Today, the second Sunday of Advent, we light the second candle on the Advent wreath, the one that’s meant to remind us of the prophets, according to one old church tradition. And we hear in the Gospel the beginning of the public ministry of John the Baptist in the wilderness. John was sort of a bridge figure from those Old Testament prophets to the New Testament. He picks up their message and he points to Jesus. So half of today’s Gospel is actually a quote from Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight His paths.”
We remember the prophets in the two prayers we said at the beginning of the service: the candle-lighting prayer, and the collect for the day. We pray for grace to hear the message of the prophets, to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus into our hearts and into the world. To be ready so that we might be able to greet his coming with joy.
Especially in this season, when we think of the prophets, we remember those familiar verses that point to the coming of a Messiah. The first-century Christians poured over those texts as they were struggling to understand exactly what the coming of this Jesus Christ meant, and how to interpret it. Many of these prophetic texts are quoted in the New Testament. So they’re familiar to us because we hear them in church—in our readings, and our hymns—and outside of music in music like that great piece, Handel’s Messiah, which is performed secularly, but certainly is a religious composition. Maybe if you’re a Messiah fan, when I read, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” and when I got to the “every valley” part, maybe you heard that beautiful tenor air. I know I did in my head. Luckily for you, I didn’t burst into song.
These texts are so familiar to us. “A virgin shall conceive a child,” and, “A little child shall lead them.” “A child is born to us. A son is given to us.” They’re so familiar that we tend to think that the writings of the prophets were all about predicting the Messiah. And in fact, that’s just one of three things we remember them for.
We had a house full of company over the long Thanksgiving weekend, which is why I wasn’t here last Sunday. I wasn’t out looking for another job. Father Ditterline was kind enough to cover so I could concentrate on being with my family, and it was a real joy to have both of my children at home, including my daughter who lives in California and, of course, it was a joy to have our granddaughter at our house for several days. Her language skills are just exploding these days, and she has a lot to say about everything.
She just turned two at the beginning of November, but I wouldn’t call her a terrible two—although we did notice that if there’s something she wants, she does think she has to have it right away. She does not like to wait.
Waiting isn’t easy for two-year-olds, and to tell you the truth, it isn’t always easy for us adults, either. I don’t like waiting in lines in stores, I don’t like waiting in traffic. And not too long ago, I spent more than 30 minutes sitting in a doctor’s examining room, and I can tell you that I did not appreciate that at all.
So today in church we begin an entire season devoted to waiting, the season of Advent, and the funny thing is that I really love it. I think that Advent might be my favorite season of the church year. I cherish the peace and quiet that comes to us just as the whole world is ramping up for Christmas. I love that contrast of Advent, the fact that it’s not a commercial holiday even though as a society, it seems, we just can’t wait. We can’t wait for Christmas.
May 21, 2011. That was the day the world was supposed to end.
I remember it very clearly because I was in Oakland at the time vising my daughter, and Oakland is the home of Family Radio and Harold Camping, who is the man who studied the Bible very carefully and came up with that date. Family Radio spent millions to publicize it with billboards and bumper stickers, and it was all over the news while we were there.
The day came and the day went, and we’re all still here. Actually, it wasn’t the first or the last time that Camping set a date for the end of the world, for Judgment Day, and it turned out to be wrong, so God wasn’t on his page, I guess.
It’s kind of easy to make fun and to laugh, you know. You picture that old cartoon with the prophet saying repent, the end is near. But my intent really isn’t to make fun of him.
My intent is to say how easy it is to look at readings like the ones we had today, Daniel in the Old Testament, and this Gospel from Mark, and misunderstand what the message of those readings is. Jesus is talking about the terrible times ahead, and Peter, James, John, and Andrew want to know when, when is this going to happen, what are the signs.
One of the things my sisters found when they emptied my parents’ house after my mother died was a journal my father kept during his service in the Army in Europe during World War II.
It was an introduction to a much younger version of the man I knew. My father very rarely talked to us about the war, though we did know that it had something to do with the fact that he despised Spam for the rest of his days.
He was 19 years old when he was drafted in 1943. He was sent oversees in 1944, straight into Battle of the Bulge, and he started the journal midway through that terrible winter. This is how it begins:
I am going to keep this diary so that in future years I may remember more closely the day to day events of my Army career. I especially want to remember—in the days of normal living coming again in the not too distant future—the days of hell of our present existence in combat. For, as Sherman said, war really is hell—crowded with misery, discomfort, and uncertainty—uncertainty as to whether or not you’ll be alive in the next minute.
We’re living in difficult times, and that has felt especially true this past week or so.
I don’t know about you, but I feel a little beat up by all of the campaign rhetoric as we approach Tuesday’s elections. And I still feel very deeply the shock of the of the massacre last Saturday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Among other things. There are also the troubles and worries in our own lives. We all have them.
And it is so good to be here together today, to hold these things in community.
That is what we do when times are hard. Or even, for that matter, when times are good. We come together in community, to walk together through our difficult times. To cry together. To laugh and to celebrate together.
And today we are celebrating, we’re celebrating our community here.
This is All Saints Sunday. It’s the observance of the feast that commemorates all the saints, both known and unknown to us. God knows them all, of course.
One of the careers that I had before I went to seminary was publishing outdoor guidebooks, guidebooks to walking and bicycling in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I was responsible for every aspect of their production and their distribution, so ultimately I was responsible for selling them.
I had an arrangement with a book distributor that put them in faraway bookstores, and on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But when it came to the local bookstores I had to take care of that myself, even though I have never thought of myself as a natural–born salesperson. But I surprised myself.
I would drive around to bike shops and bookstores. I would get out of the car and grab a copy of each book and go in and find out who was responsible for purchasing. I would try to convince them that they really had to put these books on their shelve,s and I was successful a fair amount of the time.
So, people said to me, “I can’t believe you’re selling them. I never really thought that would be you.” What I said was, “I found out that I could never sell just any old product. I could never be a seller of widgets, but when it came to something I really believe, in I had no trouble doing that stuff.”
So, today I want to sell you something that I really believe in and I hope it’s something you believe in, too.
A few of us gathered yesterday at the outdoor chapel for the Blessing of Animals in honor of the feast of St. Francis, which was last week: That saint who understood so very well that nature and Creation are filled with God’s goodness, that Creation is sacred and it’s the first place where we meet God. It was a nice ceremony. It was small. There was a lot of canine energy out there. And it was an opportunity for us to give thanks for those animals, to give thanks for the companionship that our pets provide to us.
So it’s seems ironic to come back 24 hours later and hear the first reading from the Book of Genesis, which tell us very explicitly that animal companionship is not enough. No matter how cute and warm and furry they are, no matter how loyal and devoted they are, our dogs and cats are not enough. We were made for something more.
We were made for relationship with others who can meet us on our own level. God was there with us from the beginning, but God also wants us to have everyday companions made of flesh and bone who can walk with us here on this earth. In that reading, when God says that it is not good for Adam to be alone, that’s the first time in all of the Creation stories that God looks at anything and says it’s not good. It’s not good for us to be alone. We were made for relationship. We were made to be in relationship with others like us.
The Bible is a strange book sometimes. Sometimes the world in which the Bible stories with which we’re so familiar take place—sometimes that world seems so different that it’s hard to relate to those people, and it’s hard to relate to the message.
And then again there are times when I’ll read one of those stories and I’ll be so struck by the similarities, and I’ll say to myself, human nature hasn’t changed all that much in 3500 years. And that’s what really struck me in this week’s story about Moses and the two prophets with the very curious names of Eldad and Medad.
I swear, if I had twins, I’d name them Eldad and Medad. They’re really nice names, actually. Eldad means God has loved, and Medad means Beloved. In the Old Testament, the names of people and places usually mean something that’s important, and these names are all about love, God’s love.
So in this story, God has brought the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and in the wilderness has provided them with water and plenty of food in the form of manna, and now they’re complaining that it isn’t enough for them. Basically, they’re complaining about change.