Friday, December 2, 2011

Advent Wanderings

The Second Sunday of Advent
Year B

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a, 18; Mark 1:1-8

There is a poem that resonates in me with the message of Advent. It is written by Antonio Machado, a famous Spanish poet, and it became a song during the struggle for independence in Chile.

Wanderer, your footsteps are
The road and nothing more;
Wanderer, there is no road,
The road is made by walking.
By walking one makes the road,
And upon glancing behind
One sees the path
That never will be trod again.
Wanderer, there is no road--
Only wakes upon the sea.

As Christians we follow an unknown path that leads us into new ways of being. There is always tension as we search out new directions. Life is like that. Just when we think that we are at the end of the road, we discover a twist or a turn or a fork that leads us in new directions. Into new beginnings!

Perhaps we think that our children are lost to us, and we discover that they are simply looking for independence, that they are becoming adults. Maybe we think that we have lost a friend, and we find that it has turned from a dependency into a mutual friendship that will carry us through our whole life. Or we think that our parish is in a state of decline, and then we see signs of new, fresh leadership. We see energy and deep spiritual growth. We are in awe of the faith that we see in one another. Or perhaps we look at the world around us. We witness violent terrorist acts. “Surely,” we say, “these are the end times.” And as we are thinking that civilization is about to crumble before our very eyes, we hear about acts of great compassion. And as we worry about the economic climate in our country and throughout the world wondering where it will all end, we open our hearts in generosity so that no one will go without.

And hopefully through all the twists and turns of life we remember that God offers grace, comfort and guidance on the road. We are offered such hope in God’s promises. That is the message of Advent, for it is a season of new beginnings, a season of hope, a season of new found faith, a season of joy.

Isaiah offers the people of Israel a message of hope and comfort. He reminds them of God’s promises. After years of exile, they will return home and God will be with them. God is bigger than all the suffering they have endured. God remains faithful and strong. They are to prepare the way through the wilderness as they might for any monarch. The exiles will return to Jerusalem on a straight and level road. “You can depend on the promises of God,” Isaiah tells them. “God will be there with you, leading, guiding, comforting. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” What a message of hope it is! It touches the very depth of human longing and hope.

The early Christians found themselves travelling a new and strange road filled with twists and turns, taking them in directions they hadn’t imagined. They had expected the imminent return of Jesus. When it did not happen, they found their hopes and dreams of a kingdom of shalom shattered. Peter told them that the delay was part of God’s plan. He knows that God wants the whole of creation to be transformed. He challenges them to prepare themselves for the day when Christ will come again. Can we hear in his message that the promise of God is a promise of transformation? We are to be a transformed and transforming people. We are to seek peace by being reconciled to one another and working for economic and political justice. It is through us that the kingdom of God will become a reality.

In the Gospel we hear the call to change direction on the road of life. In this Advent season, John the Baptist is a primary figure. He figures in two weeks of Gospel readings. There is no denying the impact that John the Baptist had on the people of his day. Only slightly older than Jesus, but by far the more provocative character, he drew attention for his bizarre behaviour and his edgy preaching. Even Jesus in being baptized by John acknowledges his charisma. Those who traipsed out into the wilderness did not go out to look at the scenery. They did not go out into the wilderness expecting to find luxury and royalty. They went out seeking a craggy, cranky prophet dressed in animal skins and eating locusts and honey, calling them to repentance. They were looking for someone who would tell them as it is. They were not disappointed. It led them into new ways of being.

That is strongly the message to us at this wilderness time of the year. We are called to repentance, to a new way of living our lives. John offers repentance as the way of entering into the kingdom. He points beyond himself, offering hope through renewal of right relationship with God. It is a call to change focus, to literally turn our lives around, to be converted. It is a call to faith.

How do we answer that call? Do we all really need conversion? The whole subject of conversion always brings to mind my mother, a very faithful Christian throughout her whole life, I might point out. I must have been about ten. We were in downtown Toronto. A man came up to us on the street. “Are you saved?” he asked us. “I’m an Anglican,” my mother quipped back. I suspect that many of us find it 'unanglican' to speak in such terms. But the gospel clearly calls us to allow God to transform our lives. It calls us to be converted.

So the answer to that question is a resounding “yes”. But I do not think for one moment that we all experience conversion in the same way. We think of it as a sudden transformation, a flash of insight, a moment of enlightenment or awakening. And that can be the case. For some people, there is a definite and distinct time in their lives when they experience God's call in a new and life changing way.

I suspect that for most people in church this morning, conversion has been a lifetime process, a lifetime of following God, a lifetime of commitment to the Gospel. For such people, conversion comes as a quiet recognition of how God continues to work in their lives. I know that when I look back on my own life I cannot remember a time when I was not a Christian. For that reason I would find it difficult to pinpoint a time of conversion. There are low times when I wondered if God cared. There are also times when I had mountain top experiences. And there have been times along the way that I can only describe as 'aha' moments when God gave me insights that deepened my experience and strengthened my faith.

What we all need is an authentic faith that we claim as our own. I think for that to happen we must have a sense that something is, not necessarily wrong, but that something is missing from our lives. Then we need a glimpse of who we are meant to be. That happens in many ways and at many times in our lives if we let it. It demands openness, honesty, integrity, and above all, courage. It means working at it. It means spending time in study and prayer, in examining our way of living, in committing as much time and energy to the spiritual dimensions of our lives as we do to the secular.

No matter at what stage of our Christian life we may be, there is possible a deeper encounter with the Christ who waits to enter our experience. So be prepared to search. Be open to the possibilities. The road is, after all, made by walking. Each discovery takes us deeper. It becomes a new beginning, a new birth, as Christ is born in us.

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

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