Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Sermon for Advent II

St. John the Baptist by Veneto (source).
Digging through some things yesterday, I found this old sermon for Advent II in lectionary Year C from 14 years ago.  I am not sure that it is quite what I would say today, but I think some of the ideas still hold up.

   Today’s collects and readings confront the reality of sin.  We prayed that we might heed the prophets warnings and forsake our sins.  I am not certain that as creatures of the age of psychology and self-esteem that we even know how to address the concept. 

    For John the Baptist, sin was very real.  He calls those who hear him a generation of vipers and trees who will be cast in the fire.  He tells them they should fear the one who will come after him.

    John stands in good company among the prophets whom the collect calls to our mind today.  As a group, the prophets were notoriously lacking in civility, scolds par excellance.  Worse, they seemed to enjoy their work.  Unfortunately, the lectionary gives us a skewed view of the prophetic role.  Today’s reading from Isaiah is typical of what we hear on a given Sunday—the lion lying down with the lamb and a little child shall lead them, a seemingly pleasant and benign vision of the Kingdom we seek shorn of the arduous nature of the journey it takes to get there.

    Typically, the prophets spent their time calling on the people and the state to repent from sin and to turn to God.  To sin was to risk bringing calamity on the individual and the nation.  But what was this thing that aroused prophetic ire and drove John’s ministry?

    The most common word for sin in the New Testament is the Greek word hamartia which means to miss the mark.  The word was used in archery to say that someone had missed the target and used to describe travelers who had missed their road.  To sin is to be misguided, to be off course, to get it wrong, but what is the criteria?  In both the Old and New Testaments, to sin is most often to commit and act that puts something in the place of God, usually one’s self.  To sin is to fail to recognize the majesty of God and the order of the universe.  Sin is failing to recognize our dependence on the creator.

    C. S. Lewis, born almost exactly 100 years ago, was perhaps the last great Anglican defender of the idea of sin.  For Lewis, sin was a loss of perspective that clouded all of life.  To be in sin was to forget one’s place in creation and consequently that of God.  Sin was to choose the self and to see things only in terms of the self.

    In the world of Lewis’ essays and fiction, heaven is the end of a deliberate journey toward God.  Heaven is where those who have longed for their creator find fulfillment and true joy.  Hell, on the other hand, is the end point of just as deliberate a journey.  In Lewis’ hell, there is no fire or demonic torment.  Instead, hell is the place of rest for those who can no longer see outside of themselves.  Hell is a solitary place of rest where there is nothing to distract the soul from its self-love, where at last there are no other people to challenge one’s status, no feelings of imperfection, no more nagging of conscience.  Hell is a self-imposed exile.

    Today’s gospel from Matthew gives us John the forerunner of Christ’s earthly ministry, but it serves equally well as a warning of the second advent for which we look in this season.  To prepare the way of the Lord we have to know the right road.  We have to know that the source of true joy and contentment lies outside of ourselves.  We have to long for a kingdom where we will neither rule nor burn with desire to at least stand on the dais. 

    As we anticipate Christ’s second advent, the importance of John’s proclamation is not so much that he called sinners to repent but that he could say “The one who is coming after me is greater than I; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.”  John calls us out of ourselves to see the glory of the one who is to come.  He calls us to see the folly of our self-aggrandizement and to see that our worth and honor come from being children of the creator, not from any transitory status that we can cobble together here.  John’s words in the wilderness of Judea call us out of our need for dominance and self-importance. 

    The seemingly pleasant vision in today’s reading from Isaiah is no comfort to those who have chosen otherwise, because to be happy in that peaceable kingdom is not just to be the babe that is safe from the asp and the calf that need not fear the lion. It is also to be the asp who has forgone the impulse to strike, the bear who is happy to graze, and the lion who no longer needs to be king because he is content to be subject to the shoot that has come up from the stump of Jesse. 

     In the name of the FATHER and of the SON and of the HOLY GHOST.  AMEN.