The Dialysis of Faith

12/8/96
Advent 2
Mk. 1:1-8

This period before Christmas can be an anxious and frustrating time. On the one hand there is expectation and anticipation, and on the other hand there is an element of dread and caution. I love getting presents, and I love giving presents. But I am never quite sure that I have gotten the right one for somebody. And I know that after I get a really neat present there will be a let down and the “big gift” will look smaller and smaller as the days go by.

It is really fun to go to my favorite shop or to the mall and wallow in the wonderful clothes of Abercombrie and Fitch, to look at my reflection in a piece of Stueben glass, or to listen to the melodic ping of my finger upon a Waterford goblet. The leather goods at Coach dazzle my senses, and their prices boggle my mind. All the while I am aware of the crush of credit card debt. Worse of all there are those little sanctimonious voices in the back of my head which whisper that Christmas is unself-conscious charity, simplicity and purity of heart. These are the voices which lead some people to give me a card which says, “Instead of buying you that red flannel shirt you have been hinting for all year, we have decided to make a contribution to the Lost Children of Central Peoria in your name.”

I love to party with my relatives and friends. Their presence gives me great joy. They are wonderful to be around ‹- for relatively short periods of time. Too often when they “ying,” I “yang!”

Moreover, although I had a good childhood, and was reared by loving parents, I sometimes get a mild case of pre-Christmas “blues.” Psychologists have identified this state of mind as a serious problem for some people. My case, of course, is never very serious or dramatic. I just want to stay in my room, curl up in a corner and go away.

Now perhaps some of the above sounds familiar to you. It is not meant simply to be amusing, but to describe our very human condition, which is often one of ambivalence. You and I are complicated creatures, and we have to live with dichotomies and ambiguities.

Our Anglican Church in her infinite wisdom presents us with the liturgical season of Advent. Whereas the Methodist Church when I was a boy presented Advent as a time of increasing joy and happiness climaxing in the incredibly beautiful drama of Christmas Day, our Anglican tradition presents Advent as a time of penitence and expectation. For us, the Christmas season is supposed to begin after Christmas. We are allowed only glimpses of the beauty of the Madonna and Child, the angels and the shepherds, the wise men and the star.

And theologically? Theologically we are reminded that history has a direction and is moving inexorably towards God’s destined end, as He works out His eternal will for His people in this thing called time. However, there is a cyclical component involved. For each year we come around to hear again the story of the coming of the Christ Child. Even though we know how the story is going to come out, we are to supposed to receive it as something fresh and new.

So how are you and I to greet and prepare for Christmas? I would suggest this: let the story of Christmas wash over you and through you. Let the story cleanse you of the poisons of fear, regret, doubt, and selfishness. Allow the Gospel to work its power in your heart and mind by listening to the great passages of our common faith. The fathers of the Church were indeed wise to combine repentance and expectation during the time of Advent. For in the telling of the Christmas story and in the celebration to come of that Christmas story, you and I can be cleansed and made ready to soldier on in the new secular and liturgical year. The Gospel of Christmas can renew us so that we can work to prepare the way for the Kingdom of God. When we are cleansed by the story of Christmas, we are moved by the Holy Spirit to a greater love of our neighbor and of our God.

Indeed, the prayer at the beginning of each Eucharist acknowledges this renewal. It reads: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” How can this happen? Partly by listening to the powerful words of the books of Isaiah and St. Mark. Now hear - feel - the agony of a defeated Israel, yearning for a Messiah, in the words of her prophet, Isaiah. Israel’s agony is an eternal representation of everyman and every society’s yearning for meaning and salvation in the midst of her constant pursuit of false gods, material gratification, control and dominance. Taste the bitter sense of man’s disappointment in achieving only a partial good or a partial success or partial happiness.

Like an over compensating spouse who feels that her mate is a disappointment, but of course the mate couldn’t help it, the spouse struggles ever desperately to do more and more, to control more and more, lest she fall into the oblivion of chaos ‹ so a society or nation can convulse, trying first one policy and then another, and even turn upon itself, only to injure the helpless and defenseless, as it seeks to ring satisfaction and happiness out of material and transient half-goods, ephemeral values and false messiahs.

Such was the plight of the people to whom Isaiah spoke. Hear in today’s lectionary reading Isaiah’s call to look to a God who has compassion and who promises salvation and a messiah. “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid….A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill 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….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…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 those that are with young.”

Incredibly powerful words. Again and again washing over the people, Israel. Words that are part of Israel’s vibrant faith. These are God’s words of hope, which run through the veins of the faith of the people cleansing and renewing them again and again and again. Like Israel, there is within you and me a yearning for such a messiah. There is a hunger for history to make sense ‹ the history of our world, the history of our nation, the history of our church, and the history of our own lives.

To a despairing people, to a disillusioned nation, to the confusion of individuals ‹- 300 years after the last of the prophets ‹ John the Baptist lurched onto the stage of history. Indeed, he lurches onto the stage of our own lives and cries, “Repent! Turn around and see God!” Turn from your tangled pursuit of happiness. Turn from your struggle to wring meaning out of the work-a-day values of your own lives. Let your self go. Give yourself up! Allow yourself to be washed ‹ made new ‹ symbolically cleansed, even as you are cleansed by repentance, from the contaminants of materialism, bogus goods, jealousy, resentment, envy, and disappointment.

Don’t you see? God has a plan for His people. God brings salvation, and it is to be found in His messiah. Hear the good news. Receive the Gospel. God is giving His people a gift ‹ not a reward. This priceless gift is the Good News of a Saviour. That Messiah will empower you with the Holy Spirit. God’s Saviour will bear your fears and hopes, your doubts and dreams, your dashed expectations and your broken efforts. Through the gift of His Messiah, and through the Gospel message of that gift, you will receive the Holy Spirit. That Spirit, like fire, will cleanse His people, and in effect baptize those who turn and receive the Messiah.

So it is that St. Mark tells us that the promise of John the Baptist is the promise of the Gospel. It is at once grounded in history and at the same time is timeless and eternal. It is true for you and me today, just as it was true 2,000 years ago. Hear the promise of God as it is found in the Scriptures and in the Sacaraments. In that assurance, you and I receive the life-giving power of the Gospel of His Messiah, His Son, Jesus Christ. Lift up your hearts! Amen.