Agents of Advent: Bishop Lee's Sermon on December 16, 2012

December 16, 2012

A Sermon Preached by the Rt. Rev. Jeffrey D. Lee
Third Sunday of Advent C – December 16, 2012
St. Luke's, Evanston

On October 22, 1939, just after the outbreak of the Second World War at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford C.S. Lewis preached at Evensong. To a church full of undergraduates many of whom shortly would be facing death, not a few of whom must have been wondering what in the world they were doing studying mathematics or music when their nation was in mortal danger, Lewis said this: “If we had foolish, unChristian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were about building heaven on earth, about turning the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city that would satisfy the soul of man, we are disillusioned … and not a moment too soon.”

The world as we know it came to an end on Friday. Again. The horror in Connecticut brought to light again the fragility of our carefully constructed worlds. Lots of people here and abroad are living with a sense of apocalypse, a heightened awareness of the inevitable coming undone of things as they are, the ending of the familiar world. Unspeakable violence erupts in schools and shopping malls, the fiscal cliff looms, wars and rumors of wars abound, it's too late we are told to avoid massive climate change, employment may have stabilized to some extent, but lots of lost jobs are not coming back. Those among us who are attracted by the more lurid interpretations of biblical prophecies (or ancient Mayan ones) are finding every day a lot of new material in the daily news feed. Do you know there is a website called the “Rapture Index,” a kind of Dow Jones for end time activities. I am not kidding. On this site there are 45 prophetic categories scoring the amount of activity in each indicating the imminent return of Christ, the “rapture” in which Christians will vanish into the air and the rest of the world’s poor suckers will suffer the effects of the Anti-Christ. As of last Friday you may want to know, the index stood at 186 … the site informs that any score over 145 means it’s time to fasten our seatbelts.

Shamed and humiliated and victimized people have often longed for a new and better world to be ushered in through fire and judgment. John the Baptist sounds like one of those people. With wild eyes out there in the wilderness castigating the self-righteous who make the trek out from the city to see him – “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to run away from the wrath to come?” You can hear just that sort of thing by clicking on the Rapture Index or from the pulpits of any number of preachers. “Stand fast. The time of fun and waste has gone. The time of judgment has arrived.” That, incidentally, is not from the Bible, but from the terrorist’s manual, found in the luggage of the perpetrators of 9/11.

This sort of thing is so dangerous -- whether Christian, Muslim or from any other quarter – is so dangerous because there, lurking amid the fantasy and paranoia, are truths. We like to paint the world in black and white terms of epic proportions – a Star Wars view of the battle between absolute good and absolute evil. You can see the disastrous results of this in the Middle East or on the Korean Peninsula, or in the gang violence of our own city. We like to project it all as "out there," nothing to do with us. And part of the reason I think human beings do all this is to cover our own sense of shame and humiliation, the uncomfortable knowledge of our own moral compromises. How have I stood comfortably disengaged from the mad proliferation of guns and violence against children on the streets of Evanston or Chicago, or Waukegan, or in a classroom in DeKalb?

As I say, I think John the Baptizer was someone with an outrageous sense of the battle between good and evil. Brood of vipers, unquenchable fire, ax at the root of the tree. All that. And yet, the gospel tells us that when John sent some of his disciples to Jesus with an apocalyptic question: “Are you the One? Are you the Savior who has finally come to set the world ablaze and cleanse that brood of vipers, wipe the slate clean, judge the evil in the world and take the righteous to yourself? Are you the One?” Jesus says to them, "Go and tell John what’s happening around me. The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the poor finally hear some good news.” And so while John may have wanted to tell them something a little more spectacular, when the crowds ask him what to do, how to live, he tells them some pretty unspectacular things. He doesn't give them a terrorist’s manual. No light saber or Rapture Index. He answers the way Jesus does. Share what you have. Do not oppress anyone. Live peaceably. Jesus, in other words, does not usher in a new world through fire and apocalyptic judgment. The new world will not come with a bang (or a whimper for that matter), but through acts of healing and generosity and kindness and the simple decency of honoring the humanity of others.

This world has teeth. And no one knew it better than Jesus. Ushering in the new world of God’s reign will not be easy or sweet or without agony and tears. C.S. Lewis was right: “If we had foolish, unChristian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were about building heaven on earth, about turning the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city that would satisfy the soul of man, we are disillusioned … and not a moment too soon.” And not a moment too soon. Salvation is not a process of self-gratification or self-improvement. It is a process of dying and rising. Of learning that I run inevitably not on my own steam, but on God’s. This world is not mine. It does not belong to the Federal Reserve or to an Islamic Theocracy. The worst that human beings can perpetrate will not be the final word. This world is God’s. And so am I. And so are you. and so is every child who lives or dies. And until we learn to treat one another as though that were true, the world will continue to implode.

We come together this morning, here in the middle of Advent to practice the Kingdom of God, to pray that the new world of Jesus will become just a little more of a reality through us. It will come not through bombs or endless cycles of revenge or a fantastic rapture, but through the acts of decency and love and healing and kindness and sacrifice and joy and delight that we practice as we grow more and more into the image of Christ, as we become who we say we are, The Body of Christ, broken and given for the life of the world. Did you see the press conference yesterday afternoon with Robbie Parker, the father of six year old Emilie who died at Sandy Hook? Through his tears and the almost unendurable stories about his daughter he was able to extend his sympathy to the family of the one who perpetrated all these deaths. "I can't imagine how it is for you," he said to them on air. "I am available to help anyone anywhere in any way I can." Let's stand with that young father. Let us not be defined by the violence around us. Let's live like this (open hands) ... Not this (fists). Let us be the agents of Advent.

Even so, come Lord Jesus.