Sunday, December 10, 2006

Advent 2C

Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Moving three times in the past six years has given me so many opportunities to take a good look all around myself and not have any idea where I am. We moved most recently, of course, from here to Jackson, where my internal compass is still spinning on roads that only pretend to go north-south or east-west (they curve so gradually that you have no idea you’re actually going at a right angle to the direction you think you’re going), and where the geography of city and suburbs baffles me. My husband works in Brandon, east of where we live, but when we go south from our house to find the road that pretends to go east, we have to drive through Ridgeland, which is north of us.

Moving to Meridian from New York City, from one grid to another, wasn’t as easy as I expected. In New York, 10th Avenue was as far west as you could get before hitting the West Side Highway and the Hudson River, which made working on 23rd Avenue in Meridian, well….that would have been in Jersey, I guess! And whereas in New York the grid system starts to break down south of 14th Street, where streets mysteriously change names, or change directions, or dead end only to reappear again several blocks away, in Meridian, that happens north of 14th Street.

Moving to New York City wasn’t as hard as I expected. If you can count backwards and forwards, you can pretty much get around . I can still picture the little wallet sized subway map I carried with me, with its tiny grid of city streets and avenues that was like graph paper on which brightly colored lines indicated the trains that always rumbled underfoot, and points indicated all the stops. Underground, though, there’s no grid – it’s a tangled maze of tunnels instead – but color-coded signs overhead and on the sides of the trains tell you everything you need to know. Even so, you're sometimes just going on faith when the sign says the number one train is that way, and that way is a tunnel that slopes downhill until its ceiling obscures the end from sight.

As the train approaches your stop, you know that somewhere above you is your destination. Up there is natural light, fresh air (well, fresher than subway air), and sounds other than the rattle of subway cars and the screech of metal-on-metal brakes. Getting up there, though, isn’t just a matter of climbing the stairs. You have to climb the right stairs – there’s usually more than one way out, each leading to a different corner of the intersection of street and avenue. And at the top, you might find yourself facing the street or the avenue or the sidewalk or a building. I never could get my bearings. Many times I set off down the block only to find at the next intersection that I should have gone the other way.

What’s missing from subway maps is the friendly little star they put on maps at the entrance to the mall, the one saying, “You are here.” You put one finger on that star, and another finger on the color-coded block that is your destination in the mall, and then you trace the route from here to there. I always have to check the map at Northpark Mall with its double layer of stores, and in a hurry (especially during this season!) I locate the one I want – second floor, two down from Belk’s. But when I look up, I realize I don’t have my bearings. Am I even anywhere near Belk’s? Many times I set off down the mall only to find at the end that I should have walked the other way. I have to go back and look for the little star. When I know where I am, suddenly the map is readable. A path is prepared. A way is made in the wilderness.

“You are here.” The prophet Baruch writes to Jerusalem, fixing a friendly star six centuries before the birth of Jesus, when the Babylonians seized the Holy City and burned it, destroying the Temple and scattering the people of God, taking many of them into exile in Babylon. Jerusalem had lost her bearings, and her people their hope of ever finding their way home. You are here, in this time, in this place, but look, Baruch writes: you are also here, and he fixes a star on God. Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One. Suddenly the map was readable. A path was prepared. A way was made in the wilderness, traced by God, lighted by God’s glory, and not for the first time God led the way from here to there.

Once before, in the Exodus, God had led the people through what seemed an impassable wilderness from Egypt, a land where they had no bearings, to a land of promise where that Holy City would eventually be built. These journeys are how the people of Israel and the nations that watched them go would come to know God as One who saves, who offers hope, who is infinitely patient along way; as One who loves deeply and irrevocably, who is present in the story and on the way; indeed, as One who makes the way and who is the way.

“You are here.” Paul writes to believers, fixing a star some few decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus, when the church in Philippi was growing and maturing as a community of faith in the midst of some pretty rough terrain – suspicion, hostility, persecution, and internal division. You are here in this time, in this place. Paul rejoices, though, that the deep Love in which they were held by God, and in which the Philippians held one another - that Love would trace their journey and level their way.

Luke’s gospel is full of friendly stars – full of time times and places – and he fixes a very important one in the reading we hear on this second Sunday in Advent. “You are here.” In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when all these other folks were governors and rulers and high priests, in the region around the Jordan River, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah. This is a real story, Luke is telling us. A real story that happened at this real moment in history, when these real people lived, in this real part of the world. But look, Luke says as he reads in the very next breath from the poetry of the prophet Isaiah, you are also here in a real story about the One who saves. You are here, waiting in darkness, like the Israelites in Babylon to whom Baruch and Isaiah were writing, waiting for the day of the Lord when God will prepare a way and the salvation of God will be seen by all.

Luke portrays John the Baptist as the last in a long line of prophets, like Isaiah and Baruch and so many others who had spoken God’s word when the covenant community lost their bearings by taking off in the wrong direction (as they so often we so often do) or by simply finding themselves far from home. Look for the star, John and all the prophets urged the people. Look for God. From wherever you’ve been wandering on your own, no doubt following some bright light the world has flashed your way (it will burn out, you know, at the top of some peak or the bottom of some valley), from wherever you’ve been wandering, return to God and God will shine on you and make a way for you through the wilderness and the darkness.

In the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, in the region around the Jordan, in the darkness with those waiting for a savior to come, the history of the world and the history of salvation were deeply and irrevocably joined in Jesus Christ, Love come down, Emmanuel – God-with-us. Later in this chapter of Luke’s gospel, just after Jesus is baptized by John, Jesus gets his bearings: the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and a voice from heaven says, you are my beloved Son. But by the power of the same Holy Spirit, in a story we’ll be hearing soon enough, the One who Saves was born of a woman, and as the voice from heaven still rings in our ears, Luke writes that Jesus was son of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, tracing the line back through every human generation, making every stop until he reaches Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.

And so, everyone who is part of history – everyone, back through the first generation, and up through ours, and in every generation to come – everyone who is part of the history of the world is also part of the story of salvation. In Jesus, God was here at a stop in Jerusalem, in Philippi, in the region around the Jordan, in Mississippi…. In Jesus, God walked with all humanity through all the valleys and hills and gorges and dark places of life. And nowhere is that more evident than in the gospel of Luke, in which Jesus personally brings the good news of God’s love to a wide variety of people: to sinners and tax collectors, to Jews and Gentiles, to women, to the marginalized, the oppressed, and the poor, to the sick and the hungry...and also to governors and rulers and high priests. All flesh shall see the salvation of God.

On the second Sunday in Advent in the year 2006, in the region of East Mississippi, in the darkness with those waiting for a savior to come, the word of God proclaimed by John comes to us: Prepare the way of the Lord! The Reverend John Pridemore writes, “Originally, the promise was that God would clear the road for the returning exiles. But the road [this gospel] looks down is the road to glory. The stumbling blocks on that path, symbolized by what prevents earth-bound travelers getting where they want to go – impassable mountains, impenetrable valleys, and the like…” …stumbling blocks like taped-off stairwells in the subway, turnstiles that won’t turn, seeing from one side of the tracks that you should be waiting on the other…stumbling blocks like racism, sexism, classism, corruption, violence, poverty, and prejudice…stumbling blocks like pride, despair, fear, self-doubt, greed… “stumbling blocks on that path…will all be leveled,” Pridemore continues. “Then, at the last, ‘all flesh shall see God’s salvation.’ This is Luke’s hope, the Advent hope, and the Christian hope. It is grounded in the universal of the love of God, and it is the keynote of the gospel.”

The season of Advent is a time for us to look all around in our life and faith. It is a time to discern where we’ve been going, where we’ve been wandering, and where we are. What stumbling blocks stand between us and the coming of Christ, what impassable mountains and impenetrable valleys must be leveled? Where is our wilderness? Where is our darkness? Advent is a time for us to get our bearings, to step back and look at the map, and trace the journey from where we are to Christmas day. Paul tells us the way is traced by Love, and John the Baptist will share his suggestions next week. When we finally do reach that destination, where a real star shines down on a stable in which a mother holds her newborn son in her arms and in her heart, then we will see the salvation of God, who says to all the whole world, “You are always here.” Amen.

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