December 4, 2022 at St Peter and St William Churches in Naples, FL
Isaiah 11, 1-10 + Psalm 72 + Romans 15, 4-9 + Matthew 3, 1-12
Something happens between the third and the fourth grade. If it’s not true for everyone, it certainly was true for me. Somehow the innocence of childhood begins to fade, and an awareness of right and wrong awakens and begins to haunt us. It was 70 years ago, but it is as clear to me as if it happened five minutes ago. I could have said “yesterday”, but then I might not be so sure about what happened yesterday. I was sitting in a row by the windows on the second floor of Saint Paul the Apostle School in Davenport, Iowa. Sister Otilia was teaching us about the final judgement in a way that would frighten Superman. I sat there agonizing over the fact that she would know that I had whispered to Denny Calkins that I hated her. Images of that unquenchable fire and her way of describing Christ’s second coming with the “final judgement” lit a fire of fear in me worse than the looks my father could give me at the dinner table. I got the message.
It took a long time for me to get through that, and I mean “through”. I’m not over it by any means, and maybe I shouldn’t be. At some point in the college years, I became very interested in the music of American slaves caught up by the imagination and hope in most of the lyrics sung with such intensity. One of those “spirituals” is called: “On That Great Getten’ up Morning.” Mahalia Jackson sings it. You ought to hear it. It would rock you boat! It’s a joyous alternative to God’s impending wrath coming from a people caught in slavery. It’s like those opening words we just heard from Isaiah: “On that day” which refers to that Gettin’ up day when as the verses say Gabriel blows his horn loud enough to wake up nations, but not frighten God’s people.
Isaiah takes images of the past and the future to help us imagine that day when a redeemer comes to perceive what secrets lie deep inside us. On that day he will set up justice and look deeply into our hearts. Isaiah wants to inspire dreams and awaken our imaginations about peace and time of sharing everything joyfully so that there is enough for all.
Then enters John the Baptist with his message about God’s future that he called the Kingdom of Heaven. His preaching was simple: “Repent” which simply means, “Admit that you’ve gotten it wrong. Make ready for something to come, something bigger than you can think of.” He pulls the rug out from under all of us who have found ways to justify, rationalize, and otherwise silence the demands and responsibilities that come with being chosen by God.
That wild man is looking us right in the eye, and we cannot afford to stand outside the scene. If this Word of God is alive for us, then our defenses against it must come down. We have created a God who is nothing like the God John proclaims. We have taken out the fire of his image and replaced it with ice-cream, a softie who cares little about justice, sinlessness, obedience and commitment.
Of course, every now and then we do get a little serious about sin – during Lent at least. While some avoid the whole issue claiming that the church spends too much time on guilt and not enough time on redemption. My own opinion shaped by 55 years in confessionals is that we do spend time on sin, but it’s the wrong sin that lets us slide along never really doing anything as though the Kingdom of Heaven was ours by some privilege.
We have gotten all caught up on personal sin often sexual sin while we lived through a holocaust. A second one goes on today called abortion and some claim it is a matter of individual choice. We find ways to live with and accommodate systems and economies that make more people poorer and find no sin in this. John the Baptist would have a hard time with that.
And so, it’s Advent again, a season not so much about Christmas as it is about the sure and certain return of the Lord Jesus who will come and sit in judgment upon each of us. He has made it clear that he will be more interested in what we have failed to do than in what we have done. It’s Advent again when we must raise the hard and difficult questions about who we are and how we are to be known. We either confess that we’re part of the problem and take the plunge to work for a really different future, or we hang out with the Sadducees or Pharisees. The biggest warning is that if we ignore John the Baptist and his crowd, we are not likely to recognize where Christ is working today.
For a people of faith filled with hope that Great Gettin’ Up Mornin ought to stir up our joy not our fear. Fire up our imaginations, and a send us out of here with the courage to admit that we might have gotten it wrong about a lot of things and a lot of people. That’s called repentance. Once we get that right, we’ll be ready for Gabriel to blow that horn, and I’ll be ready to embrace Sister Otilia without fear.