What a treat it is to be back with you after missing two Sundays in a row! You should know that worshipping with you on Sunday mornings is the highlight of my spiritual life. I usually get here around 7:30, weather permitting, and go up to the balcony to pray until my presence is too inhibiting to the people who need to set out the music and paraments. Then I go work through my sermon one more time and study the order of service. By 9:30 I’m ready for my Sunday Morning Theology class which takes place while the choir rehearses, and we begin here at 11. For me the service builds up to the postlude, to which I listen from the back of the center aisle while waiting to greet you all after worship, nervous that we get out in time for the Catholics to set up for their 12:30 service. For all the regularity of my Sunday morning routine, however, there is an edginess to it, a mystery, because all parts of that routine touch the immense God who is not domesticated within it. Our Lord’s Day here often throbs with the uncanny presence of God. Like catching a glimpse of someone out of the corner of your eye, you can sense a divinity in the music, the words, and the prayers, a divinity that plays with us through our routines. What an amazing grace we have to celebrate the Day of the Lord!
Of course, our texts this morning have a somewhat more portentous view of the Day of the Lord, a phrase Peter quotes from the prophets Amos and Joel. For the prophets the Day of the Lord is the time of last judgment. Because this is the second Sunday of Advent, we should recall that Advent is not about the first coming of Jesus, which we celebrate at Christmas with all the symbols of the infant Jesus. Advent is about the second coming, which is a time of judgment.
Now Peter’s approach to divine judgment was one of which I am not fond. He was pre-occupied with ecological disasters. Earlier in his letter he had remarked about how God had once destroyed nearly all the world with Noah’s flood. Although many lessons are to be learned from Noah’s flood, I join with those who believe that the slaughter of all those animals and innocent children is not a good illustration of the fairness of divine judgment. And in our passage, Peter gets excited about the final judgment, when the world burns to cinders. In the centuries since St. Peter, we have come to understand that the cosmos is far vaster than the plane of human affairs. Although our planet might well be blasted to cinders by an encounter with a great comet, or by our sun going super-nova, that would not be in order to punish evil doers. Peter’s final point, that “we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home,” can be made without speaking favorably of such ecological violence.
Isaiah’s rendition of God’s advent in judgment is also not eco-friendly. Mountains shall be razed and valleys filled in to make a straight and level highway for God to come. It sounds a little like the 19th century urban planning in Boston in which they leveled the three mountains downtown, which we remember now only in the name of Tremont Street, leaving only Beacon Hill. They used the earth to fill in Back Bay so that we could have Commonwealth Avenue as the straight and level highway it is. Compared with Peter’s universal flood and world-incinerating fire, however, Isaiah’s Army Corps of Engineer approach to level roads for God is a relatively benign image. The context for Isaiah’s remark was that Cyrus the Great had just sent the Jewish Exiles home from Babylon to Jerusalem, and they must have had festive roads on their mind. The coming of God in judgment, for Isaiah, meant God’s going to Jerusalem to establish a reign of peace and justice. Isaiah’s two images of God in our passage are striking. On the one hand, God is a warrior who comes in might to rule by his arm. On the other hand, God will feed his flock like a shepherd, gathering the lambs in his arms and gently leading the mother sheep. The first image of God as warrior is an old one in Israelite religion. The second image, that of the shepherd, is one that Christians will pick up for Jesus. Isaiah precedes both of these anthropomorphic images of God with a testimony to God’s eternity in contrast to our evanescent temporality. And he follows our text with a description of God as creator of the ends of the Earth, far above human warriors and shepherds. Isaiah knew how to set limits to his symbols.
The most striking element of Isaiah’s vision of God’s advent in judgment is that it is a gospel of comfort. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the lord’s hand double for all her sins.” This is not to say that God does not take sin seriously. On the contrary. Isaiah construed the terrible experience of the Exile as a punishment for failing to keep the covenant. But in the end, there is reconciliation. The immense, eternal God comes down that straight highway with comfort, like a shepherd who carries the lamb in his arm. I much prefer this gentle image of judgment to Peter’s.
Mark’s approach to judgment returns us to the Christian advent theme. He cites Isaiah’s line about preparing the way of the Lord, making his path straight. But instead of saying that the Lord will come, Mark says that a messenger will come, meaning John the Baptist. He says this by citing a line from the prophet Malachi. The whole of Malachi’s line is the following, which many of you will recognize from Handel’s Messiah: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire.” Malachi meant that the prophet Elijah would return with a warning before the final judgment. Handel interpreted the messenger to be Jesus himself, the judge. Mark says the messenger is John the Baptist. What do we make of all this, when we contemplate all these symbols of the second coming of Jesus? We can appreciate the rich interplay of symbols as different traditions take them in different directions. But what do they mean for us?
The first thing they mean, all of them, Isaiah, Peter, Malachi, and Mark, is that sin is serious and that we need to repent. Perhaps they differed amongst themselves as to what constitute the worst sins. We surely know what our sins are, lying and self-deceit, selfishness and greed, lack of discipline and direction, enjoying social structures that involve much injustice, forgetting the poor, making war rather than peace, national arrogance, contempt for neighbor, and all the rest. John the Baptist calls for us to analyze these sins honestly and thoroughly, take responsibility for them, repent, and amend our ways. This must be done clearly enough that we can undertake some kind of ritual recognition of putting ourselves outside the power of sin, a ritual like baptism.
The second thing the symbols mean, in their various ways, is that with repentance comes forgiveness. Forgiveness means that God reconciles us to the divine life and restores us to right relation with all the dimensions of ultimate reality. From the Lord’s Prayer we know how complicated forgiveness is—God forgives us in the measure that we forgive those who sin against us. So sin is not just sin against God—it is sin against neighbor. Repentance too is not just a matter of our relating to God. We need to repent to our neighbors, and accept them with forgiveness when they repent to us what they have done to us. How could this be more complicated, this snarl of hurts and wounds, gripes and grievances, demands for forgiveness and merciless self-condemnation, loving neither neighbor nor ourselves? The gospel says all this can be worked out.
Third, Mark is very clear that the business of repentance and forgiveness, though essential to our relation to God and one another, is the concern of a lesser figure, John the Baptist, who heralds one greater than himself. In what sense is Jesus greater than John? John baptizes with water to wash off sin. Good enough! Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit, God’s very presence. John is about us, and our forgiven sins. Jesus is about God whom he brings into our lives. How does Jesus bring God? By bringing God’s love!
What is the logic of the situation. You would think that the steps would go, first, that we acknowledge our sin, second, take responsibility for it, third, repent, fourth, thereby get forgiven and, fifth, with forgiveness come into harmony with God. But it does not work that way. Precisely because of sin we deceive ourselves about our sin. We deny responsibility for it, or at least seek to share the responsibility with plenty of excuses. We are unable to repent except for relatively trivial things. Because we feel deep in our hearts that we have not repented, we are unable to accept forgiveness, except for relatively trivial things about which we congratulate ourselves on being forgiven. Even if we know intellectually that God forgives us our worst, we are unable to take that seriously. Even if we have made every possible profession of faith that God forgives us, we know that is whistling in the dark and leap for one more profession of faith. We seek trivial sainthood because we are unable to face the serious depths of our heart’s darkness. This is the logic of defeat.
The logic of the good news of Jesus Christ, however, says that the first step is upfront confrontation with the love of God. That love beats us over the head. That love is not the love of a politically correct blind God, but the love of God the judge who sees into our hearts as we cannot. That love is not the management love of a God who wants to run a just kingdom and knows that being kind is a more effective management style than being punitive. No, that love is the wild love of the Creator, it is unmeasured, undeserved, never without resources, overwhelming, and blows away our guilt and self-pity. God’s love does absurd things, such as sacrifice itself. Once we have encountered that love, in Christian symbolism or in the concrete form of love in other people, we are given the power to acknowledge our sins, to repent, and accept forgiveness. And if we can accept forgiveness, how can we hold it back from others? We cannot wait for them to repent and ask for forgiveness. We have to love them first so that they will have the power to do so. And then forgiveness comes generously in passing.
Jesus Christ, present in his teachings, in the symbols applied to him, in his roles in our history, worship, church-life, and discipleship, manifests God’s love so that we can touch it. As our text has it, Jesus buries us in the Holy Spirit, which is the spirit of love, the way John buried sinners in the waters of the Jordan.
So, Beloved, do not wait for Jesus’ Second Coming in some distant future advent with fire and brimstone, nor in an expectation that history is suddenly going to become unambiguously just and prosperous like a level road. No, look for Jesus in all the love around you now. If you see only pain and no love, then it is up to you to provide that love. This is what it means to be “in Christ.” It only seems that Jesus is gone. He said he would be with us until the end of the age. He comes to us when any Christian smiles. Or when any person of any faith loves, for love is of God. The love we see around us seems confined, perhaps even sentimental. But that love, every bit of it, is a window opening onto the uncanny, wild, absurd, unmeasured love of the Creator. I can sense that at 7:30 on Sunday mornings looking at that Rose window. You can sense God’s wild love in the music, prayers, and words of our worship. You catch it when you glimpse your neighbor’s loving soul out of the corner of your eye. God’s wild love is in your own soul, growing tumescent in your smile, your handshake, your passing of peace, your giving of bread, your word of comfort, your song of joy. Do not wait for Jesus. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Jesus is here still and again. Let yourself be in love with him and God’s love will sweep away your sins like baptism in a raging torrent.