Last Sunday I preached this sermon at our church. Not my best effort, I think; it feels like a rough draft for something better. But some people seemed to like it, and it may be of interest here. The Scripture passages appointed for that day (3rd Sunday in Advent, Year A) can be found here. I've also added a link to the Civil War website I mention. (Update: An audio recording, mostly intelligible, can be found here. Weirdly, the last two words are cut off.)
This year my brother Will has been emailing a daily Advent meditation to his friends and family. (I should tell you that this is my brother the theologian, not my brother the rocket scientist or my brother the computer guy. Advent meditations from them might be very different.) Anyway, in one of his first pieces, Will writes how the coming of Christ is the center point, the pivot, in all human history. We reflect this in our calendar; the birth of Christ is the dividing point between BC and AD. We live on the AD side, in the age after Christ has come into the world. But according to Will, during the season of Advent, for a little while we inhabit BC.
It's all very nice. But I confess to you that when I read it, a part of my reaction was, Oh, isn't that a little hokey? I don't think of Advent as a kind of personal exercise in historical re-enactment, like going to the Renaissance Faire. Now, I enjoy going to the Renaissance Faire. I walk around, see the costumes, listen to the music, maybe take in the swordsmen show or watch the joust. It's fun -- hokey, but fun. It isn't very much like the real Renaissance. There is no hardship, no sickness, no human tragedy. And of course, nobody wants to have such things at the Renaissance Faire. The point of it is to have a good time. It's pretend, not real.
But a "let's pretend" approach to Advent cannot really satisfy me. I'm a serious sort of fellow. Costumes and pageants and so forth seem to ignore the serious business of following Christ, here and now, 2010 years AD. I am looking for a present reality, not a pretend historical re-enactment. And that is why I rolled my eyes a bit when I read that passage in my brother's email.
On the other hand, there is an exercise in historical re-enactment, an ongoing commemoration, that does truly capture my imagination these days. Let me tell you about it. Last month was the 150th anniversary of the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, the event that sparked the Civil War. And since last month there has been an internet website called "The Long Recall" about the history of those days. Each day, the authors of the site put up a new post telling what happened in the country exactly one and a half centuries ago. They include links to reprints of newspaper stories and editorials from New York, Richmond, Philadelphia, Charleston and other places. They pass on rumors. They give the financial news. They report on world events too, whenever steamships arrive from Europe and Asia. For Sundays -- which actually appear on the website on Thursdays -- they reprint the texts of sermons preached in notable churches across the land.
It is fascinating to see how the history of that era unfolds day by day. It is fascinating -- sometimes bracing, sometimes sad, sometimes ironic -- to read what the people of those days say about the crisis they face. It is fascinating because, to put it plainly, those people have no idea what is coming. They do plenty of talking about secession and conflict and so on. But they do not really comprehend that they are standing on the threshold of a vast, heartbreaking, almost unimaginable war, a war that will change everything. They do not know. But then, how could they? They are living inside their time. They do not stand outside of it, as we do. The great and terrible shape of history, so obvious to us, is almost invisible to them.
And it only requires a little reflection to realize that you and I are in much the same situation today. We live inside our own lives, inside our own time. What great or terrible history is being shaped now, we are not really in a position to see clearly. Like the people of 1860, we do not know. And the fact that we do not know, that we cannot know, is a fact worth remembering.
John the Baptist is a prophet, which means that God has gifted him with a vision of the true shape of his own time. He knows that God is about to do something stupendous. He thinks he knows what that is, and he thinks that, in Jesus of Nazareth, he has found the One that God has sent to do it.
But a lot has happened. He has been thrown into prison for preaching against the immorality of the King. His head is almost literally on the chopping-block. And meanwhile, the career of Jesus is not quite what John has been expecting. There is a lot of preaching and healing going on, and not much judgment and unquenchable fire. And it seems that John, even John the Baptist, now finds himself in doubt. His prophetic vision has faded. Like the rest of us, he does not know. That is why he sends his disciples to Jesus. They bring a direct question: Are you the One? Or should we be looking for Somebody Else?
And Jesus's answer is, in fact, pretty direct. He does not tell a parable or answer the question with a question. He says: Tell John what you see and hear. The blind see and the deaf hear and the lame walk. The lepers are cleansed and the dead are raised. The poor have good news preached to them. Tell John all that.
Jesus is not merely saying that there are some good things going on in Galilee. He isn't just saying that these are signs from God. He is telling John, reminding him really, that these are the signs, the signs that Isaiah and the rest foretold long ago, the signs of the beginning of the regeneration of the world. This may seem like an ordinary time, but it is not. This is the pivot point of all time. Blessed are you, John, if you can open your mind and take it all in.
And it only requires a little reflection to realize that John's question is my question too. Yes, I think I know what is happening in the world, in my life. I think I know that Jesus is the One that God has sent. But then the vision fades, and things happen, and I struggle with doubt. I find myself languishing in my own metaphorical prison, hemmed in by grief or pain or sin. And I want to ask yet again, Are you really the One? Or should I be looking for Someone Else?
It is the very heart of our faith that the Great Thing that happened once in history, the Advent of our Lord, also happens for each one of us. This is not some kind of pretend historical re-enactment. As far as I can tell, it isn't even a metaphor. It is the literal truth. The coming of Christ into the world of time at that joint between BC and AD is actually part of the same eternal reality as when He comes to me, or to you. Today seems like an ordinary day, but maybe it isn't. Maybe for us, this is the pivot point of all time. Maybe for us, this is the beginning of the regeneration of the world.
If you and I could stand a little way outside of our lives and see their true shape, I think we would know this. We would see how near we are to that realm that Isaiah describes. Without realizing it, we are standing almost on the threshold of the realm of salvation and freedom and joy. And when it is our time to enter into that realm, we will find ourselves reborn, remade in Christ. The wounds and the deformities of our souls, our doubts and our fears and our sins, will all be mended. For the least in that kingdom will be greater than the best that we have ever known.
Meanwhile, of course, you and I are living inside of these days, and that clear wide view of things is available only to the angels. We do not know, not really. We do not see how near the kingdom is to us, or what is already beginning to happen. And so today may be hard for us; tomorrow too. The kingdom often seems remote, or unreal. Yet we must never forget that our own viewpoint is limited. We do not know. And therefore, as James says, our present task is to learn patience. We must strengthen our hearts and make ready for the Lord's coming.
So it turns out that my brother the theologian was onto something after all. John's question is my own; Isaiah's hope is my own. In our lives, even today, we do always have both BC and AD -- with Christ in the center of everything. That is not pretend. It is not some kitschy historical re-enactment. It is the true shape of our lives, the beginning of our new lives in Christ, even if we do not always perceive it clearly.
I guess I should send my brother an email and apologize for that crack about the Renaissance Faire. Or maybe not. Maybe I spoke better than I knew. For now that I think about it, what is renaissance after all but an old, old Frenchified word for rebirth?