[Sermon from Sunday, Dec. 4, 2011]
Here’s today’s quiz: What’s the liturgical color for Advent? Is it purple, or is it blue? You’ve probably noticed that we’re not making it easy for you to get the answer right, given the way the four clergy are dressed this morning, with some of us in one color and some in the other.
If you’ve been in the Episcopal Church a long time, or if you’ve come here from Roman Catholicism, you’ll know that the “traditional” color for Advent is purple, though it’s a tradition that was only standardized in the 1800s. Purple is associated with penitence, which is why it’s also the traditional color for Lent, our penitential season leading up to Easter. And traditionally, Advent too has had a penitential flavor. Last week’s Gospel reading was about preparing ourselves for Jesus to return in power and judgment at the end of the age. This morning’s Gospel features John the Baptist calling the people to turn away from their sins and be forgiven. Sounds like a penitential time to me.
But there’s also a tradition of using blue as the liturgical color during Advent, especially in England, Sweden, and Spain. Blue is the color of hope and expectation –- the color of life-giving waters and the sky we look toward as we imagine heaven. It’s also the color associated with the Virgin Mary, the bearer of divine life and hope for all people. The Gospel on the last Sunday of Advent is always the angel’s astonishing news that Mary will conceive and bear the Son of God himself. So, with Mary, we count the days in watchful expectation, awaiting the coming of the one who will redeem us from sin and bring us eternal life. Sounds pretty hopeful to me.
So, purple or blue? Penitence or hope? Apparently, it depends on which week of Advent you’re talking about. And this week, you can make a case for either one. It all depends on which reading we want to focus on and how we hear the prophet’s message.
In both the readings from Isaiah and Mark, we hear about a voice crying in the wilderness. But what’s that prophetic voice actually saying? It’s not as straightforward as it might seem. In the Gospel, the voice belongs to John the Baptist. There he is, looking to us like a crazy person; but his attire would have reminded the people of his day of the prophet Elijah, who was also described as a shaggy guy with a leather belt around his waist (2 Kings 1:8). From Mark’s perspective, John the Baptist is fulfilling Isaiah’s prophetic words, serving as the messenger sent ahead of the messiah, preparing his way, getting the people ready for the salvation to come.
To get ready, John the Baptist tells us, we have some spiritual housecleaning to do, sweeping the dirt and cobwebs from the corners of our hearts. John the crazy prophet is here to look us in the eye and ask the question none of us really wants to hear: What do you need to turn away from in order to turn toward God? Very specifically, what’s keeping you from living in God’s image and accomplishing God’s purposes in your day-to-day life? We may find the question a little rude and intrusive, but John the Baptist asks us anyway: How are we separating ourselves from God and thereby falling short in our work of loving God and the people around us? All this may not sound very comforting, but it does seem straightforward enough. Apparently Advent is about penitence and preparation for the second coming of Jesus. So I guess we ought to be wearing purple and spending our time getting right with God.
Well, that may be true; but it’s also not the whole story we heard this morning. If we look back at our first reading, from Isaiah, we find that Mark is taking some interpretive liberties with the text he’s quoting. In fact, he’s reinterpreting God’s word for his own generation, just as theologians and preachers have been doing for centuries. If we really look at the Isaiah reading, we find it isn’t talking about the coming of the messiah. Instead, it’s an announcement of very practical good news to the people of Israel, who at that moment in history were sitting in exile. And the news is, they’re about to go home.
This part of Isaiah was written around 545 BC, when the Jewish people had been taken into captivity by invading armies and had been living as exiles in Babylon for about 60 years. The first generation of exiles had already died there, and their children didn’t have much reason to hope for a return to the homeland they had only heard about in the stories of their parents and grandparents. But here comes the prophet, inspired by God to proclaim an unexpected hope: Get ready, for God is about to act decisively and bring us home, back to Israel and Judah. So in that sense, when Isaiah wrote, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” it had a very practical meaning: that God would build a road so the people could return across the desert wilderness that separated Babylon and their homeland. The prophet says God is about the flatten out the mountains and raise up the valleys, like the state department of transportation preparing a highway’s roadbed.
And what’s the message the prophet wants his people to take away from all this? Rejoice, for your time in exile is about to end. You’ve paid your penalty. Here’s your “get out of jail free” card. Wait with holy hope and expectation, for God is about to rock your world. And, the prophet tells his people, take your joy one step beyond hopeful expectation: Shout it from the rooftops, too. Isaiah says, “Get you up on 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!’” (Isaiah 40:9) Tell everybody you know the good news, that God is with us and soon will restore us. So, clearly, if we listen to the prophet Isaiah, the message of Advent is about hope and expectation.
Well, what do we do? Is it purple or blue? Penitence or expectation? And the answer is: Yes. Welcome to the Episcopal Church.
That may seem crazy, or at least like we can’t make up our minds. But I’d say this “both/and” approach to Advent is actually just what experience would teach us. We do need penitential self-examination to see where we’ve turned away from Jesus’ call. The reason John the Baptist feels like a Christmas party crasher is because he comes in and tells us the last thing we want to hear in the midst of our holiday revels: that we need to take stock and confess where we see that our lives are on fire. My guess is there’s not a soul here who could look in the mirror and say he or she doesn’t have anything to confess.
But we also need to live in the active hope and expectation that God saves us, even though we don’t exactly deserve it. When we open our eyes and our hearts, Jesus Christ enters decisively into our lives, and into the world around us, to deliver us from the exile of our own self-absorption. “See, the Lord God comes with might,” Isaiah says. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms.” (40:10,11) The mystery of Advent is that those who find themselves on the edge of redemption, those who think they know better than God how they should live (and that’s pretty much all of us) –- they have done their time in the wilderness, God says, and their penalty is paid (Isaiah 40:2).
So, the prophet says to us who are being freed, lift up your voice with strength, and tell this story of repentance and salvation. God calls us to repentance not just for our own benefit but for the benefit of the world around us, that others might get the point that reconciliation is God’s bottom line. This period leading up to Christmas is the perfect time for the world to hear the real message of the season: that God wants to bring everyone home. And the repentant are precisely the right messengers of that hope, because the repentant are those who have good news in their hearts to proclaim.
So this Advent, invite an exile home. Show someone that God is waiting for them with open arms, ready to gather them up in the divine embrace of reconciliation. Proclaim to someone that life as they know it isn’t as good as it gets.
There’s even an easy way to do it. As you leave this morning, take a yard sign from the narthex [advertising the Christmas Eve services], put it in your car, and plant it in your front yard. Invite the people who pass by your home to join you for Christmas Eve here at St. Andrew’s. Invite them to see that the holiday season is more than parties, and presents, and watching A Christmas Story ten times on TV –- and feeling alone. Invite them to turn in a different direction: toward the promise that hearts can be unburdened, that the slate can be wiped clean, and that the Shepherd longs to gather them in his arms. Plant a sign in your yard, and invite an exile to come home.