(sermon 12/6/20 – Second Sunday of Advent)
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
This past Tuesday was the 65th anniversary of Rosa Parks being arrested on a Montgomery Alabama city bus. Maybe many of you know the fact of that event, but I’m embarrassed to say that it was only a few years ago that I learned what really happened. I’d always thought that when Ms. Parks got on the bus, she sat in the “Whites Only” section and refused to move to what they called the “Colored Section.” But what really happened was that the busses were equipped with a moveable signboard, attached to the backs of the seats, that separated the two sections; and if more whites got on the bus than would fit in front of the divider, the driver would move the sign back further, and any blacks that had been seated in front of that new location had to give up their seats to the whites. And if there weren’t any more seats for them behind that new demarcation point, they had to get off the bus. So on that day, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks got on the bus and sat down in the “Colored Section,” but when more whites boarded the bus later and the driver moved the separator behind her and told her she’d have to give up her seat, she refused. And when she did, she became an icon in American history, and the incident is often considered a historical milestone, the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Of course, in addition to the exact details of the event sometimes being missed, it’s also often missed that Ms. Parks wasn’t the first black woman to be arrested this way, or who would contest the law in court. In March of that same year, Claudette Colvin was arrested for the same thing, and three years before her, in 1952, Sarah K. Evans was also arrested She sued the Interstate Commerce Commission and won her case in November 1955, a month before Parks was arrested, even though that ruling still wouldn’t be enforced until 1961.
History, and social movements, are like that. A person will come on the scene, or something will happen, that even though the same thing had happened before, for some reason this became “The One” – the one person, the one incident, that just because of the timing, the context, the alignment of the planets, whatever, this one would be the one that people would remember, that would mobilize people, begin a movement, or that would become a catalyst for some kind of change.
People point to the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s West Village in 1969 in a similar way, often calling it the beginning of the Gay Rights Movement – even though it certainly wasn’t the first event of its kind, either. There had been the uprisings and protests over police abuses of gay people that had occurred at the Black Kat Tavern in Los Angeles in 1967, and at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco in 1966; and gay rights pioneers Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings were organizing protests in Washington DC and Philadelphia in 1965. In fact, both the black civil rights movement and the gay cilvil rights movements both went much further back than Rosa Parks or Stonewall, but just due to circumstances, not least of which being the way our Western human brains think of history, all the other people or events before them tend to become respected but secondary, and often even forgotten predecessors to the main historical milestones.
At this point, you might wonder what all that has to do with the Second Sunday in Advent. Well, I think that John the Baptizer, who we hear about in today’s Gospel reading, can often be seen in a similar way to the historical forerunners of Rosa Parks and of Stonewall – that he was an important predecessor, but ultimately, not the main event in the story. I imagine that those civil rights pioneers could have felt – in fact, some of them have even said so – a bit slighted by history, and upset that their contributions to their movements, to history, weren’t remembered in a more prominent way. And I’ve sometimes wondered if John the Baptizer may have had some of that same feeling. I mean, he admitted that the one to follow after him was greater than himself, but knowing up front that you’re second fiddle really doesn’t take the sting away from that reality; if anything, it can sometimes make it even worse. And I’ve wondered if living in that recognition is what makes our general perception of John that he’s got a bit of a chip on his shoulder. I mean, the details we have of him in the gospels certain paint that picture of him.
And I get that, at least partly, because John’s message of repentance, and fear of the coming of the kingdom of God, and the impending arrival of a messiah who was gong to set all wrongs right, would certainly have been a sobering message to the people who were oppressing or exploiting or mistreating others. But by the same token, John’s words had to have been a message of hope, good news, for many others – the ones who were suffering. For them, John’s words had to truly be the forerunner, the precursor, actually the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as Mark actually calls it in verse one of the gospel. So while there’s definitely the negative side to John – and to be sure, you can’t get away with calling people a “brood of vipers” as he did without people thinking you have a negative side, or without people thinking you’re harsh – there’s also great comfort in his words, too, that doesn’t get uch emphasis in the gospels – words of comfort to people who have little or no comfort. It’s a message of peace to people who have little or no peace. It’s exactly the same kind of proclamation of comfort that we hear in today’s Isaiah text, of God calling out, “Comfort, O comfort my people.”
The Rosa Parks incident needed those precursor people and events to lay the groundwork that made possible all the advances that sprung out of her arrest. The Stonewall uprising needed all the ones that came before it, to do the same. And Jesus needed John the Baptizer’s efforts to similarly lay the groundwork that made people’s hearts and minds ready for God’s good news that he would ultimately proclaim.
There are many times in our own lives – most times, actually – when we or the things that we do, aren’t “The One,” they aren’t some big event in history. It isn’t likely that any of us will ever have a book written or a movie made about us, and what great things we’ve accomplished. And yet, in a way every bit as real and vital as those other forerunners, what we do means everything – written not in books or screenplays, but in the hearts of the people whose lives we touch. Some days it may not seem like any big deal, like you’re certainly not changing the world, but I promise you, you are. Every time you do some small thing, every time you offer some small act of kindness, provide some small comfort, extend some small hope, you have heard God’s call spoken by John the Baptizer and by Isaiah. Every time you’ve done so, you have changed the world. It doesn’t really need to be the forerunner of something else that will change the world in a big way; it’s already changed the world for good. And who knows? Maybe some small act of comfort, peace, kindness you help to cause in someone else’s life will actually lead to something else – like throwing a stone in a pond, maybe the ripple effects of what comfort you offer to someone will actually emanate outward and lead to some big historical event. It’s certainly possible. In fact, I think it’s almost guaranteed to; we just may never see or know what that big thing will ultimately be. But whether it does or doesn’t, know that you will have already changed the world for the better in the life of at least one person, and probably more. You will already have carried the message of peace, and hope, and comfort proclaimed by Isaiah, the one calling out to the people in captivity; by John, the one calling out in the wilderness; and Jesus the one born in Bethlehem. You will have made that message real in the life of others. And that’s the greatest thing that anyone can do, the greatest gift that anyone can give.