The Second Sunday of Advent
December 10th, 2017
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
Imagine for a moment, that you were forced to leave your homeland.
An invading nation destroyed your city, killing thousands of your friends and neighbors in the process, and, captive to the reality of the new regime, you were forced to march into a foreign land—where the language and customs were unknown, and where the familiar sights and smells of your youth were nowhere to be found.
After years of adapting your habits and manner of life to that new world, suddenly you are told that you can go home.
You can return to the place where your ancestors were born and where they rest, and live out the rest of your days in peace.
All that stands between you and that return is a vast wilderness.
A place devoid of the comforts of your true home, as well as the safety net, however many holes it might have, of your adopted one.
Would you go?
Would you be willing to risk the mediocrity of what you have come to know for the promise of finally coming into your true home?
This is the question that stands before us on the second Sunday of Advent.
And lest we believe it to be merely a hypothetical one, it is one that faces refugees and expatriates alike, and most certainly confronts the hearts of citizens of this world and citizens of the kingdom of God every single day.
How much value do we place on returning to our home…in whatever ways we have the ability and capacity to define what “home” is?
In the reading from Isaiah today, we hear a proclamation of comfort for a people who have been displaced from their homeland for over 150 years.
After the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel, the people of God were scattered throughout the empire…displaced from the familiar land and shared traditions they had once known.
Isaiah’s joyous announcement of “Comfort, Comfort” is a proclamation that, due to the new reign of Cyrus the Great, the Israelites are all being allowed to go back home, with the caveat that they continue to serve the Persian empire.
And their return will not be a 40-year sojourn through the wilderness as in the days of the Exodus.
Instead, theirs will be a swift and smooth journey, because their path has been made straight, and their passage secure.
Isaiah is rejoicing at what looks to be the end of a most horrible chapter in the story of the people of God, and looking forward to a time in which the glory of the Lord will be revealed.
A time in which the paradox of a warrior God, with arm mighty enough to save and deliver, stoops down, not to slaughter nor strike with the sword, but rather to gather up the lost and scattered lambs of the flock of God into an enduring reign.
Those words of comfort and promise are stirring and deserve to be remembered every year during this Advent season.
And yet, as we turn to the Gospel, opening the book of Mark which we will be exploring throughout this new church year, we realize that returning to the holy land under the edict of Cyrus the Great did not usher in the fullness of the kingdom for which the people of God had been hoped.
One empire had given way to another, the Persians had been conquered by the Romans, and even though the people of God were living in the land for which they had longed and sung while in exile, they found themselves slaves to a system in which they appeared to have freedom, but were in actuality, trapped like rats in a maze.
When Mark begins his Gospel…his good news from the battlefield, as the term often referenced in ancient Greece…he begins it in the wilderness.
Because what Mark is conveying to us is that our ultimate home is not to be found in a certain holy land, or any parcel of earth, but rather in an orientation toward a kingdom that is not of this world.
This is very slippery ground, because claiming this orientation does not mean that our true home has nothing to do with this world…as if it were simply a fantasy land where all our outrageous wishes and dreams come true.
The home which we seek may not conform to this world’s ideas of what a kingdom and a home should be, but it most certainly affects life in this world.
In fact, the good news that we are getting to know in Jesus Christ is that the home and the salvation for which we have longed, and which we may have relegated to some future fulfillment, is actually available RIGHT NOW.
Sometimes it just takes the wilderness for us to recognize it.
Mark’s gospel is sparse, like signs of life spotted throughout an arid landscape, and I love it for this reason.
It is the other gospels’ task to situate Jesus within the genealogies of David and Adam, or to tell the story of his miraculous conception and birth, or to sing hymns to his existence before time as the Logos, the Word.
Mark is the wilderness…the stripped-down testing ground that asks us all to find out who we really are, what we truly believe, and where we really want to go.
So today I ask you, what is the nature of the home for which you long?
We live in a world where populations are still displaced because of war, not unlike the Israelites were in the times of Isaiah.
We feel the uncomfortable prick of living in an age where all may seem right on the surface, but something rotten is eroding the social contract and a new form of debt slavery is arising between haves and have-nots.
We sense that there is more to this life than treading the same familiar ruts in the same old ground, than simply keeping our heads down to get by…more than just blindly accepting the status quo instead of braving the hard wilderness of change to reach our true home.
Jesus Christ is the way to the eternal home we seek to experience now and forever.
His life, death and resurrection will make the valleys high and the mountains low…will incarnate the true meaning of the comfort of which Isaiah sang.
And he is the Good Shepherd, the warrior God who stoops to lift up the lost lambs of the flock and bring them into the sheepfold once more.
But how he does this is so very different than what we might expect.
John the Baptizer says he is unworthy to untie the thongs of his sandals, and then Jesus turns around and asks John to baptize him.
Jesus is a warrior who tells Peter to put down his sword, a king who goes to the cross like a criminal, and then defeats death and the grave and instructs Peter to “tend his sheep.”
And Jesus is the one who looks straight into the face of Pilate, the face of power and the maw of the empire, and says, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
The path through the wilderness to reach home, is by incarnating the peculiar, but life giving, way that we have come to know in Jesus.
It is what this Advent season of preparation is all about, is what our entire orientation as a community called the Church should be, and the reason why we even exist as a people in the first place.
The first step in moving from the fascination with lesser things on the way toward that eternal home is in getting acquainted with wilderness.
And at times this life of being church can feel like a wilderness, especially when so many other worldly pursuits can prey on our time and energy.
To stand firm and keep on the way, we need each other.
That means making participation in the church a priority, looking for ways to serve with and build up this Body of believers whose purpose is to serve as a light to the world that leads others into the fullness of the promise of this eternal home.
It means serving joyfully with each other, as we did yesterday at the Christmas market.
It means being especially hospitable to the stranger, the newcomer and the outcast.
It means constantly looking for ways to put the counter-cultural methods and ministries of Jesus Christ into practice, and in standing firm together in order to announce the prophetic message of the Gospel with one voice in a world that so often would prefer to simply ignore it.
When we do so…when we worship together, pray together, work together, prophesy together, eat together, serve together, die together and live together…then we make our ultimate allegiance known, and, amazingly enough…we enter the gates of our eternal home already.
Maturity in faith is about becoming more familiar with the sights and smells of that new home, through going deeper, through action and contemplation, into the mystery of the way made known to us in Jesus Christ.
As we grow in faith and maturity, we exchange the cheap comforts of this passing age for the durable comforts of love of God and love of neighbor, and we suddenly find that what was once a barren wilderness, is now a place of life giving springs.
Come with me dear people of God.
Let us set out toward this promised land together.
Let us give freely of our time and our resources to build up the Body of Christ and walk in the way.
And when one of us falters or fails, let us be swift to lift each other up, so that our witness to the light may be strengthened.
Our eternal home awaits us.
In fact, it is already here…should we have the will and perseverance to discern it and pursue it.