Below is a the text of a sermon I preached on the second Sunday of Advent, December 6, 2015 at the Davis Community Church, Davis, California. I'd felt frustrated by the posturing of politicians and the paralysis of analysis by the pundits. FaceBook was little help and only made it clear to me that I had to follow a different path. So, I stuck to the lectionary texts handed the church on this Sunday, and they handed me a way to walk out of my numbing despair. I can't say I can walk head up in hope with the mountain of anger, fear, and craziness before us. But at least the texts pointed a path before me. Here's a link to the audio download.
Malachi 3.1-4 | Luke 3.1-6
1. “Crazy” is a word I’ve heard more than any other word this week. It’s a word I may have used more than any other this week. I hear people calling other people crazy. I hear people describing our world as crazy. And on Thursday when I learned of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, I sat at my desk, numb. I shook my head and said, “This is crazy, crazy, crazy.”
The Washington Post agreed. On Thursday, they ran a headline that read, “The San Bernardino shooting is the second mass shooting today and the 355th this year.” Thursday was the 336th day of the year. 355 mass shootings in 336 days in America. That’s crazy.
It’s crazy too when we stop to realize that for most of the rest of the world this kind of violence is, tragically, common. In the Middle East, India, Africa, Central and South America people live with the daily threat of violence and bloodshed. In American, we’re realizing how crazy and violent our world is.
“Crazy” is an English word that probably comes through German and French from the Old Norse word, “Krasa” which means “shatter”. By the sixteenth century, “crazy” had come to mean “full of cracks or flaws" or to be "of unsound mind, or behaving as so.”
Our planet feels like it is shattering under the hammer of unpredictable, cruel, and unstoppable violence. It’s crazy.
2. Last week was the first Sunday of Advent. It was hope Sunday. We heard Jesus warn us that things would be tough, but we weren’t to give up hope. Jesus told his disciples to “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down.” We heard him calling us to live as agents of hope in this troubled world—“daring hopers” I called us. Then bang, bang, bang—new violence shot holes through that hope. By Thursday I was anything but hopeful. I was numb. Even angry. I kept saying, “This is crazy. Crazy.”
And now, here we are on this Sunday—the second Sunday of Advent. And it’s peace Sunday. Peace sounds crazy; an ideal that has no connection with reality. And next Sunday is joy Sunday. Seriously?
3. The truth is, Advent is crazy. Advent reminds us that we’re baptized into a story of hope and peace and joy . . . as crazy as that may seem. We are baptized into a long line of women and men and children who have kept that story alive even in the craziest of times.
Take the fourteenth century for example. The Swiss historian, de Sismondi, labeled the fourteenth century, “A very bad time for humanity.” Continuous war, oppressive taxation, political corruption, rampant crime, church schism, insurrection, and then, to top it off, the Black Plague, which killed a full third of the population from Iceland to India. de Sismondi says, “it was a period of anguish when there was no sense of an assured future.”
That’s what many of us are beginning to feel, isn’t it? We feel unrelenting anguish with no sense of an assured future.
And yet, the fourteenth century produced some of the most vibrant expressions of spiritual life in all of history. It is the century of Julian of Norwich and her revelations of divine love. An English monk wrote the highly influential book on the Christian contemplative life, The Cloud of Unknowing. Dante wrote his Divine Comedy. Meister Eckhart preached in Germany. There was St Bridget of Sweden. Catherine of Sienna. And at the dawn of the fifteen century, Thomas a Kempis wrote his famed Imitation of Christ. And in the East, there were great human beings like Shams al-Din Muhammad Hafez-e Shirazi—Hafez—the 14th-century Persian mystic and poet. The darkest of times produced the brightest of lives.
It was a very bad time for humanity, but there’s evidence that they were the sane ones who were pulling the rest of the crazy world to safety after them. They were the ones making a path of human dignity in the midst of dehumanizing circumstances. They were the ones who found God relevant even in the midst of immense suffering and violence and death. They were the ones who taught others to walk the path out of madness and into hope, peace, joy, and love that changed the world. That’s why we call them saints.
I wonder what the twenty-first century will do to us. I wonder if we’ll stay mired in the insanity around us or if we’ll rise above it and walk the path of God and change the world around us.
4. I was numb on Thursday and Friday. I’d preached hope on Sunday but had none by Thursday. I knew I had to preach peace today, but that seemed insane given what’s going on. It seemed insane until I remembered that we are baptized, you and I. And I remembered that because we’re baptized, people just might think we’re crazy to keep preaching hope and peace in the midst of this season of our world’s shattering. And I remembered that there were others counting on me—and you—who themselves had kept hope alive in the most desperate situations. They are counting on us to carry on their work of creating peace through justice.
My guess is that a lot of you are feeling a lot like I was. Numb. Maybe mad or afraid or just plain sick at heart. And so, I’m inviting you into the Bible on this second Sunday of Advent. Here in the Gospel of Luke we meet John the Baptist. Luke begins by naming the Emperor Tiberius, governors Pilate and Herod, rulers Philip and Lysanias, and priests Annas and Caiaphas. It’s a Who’s Who of the cruel and violent tyrants of the first century Romanized world. Tyrants ordinary people of Israel and Palestine loved to hate, despots who made their world crazy with fear and violence.
It’s a strange fluke of Providence that this is the text for this Advent. We are entering the fifteenth year of the reign of global terror. Fifteen years since 9/11. Fifteen years of continuous war with an elusive enemy that seems to get stronger with each passing year.
Luke says that in the fifteenth year of the reign of terror, something new happened.
“The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
When the word of God comes, things change. They cannot stay the same. “In the beginning,” says Genesis, “God spoke,” and the universe burst into being. God spoke into the chaos and a new order came. Rocks and trees, birds and seas. “And it was very good,” said God.
So when Luke tells us that the “word of God came to John” he’s telling us that this is a new beginning taking place right under the noses of the Emperor, the governor, the rulers of this region and that.
It’s so easy to go numb before the violence and chaos. It’s tempting to grow paralyzed before the political gridlock of a congress that seems to be unwilling to do anything at all. It’s easy to become polarized by popular opinions about how to curb the violence; do we buy guns or ban them?
But we, the baptized, hear that “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius” the creative, energizing, transforming word of God came to John in the wilderness. And the Emperor in Rome, Pilate and Herod in Israel, Philip, Lysanias, and the other petty rulers were too caught up in the insanity of their violent regimes to notice what was happening. An insurgency of God’s newness was breaking in, birthing a new people, shaping a new way of life, bringing sanity to an insane world.
5. But this is what’s crazy. The pathway doesn’t depend on political strategy or legislation, but upon the transformation of our lives—inside and out.
This doesn’t mean that political solutions aren’t important. They are. Now, more than ever. Our political gridlock is shameful; it is a betrayal of the electorate by the elected. With what’s happening in our nation, this inaction is close to being criminal. People are more than wearied by the wrangling over partisan politics and the ideological jockeying in this election season. People are outraged, and should be. People are dying in our neighborhoods while politicians hold us in their “thoughts and prayers.” Now is a time for action. And action that heals our land will require that parties on opposite sides find a way toward the middle. Action that heals our land will demand courage to listen to each other and to compromise and to find a solution for the common good.
Here’s the pathway according to John: When the “word of God comes to John,” “he goes into all the region proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
I don’t hear any repenting going on today. All I hear is entrenchment—from politicians and pundits. I read it on Facebook. I see it in inflammatory posts by internet trolls. Entrenchment is the kind of thing that was going on in the court of Emperor Tiberius. Power politics is what Herod and Pilate were all about. Back room lobbying and underhanded deals were part of the treachery of Annas and Caiaphas.
Some think John the Baptist is crazy. He comes out of the wilderness. He hasn’t bathed in weeks. He’s wearing next to nothing. He has fire in his eyes. He’s calling people to the water of baptism. What good is a little water ritual against the onslaught of tyranny and violence and oppression? John’s telling them that to save themselves from all this madness they’ll have to drown all their opinions and habits, their ideas and agendas, their words and their weapons. They’re going to have to leave it all behind. But who wants to do that? We’ve got so much invested in our positions? But if we do, John says, the insanity will be washed away—inside as well as outside. That’s what “forgiveness of sins” means. To “sin” means, in Hebrew, to miss the mark.
John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Isn’t that awfully flimsy compared to politics? But what is this last fifteen years of this reign of global and domestic terror—this reign of violence and corruption and prejudice—if not one colossal testimony to the ways we have missed the mark? Aren’t we coming to realize that we have descended into an insanity that cannot be fixed by anything other than a spiritual transformation of our lives? Isn’t there abundant evidence that politics, as it now stands, is impotent without the spiritual changing of our lives?
The word of God comes to us in this fifteenth year of the reign of terror. And John tells us we need to repent and drown our opinions and habits, our ideas and agendas, our words and our weapons. If we do, we will be forgiven of our sins. And we will begin to heal our land.
Malachi, preaching centuries before John appeared, prophesied that God would be like a refiner’s fire. There would come a time when God would purify the nation as gold and silver are purified. There would come a time when human society became so troubled, so broken, so crazy that we would need to start over again. And if we did, if we learned a new way to do what is just for all people (not only some), what is right for the common good (not only for one party or another), then, Malachi says, “Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.”
Jerusalem. Baghdad. Madrid. Cairo. Aurora, Colorado. Newtown, Connecticut. Damascus. Boston. Fergusson, Missouri. Charleston, South Carolina. Paris. San Bernardino.
All “pleasing to the Lord.” Could it be?
6. Peace isn’t a daydream. But we’ll not find it unless we take John at his word.
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of” terror, “the word of God came to us.”
Maybe we’re finally desperate enough to trust that John is more sane than we are at the present moment.