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The Second Sunday of Advent, Year A

The Hope of Advent

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

A friend was visiting a local church for some special occasion and took her young daughter with her. The preacher was quite fiery in his delivery, trying to make an impression on the congregation. The little girl looked up at her mom and asked, "Why is that man shouting at us?"

I resonated with the child at some deep level, remembering my father's 'hell and damnation' style of preaching as I was growing up. I have always found such preaching disturbing and rather frightening.

I find the same thing when I read about John the Baptist. There is no doubt about it; he is more than a little disturbing. It isn't just his wild appearance, although camel's hair clothing is certainly part of it. His food – locusts and wild honey – also leaves much to be desired. The crux for me is his preaching, that 'fire and brimstone' message aimed at making even the saintly quake in their boots. There is so much anger in it. Perhaps that is what frightens me most, for it causes me to reflect on the anger that I carry in my life.

It seems to me as I read the newspaper that the whole world is erupting in anger. There are countries in the world that have been constantly at war for over forty years. We live in a world under constant threat of terrorist acts. Besides that, many people, even national leaders, ignore the threat of humankind on the environment.

Closer to home, violent acts take place every day on our city streets. There is bullying in our schools, racist acts, violence against women ...

I try not to be political, but there was an article in the Saturday Star that consolidates what I have been mulling over as I prepared to preach this week. It speaks of the rising tide of populism that led to a Trump victory in the United States, and a Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. Our Prime Minister recognizes that Canadians too are feeling the same kind of anger and frustration. He says of the last election, “We didn’t do it to the same degree of anger – we tried to channel it into hope instead – but the recognition of the same issue was there.”

There is anger and frustration in the Church as well. We look back to glory days when our Sunday Schools were full of children. We look out on a sea of grey and wonder where the Church will be a generation from now. There are controversial issues that divide the people of God.

How do we channel all of the anger and frustration into hope? Someone commented to me that to understand the preaching of John the Baptist one had to take a look at the bad people in our world – the deranged, the wicked, the evil, and then look inside themselves at how they have fallen short of the glory of God. I suspect that is very true.

The thing is that when we consider our own culpability in the scheme of things we can come up feeling pretty good about ourselves. We wonder whether there is any relevance for us in the message of John the Baptist. John is not an easy prophet. He sees the axe lying at the root of the trees. He writes off the world as it is. He proclaims that we – even the most Godly of us – cannot escape the retribution that is coming. He is not talking to terrible people who have perpetrated unspeakable atrocities. They are not the ones he is calling a "brood of vipers". He is speaking to good, upright, synagogue-attending Pharisees and Saducees. He is speaking to us.

These are people who have followed him out into the wilderness looking to further their faith. The deeds that he is railing against are not the works of darkness, of people who never go to church. They are the self-destructive behaviours of those who do.

"Demonstrate to me," he is saying, "that you really are repentant. Reconcile with your friend that you haven't spoken to in twenty-five years. Be the first to offer your hand in reconciliation. Don't ignore cheating when you see things happening down at the office. Give to the poor; don't just pass them by on the street. Take your givings to the church seriously. Don't just throw a loonie on the plate and think it's enough."

When people ask John what to do he does not say, "Go and pray about it", or "go on a retreat," or "offer a sacrifice to God." He says, "Change your lifestyle." Do a complete turn around. Become a different person.

So where is the grace in all of this? Where is the hope? We are a people, a nation, a world under judgement. But there is much that is worthy of becoming the ingredients of the future. God's kingdom is not some future event. God's kingdom is here now.

Isaiah's beautiful vision of the wolf living with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together is a vision of God working through history. It is a vision of God's kingdom of Shalom. Reconciliation with nature and trust among power structures are within the realm of possibility. In our own apocalyptic vision are many signs of hope. We do not have to have a vision of destruction. We are not helpless spectators to the activity of God. We are stewards and instruments of God. We are in relationship with God. We are part of the process of redemption.

But it takes a willingness to come before God and seek God's forgiveness. The wonderful thing about it is that we have a God who wants so badly to forgive.

There was a woman who claimed to have visions of the Virgin Mary. One day she called the Bishop from the Philippines, Cardinal Sin – that really is his name – to tell him about her vision. He didn't pay much attention to her, so she called him again. After five unsuccessful calls, she went to his office and asked to see him.

He decided to put an end to her foolishness. "When you talk to the Virgin Mary this evening," he said to her, "tell her to ask Jesus what my gravest sin was." And so the woman left, happy at last to have been heard. The next day she went back to see the Cardinal.

"Well, did you speak to the Virgin Mary last night?" he asked.

She responded, "Yes, but…"

"But what? Did she ask Jesus about my sin?" Cardinal Sin asked.

"Yes, she did ask him," the woman replied. "But Jesus told her that he had forgotten."

We cannot fathom the wickedness that is in the world. We cannot fathom what possesses mass murderers or terrorists or rapists. But we do know the secrets of our own hearts and our need for forgiveness. That can help us to understand our need to hear the message of John the Baptist. That can help us to commit our lives to God knowing the power of Christ to forgive. That can help us to change our lives to reflect the love of Christ. Then we will be participants in the ushering in of God's peaceable kingdom.

Let us hear those words of John speaking to us across the ages. “Repent! Change your lifestyle! Demonstrate in your lives that you really are repentant.”

That is the hope of this season of Advent as it calls us to repentance. Commit your life to God knowing the power of Christ to forgive. Reflect that power to forgive in your own dealings. Reflect the love of Christ in your life. Seek the love of Christ in those you meet. Participate in the ushering in of God's peaceable kingdom. Shalom!

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