Sermon for Advent II – December 3, 2016 – St Mark’s Episcopal Church – Raleigh, NC
In the Name of God: Our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Comforter. Amen
We gather today on the second Sunday in the Advent Season. We gather in Advent in a time of profound transition. We gather in the midst of a world going dark around us. The days grow short; when, just a few months ago it was light by 6am and remained light until after eight o’clock in the evening, now the sun does not come up until seven in the morning and it is dark by 5 pm.
Now, it is true that this happens every year, and it is true that we live in a world in which light is never more than the flip of a light switch away from us, but still the coming of winter, and of the dark and the cold, have consequences for us. For the way we feel and the way we think about who we are and where we are, and where we’ve been and what’s coming next.
This Advent, for many of us, is turning out to be a time of disorientation, in which things we thought we knew and understood have proved to be uncertain and transitory, and the future at the moment seems very unclear.
I’m of course talking about politics.
There is the possibility that the governor’s race will be decided by the end of the day tomorrow, when the vote recount in Durham County is done. But that seems the least of our worries, as we find ourselves in a time when agents of the darkness in human affairs seem emboldened – there was, after all, a Klan rally in Roxboro yesterday — and old arrangements seem to be coming unstuck, and things that seemed settled in the law and in society now feel up in the air and open to question.
So what do we do, in the church, in this gathering darkness? We come together to light a candle. We light a candle and we hear Paul promise in the words of the epistle to the Romans, that “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”
And the words we hear read to us this day, on the Second Sunday of Advent, are words of promise, and of expectation.
Isaiah promises that “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge . . .
With righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
(I guess that – around here — that promise is suspended when NC State plays ball against Carolina, but let that pass)
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.”
As we light a candle in the midst of the gathering darkness, and hear such promises, there is the possibility that in our season of darkness the light can break in, that our season of darkness can become a season of expectation – a time of expectation of what is to come – and an time of preparation for what is to come.
What is to come, of course, is in the short run the celebration of Christmas, with all the solemnity of church Christmas contrasting with the glitz and glitter of commercial Christmas.
But in Advent, in the church, we are about lighting candles in the darkness, and about hearing words of promise, and about preparation, about cleaning up, and cleaning out, and making ready, in the lives we lead, and in the bodies we are. In the words of the song, we make ourselves fair, as we are able. As we are able, as we are.
In commercial Christmas, we are about magic, and dreams, and perfect outcomes – about wishes and wants, getting what we want most dearly, and making other people happy.
Its about spending time in a magical place where the lights glitter, and the reindeer’s nose is red, and time stands still, and miracles can happen, because Santa can visit every house on earth in 24 hours where the children have been good, and everything is perfect.
For me, Advent is not about magic. Its not about creating a world in which everything is perfect, and about imagining that if we are good, our dreams will be fulfilled, and we will get what we want, and the turkey will come out of the oven perfectly browned, and everyone will live in harmony and peace.
For me, Advent is about paying attention, and taking care, and seeing ourselves as we are, in the real, substantial, embodied, finite lives that we live, with all the limitations and challenges and limits and frustrations we know all too well in our daily lives.
John the Baptist, in today’s Gospel reading, calls us to repent. Never has a word drifted so much over the centuries from its original meaning. To repent means to pay attention, to take notice. That’s a lot to do – amidst the distractions of commercial Christmas, its difficult to pay attention. But John the Baptist called his followers to pay attention, to take notice, of what is happening around us, the events that John the Baptist is referring to when he claims that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Over the past 2 thousand years, John the Baptist’s call to pay attention has gotten caught up in a world of reward and punishment, of sackcloth and ashes, of dualistic ways of thinking about how bad we are and how good we need to be.
But John the Baptist says, simply, but profoundly, pay attention, take notice, because “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” We will remember John’s words at Christmas, when we proclaim that there is deep and profound significance in the birth of a child – a very ordinary thing, even if it takes place in a stable – in the birth of a child to two very ordinary residents of a distant outpost of the Roman Empire, far from the centers of power and glory in that ancient world.
And we will remember John’s words again when in the midst of the darkness again of Holy Saturday night we will again light a candle, in the dark, and proclaim that this is the night when God acts to overcome everything that separates us from God and from each other, the night when heaven and earth are joined and we are reconciled to God.
So that’s my first point today, that in the season of Advent we are called to light a candle in the darkness, and to pay attention.
Now, sometimes, in the church, we are called to pay attention to complicated and paradoxical and confusing and perhaps outrageous things, but in Advent we are called to pay attention to basic things.
And the first thing today’s lessons call us to attend to is one of the most basic things of all, the basic fact that we have bodies, that our lives are bodily lives, and that in our lives, as in the Bible, it is through bodies that really important things take place.
For it is to bodies that the prophet Isaiah calls us to pay attention to in the opening of today’s Old Testament Lesson:
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
Now, before I go on, I have to give you a warning – maybe a trigger warning – the next part of this sermon certainly deserves a PG 13 rating, if not an R rating. But then, again, the Bible is often a PG 13-rated book, if not an R-rated book (in spite of what our Sunday School teachers told us, all those years ago).
Which means there are a lot of bodies in it, and a lot of sex, and sometimes its pretty kinky sex, too. But that’s how we get from then to now, for the Word of God for us today, according to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, is that “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
We know already that Paul is quoting here the book of the prophet Isaiah, because the Old Testament lesson for today expands on Paul’s quote: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
Have you ever seen a medieval depiction of the Tree of Jessie? In stained glass, or carved into the stone work of a cathedral or a parish church?
If you have, you will recognize my description. In these images, Jesse lies on his back, and the trunk of a large tree rises up out of his midsection, its branches spreading over him and reaching upward toward the sky.
Which means that stories in the Bible are often about lineages, and the succession of generations, which means they are about bodies, human bodies, and about sexual relationships among those bodies. And so the Tree of Jesse image is about who is related to whom, but it is also very much about Jesse’s sexual potency.
In the Bible, God seems frequently to get involved in the human reproductive process. I think especially of the story of Abraham and Sarah. You remember, God visits Abraham and promises him that he will open Sarah’s womb and that they will have a son. So when Abraham tells Sarah, she reminds him that she is post-menopausal, and he is an old guy too, and so she laughs, and wonders, “Will I have pleasure at my age?” And they name the child Isaac, which means that Isaac is the embodiment of Sarah’s laughter.
God also gets involved in the birth of Samuel to the aged Hannah, and of course is especially intimately involved in the conception of Jesus.
The Jesse Tree is of course the family of Jesse, and the Jesse Tree is of course a family tree, and the inclusion of all these references to the Tree of Jesse in Isaiah and in Romans, has to do with the claim that Jesse is the father of David, the legendary King of Israel, and the claim that is foregrounded in the Gospels is that Jesus is “of the house and lineage of David.”
Now, a family tree is a straightforward document, showing the succession of generations, and in a male-focused culture, the succession goes from father to son to grandson, and so on.
But in the case of Jesse, the question of genealogy is a bit more complicated. Jesse, we are told, in the Book of Ruth, is the son of Obed, and thus the grandson of Boaz and Naomi.
Now what is important about being the grandson of Boaz and Naomi, is of course, that Naomi is a Moabite, which means she is the descendant of Moab, and Moab was the son of Lot and one of his daughters. Abraham was Lot’s uncle, not Lot’s direct ancestor, so Naomi was not a descendant of Abraham, not an Israelite, not a member of the people of Israel.
What this means is that David, who is so favored by God that God forgives David for having an adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and having Bathsheba’s husband Uriah the Hittite murdered so she and David can marry. God forgives David, and it is Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba, who succeeds David on the throne of Israel, and continues the story of God’s extraordinary relationship with the descendants of Abraham.
But because David is the grandson of Boaz and Naomi, and Naomi is a Moabite and not a descendant of Abraham, David is of mixed ancestry. David is – if you are a fan of Harry Potter, you will recognize this term – David is a mudblood, a mixed breed guy, and still he is favored of God, above almost every one of his Israelite ancestors.
But things get even more complicated when we look into Moab’s ancestry, because Moab’s genealogy is really complicated. Because Moab is a descendant of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Just before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his wife and daughters flee the city, and Lot’s wife disobeys God by looking back on that destruction, and is turned into a pillar of salt. So, after Lot and his daughters escape, the daughters realize that they have no marriage prospects, and no prospects therefore of having children, thus no one to take care of them in their old age. So they get their father drunk, and have sex with him, and Moab is one of the children who results.
The world of Abraham and Lot and Boaz and Naomi and Jesse and David is not a magical world, in which everything works out and people get what they want. It is a world in which people are limited and often find themselves in desperate circumstances and have to make difficult choices.
Stories like these eventually lead to the old saying that God works straight through crooked human lives.
But in the words of those great British poets Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, “You can’t always get what you want/ But if you try sometimes/well you might find/You get what you need.”
In spite of the really complicated paths we take to get from Abraham and Lot, to Boaz and Naomi, and to Jesse and David and Bathsheba, by the time we get to the New Testament, Matthew and Luke are so determined to link Jesus to that crazy tree of Jesse, that we get two genealogies of Jesus in the Gospels, one in Matthew and one in Luke.
Both show Jesus as descended from David, but through different paths. One runs through Mary – that’s understandable – but the other runs through Joseph. Given the stories of Jesus’ Virgin Birth, I’m not sure of the value of a family tree that connects Jesus to David through Joseph, but consider it yet another sign of the value, in Jesus’ day, of being descended from David, regardless of the lengths you have to go to make that case.
So my second point today is that in Advent we are called to pay attention to the fact that our lives are embodied lives, and that all the really important people in the Bible – the people who are really important to the stories – all got here the same way. That’s true of Mary’s pregnancy too, for at least after the moment of conception, her pregnancy proceeded just like all the others, and Jesus was born like all children are born, and lived an embodied life, just like all the rest of us.
For that is the point we make in our claims about Jesus – not that he was some special kind of creature, but that his life and death were saving events for us. For in these very human events, Jesus overcame everything that separates us from God. In Jesus, God proclaims his presence among us and with us and in us.
And my third – and final – point today is that it is in the ordinary things of life – centered on the ordinary actions we make with the most ordinary things – like bread and wine – we find him, we make him known.
And it is as the most ordinary of people, as we are told by the prophet Isaiah, and by the Psalmist, and by Paul, and by the writer of Mathew’s Gospel, that Jesus comes to us. He may be of the House and lineage of David, but by the time we get to Mary and Joseph, the family of Jesse’s descendants has gone through some serious downward mobility.
David lived in palaces, as did his son Solomon, and had servants and went about in carriages and chariots, but by the time we get to the opening of the New Testament, Joseph is a small-town carpenter, and he and Mary get by with a donkey for transportation and have to sleep in stables when they travel.
And it is with these folks, ordinary folks, and the poor and the prisoners and the widows and orphans that Jesus associates. And it is to ordinary folks, needy folks, that Jesus directs our attention, for they are signs to us of our common humanity, and they are special to God. And so if we seek our Lord in this world, it is among us ordinary people, and among the ordinary people to whom we can offer a hand, a word, a shoulder, a commitment to justice, it is with them that we will find him, and to them, and to their needs that Jesus calls us to pay attention.
Because it turns out to be in the most ordinary of events, and in the most ordinary of people, that the light gets in. In the midst of the darkness, the light gets in. Even though the hour may be late, the night may be cold and dark, the fire may be low, the bottle may be empty, the light gets in. Even though the future is uncertain, we are called to strive for forgiveness, for redemption and reconciliation, strive to heal the body of Christ, to find community and communion. May we learn to live ever more deeply into this life of community into which we are called in his name, as his people, and his earthly body.
Advent is about paying attention to the most basic things of our world, and of our lives. About paying attention to them so we may learn to see in them what they can tell us about what really matters in our world and in our lives.
We take bread, and we break it, and we take the cup and we share it, and we are with him, and he is in us. We find him among the most ordinary of people, and we are reminded that in spite of our superficial differences, we are all beloved of God, and we are with him, and he is in us. We find him among those who are committed to peace, and to justice, and in joining them, we are with him, and he is in us.
It is Advent, good people, let us pay attention. Let us join Paul, in his prayer, “May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing, so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”