exploitation.

Each individual’s decision is key – it is the idea we have today of thinking globally, but acting locally. Systems don’t change all at once, but through one person at a time. This may be something as small as being honest if a cashier gives you too much change back or going through your closet to give away clothes that another can use. Every small action leads to a larger transformation, not just of ourselves, but of the world around us.

We are to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord. Our hearts are filled with expectation and questioning.

We know the answer to the crowd’s question of “Who is the Messiah?” because we have heard this gospel story before. Yet, even though we know that God is about to do something new by being with us in the flesh – Immanuel, “God with us” – and we claim to believe that God is still doing something new – revealing, redeeming, sustaining, and moving in the present time – what are the fruits of our repentance? How are we living our lives with righteousness and justice?

We hear the prophet Zephaniah and the prophet Isaiah proclaiming the goodness of the Lord in our scriptures today; what hope they hold! “The Lord is in your midst,” Zephaniah exults. How then, do our hearts respond? Are we living as if we believe this?

Sometimes it seems that since the gospels were written in a different time and different place, they are not applicable to the world we live in today. What we often forget is that the same God that came among us back then is in our midst now, stirring up power, doing new things. The God of the gospels is the God of the twenty-first century, and He is still calling us to transformation.

If a doctor diagnosed someone with heart disease or diabetes and then gave that person instructions on how to keep it from getting worse, we’d hope that person would follow the doctor’s advice. After all, we trust doctors to prescribe the right diet and medication. But if we ignore our doctor’s advice and adopted the attitude of “this can’t happen to me,” then we are just asking for trouble.

So, too, with our spiritual lives. John the Baptist is helping us prepare a way in our hearts for the Lord to come.

This is an exciting time. We do not know how God will stir things up – but we do know that God’s work always comes to good. If we don’t clear a path, then how will we be able to respond with joy when the Lord is in our midst? How will we be able to hear the call for transformation in our lives and in the community around us if our shields are up?

We have the choice to allow God to come afresh into our lives, giving us new eyes, deeper wisdom, and profound compassion. We have the ability to repent anew and to affirm the covenant made in our baptism, proclaiming the good news to all people. This is no longer our parents’ choice, or our grandparents’ choice, or our ancestors’ choice – we cannot rest on their laurels. The choice is ours. May we choose wisely.

 

— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is the associate rector at the Episcopal Church of St. Peter-by-the Lake in Denver, North Carolina. She is indebted to Whitworth University, Gonzaga University, and the School of Theology in Sewanee for her richly diverse theological education.

3 Advent (C) – 2006

Are we there yet?

December 17, 2006

Isaiah 12:2-6; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

When was the last time that you were filled with so much anticipation that you actually thought you might burst before the anticipated event arrived? Maybe it was a time when you were expecting a visit from an old friend or a present from someone special. Or maybe it was a time when you were so very proud of your keen selection of the perfect gift for that very special person and you wanted the time to arrive when you would present the gift. These experiences often describe time as slowing or standing almost still – far from the reality of time continuing forward. The best example of this for some of you might be the time you had a child traveling with you or remembering what it felt like when you were a child on a trip somewhere. The inevitable “Are we there yet?” was sure to be a part of the journey.

Then there are those who have chosen to stuff so many things into a given space in time (or maybe even place) that there is barely room to breath let alone notice the details of life surrounding them. These might be the same people whose experience of time is that it flies – often suggesting that it is out of control and passes by barely noticing what is contained in the space. I imagine their experience of time might be that time is the enemy that prevents things from happening at their desired pace or prevents them from doing all the things they would like to do. Time might also be the reason or excuse for things left undone.

And yet time does pass every day with the rising and setting of the sun, the moon, and the stars. Seasons, in their cycles of life and death, growth and rest, find their way into our lives through the clothes we wear and the athletic games on television rather than through a real connection to the earth’s cycles, which contain the signs of the awesome nature of creation and our Creator.

Then there are the church seasons marked by biblical and liturgical events that provide us with a sense of connection to a deeper life – our spiritual life and relationship to God and our communities. The seasons of the church are times of remembering and reliving with acute awareness the events of our tradition and history – our identity. It is the fabric of our nature as Christians and people of God. But even the church shares the danger of methodically moving through time in such a way that the wonder of the season is removed or replaced by things that do not necessarily bring notice to the season or God’s presence.

We are in the season of Advent, which literally means waiting. This is the season that marks the beginning of the liturgical year in the church and anticipates the birth of Jesus. How do we know it is the season of Advent? Is it in the addition of the Advent wreath into the church décor or the prayers said around it at the beginning of the week at our Sunday service? Or maybe it is the music we sing in this season or the liturgical colors that have changed. Well, for some, that may be the only sign that the season has changed or that today is the third week of our waiting period. Unfortunately, it is probably not enough to give us a sense of anticipation of the great event, the birth of Jesus. Instead, we are most likely distracted by or caught up in the spirit of Christmas that includes decorations, shopping malls, and holiday parties.

Our lessons today and each week during Advent remind us that God is with us and that what we are waiting for is the renewal of the relationship with God through Jesus. We might be able to learn something about this waiting from women, or husbands and fathers expecting the birth of a child. Their journey begins nine months before the birth but each day they are conscious and aware of the life already present. They know because there are changes in moods and attitudes about important things, like where they live and how they will create a calm and welcoming environment for the child. They experience changes in clothes and sizes as their bodies accommodate the developing child – a very real presence. They begin to examine their lives and their priorities considering the life changes that they are facing, and they compensate for those changes as they prepare for their new roles and identities.

But during the whole pregnancy, their wait includes a real knowledge of the life that they are bringing into the world. It is they who need to change to make room for this child. It is their identity and life that is being examined and molded. It is a perfect image of what Advent is: waiting for the time when we have prepared for the birth of Jesus into our lives. And it may help us to understand the lessons today.

Just in case you think these lessons are harsh and apocalyptic, I hope the context of time and waiting leads you into a different place.

Maybe like the people in our gospel you are ready to ask, “What then should we do?”

Maybe you will consider that the readings over the last three weeks are actually inviting us to use this time to let go of the things that keep us from knowing God in every moment, to see “forgiveness of sins” and repentance as the removal of those encumbrances bringing us more closely to the new birth, new knowledge of the saving grace which accompanies the birth of Jesus.

If we are willing to go there, then we have no choice but to acknowledge that repentance is more than feeling sorrow for our sins; we are called to action – action that is the path to renewing our covenant with God through each other. We are being called to shed the blinders that come from a busy world, a busy life, a busy attitude and replace it with NOTHING. Nothing but the space to see the world as God would have us see it.

We can be assured that this exercise will transform the way we hear the Christmas music already playing on the radio, the way we see the people we pass on the street or in the mall, the content of our prayers, and the focus of what is really important: Jesus is coming, “Are we there yet?”

 

— The Rev Debbie Royals is the regional missioner for Native American Ministry Development for the Dioceses of Northern California and Los Angeles. She also chairs the Indigenous People’s Network for Province VIII. Debbie is Pascua Yaqui from Tucson, Ariz.,  and has been involved in Native Ministry in the Episcopal Church for 12 years.