Outside, it was blazing hot, the bright sun shined without relent as it does in the intensity of the Texas summer. Inside, though, it was dark; inside that hospital room, in the aftermath of his death, it was dark. His death was unexpected and heavy; it was an accident, and no one was prepared. Perhaps no one was less prepared than his two adult daughters; I held them as they sobbed and chanted, “please, God, bring him back…please, God, bring him back, please God…please.” There is a darkness and shadow to death, and even though I was in that room as a chaplain at the hospital, the darkness of the shadow of death was heavy.
Even with this heaviness, I’m very comfortable with death and the pain of illness. I find it a sacred joy when I’m able to be present as someone traverses the thin space between this life and the next; there is darkness, of course, and the shadow of death is very real, but in those moments, I get to witness the deep and abiding truth that death is not the end. Salvation is real and death has been destroyed by Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. But, quite simply, this truth does not the negate the difficulty of sitting in the darkness of death, and it is a sacred time to get to sit with people in those moments.
The season of Advent is like this, I think. As Father Steve mentioned in his sermon last week, the world outside is shimmering and glittering and yet at least two Sundays in a row, your priests have reminded you of the darkness and that we are called to wait. Even if this year it isn’t a time in which you feel particularly covered by the shadows, Advent calls us to sit with those who wade through the heaviness and darkness of this lived reality.
Today, we heard read one of my favorite Canticles in our prayer book, pulled from Luke’s gospel. The Song of Zechariah, which we read in place of the Psalm today, is the parallel of song of Mary. This is one of the unique things about Luke’s gospel: things are presented in pairs; Mary sings, then Zechariah sings. Shortly following the song of Mary, or the Magnificat, where she sings a prayer over the coming of the Christ child, Zechariah follows with a song about the coming of the very same Christ and the role in which his son, John, will play in the embodied life of the Messiah. John is called, even before birth to prepare the way of the Lord, to give people knowledge of Christ’s salvation, and to call people into repentance, drawing them out of the painful shadow of death into the brilliant hope of the incarnate Christ.
My favorite line in the Song of Zechariah is, “to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” This prayer of Zechariah is such an enormous prayer to sing over the child; what an immense task to set before John. In Zechariah’s song, we get a prophecy of the coming of Christ, but we also get the picture of John’s role in Christ’s life. Here Zechariah prays that John might help prepare the way of the Lord, to give people knowledge of Christ’s salvation, and to call them into repentance. This is no small task; this proclamation is not about praying for an easy life for his child, but for a life that is worth living.
And just like Zechariah’s prophecy over John, John’s own proclamation that we hear the gospel today is not about making our lives easier, but to make them better. Every second Sunday in Advent, no matter which of the synoptic gospels gets the focus for that liturgical year, we get reintroduced to John; always a wild and straggly entrance in the wilderness, Luke begins to weave John’s narrative in the gospel not with a picture of an unkempt John wearing clothing of camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey like we get in Matthew and Mark, but with a long list of powerful political figures. While this is very typical of Luke’s style, it is also telling that Luke introduces John with a longer section of the prophecy from Isaiah, that John will prepare the way of the Lord and in calling people to repentance, all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
As we know, John plays an important role in the life of Jesus, which is why, as we await the Christ child we spend one whole Sunday in Advent thinking about and hearing about John, and it’s usually John yelling from the wilderness, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” or at least, that’s how I imagine it. Why do we hear this call for repentance on this second week of Advent?
Why do we hear this call for repentance on this second week of Advent? The Christ child hasn’t even been born yet and here we are reminded that our lives must be transformed if we choose to follow him.
I think we hear this call to repentance to remind us that we don’t get to keep the Christ in Christmas; we don’t get to hold that tiny baby in our arms and magnify the Holy Family and let that be the whole foundation of our faith. We follow a Christ who came and was incarnate in Mary, the very bearer of God, but we don’t stop there. The mysteries of the Christian faith cannot be divided, because while we wait for the birth of the Christ child, we also follow the Christ who lived, who was crucified, died, and was resurrected on the third day. So, yes, my sisters and brothers, repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
But hear this: John’s call to repentance isn’t a pointed attack at the places where you feel ashamed; this call to repentance is not meant to mock and humiliate you. This call to repentance might hit in a tender place, and the first response might be defensiveness, but this call to repentance is an invitation to a life that is freed from the burden of the shadow and darkness of sin. This shadow and darkness of sin is something that affects each and every one of us; it isn’t just you and it isn’t just me.
But thanks be to God, through Christ we come to know the salvation of God. Through a wild man shouting from the wilderness, whose father prayed that he might prepare the way of the Lord we hear the call to repentance so that we might know the salvation of God. Through John’s call, God is calling us to repent from the sins that weigh us down and to embrace the freedom of salvation.
This life can be so very heavy, particularly at this time of year; life can be so very heavy. What I’m asking of you is not that you leave this building with heads hung low, being keenly aware of the ways in which you fail to live up to your baptismal promises. What I’m asking of you, as you light your Advent wreath or continue your Christmas shopping, or whatever the rest of the day holds, is that you rest in the knowledge that God’s salvation is bigger than our sins. Nothing is beyond redemption. Nothing is beyond redemption, but we must repent just as John calls us to do as we follow Christ. Heed John’s call and repent, for indeed the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and as you do, embrace the freedom and grace found in salvation.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on Advent 2, Year C, Canticle 16 and Luke 3:1-6 on December 9, 2018.