Sunday, December 10, 2006

Advent and Exile

Advent 2– Year C
Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126; Philippians 1:1-11; Luke 3:1-6
Sunday, December 10, 2006 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

Advent is the season of anticipation and preparation – anticipation of the coming of our Savior at Christmas, and our preparation for that most joyous of events. I love the season of Advent, perhaps more than Christmas itself. I like having this time to reflect on what Christ’s coming means in my own life – how it defines and informs who I am as a person of faith. While I try to take time throughout my day and throughout the year to reflect on these things, Advent is a time when such matters are foremost on my mind, and is a constant subject of contemplation during prayer and my quiet time with God.

This year, as we once again embark on the journey of anticipation and preparation that is Advent, I find that I have a different perspective. In the past, Advent has seemed to me to be a time of private reflection about my relationship with Christ. Yes, our worship services during Advent do have a distinct feel, focusing on the themes of our communal anticipation and preparation. But the content of public worship only seemed to serve as a backdrop to or means of facilitating my own personal reflection and contemplation, of my own personal anticipation and preparation. In short, it was all about me. But now, this Advent season, I find that I am approaching Advent from a slightly different perspective. At this point in my life, I find that it is not all about me, but rather, all about us – about what Advent means to us as a community, what it means to us as the Body of Christ, as the Kingdom of God living here and now, in this time and this place, two millennia after the initial coming of our Lord into our midst.

I can’t help but think that at least part of it has to do with what this [pulling on my clerical collar], this collar and these vestments, represent. During my ordination as deacon, I took vows to not only serve all people in the name of Jesus Christ, but also to “look for Christ in all others” (BCP, 544). Now maybe I’m over-analyzing the situation, but in order for me to be able to do that, for any of us to be able to do that, means that Christ has to be already here in our midst – and if we believe that we are the Body of Christ, then of course he is in our midst. But put in the context of Advent, what does it mean? What is Advent if Christ is already in our midst? To try to answer that, I turned to Scripture – specifically, to the lessons appointed for today.

In previous Advent seasons, in my personal reflections and even in my preaching, I tended to focus on the Gospel story, especially the Gospel story for the second Sunday in Advent – the story of John the Baptist. I considered what it meant for John to be the one who points the way to Jesus, the Christ. I considered what was meant by the famous words from the Prophet Isaiah which are quoted in today’s Gospel lesson: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” I considered what these words, what this image, meant for me as a Christian. And when I happened to preach on this day, what this image meant for all of us as Christians.

The image of John the Baptist is certainly important to the story of who we are as a people. John is the bridge between the Old and the New Testaments. He points the way to the Messiah, foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament – the Messiah who would be revealed through the writings of the New Testament. Specifically, “in [Luke’s] schema of salvation history John marks the end of the age of the law and the prophets and the beginning of a new age of the good news of the kingdom of God” (Scott, 18). He is not to be dismissed – he cannot be dismissed. But this year, I find that I cannot go directly to the image of John the Baptist as a defining icon of what Advent means. I find that I need to take a slightly longer journey, through the history of the Old Testament – through events that formed the nation of Israel; the events that defined the culture and the religion that John was born into; the events that shaped who John would be as person and prophet; the events that shaped John’s understanding of messiah, and ultimately of his message to the world of the need to prepare for the long-awaited coming of the Messiah.

On such a journey, there are a number of equally viable entry points into the history of the Old Testament. But one that seems quite appropriate for me, at least during this year’s contemplation of the meaning of Advent, is today’s Old Testament lesson from Baruch. Okay, for all you Old Testament scholars, I know that Baruch is actually contained in the Apocrypha and not the Old Testament, but the subject matter deals with one of the central, defining moments in Old Testament history – the Exile.

The reading from Baruch is part of a poem to Israel, exiled in Babylon, telling them not to lose heart. It is a cry of hope in a time of crisis – a cry that God will one day come and lead the people of Israel back home. Israel has been punished for her sins, for turning away from God, by being taken into exile by the Babylonian conquerors. “Despite Israel’s punishment for its sin, God will restore the penitent people, [and] their ultimate renewal will serve as a witness to the nations of God’s faithfulness” (Johnson, 22). In his poem of consolation, Baruch provides a detailed account of preparation for salvation, placed in the context of the people’s exilic experience, which has been marked by defeat and despair. To convey his point, Baruch uses the imagery of changing clothes. “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory of God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting” (Baruch 5:1-2). This language implies removing one’s funeral garments, the garments of sorrow and affliction, and replacing them with wedding clothes, the robe of righteousness and the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting. This is language of hope. It is an exhortation to act out of confidence in God and God’s mercy and loving kindness rather than solely relying on what is seen and experienced in the present.

Biblical scholarship indicates that in all likelihood, the book of Baruch was not actually written during the Exile, but possibly as late as two centuries after the return of Israel from Babylon. That being the case, the book would not have even been written by Baruch. Biblical scholar Elizabeth Johnson provides a context for this situation. She comments that “Although written in a postexilic context, the author takes as his pseudonym the name of one of the most well known exiles, the scribe of Jeremiah, because he considers himself and his people to be living in yet another time of exile, this one more cultural and religious perhaps than territorial. The people this time are surrounded by hostile forces that may or may not be violent . . . but are nonetheless contemptuous of the people’s attempts at covenant faithfulness” (Johnson, 22-23).

Because of the tone and nature of the book of Baruch, we are not given any clues as to the nature of what Johnson refers to as this cultural and religious exile. We know that the people of Israel were not placed in a physical exile from their homeland at any point following their return from Babylon. Yet, this general concept of cultural and religious exile resonates with me as I contemplate the meaning of Advent for those of us living two thousand years after the advent of our Lord. For we, too, are in midst of a cultural and religious exile.

Despite the doctrine of separation of church and state, this nation was founded on solid Christian principles and was intended to be a Christian nation – as the Pledge of Allegiance states, “one nation under God.” The foundation of our government and of our lives as citizens was our faith in God – as our national motto states, “In God we trust.” But somewhere along the line, we diverged from our founding principles. We are no longer one nation under God. We are a confederation of individuals worshiping whatever god suits us in the moment. But I’m not talking about the gods worshiped by those of other religious faiths, of non-Christian religions. Religious plurality is not the issue, it is not the problem in this cultural and religious exile in which we find ourselves. If anything, those other faiths are our ally in this time of exile.

Our motto is no longer “in God we trust,” but rather “in the Democratic Party we trust” or “in the Republican Party we trust.” Or maybe it’s “in Bill Gates we trust” or “in Alan Greenspan we trust.” As a nation, we no longer place our faith in God and in Jesus Christ, but rather we place our trust in wealth, in power, in material possessions – particularly whatever material goods are flashed on our television screens day in and day out. You don’t need to trust in God, trust in Oil of Olay to stay young and beautiful forever. Trust in Mercedes to make you feel rich and powerful. Run up your credit cards and mortgage your future. It will all be okay, trust us. You don’t even need to turn on the TV. Just drive down the short stretch of Sunset Boulevard between Beverly Hills and Hollywood and look at all the billboards and consider the messages they are sending to our society – to us and to our children.

And while we are being bombarded with the fantasy images of how our lives could be if we just trust in the right things, and while we willingly pursue those fantasies, while we follow society’s mandate to care for ourselves, to pamper ourselves, we are distracted from the central message of the Gospel – that we are to care for one another. We are so distracted by pursuing fantasies or protecting our possessions that we don’t see that there is a whole underclass of our brothers and sisters who are being forgotten, if not trampled upon.

We are living in exile – not a disconnect between a people and their homeland, but a disconnect between cultural values and the Gospel imperatives that Jesus proclaimed. But just as foretold by Baruch, there is hope. “Baruch urges hopeful action rather than hopeful thought or wishful thinking, and he calls on his contemporaries to remember that God did in fact restore those former exiles and to trust that God may similarly be trusted with their current experience of alienation” (Johnson, 23). That hope is provided in this season of Advent. But we have a part to play in keeping that hope alive, in making what is hoped for into a reality. Just as John the Baptist was called to point the way to Jesus 2,000 years ago, we are called to point the way to Jesus. We are called to speak the truth that has been revealed to us, to proclaim to the world that there is a better way, a more fulfilling way, than what our secular culture has fed us. We are called to proclaim the truth that leads to true life, to everlasting life, to life in Christ – and not only for us, but for the entire world, for all God’s children. But that means speaking out and taking action against the so-called norms established by our secular culture – the culture based on power and materialism, the culture that ignores those who do not have power and money, and worse yet, that exploits and uses those who do not have power and money for its own advancement. As theologian Jim Griffiss notes, “An incarnational faith calls for the transformation of the ‘secular’ or ‘political’ world in Christ, a transformation for which all Christians must take responsibility” (Griffiss, 52).

Advent is a time of anticipation of and preparation for the coming of the Messiah. It is the time to anticipate and prepare for a better way of life – a life based on the Gospel, a life that points to Jesus as the way, the truth, and the light. As Christians, we don’t need to anticipate. The Messiah has already come. As the Body of Christ in the world, we are proof of that. We know it, but the rest of the world needs to know. Our secular society needs to know it. What we do need to do is prepare the way. And to do that, we are called to go into the world, to be an example through our words and our actions, to live the Gospel boldly and unashamedly, and to bear witness to the fact that Jesus has come into the world and that we are his Body.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Griffiss, James E. The Anglican Vision. Vol. 1 of The New Church’s Teaching Series. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1997.

Johnson, E. Elizabeth. Proclamation 6, Series C: Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Advent/Christmas. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

No comments: