A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, the Sunday after yet another school shooting, during a continuing global pandemic, and other concerns … Readings may be found here (we read Baruch for our first lesson).
On this, the Second Sunday of Advent, we pray,
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins… (BCP, 211)
In the third season of The Good Place, the ethical complications of life are explored. It is not so easy, we find, to forsake our sins and walk in the ways of righteousness when even choosing a tomato to buy at the grocery store has implications for fair labour, the environmental impacts of pesticides and long-distance transport, and so much more, even before we get to any question of whether it tastes good!
Even so, repenting of our sins, paying heed to the prophets, may not be as hard as we sometimes make it. Sometimes, it is simply a question of kindness, of doing the most merciful, the most loving, the most human (as Christ embodied and exemplified humanity for us) thing.
The prophets promise that God, in due course and good time, will level the mountains and raise the valleys out of their shadows and make straight the pathways before God’s people, that everyone might make their way toward Jerusalem, cast as refuge and the resting place of the children of God.
To do the work of righteousness, then – to love God, and follow in the footsteps of Christ, to love our neighbours as ourselves – means nothing less than to remove the obstacles from before the feet of those stumbling towards justice, towards equity, towards salvation, towards peace.
On a communal level, it means heeding the prophets’ warnings that chasing after wealth at the expense of the poor is plain wrong.
It means following the example of Christ who did not care who was in or out of network, whether they were Jews, Gentiles, madmen, women, nor even what day of the week it was, when it came to offering works of healing mercy. His healing was available even to the woman who dared only creep under the crowd and touch his cloak.
It means clearing any obstacles that litter the paths of people made in the image of God, obscuring their dignity.
It means removing the plank of racism from the foundations of all of our functions and replacing it with real and radical justice rather than whitewashing over the cracks.
It means beating swords into ploughshares, guns into shovels, removing them from the hands and the lives and the deaths of our children. There is no deeper shadow cast than the deaths of children, and the enormity of the problem before us is our mountain to climb.
But Jesus once told his disciples, if you have but a mustard seed of faith you may move mountains (Matthew 17:20-21).
Better still, the prophets have told us that God is with us in the work, that God will level the ground that God has created, and bring righteousness and justice, which is mercy, to the earth.
On the personal plane, heeding the prophets and repenting of sin often means simply to do the most merciful, most loving, most humble thing available in any given situation, any God-given opportunity.
If you have ever had to fill in the ground where an old, old tree once stood, then you know that the work is not done in one day. There is filling and raking, seeding and growing and mowing of grass, and where do all of those mushrooms come from? And in a year or two the ground will have settled and sunk once more, and you will have to start over again, and again. Just as when we learn better we do better, the work of repentance is repetitive, and cumulative, and it does build toward righteousness, if it is a labour of love: Love for God, love for our neighbour, love for our enemies, as well as for one another.
I am confident, with St Paul, that you who have begun a good work will bring it to completion with the help of Jesus Christ. It is my prayer, with St Paul, that our love for God, neighbour, enemy, and one another may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help us to determine what is best, and to do it (Philippians 1:6, 9-10).
John came, eating wild honey and locusts, a simple life, preaching a baptism of repentance from sin, so that the crooked should be made straight and the rough ways made smooth, and so that all flesh might see the salvation of God (Luke 3:1-6; Isaiah 40:3-5).
It is not too complicated for us. The mountain is not too high and the valley not too cold, since God is going before us to pave the way; since Christ has gone before us to give us knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins.
In this way,
“In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in … the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Canticle 16, BCP).