Sermon for Advent 3, Sunday, December 13 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
And so we continue through Advent with the story of John the Baptist—John in his clothing of camel’s hair, out on the margins of society. The prophet in the wilderness, the voice calling out, and a group of the privileged people from his own community approaching him so that they might repent and be baptized, and John facing them down with a stream of invective about snakes and rocks and trees and fire, and promises of eternal punishment. It is a powerful voice, a voice of truth and conviction, and it is a voice which Jesus himself will validate by accepting baptism from John before beginning his own public ministry—if perhaps one which seems a bit out of place on this Sunday called Gaudete, “rejoice.” And John is an important part of the narrative because his message is a real and still valid part of our message. The people who stand outside the centres of power and call out their abuses, the voices protesting the fact that the number of children living in poverty in Ontario has continued to grow every year, that people go without adequate food and housing while corporations get tax breaks, that climate change is reaching an irreversible tipping point, the voices telling us that these things must change or it will all eventually fall apart and our cities, our planet, will burn, these are crucial still.
But, as I said last week, John, in his anger, in his rejections, in his visions of unquenchable fire and endless pain for his enemies, is not the last word. He is—and, according to all the Gospels, he knows that he is—the forerunner, the herald only, of the Incarnate Word. Anger and judgement and promises of God’s mighty acts of destruction of the wicked may be where the story begins, but they are not where the story ends. Imagine a rock, a pile of rocks, sun-blasted rocks in the desert by the Jordan. A tree which has been cut down at the root. A heap of dry straw. Dead things. Things in which there is no movement or life or hope. Useless things, rubble. But out of these rocks God can raise children for Abraham.
For this is the way that hope is, and this is the way that change is. More often than not, they rise up out of the things we have left for dead, the people we have set aside as useless. Out of rocks, hope for Abraham’s children. From Jesus’s own body, placed lifeless in the tomb, new life, all life.
The Christian church itself grew mostly out of slaves and women and Gentiles—and in fact, that vivid image of raising children for Abraham out of stones may be intended as a reference to the inclusion of the Gentiles, one of Luke’s great concerns. The inclusion of the outsider, the worthless, one who is not a child of the family. The beginning of the great reconciliation.
Out of the self-organizing efforts of very poor and often abused women in the developing world came the concept of microloans, which has now grown into institutions like the Grameen Bank, enabling the rural poor to manage their own finances without exploitation by money-lenders. Out of the grief of the mothers of murdered sons, so many initiatives striving to create community and end violence in our cities. Out of the courage of indigenous people who survived the residential schools and have been able, while still struggling with the effects of abuse in their own lives, to tell their stories, out of this rises the possibility of a new relationship between the indigenous population and us settler people.
Out of the stones, children for Abraham.
But there is more than that. For me, maybe for some of you, it is not so hard to imagine life from those stones. But from the dead land of power and privilege—from this land too, the children will rise. From the stones of greed and indifference and prejudice, God can raise life. There must be change. It may start in gestures as small as those John calls for, because when you actually look at what this angry fiery prophet is demanding, it is small actions of fairness and basic decency, little incremental changes which barely begin to foreshadow the greater change. But the vision is of that great change, that reconciliation where no one is cast out, no one burned, punished or rejected. A transformation so complete that we will all be able to eat and live and play and work safely and equally together. From these stones, the children.
And from the stones of our own hearts? Out of our own fear and exhaustion and depression, our own impatience and selfishness? Our large and small addictions and misguided attachments, our hopeless grasping desires? From those things in ourselves that seem the most dead, the most hopeless, the most abandoned? Can God bring life out of these stones too, out of these severed trunks?
Yes, the story tells us. Yes. Out of these stones. And maybe it is in those most abandoned places, in those dead zones within our souls, that God must move. Maybe, sometimes, it is only in our bad and broken places that God can begin to build. Love for the wrong thing is still love. It may be a place to start, the bare beginning of the long task of loving rightly. It may be in the midst of those rocks that God, as the poet says, teaches us to sit still. Teaches us to pray. Teaches us to see the wounds, breaks us open to compassion.
It is in part because we fall, and fail, and make stupid choices, and are not the people we want to be, that we can learn to see ourselves in someone else’s hurt, can reach out to catch another falling body; that we can, maybe sometimes, hold each other up. Out of these stones.
So there is rejoicing, after all, the rejoicing to which Paul calls us from his prison cell, the fierce rejoicing that does not depend on goodness or happiness, which lives in the rocks and the dead grass, the rejoicing which believes that our redemption is near at hand, is already underway, that the children are always rising up.
We are living—and we are called to be especially aware of this in Advent—in the time of already and not yet; we believe that Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection accomplished the final victory of love over power, but we are still waiting for that victory’s fulfillment.In the meantime, so much of what we see is not like victory at all. Addiction and mental illness and poverty and oppression, violence and exclusion and hatred, failure and error and the breaking of hearts; all these things persist. And often the stones remain stones, in the world and in our selves.
But we are called to believe that this is not the final truth. That those people, those situations, those miseries and losses which seem most hopeless, most valueless, most strange or uncomfortable or foreign, must not be wholly rejected. We must never forget the potential life in the stones. That those who are powerful and privileged may change, that they shall not hurt or destroy on all God’s holy mountain.That we ourselves can change, will change. Hard as it is to believe these things sometimes, little as they may be visible in our days of exile, that it what we must believe, and that is how we must live.
John the Baptist was not wrong—he was only incomplete. Anger and judgement, the clearing of the ground, the cutting away of unjust structures and misguided desires, all these things are important. But the final vision is something more, the tree of life that is Christ’s risen body, drawing all creation together in love. And it is this vision which we call on to guide us, now in Advent, and always.