Wednesday, December 3, 2008
To the right, you will find the image of Matthias Grünewald’s dramatic and disturbing altarpiece entitled, “The Crucifixion.” That may seem an odd choice for this second Sunday in the season of Advent. However, I chose it because of Grünewald’s very powerful depiction of John the Baptist who, with his long finger outstretched, points to the crucified Christ. Written in Latin above the Baptist’s arm are the words, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Mark’s Gospel begins, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” For Mark, there is no infancy narrative. He jumps right into the drama of Jesus’ life, beginning with John the Baptist, the one appointed by God to point or prepare the way for the Messiah and the one who baptizes him. As Grünewald makes clear, John the Baptist does not point to a cute baby in a manger. Rather he points to the crucified Christ, the one who calls us, through his vulnerability and suffering, to lives of love and compassion.
At this time of year, we so easily find ourselves distracted by the sentimental, Hallmark nature of what we generically now call the holiday season. We become seduced, even manipulated, by its trappings. However, in the church, we hear the constant reminder that our observance is about much more than what the marketers feed us.
You may think that this makes the church the ultimate killjoy, forcing on us this season of Advent to rob us of our fun and games. That is not what Advent is all about. Advent is about hope. However, as the preacher Leonard Vander Zee once said, Advent hope “isn’t some pleasant narcotic that sets us nodding off in our Christian cocoon” (quoted in Lectionary Homiletics, Volume XVII, Number 1, 11). Instead, Advent hope points us to something far beyond ourselves. Advent hope provides us with a vision of what God’s world can and will be like. Advent hope is a big deal – it is about earth-shattering, life-changing transformation that has very little to do with what passes for the holiday season and everything to do with God’s vision for the future.
During Advent, John the Baptist serves as our agent provocateur, the one who comes to stir things up, to shake us out of our complacency, and to urge us to search our hearts. John the Baptist asks us whether we really want to accept what Christ offers, whether we really want to take on what Christ requires. To accept Christ means that we live by the commandment to love God and our neighbors. It means that we filter everything that we do through that double commandment. It means embracing Jesus’ call to love our enemies, to seek the transformation of evil not through violence and retaliation but through love and compassion. It means living in a qualitatively different way, convinced that the road to peace and fulfillment in this life is none other than the way of Christ.
If you want something deeper this year, something that goes beyond the parties and the presents, consider what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus, someone completely committed to embodying his teachings, someone determined to live according to our baptismal covenant that calls us to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being. Christian faith - Advent faith – is faith lived out in the world around us. It is not reserved for quiet Sunday mornings or for Christmas Eve worship. It pervades every part of our lives. It informs the shopping decisions that we make, the way that we treat other people, even the choices that we make about our time and our money. Why? Because we have looked ahead toward God’s future and we cannot sit satisfied with the present when we can contribute to the coming reign of God.
Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed his Advent hope in a speech that shook our nation some forty years ago. He said that he had been to the mountaintop and that he had seen the other side. He had a vision - a vision that compelled him to put every ounce of energy he had into its fulfillment.
When we catch the Advent vision of God’s future, we cannot accept the world as it is. We cannot sit back in self-satisfied comfort while so many in Africa die from HIV/AIDS, while so many live in extreme poverty, while our nation is at war, while so many experience homelessness and hunger. We must sit up and take notice of what is happening around us. That is why events like World AIDS Day, which took place on December 1, are important. It is why the UN's Doha Follow-Up Conference on Financing for Development that took place this week is so important. What the world’s leaders decide makes a tremendous difference in the lives of millions of people.
Every time we speak out against violence, every time we provide food for the hungry, every time we hug someone who weeps, every time we work for reconciliation, we move toward the Advent vision, the Advent hope of a world transformed.
Many of us attend church to find comfort, to be spiritually renewed, to gain strength to face the days ahead. We all have our struggles, our pains, and our wounds that need the comforting balm of God’s love. We are right to seek that comfort in the church, to know that God loves us and to worship within the context of a loving community. I am convinced that one of the primary ways that we receive healing and comfort is to look outward, to focus on the needs of the people around us, to believe that there is something at play in this world that is much larger than we are, that there is something for which it is worth giving, worth sacrificing, worth hoping, perhaps even worth dying. That is the Advent hope.
Just as Grünewald’s John the Baptist pointed definitively to Jesus, so too God calls us to point the way, to be the prophets of God’s love. As God called Isaiah and John the Baptist and countless others throughout history to point to the truth, so God calls us during this season of anticipation to point to the truth, not just with our lips but also with our lives. John the Baptist said that the way to prepare is to repent. Repenting sounds like an ominous thing. However, it really is quite simple. To repent simply means to turn around and walk in a different direction. To repent requires that we recognize our sins, that we ask forgiveness and make recompense, and then, that we change our direction so that we can walk towards the vision rather than away from it.
What might it look like for us to turn so that we can head more completely in the right direction? What in our lives would change if we were to walk in a new direction? John the Baptist points the way. Are we willing to follow? Amen.
Image: The Crucifixion, central panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece (from Wikipedia).