After years of frequent participation in leading the Eucharist and preaching at St Luke’s and Seabury, I’ve gone two years with relatively rare exercise of my ministries in those departments. This morning may mark a turned corner in that circumstance, though; I preached and deaconed at the Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin in Glasgow, and later in the week will meet with the Provost and the rest of the staff to arrive at a formal understanding of whether and how I can help the cathedral staff.
I’ll post the sermon below the fold. First, though, let me acknowledge that I treat William Blake more superficially than he or the poem deserves. An academic member of the congregation pointed this out to me after the service, and I readily admit it. There’s only so much you can say in a sermon the point of which is not a searching literary analysis of a poem by William Blake; mine is a glancing critical observation. That said, I stand by the general point for which the poem in the “Preface” to “Milton a Poem” serves as an illustration here.
I erred in following the lectionary’s recommendation that Isaiah 12:2-6 serve as the psalm for this service. The Cathedral opted to use a regular psalm, so the Isaianic motifs from the sermon don’t get any traction from the readings that the congregation will have heard. I had some trouble location the sweet spot for checking the text through my bifocals, so I mixed up the word order several times, so there’s a getting-used-to process I’ll need to observe. But really, it was wonderful to have the sense once again that I might be a sharer in the ministry of a church. Everyone at the Cathedral was very positive and encouraging, and I look forward with exhilaration to taking a regular part in cathedral life.
Zeph 3:14-20/Phil 4:4-7/Luke 3:7-18
3 Advent C
13 December 2009
With many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.
In the name of God Almighty, the Holy Trinity on high — Amen.
John the Baptist appears to have a peculiar understanding of what constitutes “good news.” If we were to stop any old passer-by on the Great Western Road to ask, “Sorry, but does this sound like good news to you?”:
You snakes in the grass! Give away your jacket, and share your dinner! You should be satisfied with what you have! Oh, and by the way, someone is coming along who’s going to torch anybody who doesn’t measure up, with unquenchable fire!
If we were to query our hypothetical pedestrian about that message, I doubt that they would think it represented especially cheery tidings. Vipers? Axes? Wrath? Stony ancestors? Unquenchable fire? Good news indeed!
The — ahem — vivid rhetorical flourishes aside, though, John remains convinced that he’s bringing us the very best news possible. He doesn’t much care whether you’re insulted about his calling you a snake, or disappointed that you have to share your favorite snack with a stranger. John’s not worried about the liturgical season of Advent or where he stands in the public opinion polls, or how etiquette decrees that one should speak to soldiers in uniform. He’s possessed by a fervor: this is urgent, this is vital; this is no time to mince words. The Lord is coming, he’s nearly here, and serpentine spectators miss the point that from now on, everything is at stake, everything is hanging in the balance. The power of God is pressing at the threshold, the doors and windows bowed to bursting at the force of divine majesty — and at any moment, fire, wild fire might break out and consume any who haven’t prepared for it.
John is talking about you, your life, your life in its fullest, deepest, more-than-mortal sense. Your house is about to burst into flames; what heedless fool would ignore such an emergency? The world is scintillating with the explosive sparks of judgment; who will not draw water?
John’s sense of fiery urgency contrasts sharply with the conventional Advent homiletical theme that “this is a season of waiting.” Preachers piously intone, “For these four weeks, we wait upon the Lord.” But that’s the last thing John would have us do. He’s not queueing placidly for the X44 bus, not leafing through devotional magazines in some fogbound airport terminal. John’s stirring up as much fuss as he can; he has good news to make it known that God’s own kingdom is lighting the dawn sky, radiant just below the horizon. That alone should motivate us to turn back, to forswear our foolish ways. John proclaims the best possible news for us, and only vipers would persist in folly and wickedness rather than hurry, rush, jostle our way into the presence of God.
“Waiting” couldn’t be further from what John has in mind for us. His ministry of cleaning away sins develops as a lived exposition of the prophetic vision that describes a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” John doesn’t just wait, he doesn’t just talk, he embodies the ministry of preparing the Lord’s way. And the preparations he undertakes are no mean task: leveling the mountains, filling the valleys, straightening the crooked lanes, smoothing the rocky roads, so that everyone has unimpeded access to gather together in God’s presence — so that all flesh may share the salvation of God. The gospels only tell us stories about John washing people free from their sins — but that’s a big job in itself. There’s a lot of people, and an awful lot of sins. You might as well try leveling mountains of greed, and filling in abysses of lust. Such arduous tasks warrant unwavering commitment, and they will take more time than any of our lifetimes avail to accomplish. All the more reason, then, for John to wake us from our torpid stupor: it’s time to set to work! All the more reason, then, for John to shake us out of our stupid torpor: the kingdom of God is at hand!
With so much we might do, and so little time in which to do it, John takes the chance of offending us in order to stir us up, to snap us out of it and prepare for something great. But urgent as our energetic preparation may be, John keeps the accent of his exhortation on opportunities that actually lie within our means. His teaching sticks with very practical, very possible activities: “Give a coat to the needy, buy a meal for the hungry. Don’t line your pockets from the till. Don’t bully people.” John follows up his baptismal instruction with simple, direct guidelines for living as godly witnesses to our loving, merciful Lord.
John doesn’t, however, confuse our preparation with God’s own consummation. We don’t build the kingdom ourselves; we don’t make the kingdom happen. We can make a way for the kingdom’s advent; we can make it easier for all our neighbors to recognize God’s Spirit at work among us, to see the marvelous goodness of simple, kind, gentle open-heartedness — we can make it easier for everyone readily to join with us in welcoming God. We endeavor to reconcile our all-too-crooked ways to God’s unwavering intregity; we level high and low to bring all people together on the same plane. We make ready for God by any means we can, sprucing up the mess we’ve made out of creation, doing our best to prepare the way, for God to come complete and restore all things.
And in respect of the distinction between what we can accomplish and what only God will bring about, William Blake makes an instructive double error in his “Preface to Milton,” which English schoolchildren learn to sing as the hymn “Jerusalem.” First, and perhaps most grievously, he supposes that God’s new Jerusalem belongs to the green and plesant land of England — whereas I would put up more northerly mountains and pastures and clouded hills with the best that England has to offer. I bring this up not as a mere self-cnscious effort to appeal to the hearts of my new neighbours here in Glasgow, but because Blake’s boosterism exemplifies the problem that’s explicit in the poem’s closing couplet; Blake promises that he will not cease from mental nor martial combat
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
Again, the heavenly Jerusalem is not ours to build. When we succumb to the misconception that we make the kingdom, that we build Jerusalem, we inevitably bootleg our agendas into what we represent as God’s Law. We mingle our blessed aspiration to serve God perfectly, with our tainted determination to do it our way. Thus Blake sounded an admirable, resounding clarion call to resist Satanic industrialization, pollution, defoliation, and exploitation — but he smuggled in a national exceptionalism that makes the England especially he loved into the fitting destination of the heavenly Jerusalem. However brilliant his God-intoxicated anarchist mysticism, Blake displays for us the peril of taking on a task that belongs to God alone — building the heavenly Jerusalem — rather than tackling the preparatory work that’s more congruent with our capacities and limitations.
The way of aligning our plans with God’s paths, of participating with the Holy Spirit toward realizing God’s purposes, prepares the world to receive with acclamation a Prince of Peace, a healer of broken spirits, the eternal Son of David, ruler of a kingdom that operates by co-operation, who wins hearts by the non-coercive power of a living Truth that builds an eternal city by drawing all hearts to the wounded side of compassion’s cross. Our participation in the Spirit’s restoring, liberating work demands our fullest efforts, but in so doing it brings out our greatest, ceaseless joy as well — joy that echoes God’s own joy over Jerusalem. This way of un-worried gentleness and generosity gathers up lame and outcast souls and welcomes everyone into the glorious restoration of God’s people. Joining in this co-operating with God, we will not run out of preparing to do, even if we offer God every moment of our lives, every second of our energies.
All the more urgent, then, that we obey John’s warning cry by repenting from wayward willfulness and turning our faces toward Jerusalem; all the more vital that we prepare for the dawning of the Dayspring by speaking peace to our neighbours. All the more urgent that we get off the backsides so roundly suited for mere waiting, and embody the gospel that we preach, so that our light shines so as to make known God’s deeds among all the nations and our deeds proclaim that his name is exalted. All the more reason to liberate our lives from captivity to idle fancies, and with full throat sing praises to the Lord who has done great things. With Zephaniah and Isaiah, with Paul and John the Baptist, with all angels and saints and shepherds and even a few sorrowful snakes, “Shout aloud and sing for joy — for the great one in our midst, O Zion, is the Holy One of Israel!” Than this, there is no better good news ever, in all the world.