A Homily for Advent
Margaret D. McGee
We need someone to bring us the good Word. Someone with a new perspective, who can shine a light on the path ahead, and clear the way for new life.
We need someone to bring us the good Word because, again and again, we find ourselves entangled in a deadly existence. Picking our way through trivialities and energy-sucking tasks. Falling back into patterns we’d hoped to escape. And in frustration, losing the path to kindness. Seeing moments in which we might have been kind slip away. All the while longing for just one more chance at love, one more chance to give love, be loved in return.
If God really is love, and sin is whatever separates us from that Love, then a good part of ordinary life is thorny with sin.
It’s hard find the way out of the briar patch by ourselves, because it’s so dense and dark in there, and because we don’t clearly remember how we got entangled in the first place. We end up lost, anxiety-ridden, disappointed, and often confused. Speaking for myself, it isn’t simply that I can’t see the forest for the trees. (Of course I can’t – I’m in the middle of it.) It’s that, a lot of the time, I barely see the tree before I run into it and fall over.
I need someone outside my particular briar patch, a voice crying from the wilderness, to bring me the good Word. To assure me that, yes, there’s a different way of being, a way of being at peace, loving and in love, in a world outside of my entanglements, where I can be at home. And there’s a way to get there.
Our Gospel reading this morning begins at a specific time and place. It starts almost like a wire service that defines this particular briar patch by the political and religious powers of the day.
Dateline Palestine: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee …during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas …
… the word of God came — came not to the emperor or the governor or the high priests or any of the other muckety-mucks in their palaces and temples, but came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:1)
A way out of the briar patch.
To repent is to turn. It’s a turning away from sin—from all that separates me from God. A turning toward new life that is born out of the love of God. It’s repentance that prepares the way, clears the path, for the new life to take breath.
In order to make my escape, John tells me that I have to turn my back on the entangling briar patch, and in that motion, turn to face the Love that made me.
As long as I’m flailing around trying to beat back the underbrush, this is difficult to do. Before I can make my turn, I need to quiet down and come to some understanding of where I am and how I got here. I’m probably going to have to acknowledge that I did, in fact, arrive in my current state at least partially under my own steam.
Here in church, we call that confession. We’re going to do it together in just a little bit. During confession, we say out loud that we could do with some do-overs. Things done and left undone. And that we have not managed to do the two things that matter most, to follow the two commandments that are all about love.
We have not loved our God with our whole hearts and minds. We get distracted, and we just haven’t. If we had, we would not be so lost and confused. We would not be so afraid.
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. That is, with the love we long for ourselves.
I might vow (perhaps through gritted teeth) that Of course I love my neighbor; it’s my Christian duty. But is that the love I’d like to have in return? “Christian duty” love? Not really.
We have not loved our neighbors with the forgiving, understanding love that we long to have offered back to us. We haven’t loved them as if they were us. If we had, we would not be so divided.
We are sorry, truly sorry, and we repent. Humbly. That is, just as we are, warts and all. All we ask for is mercy, and forgiveness. Which we get. Along with all the love we need, when all we need is love.
Which brings me to another specific time and place, and to a very different set of voices that came out of the wilderness for me.
Dateline: Columbus, Ohio. In the third year of the presidency of John F. Kennedy and the first year of the presidency of Lyndon Baynes Johnson. (Those two don’t have anything to do with it – I just wanted to start my story the same way Luke started his.)
During the years 1963 and 1964, for various reasons, my family fell into an especially thick briar patch. We had moved to Columbus for a 2-year stint, so that my dad, a professional educator, could enroll in post-graduate studies in school administration at Ohio State. It was a career move, and in the long run, a good one.
In the short run, it meant uprooting his young family. I was 12 years old when we moved, my older sister was 14, and my little brother 8. Much less money in the household while Dad was in school. My mom had to get a job as a secretary at the college, which she hated, because she wanted to be at home for us we got home from school.
Also, we didn’t know it but Mom was sick at the time, with a thyroid condition that remained undiagnosed for a period of time. My Dad, almost never sick, was not always sympathetic to a wife who got tired all the time and was kind of depressed, when he was under a lot of pressure himself and needed her support.
I had trouble making friends at my new school. For the first and only time in my life I had trouble in school. My parents, with too much on their own plates, couldn’t help me. I felt lost, anxiety-ridden, disappointed, and confused.
So — thank God for the Beatles. Voices crying out from the wilderness. That is, from far away, and from outside the conventions of my particular briar patch at that time. Voices that lifted me up and carried me home.
Today, the Beatles are such music icons, it’s hard to remember what it was like when nobody had heard of them, and all men and boys had short haircuts. Then, suddenly everybody’d heard of them, and the length of male haircuts was a topic that carried a great deal of heat in public discourse.
America had ruled rock and roll for years. Then, suddenly we didn’t. The Beatles were voices from the wilderness, and their music magically transported me (and a lot of other kids) from my gray and lonely life to a joyful place, a thrilling place where, mysteriously, I was known and understood.
I bought fan magazines and taped pictures of the Beatles on the wall beside my bed. A Columbus radio station played an all-Beatles hour between 9 and 10 at night. I willingly retired at 9 with my transistor radio and listened to every song.
My parents were musical, more musical than I am. They played instruments and sang. We listened to albums of classic and popular music in my home. But the Beatles? They just didn’t get it. Especially my dad. Mom thought George was kinda cute. But when I spent all my allowance on my very first 45 record, the #1 hit “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” Dad said to me, incredulously, “You spend your money on that?”
I liked “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” because I liked all their songs. But it was actually the flip side of that little record that did it for me.
She was just 17, you know what I mean. And the way she looked was way beyond compare. How could I dance with another, when I saw her standing there?
Now I was just 13 when Paul and John sang She was just 17, you know what I mean. But yeah, I knew what they meant. They sang that song, and every song, to me. And as long as I was in their world, I was okay, and I was not alone.
Here’s the interesting thing. At the same time that the Beatles’ music was saving one lonely 13-year-old girl in Columbus, Ohio, it was also changing the trajectory of a whole generation of new musicians. You hear it in interviews and remembrances from the great singer-songwriters that followed after, who say that listening to the Beatles not only made them want to make music, but also set them free to make their own music.
By being uniquely themselves, the Beatles cleared a path for others to be uniquely themselves. They started out as voices from the wilderness and ended up as midwives for new life.
We need someone to bring us the good Word. Someone from outside, to give us a nudge, help us stop flailing around in our little briar patch, and turn, and see the clear way to new life.
The voice crying in the wilderness doesn’t have to come from far away. It could be a good friend with fresh perspective on the situation. But it’s almost never the voice of established authority, the ones who more often guided our way right into the briar patch.
And so, generation after generation, at our need, the voices come. From the prophet Malachi, who promises a refiner’s fire, to burn away the briar patch’s thorns so that we stand tall on a broad and open plain.
And from Paul, writing to the church in Philippi from prison (there’s a wilderness—from prison!), and hardly able to contain his joy, saying I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you…. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best …
And from that crazy man John the Baptist, who, believe it or not, was as popular in his day as the Beatles were in theirs. John who told the people that something good was coming, and that now, right now, was the time to turn, and look, and open their hearts to love.
— Margaret D. McGee
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The complete text of the lessons of the day can be found here on the Lectionary Page.