a sermon preached at Saint James Fordham on Advent 2c — Tobias Haller BSGI’m going to start my sermon today with a question. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I do want you to be honest with yourselves when I ask it. Ready? How many of us here have ever made use of the snooze button on our alarm clock or radio? How many of us here — if any — can honestly say that when the alarm clock goes off in the morning we pop right out of bed like a firefighter ready to jump into the boots at the foot of the bunk, strap on the uniform and slide down the brass pole?
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting.
Or put the shoe on the other foot: how many of us here haven’t stood at the foot of the stairs or down the hall, calling for the third or fourth time to a son or daughter or niece or nephew or grandchild, “It’s time to get up!” And how many of us have been on the other side of that call — enjoying the extra few moments in bed even more than the whole night that went before?
Well, I don’t think I am alone in this! It is, after all, a law of physics — Newton’s First Law, no less: a body at rest tends to remain at rest unless some outside force acts upon it. And in this case whether the force is an alarm clock or an insistent elder who has made breakfast and is beginning to threaten applying a most definite force to your most recumbent body — there comes a time when you know you actually do have to rise and, if not shine, at least feebly glimmer.
The next thing is that you have to wash and get dressed. And if it is Sunday, you know that you will be expected to put on, not just lounging-about-the-house clothes, not just everyday work or school clothes, but your Sunday Best. You will be expected not just to get up and get dressed, but to get all dressed up.
Nations and peoples act the same way as individuals, of course. Nations and peoples are, after all, just collections of individual people — prone to the same errors and bad habits; the same laziness and reprobation and backsliding — and sometimes the number of people can multiply the problem rather than correct it.
When someone comes along and says to the people, “It is time to get up and get dressed,” it is a rare thing indeed for the people to respond the first time around. It takes repeated calls and repeated warnings before most nations will rouse themselves to do what is right, to do what is just — to do what God calls them to do.
We see this clearly laid out in our Scripture readings today. Baruch calls on Jerusalem to put off her widow’s weeds, to arise and get herself ready and put on her party clothes — assuring Jerusalem that the path is going to be cleared, the hills made low and the valleys filled in, to bring about restoration and rebirth, a new life to the sorrowful land.
But, of course, Baruch wasn’t the first prophet to use such language. Years before, Isaiah spoke in exactly the same way, calling on Jerusalem to awake and arise and put on her beautiful garments. He also described God’s massive earth-moving plan — leveling mountains and filling valleys to prepare the way for a grand procession.
Nor, as we see from our Gospel today, was Baruch the last prophet to use such language. For here is John the Baptist, once again a prophet arising in that old tradition, dressed in the garments of Elijah, announcing once more the promise of God’s highway construction plan — and calling on the people to open their eyes to see the coming salvation of God — and if not to get dressed, at least to prepare for it by the washing of baptism, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Israel needed to hear this wake-up call over and over. For it seems to be a part of the prophet’s fate not to be listened to — hence the need for repetition. People don’t want to listen to the prophets’ warning: remember what happened to John the Baptist! Try too hard to shout-out God’s wake-up call and you’ll get your head handed to someone else on a platter!
Yet Israel desperately needed to hear that repeated wake-up call. And we do too. That is in large part why we continue to hear these passages of Scripture year by year, every Advent hearing anew the call and the promise: the call to rise and shine, and the promise that the new bright garment of grace is there ready for us to don when we have washed away our sins, repenting our past ways and preparing for the great time that lies ahead. We are told that the way is clear — mountains leveled and valleys filled in — not just for God to come to us, but for us to go with God.
The question is — are we ready? Have we risen and washed, and are we dressed? Or are we still lying in the warm cocoon of slumber, with a pillow over our head to shut out the light? Well, we’re here in church — it’s true! But we all know how just as a body at rest tends to remain at rest, a body in motion will tend to stay in motion once it gets moving. So what I want to challenge you and me to ask ourselves this morning is: are we really awake and ready, or are we only sleep-walking? We are dressed up — but have we someplace to go? Are we truly motivated, or only going through the motions? Do we take advantage of this Advent time to examine our hearts and minds, to dig down deep and clean out the rubbish of old habits; to rub the sleep from the corner of our eyes, sweep up the old sins we’ve gotten accustomed to, or the old ways of the world we’ve come to accept as given?
For the world and its peoples love inertia — love to stay at rest, or move along predictable pathways, running downhill instead of mounting the heights. I was listening to a BBC reporter grill UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan earlier this week; and much as I admire Annan, I must say the BBC reporter was playing prophet to his Jerusalem — again and again asking, What use is the UN if it can’t actually do anything to stop the genocide in the Sudan? The powder-blue helmets look very nice, but what use are peace-keepers who don’t keep the peace?
And I would amplify that question, as the genocide continues there in the Sudan, and Northern Uganda is torn with violence, and civil strife is brewing in Nigeria. Do we ever learn? What use is it to say, “Never again” when the powers of this world just press the snooze alarm and say, “Just once more, please”; when the prophets call upon the powers of this world to lay down their swords, and the nations say, “How’s that again?” How many genocides does it take for the world to realize that if it keeps going that way there will be no one left?
The Secretary-General was not without his answer, however, and it was a good one, a realistic one, if not an optimistic one. He said that the UN can only do what people are willing to do. It is not an all-powerful force that can bend the world to its will. As I noted earlier, just as the world is made up of people — and since people are fallible the world makes mistakes — so too the UN is just what it claims to be: it is made up of all those nations, and if those nations individually don’t have the will to act — they will not act collectively. Bodies at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force is applied; bodies in motion, in motion — headed down the same old valleys of disaster.
And this is why, in the final analysis, we will not be able to solve our problems on our own. We will not because we cannot. An outside force is needed, just as Newton said. So this is why, in these last days, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born for us to be with us, born among us — but not merely one of us, but also the power of God incarnate, his way prepared by generations of prophets repeating the same message. Only God in Christ can finally and perfectly rouse us from the slumber in which we lie, even as we seem to be awake. Only he can truly waken us with his bright light, and wash us with the cleansing power not only of water but of his blood, and of the Holy Spirit’s fire. Only he can strip us of the robes of sorrow round us, and clothe us anew with the wedding garment we were meant to wear from before the foundation of the world.
And then, how can we not follow through? How can we not join our voices and raise them, calling out for Righteous Peace and Godly Glory. How can we not call for justice and work for justice, demand that peace be made, and that the innocent no longer suffer — we who have wakened, and who are called upon to rouse our sisters and brothers who still slumber in a world of violence and mischief, a world of hatred and fear, of ignorance and rebellion?
Sisters and brothers, a voice cries out for us to prepare the way of the Lord. A voice calls us to arise and shine and put on our festival garments, to climb to the heights to proclaim what we see. That voice has been calling for a long time, through Isaiah and Baruch and John the Baptist, and countless other prophets since. They point the way to the one who was, who is, and who is to come — the great External Force that can move all our bodies from rest — even from the rest of death — and put them into motion for his purpose, who has called us not merely servants but friends, and clothed us for the wedding banquet.
Let us then this season heed the prophets’ warnings, forsake our sins, be clothed with the garments of righteousness, and greet with joy the coming of our Redeemer and the Redeemer of the world, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+