heralds & civil engineers, surrogates & midwives

This is the sermon I shared yesterday on the second Sunday in Advent, to our small but mighty congregation, Whitewater Mennonite Church in Boissevain, Manitoba. The Advent theme was Peace and my primary scripture texts were Isaiah 40:1-9 and Psalm 85:1-2, 8-9 (both from the New Revised Standard Version). 

 

The light shines in the darkness… and the darkness cannot put it out.

May the Peace of the Lord be with you… And also with you.

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Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God.

He speaks peace, to you, his people, his faithful. His salvation is at hand, that his glory may dwell in our land.

It’s been said that for the good news to be the good news, 2 things have to be true:

  1. It has to be good.
  2. It has to be news.

Proclaiming peace and comfort to North-American Christians in 2017 can feel a bit anti-climactic.

One of Maeve’s most requested activities this time of year is the after-dinner “Christmas walk.” We bundle up and take to the streets on foot to take in as many manger scenes and inflatable big guys as our cold toes and cheeks will allow. There is one yard that Maeve refers to as the “surprise place.” Some of you know it as “Moncur’s yard.” And, as tradition goes, from the bottom of our driveway, for a block and a half, she covers her eyes, peaking all the while through her own purple mitten, insisting that when we get to the “surprise place,” I yell, “SURPRISE!!!”

The impact of surprise, however, is a little lost if you saw it coming the whole time and in fact, it was your idea.

Likewise, the impact of a God who sings “Comfort, comfort.” And “who speaks peace to you His people,” may be a little lost on us who have, with incredible success, planned for, provided & delivered so many of our own creature comforts.

Some say that this good news isn’t for us. That we (North-American Christians) have had our fill of Comfort and God isn’t actually speaking to us here.

I think they are wrong insofar as we do the work of emptying – (Pastor Wes asked this of us last week – to assume an open posture and let go). For me, one of the beautiful gifts of our 10 commandments study, has been this bearing down and emptying out of the Gods and idols, crutches and artificial fillers, I use to satisfy the empty spaces God himself waits to inhabit in me.

If You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But do not realize that you are (actually) wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.[1] You miss out on this good news.

Jesus was approached fairly frequently by the rich, those in power, the materially “comfortable.” And I don’t think you will find an instance – not once – in which he turned them away. But he did require them to empty themselves – their pockets, their storehouses, their egos. That He may enter in.

I think in order for us to understand the impact of these words, Comfort and peace we have to step back, dig deep and hunker down a bit.

At the beginning of Isaiah 40, we find the people of God in exile – and not just out for a long walk as was my childhood Sunday School understanding, – their city was occupied and in ruins; their place of worship had burned to the ground; their children hauled off, taken as slaves; many of their men killed. And their women had been taken in all the ways women are taken in war-time.

Imagine yourself in the camps outside of Baghdad or among your parents or grandparents fleeing the Ukraine, or with the tribes of displaced Indigenous people pushed to the edges and outlands after any one of many massacres that are a part of our shared history.

Perhaps it’s enough to just rest for minute deep inside your own grief, or loss, cancer, loneliness, anxiety. The fear that wakes you in the night. Or the relentless ache that hides you away.

Shhh, it’s okay,. That’s enough. I’ve gotchyou, says your God.

Tenderly, God says. Be gentle. Tell her it’s over.

It’s hard to bear the beautiful blow of a God who speaks comfort, until we’ve tapped deeply into our vulnerabilities.

When we sit with the vulnerable. When we feel their ache. And our own. Then and there we hear the in-breaking voice of our God.

Comfort, O comfort my people.

Shhh… it’s okay. It’s over.

It’s then that Israel lifts her weary head and starts to pack up – because all this time in exile, she’s been waiting to go home. To return to the place of promise God had given them. We need only to watch the news this week to be reminded of the incredible significance of Jerusalem for the people of God. The people of Israel are homesick, nostalgic for the way things were. No doubt stories still floated about camp of how incredible worship had been at the temple. How grounded they had felt in the land God had given them. As we read the psalms of lament and the cries of the people in the wilderness, the cry to return is strong.[2]

They are ready. Rolling up their tents, you can almost hear the giddy chatter, the humming of the alma mater, We’re coming home! And while they’re arguing over how to pack the camels and which route will have the best pit stops this time of year… A voice calls out – with a cosmic shift in the plan.

***Hold up. Don’t move. Stay there. Get ready.

YOUR GOD… IS COMING TO YOU.

[“But I thought…”]

All this while, God’s people have been waiting for Him to lead them back. For Him to clear the road – or part the sea or however this was going to go this time around – that they might return.

The news of the incarnation, of Emanuel, God with us, is a reversal.

See, we too, want him to usher us out – to bring us back – from debt, from depression, from cancer, from conflict. Our expectation – and our cries – are for deliverance. The announcement that God instead is on His way in to our brokenness may not be the good news we hoped for.

And yet… Behold, he comes.

A voice cries out: In the wilderness,

Prepare the way of the Lord

Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low.

Make the uneven ground level and the rough places flat.

 

While we were waiting for God to smooth things out, He instead enlisted us in the work. As heralds, as contractors and civil engineers. As surrogates and as midwives.

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We are called upon to Host the Almighty God within us. That is the Good News.

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Cry out, God says, and like our brother John, we stand on desert highways like bug-eating, sticky-bearded lunatics and shout to the passers-by. “He’s coming!”

Make straight the highway, He says. And, with Israel, we set up our surveying scopes and dynamite and stand by while mountains crumble and valleys are lifted up. While the powerful lose their over-confident grips and the Silence-Breakers are given the front page.

Don’t be afraid, the angel says. And, with Mary, we go about making room in our lives, our homes and our very bodies, for the incarnate God.

I have seen you, O people of God. People of Boissevain, of Whitewater answer that call. A decade ago, God showed you his hungry, underemployed-self in your midst – you built a house, and set a table and have been filling the shelves of our food pantry ever since…

Prepare ye the way.

God showed you his displaced baby boys in the South China sea, and on Mediterranean beaches, and in the camps of north Sudan, you tore down walls and put up decks, and opened spaces in your own homes and hearts…

That the glory of the Lord may dwell in your land.

When God cried to you through the crackling, struggling squawks of newborns in the NICU who needed a home. You said, “Here I am, the maidservant of our LORD.”

You know this work. And while we started this conversation with Peace and Comfort, you know this part too… Here’s the rub: If you take this call too seriously (and you should), the work of Peace is – ironically – incredibly volatile.

When God commissions his highways, he doesn’t do it the way our city planners do: Forcing the poor out of their homes and neighbourhoods to make room for new overpasses and on ramps that accelerate the commute of the already upwardly-mobile. The kingdom road comes not through the upheaval of the poor, but instead tears up Tuxedo Park on its way into the projects. The kingdom of God does not route a precarious pipeline through the fruit-bearing land of struggling farmers and over water mains of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. I believe it is more likely to compromise military bases and the Gold-laced towers of those in power.

This work of the kingdom, if we’re doing it right, is bound to be politically unpopular, and likely, incredibly dangerous. Being a messenger for this kind of in-breaking… It puts a target on your back. If you say yes, like Mary did, the king will send armies to hunt you – and your babies – down. If you shout as loud as our brother John, your head very well may end up on a platter.

Merry Christmas, everyone. Happy Advent. May the peace of the Lord be with you.

Just kidding. Kind of. I won’t leave you there. Not quite.

2 Peter 3 asks this: 11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of people ought we to be, as we wait for and hasten[a]the coming of our God? 

Waiting and hastening – this is the good work of Advent.

He asks and then he answers:

14 Beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace.

And we’re back. Striving to be found at peace. All the while the mountains are dissolving and the earth is on fire. Friends, we live in an anxious world. I wonder if a huge part of our offering as the church to the world, might be that we would – in the face of it all, live PEACE.

I read an article recently called, When I am afraid, I practice dying.[3]

The author, in the face of anxiety and panic attacks, had together with her spiritual director, come up with a strange and brilliant strategy. Instead of fighting it and clamouring her way back, she began to use those attacks as a chance to practice her own death. She closed her eyes and imagined being received by her all-loving, Comfort-singing, God. Isn’t that brilliant? When I’m afraid, practice dying. And being found at peace. Friends, if we can manage that…

We can do the rest.

Prepare the way. Make straight the highways. Stand on the fault lines and shout the ground-shifting news of his coming. Give God your Mary-inspired, “yes.”

If that terrifies you, it’s okay. Open your breath, your hands, your hearts, your inroad… Hear the voice of God. And be found at Peace.

Comfort, O comfort, my people, says your God.

 

[1] Revelation 3:17, NIV

[2] Psalm 137 is a good example.

[3] https://themennonite.org/im-afraid-practice-dying/