Sermon for Advent 2A 12-8-19 by The Rev Patrick J. Wingo
The writer Annie Dillard tells this story from her childhood:
“When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find….For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped off piece of sidewalk. The I would take a big piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all of this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.” (Annie Dillard, from Pilgrim At Tinker Creek)
Now, there is very little to compare between a 20th century six-year-old and John the Baptist. The image of a little girl playing on a Pittsburgh sidewalk does not compete with the raging, almost maniacal image of a bearded hermit dressed in camel’s hair and leather who screamed his message to anyone who came near.
“Repent! Prepare! Bear fruit, you brood of vipers,” does not sound much like, “Surprise ahead!” In his own odd and chastising way, however, that is exactly what John the Baptist was doing: drawing big arrows to a free gift from the Universe, a supreme gift of grand proportion in the guise of a small penny. Surprise ahead! And people followed the arrows. They came out to John to see what all the commotion was about. But they did not find a penny at the roots of a sycamore tree; they heard instead of an ax laid at the root of a tree, ready to cut it down if it didn’t bear good fruit. They heard of a winnowing fork, the clearing of the threshing floor and of unquenchable fire. Yeah—surprise ahead.
Even though John’s message seems pretty harsh, there’s no getting around the fact that the Gospel writers saw that message as the beginning of the public proclamation of the Gospel, or literally, the Good News. And Advent is meant to be a time for the church and the whole world to prepare to hear the Good News of the Incarnation once again.
Advent bounces us around on God’s timeline. We hear the story of John the Baptist’s preaching just before we celebrate Jesus’ birth, but John was actually only six months older than Jesus, according to St Luke. The reason we hear of John’s urgent message this time of year is because Advent is also our time of preparation—preparation for Jesus’ coming into the world as a baby, his coming into our hearts, and, at some unknown time, his coming again.
Advent calls us to readiness because Jesus’ coming is always surprising, no matter when or where it happens. Do we expect to be surprised? Do we have a sense about us that the air is tingling with something new and good and hopeful? Do you ever have those times? You know the feeling I’m talking about—sportscasters call it an electric feeling in an arena or a stadium; we feel it perhaps when we move into a new house, or go on a trip we’ve always wanted to take, or when we see a friend or a relative after a long absence.
Another time when that feeling is even more palpable, a time when the Universe is alive with possibility of a life unimaginable, is when one falls in love. Maybe you know what I mean—in those times, you can put out your hand and sparks fly; you can’t stop smiling; there is more light than the sources of light should be emitting. You can’t stop thinking about your beloved; you look forward to the next time you are together; there is something new and good and hopeful about the now and the not yet. You are convinced that life holds more surprises ahead as you allow yourself to fall more deeply in love.
Follow the arrows! Surprise ahead!
In his own gruff way, John the Baptist was drawing huge arrows that were tools, a kind of surgical instrument of love. Theses arrows cut through scar tissue of the hearts of men and women, then and now, to allow us to fall in love with God. John gets our attention, calling us to make ourselves ready to be surprised by our beloved, by the one who thinks about us all the time and wants more than anything to make our life new and good and hopeful. That beloved one is Jesus, and it is indeed his coming to the world, to our lives, that makes things new and good and hopeful.
Perhaps it feels like John the Baptist is a little bit too close to Christmas, but maybe we need more than just a gentle reminder this time of year. John’s urgency calls us to something from which we are easily distracted. His words about the ax and the winnowing fork and the threshing floor, and especially the burning fire, should make us sit up and pay attention. It’s not that anything is required of us to receive the free grace that Jesus’ coming into the world gives; John simply asks us to open our eyes to the gift, the surprise, that is already being given. Fire will do that to a person—open our eyes. Of all the things John mentions, it is perhaps fire that gets our fullest attention.
If you smell smoke in your house, you are likely to go rushing around with eyes as big as frisbees to see where it’s coming from, because we know how quickly fire can spread and how destructive it is. There is no questioning the powerful nature of fire. But the kind of fire that is often mentioned in Scripture, at least when it is a fire that comes from God, is not a fire that consumes or destroys. Fire from God is most often a cleansing fire, or a fire that gives a new kind of power. The burning bush that Moses saw in the wilderness was not consumed, and it opened his eyes to see God’s mission for him. A pillar of fire led the people of Israel in the wilderness, opened their eyes to see where they needed to go. Tongues of fire rested on the disciples at Pentecost, when they were given power by the Holy Spirit. Their eyes were opened to their mission in Christ. And the kind of fire that John the Baptist threatens is actually a fire that refines.
The British theologian George MacDonald once wrote, “The more we more away from God’s love, the more it burns us; the closer it comes, the more is soothes and sustains.” That shouldn’t be surprising to us; that is true in a sense of any kind of love. The deeper we go into it, the more it soothes and sustains us. The farther away we go from our beloved, the more the ache in our heart burns, the more we long for love. John’s message is that if we open our eyes, the source of that longing is coming closer. Jesus, our beloved, is coming to the world, into our world, and we so often miss him.
Meister Eckhart, a 13th century theologian and mystic, once told his students that “I can give you no better advice than to find God where you lost him.” Ironically, we lose him at Christmas. We are so busy and stressed, and we are so concerned about creating the perfect holiday that we sometimes lose Jesus right in the middle of his incarnation, his coming to our world, to our lives. There are arrows all over the pace pointing to him, but we lose him.
John the Baptist’s urgent message calls us to open our eyes, calls us to be ready to be surprised. Jesus comes to us in more ways than we can imagine, and his advent, his coming, is a free and unmerited gift. His coming can electrify our world, and all that is new and good and hopeful is possible.
So be ready, be alert, prepare your hearts—surprise ahead!