We call this time Advent while the rest of the world calls it Christmastime. We do it backwards. We wait while everyone else is Christmas-ing and then we Christmas while everyone else is taking down their trees and putting up candy hearts.
We are waiting for the Christ child to come.We’re throwing a baby shower while the rest of the world is going to a birthday party. And we are waiting for Christ to come again. That is to say, our practice of Advent places us in a place of expectation. Advent is the pregnant pause. And yes, I do mean to be punny there.
We wait for a child.
We wait for promises.
We wait for light born into the world.
And we wait for a Word.
Our texts this week lean strongly on what we say to one another, and on what God says to us.
We began this week in Isaiah, with a song. Isaiah is like, the granddaddy of all prophets. This is a huge prophetic book. It dwarfs all the rest in length, it spans a bunch of reigns of different kings of Israel. It’s filled with a lot of woe and big deal prophecy and prescriptions and calls for God’s people to get their act together already. But our selection this week is one of Isaiah’s great songs.
And it starts with a profession of faith.
The prophet places these words in our mouths. “Surely God is my salvation” we say. “I will trust and not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might: God has become my salvation.”
This is the profession, and this is where, right away, we have to ask ourselves: are the words on our lips a true representation of what’s on our hearts?
It’s the “Surely” part that gets me. I’m not “Surely” about anything, if I’m quite honest. And my life does not look like someone who says, with conviction, “Surely God is my Salvation.”
If you looked at me, if you knew me, it might look more like this:
Surely planning is my salvation
Surely well-placed humor is my salvation
Surely clarity of purpose is my salvation
Surely my friends are my salvation
Surely perfect sentences are my salvation
Surely stained glass and quiet and pretty words are my salvation
But not the God of the Universe. Nope. That sucker* is too wily and unpredictable to be relied upon. Because see, I’ve got salvation mixed up with security.
It takes a lot of concerted effort to throw in beside a God whose plan A is conception, pregnancy, birth. Because, as we know, that’s not an easy road to take. It is difficult, dangerous, fraught road. We know that. We know that sometimes it doesn’t happen, no matter how much we long for it to take place.
It is difficult to throw in beside an Almighty Being who says to his C-Suite: “It’s okay, guys, I’ve got a plan. I’m going to give them a baby. Because they have a great track record on raising exemplary human beings who are not horribly wounded and operating from a deficit mindset. I know we’ve got a hundred generations of really poor ROI, but trust me, this time it’s gonna work.”
And thing is, I don’t think I’m alone in my practice of substituting security for salvation. This is the wheel we are trained on in the West, particularly here in America. You work hard in school to get into college, you go to college so you can get a better job, you get a better job so you can provide for your family. The unspoken here is that we do all of those things because they’ll keep us safe, right? Safe from living life as a poor person. And deep down, we know that it’s not real. And God and scripture TELL us that it’s not real, that poverty is not a condition of spirit or lack of hard work or value as a human being.
But here, Isaiah tells us that there’s hope for those of us who, like me, are in the process of converting from Security Worship.
Contrary to all our fretting, God says that God still has plenty for us.
God says that, at the end of the day, we’ll get it. We’ll know, for sure and for certain, that the well doesn’t run dry. We’ll finally get that love is a sustainable resource. We’ll finally grasp that grace is renewable energy. And that drawing grace is an act that brings joy.
We’ll get it so much that on that day, we’ll be able to articulate it clear and bright. We’ll sing. We’ll say thanks. We’ll tell the world what God has done. We’ll sing praises, we’ll tell that God has “done gloriously.”
And this rejoicing is not just in what God has done. Remember, we’re still waiting for The One who Is To Come, right? Today we focus on rejoicing on what will be done.
And this is where it gets a little dicier for us, when we look at what’s coming. John tells us. John tells us that the axe is at the root of the trees. John tells us that the stuff that doesn’t bear fruit, the stuff that doesn’t sustain, the stuff that doesn’t nourish, all of that’s getting out of the way.
For the poor and oppressed, that’s great news. The hundreds of levels of bureaucracy and red tape that stand between you and the help you need, gone. The people who get fat off the backs of unfair labor, gone. All of the things that make it nearly impossible to simply live, all of that will pass away. And we can draw our water with rejoicing.
But…I don’t know about you, but I don’t know how to draw my own water. What about those of us who are deeply accustomed to using other people to sustain us? What about those of us who don’t know how to rejoice in “the high places being made low, and the low places raised” because our address is 2100 High Terrace Lane?
Hang on a minute. I got ahead of myself a bit. Let’s add some context.
We meet John the Baptizer after another pregnant pause. God hadn’t been speaking to Israel the way God used to. And I remember the first time I learned that, I thought “ok, what now? God was giving humanity the silent treatment?”
It wouldn’t be the first time I projected my pettiness onto the Divine.
No, this wasn’t a cold shoulder. This wasn’t a spouse freezing out the other as punishment.
It was another pregnant pause. God had something to say, and God wanted to say it just. right. So God waited. Drafted, maybe. And then threw them away. And waited more. Maybe God’s mouth gaped open and then closed again, because too much was at stake and the Word wasn’t right yet.
And then everybody started opening their mouths. Starting with God.
God opened God’s mouth and sent an angel to Zachariah, who, as we learned last week, promptly shut him up. Talk about a pregnant pause.
Then we get an angel who appears to Mary, who opened her mouth in a song of revolution.
And now we hear John, a prophet after generations. A prophet after whole dynasties rose and fell. A prophet to a group of people living in occupied territory, accosted daily by their oppressors, made to be a minority in their own home.
After a long, LONG, pregnant pause, here’s what we get:
“You brood of vipers!”
“You brood of vipers!” from the mouth of a spitting, wild-eyed man, who ran to the wilderness and clothed himself in camel hair and ate locusts and honey. What might John look like if we updated him to his modern analog? Maybe a person in rags, still ill-dressed for the weather, subsisting on discarded food scraps…and still wicked smart.
John looks at those of us in the high places and tells us what to do, but only after he kills our cop-outs.
John says that we don’t get to give him our pedigree as a way out of the work. John said then, and I paraphrase “Don’t tell me that you’re one of Father Abraham’s many kids, that I am one of them and so are you so let’s just praise the Lord, right arm. Nah, man. God can make more Abe-kids out of stones at a moment’s notice, so your status doesn’t mean much to God. In fact, if status is all you’ve got, hang on to your butts. Because that status is going to be stripped away in the kin-dom that is coming around the mountain.”
We’re not in the habit of pulling out Father Abraham as our excuse, but we can recognize this game, can’t we? John was anticipating what his audience might have said. What might he anticipate from us now?
“Listen, John, I’ve been a church-goer all my life. I know the difference in right from wrong”
Whatever pedigree we’re tempted to produce in order to lessen the sharpness of the gospel – that’s the pedigree the prophet calls us to lay aside. And we’re asked to lay aside our Good Person Pedigrees because they get in our way. They trip us up. They will not save us.
Our “I’m not racist” pedigrees will not help us eradicate systemic racism.
Our “I just want to make sure my kids have enough when I’m gone” ideals will not heal the divide between classes in our society.
Our donations of money and stuff will not transform our community.
So here we are. Bereft of our comfortable identities. Laid bare. Just like our counterparts in John’s day. And we echo their question:
What are we supposed to do, then?
John speaks to the powerful and despised in the context. He speaks to mercenaries and tax collectors, both of whom made it big by taking more than they should’ve. And they had questions, too.
Because you know what? None of those singular mercenaries or tax collectors were the ones who created the system, right? They’re just the doing their jobs. What could one tax collector do? It wasn’t his fault that the game was set up this way.
And you know what John says? STOP IT. Like, guys, just STOP it. And do the opposite thing. Stop extorting people and be satisfied with your wages. Don’t take more than what you’re required to take. And whatever you have in excess, share with those who have nothing.
So what might John say to me? When I say “I know this item was probably made from unfair labor abroad, but I’m not the one who set up the system and I still need to clothe myself…”
STOP IT. There are other ways for you to clothe yourself. And by the way, don’t you have more than you need? God clothes the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Okay, that was Jesus, yeah. Don’t think you caught me, I know I’m hopping texts, cool it. Don’t miss the point.
“But John, I’m in a hurry, and I don’t have time to confront the cashier who just did some awful racial profiling to the person in front of me.” STOP IT. Share your privilege.
Our call to action in this text is to do the work. Do. The. Work. Bear the fruit. Do we hear that? Bear it. Don’t just farm it somewhere else. Don’t just pay someone else to harvest it. Don’t then pay someone else to process it for you. Bear that fruit. Feel the weight of it on your branches. Own the process from flower to harvest.
I don’t pretend this isn’t difficult. But there is good news: God is with us every step of the way.
When we have that sharp intake of breath, shocked by what’s happening in front of us-
When we pause and panic, thinking “What will I say?”-
God is teaching us advent. And advent is work. Advent is preparing the way for the Lord and making straight his paths, as John is doing right now.
And here is the point:
Friends, it is in our everyday pregnant pauses that Christ waits to be born.
It is our discomfort that signals our impending labor, and our trepidation that keeps us from bearing God’s fruit in the world.
When our pedigrees keep us from feeling the pain that is supposed to attune us to labor-
When our excuses and “at leasts” and “but I didn’t make it”s allow us to continue in denial- we withhold God’s gifts from the world. And we create a world like the one in frozen Narnia: always winter, never Christmas.
But hear the good news: when we conquer the fear that keeps us silent, we will be met with rejoicing.
Because while birth may come with pain – it comes with joy unlike any other.
Let us lay aside our pedigrees and lean into our labor. The world is dark, and hurting. Creation itself heaves with the weight it bears, and our societies spasm as we try to learn to own one another without caving in to fear.
We will not look the same on the other side. But when we say “yes” to all of this discomfort, when we say “yes” to all of the places where we are called to say hard things,
Isaiah has told us. On that day we will understand. And we will say, “Surely God is my salvation. God is my strength and my might.” On that day we will draw water from the well of salvation, we will sing for joy, for great in our midst will be the Holy One of Israel.
*That word would’ve started with an F, normally. But this is a sermon.