Watching for the Light: Preparing

Rev. Diana Phillips | December 6, 2020

Well, it is so good to be with each and every one of you here this morning at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church on this Second Sunday of Advent – a four-week journey that serves to prepare the way to Christmas, and as one blogger notes, “via a bit of liturgical wilderness”. And then as Pastor Paul shared this past Sunday, a journey that encourages leaning inward, listening for God in new ways, listening with our heart for that whisper, a time for reflection, and contemplation, to a spiritual awakening – a Preparing that points us, you and I, to Christ.

We are especially reminded in this season of a historical place and time – the birth of a tiny savior so long ago – yet an event that has the potential, in the present, in the here and now, for Jesus to be born anew in our lives, to let the good news of the gospel message sink deeply, more deeply, into our hearts and into our world.

This season also acknowledges an anticipation of that which is yet to come; Jesus’s second coming in the fullness of time. And so, we actively wait, expectantly together with a yearning, even an ache, on an imperfect and broken world to pass—or at the very least, the year 2020 to pass. Why? Because all is not right in this world; and I don’t have to tell you or even remind you that this year has been especially different and difficult.

You see, for most of this year we have been anxious, fearful, angry, distrusting, lonely, closed off from those we love due to this unprecedented pandemic; and whether it is an issue for you to wear mask or not wear a mask, or our political climate, more than ever before we have become a divided people, and as one commentator described: a people “waiting in a lockdown Advent.”  In other words, a long-drawn-out wilderness experience. 

Yet, on the flipside, Advent confronts this disjointedness, this corrosion of the heart, with the insistence that God has not abandoned the world; that God is real, that hope is real, that the sun still shines despite our darkest days. You see, God’s love is unconditional; something that we can hold on to right now and something yet to come – Emmanuel – God is with us! God is with us always!

As one speaker and author Rob Bell writes, “Advent charges into the temple of cynicism with a whip of hope, overturning the tables of despair, fear, doubt, oppression, uncertainty, hardship and acknowledges as we face the harsh realities of our world, and the frailty of our humanness, that there is a new day, and that day is not like any other.” (Rob Bell, Why Should We Care About Advent?)

As we turn back to our scripture passage this morning, we read the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark. Now, without much lead-in or peal of trumpets, “We find ourselves thrust into the action in the desert.”  Akin to today’s disjointedness, Mark’s audience had similar feelings and struggles as they faced the harsh realities of their world. These first-century Christian hearers were under persecution by the disastrous Jewish/Roman war.

As a result of the war, Jerusalem was under siege, the conditions difficult – the people divided – the tensions were high, neighbors feared one another, everyone was anxious – the darkness they experienced and were experiencing took on a threatening shape. The people were desperate to hear the “Good News” that this messenger, John the Baptist, had to offer as they struggled to survive and as they yearned and longed to prosper in the years during this war and following.

The writer of Mark tells us John is the one who the prophet Isaiah and Malachi talk about when it is written in (Isaiah 40: 3 and Mal. 3:1), “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, a voice of one calling in the desert, Prepare the way for the Lord, [remove the obstacles] make straight paths for him.”

Whether literally in the wilderness or we find ourselves in voids where God appears silent, John shared promising news; about a life-changing event that leads to forgiveness of sins. Leads to a deeper connection to God, as he urges those that are following him, “To make themselves ready to be the vessel through which God’s love can enter human history” (Resourced from Awaiting the Already).

Though scripture tells us that the crowds were flocking to John the Baptist – “Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to the Jordan River to be baptized by [him].” But guess what. John doesn’t point to himself. In fact, he points away from himself, he points to someone that’s so much stronger than he. John points his first hearers, and now us, to Jesus – he points us to a hope-filled future by promising that the one that is about to come is not going to be baptizing by water, but with the eternal Holy Spirit” (paraphrased blogger Michael Toy) This one will bring light to this darkened time. 

Pastor Paul last Sunday began this Advent sermon series “Watching for the Light” by talking about an “Awakening” – to a new way of seeing the world and its eternal mysteries; perhaps seeing a yearning that has lied deep and dormant; or a hunger for a search that has left undiscovered. An Awakening that encourages hearing something as quiet as God’s whisper.

On this second Sunday, as we actively wait and we “Watch for the Light” I suggest the gospel writer make use of the word “prepare” or “preparing” in two different ways. First, John tells the people that he has a job to do – to prepare a way that points his early hearers to Christ even at a time that the people did not see a way out of the darkness, out of the disorder – out of their wilderness experience.

 And second, he informs these new Christians, they have a job to do as well, they have a job “to prepare” to ready themselves, ready their hearts to be God’s vessel – to repent, turn-around, to be baptized, not just by water but by the Holy Spirit –to become a new creation. In a comparable way, we are called to live out this same hope, to model this same sense of assurance given to these first-century Christians and to share the promise of this gospel in every time and place.

People flocked to John the Baptizer from all over the Judean countryside to hear and experience this good news – this life altering event.

Although good news, understandably people were confused – seeking answers to questions such as, were you the one foretold; the one who will deliver us from our fear, our doubt, our heartache, and hardship, and our oppression?

Perhaps like the first-century Christians, we are left today wondering like questions. At times in our lives when we feel unsure of our next steps; when fear grips us in the face of such uncertainty; and the unfamiliar; or when there appears to be only a dim light to illuminate our way; we too look around and we wonder when God will show up and save us, for our way to be made more clearer, to, when is God going to show up and address injustice, our pain—you can fill in the blank right now with whatever is your life circumstance. We yearn for a messenger to assure us of a prosperous future for our children, for ourselves, our grandchildren, and future generations.

This Advent, many of us have been traveling in the wilderness for what seems like most of the year, at least since mid-March—maybe earlier. Even those that would say they have a sturdy foundation of faith, they will tell you they have been shaken. Many of us have felt the impact of this pandemic—whether it’s the loss of a job, or job insecurity, food insecurities; what about loneliness, loneliness; the many who have lost a loved one; those that continue to struggle is what we have termed now, or science has termed, “long-haulers”; and what about the absence of holiday gatherings and traditions—we just experienced that for Thanksgiving and now here we are in the season of advent leading up to Christmas traditions.

For many of us, this time of year does not feel like that typical joyous march toward the moment in time we celebrate the arrival of the tiny savior who came to us in the quiet and humble of the night.

As I pondered this, as I listened for what God wanted me to share with you today. I turned to a poem that I came across many years ago. It was written by an anonymous Holocaust victim who was hiding from the Nazi Gestapo during WWII. It was found—his words or her words—found carved on a wall in a deep, dark cellar. The words scribbled on that wall were this: “I believe in the Sun, even when it is not shining. I believe in love, even when I cannot feel it. I believe in God, even when [God] is silent.”

I believe these weighty words address humanity’s common questions—our questions today.  How is it that we stand in this beautiful, sacred sanctuary and hang onto our belief—the belief that despite the headline news or our own stories or struggles—how is it that we hold onto the belief that “Emmanuel, God is with us,” and believe that even when, in our darkest days and moments, when there seems to be an absence of light and love and sometimes, we feel the absence of God?

Although the harshness of the darkness and the silence of the wilderness may be felt more deeply this year, the same ageless truths remain constant. The same truths revealed by that messenger John in the wilderness so long ago, sent to share the good news of the gospel message.

God calls each of us to adopt hearts and lives characterized by an openness to follow, even when we lack the energy; to instill hope, even when ourselves are struggling with hopelessness; to prepare us for something much greater, much stronger; to point us to something certain amid a continued uncertainty; to point us to the Messiah so we can ready ourselves to be this vessel through which God’s love can enter this time in human history. We have this job to do.

Let us remember that all things here on earth are temporary. The way of Jesus begins when we are called to turn, and when we listen, and to be freed of an aimless life. Having done this, we are born anew and better prepared to continue our life in the Spirit.

Church, our work is to embody God’s unconditional love, acceptance, and patience here in this world and in our community; to shine the light of the Messiah in every time and space. So church, may our lives be shaped by our hope in the truth that God truly is here – Emmanuel – God is with us! God is with us always! 

Let us Pray – Loving God, you sent your prophet John to prepare your way among us, to call us to repentance and make our pathways straight. Oh God, we ask that you strengthen us to live lives of steadfast love and faithfulness as we await Jesus’s return, that all may see your reign of peace and wholeness through the promises of your gospel message. It is in your most precious Son’s name we pray these things. Amen.