Comfort, O comfort my people . . . Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid. (Isaiah 40:1-2)
Somehow this morning I’ d rather be singing Joy to the World than working through our Lectionary passages that talk about wilderness, exiled peoples, sin and salvation and a desert, whether the path is straight or crooked.
Last night at 7:30 p.m. I was singing Rocking around the Christmas Tree, and other similar seasonal tunes. Buff and I were with a hundred plus other St. Jamesers in a fantastic home on Cary Street Road. Everyone looked beautiful or handsome, the food was scrumptious, the wine was flowing, conversations were upbeat. It was a celebration to support the choir who’ s going to Canterbury and Westminster Abbey in England this coming summer. It was Buff’ s and my first Christmas party this season and it was great fun.
I couldn’ t believe I was going home to the sermon I had prepared for this morning. It wasn’ t going to work and that fact hit me shortly after the music stopped.
And for a moment, a long moment, I entertained the heretical thought: bag the Lectionary!
But I can’ t. Because I’ ve lived too long and I’ ve seen too much. And I know that there is an underside to Christmas that the Lectionary passages, explicitly or implicitly, refer to.
When the velvet, the lace, the sparkly sweaters, the Christmas ties, all the party finery are laid aside; when the wine wears off; when the singing is only a memory it’ s then we are left with ourselves, unadorned. It’ s then we face the great question of Eden which is also the great question of Advent. Where are you?’
In that stark and naked moment we discover whether we are holding hands with each other walking in the quiet of the evening with our God or, whether we are some where East of Eden, separated from our Creator, alienated from each other, but yearning to return.
Wilderness is at the underside of Christmas. Our Advent passages remind us that, despite the fact there are only 21 days left to Christmas morning, we have some territory to cover before we arrive at the manger.
The Christmas story is a story of salvation. Of a God who loves us so much he sends his only Son into the world to live among us and then die for us. Christ’ s death closes the immense gap that we in our humanness have caused between us and God. And the only way we can even start to comprehend the magnitude of this gift is to recognize just how great the gap is that we have caused by our choices that have led us astray and away from God.
Alienation and exile are painful. Counselors and therapists tell us that the time from Thanksgiving through New Year’ s is their busiest time. It’ s feelings of alienation, loneliness, rage, depression, anxiety, despair, stress that cause people to seek their help at this time of year.
Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy, togetherness, love, light, laughter, beautiful gifts, home fires and hearts aglow. But reality too often doesn’ t match desire and the challenge of healing old but still festering wounds and of dealing with the pain and emptiness of lost hope and abandoned dreams cannot be handled alone.
Saint Paul tells us that nothing can separate us from the love of God. While this is a profoundly comforting thought, experience has shown me that there is one thing that can separate me from God’ s love and that is myself. Some of the choices I make, some of the things I put between myself and God, some of my actions when I turn my back on God and ignore what God is offering me, things I have done, things I have left undone this is what separates me from God. I call this sin.
And judgment is the consequence of my sin. God doesn’ t rain judgment down on me, I bring it on myself. Sin breaks that which connects me with God and others. And the result is separation from God, separation from myself and separation from others. So my life becomes alienated from and incongruent with the image of God planted deep within me at creation. That alienation is painful. I am then, like the Israelites in Babylon, in exile, uprooted and despairing of ever again returning to and living in the Promised Land.
But Divine love is powerful. As sure as I am standing here I believe it was the power of that love that lifted the eyes of the prodigal son towards the father, towards homecoming, towards salvation. And it was the power of that love that called me onto the path of God’ s son, Jesus Christ, and into new life.
The prodigal son and I are not alone. God’ s love pulls anyone in who finally gives up and gives in to that love.
I remember one of the most profound images that Anne Lamott shared in her book Traveling Mercies. She describes a night in 1984 what another author might call a dark night of the soul. She was ill and trying to get through it with the help of old friends, dope and booze. In her own words:
I got in bed, shaky and sad and too wild to have another drink or take a sleeping pill. I had a cigarette and turned off the light. After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of something with me, hunkered down in the corner. . . . The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there of course, there wasn’ t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.
I felt (Jesus) just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’ t help because that’ s not what I was seeing him with. (Lamott, p. 49-50)
She goes on, describing how a week later she goes to church, so hung over she couldn’ t stand up for the songs. She stays for the sermon which she thought was ridiculous, but then at the end of the service
the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling and it washed over me. (Lamott p. 50)
She rushed home after church and, at some point that afternoon, hung her head said I quit. She writes, I took a long deep breath and said out loud, All right. You can come in.’ This, she says, was her moment of conversion.
Our liturgy in the Episcopal Church, in our Book of Common Prayer, provides us an opportunity to seek forgiveness for our sins in the Confession we say together before Communion. It’ s a chance to let God unburden us, to remove everything that we have built up that separates us from Him and us from others. How intentional are we when we say the Confession? Do we speak from the heart and really open to the power of God’ s incredible grace through this prayer?
The Book of Common Prayer also offers the rite known as Reconciliation of a Penitent, (BCP p. 447) a brief but powerful service in which we can name our sins before God, seek the strength to amend our lives and then receive absolution and blessing. It’ s a rite of restoration and renewal. The penitent is present; the priest is present; the Holy Spirit is present.
Lauren Winner in her recently published book Girl Meets God speaks of the power of confession. Lauren, a young woman who converts from being an Orthodox Jew to being a Christian and, specifically, an Episcopalian seeks out an Episcopal priest to hear her confession. She calls him, makes an appointment. He suggests that she might want to jot some things down, make a list to bring with her. She spends the next three days praying, as she describes it, with my eyes open and a legal pad in hand, asking God to call to mind all the sins I needed to repent.
She and God were apparently very thorough. She appears at Father Peter’ s office on a Tuesday afternoon clutching six long legal pages, yellow paper made blue on both sides with ink. (Winner, p. 208)
Father Peter in purple stole and Lauren clutching her list kneel at the altar in the deserted sanctuary of the church. Lauren manages to make it through the entire list, both back and front of all six pages. And then at the end of the ceremony after Lauran had answered the question Will you turn again to Christ as your Lord with I will, Father Peter pronounced absolution, saying The Lord has put away all your sins.
Lauren gets up to leave, but the priest stops her. Lauren describes what happens next:
Father Peter said, One more thing. I’ d like to have your lists.’ He held out his hand. I clutched my yellow sheets. I had thought it might be nice to keep a record of these sins. And why did he want them anyway: did he want to read them, checking up on me to see if I had said everything I was supposed to say? Father Peter smiled, and, reluctantly, I handed over my sins, and then I watched as (he) ripped my six sheets into shreds. (Winner, p. 211)
Advent is list-making time. I don’ t mean the kind of lists we sang about as children as Santa waggled his finger and winked: I’ m making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’ s naughty or nice.
What I’ m talking about is the kind of lists that come from searching our hearts and souls, taking out big pad of paper, real or imaginary, listing everything we’ ve done that might fall within the category sin. Taking a fearless and honest inventory of our lives, being willing to amend our lives and turn them over to God. And then waiting, with hearts open, yearning to be cleansed. Waiting for Christmas morning and the One who comes to take those pages from us and rip them to shreds.
Fall on your knees. Hear the angel voices. Christ is coming.