Advent 2: The Beginning is Near

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Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

You all know how much I like to mine commercials for funny little pieces of wisdom.

There’s a couple of DirectTV commercials that’ve been airing — a lot — recently that both go something like this:

A voiceover tells us the virtues of DirectTV over cable

and then says, “But some people still like cable.”

“Just like,” we are told, “how some people like banging their head on a low ceiling.” We’re then treated to a guy who at first accidentally bangs his head on a low beam in his attic, then repeatedly and joyfully repeats the process.

Other terrible things people enjoy include, as the voiceover lists them off:

“Drinking spoiled milk.”
A woman chugs presumably spoiled milk while saying “Mmmmm” and giving a victory fist pump.

“Camping in poison ivy.”
A camper stretches as he rises happily from his bed of botanic suffering.

“Getting a paper cut.”
A woman laughs as she cuts herself on an envelope.

And, my favorite: “having their arm trapped in a vending machine.”
A man with his arm stuck in the door lets out an enthusiastic-but-pained “Wooo!”

“… but for everyone else, there’s DirectTV.”

Of course, the idea is that everyone should give up cable and get DirectTV because it’s a horrible and painful decision not to. Some people like suffering, but the voiceover concludes: 

“For everyone else, there’s DirectTV.” (1)
As with many commercials, the thing was played so many times that it got me thinking philosophically in the middle of football games as I enjoy my beer & snacks and wait for the game to come back on.

Recently, I thought, “Well if that isn’t religion in a nutshell.”

For some reason, humans like making religion difficult.

Otherwise, what’s up with people who hit themselves with whips?

“Wooo!”

So here we are, with that in mind, in the second Sunday of Advent.

Mark begins his Gospel and today’s Gospel passage like so:

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”

And the text flies immediately into John the Baptizer appearing in the wilderness, preaching repentance of sins, telling the folks to abandon their evil ways and get right with God or else.

Then the 2 Peter text comes at us with a call to live a holy life because God is coming to burn up everything with fire.

There isn’t currently an uncensored version of this sermon so I’ll just say this:

Advent doesn’t mess around.

It’s really no wonder that some people view Christianity, as well as a few other religions, as being all about scrubbing our lives clean — by any means necessary — of anything that would corrupt us so that God will not destroy us. God, in this version of Advent, is an angry parent who has gotten a call from the cops that you’re throwing a party while they’re away. And when Dad gets home, there’s gonna be hell to pay — this time, literally.

A common knee-jerk reaction to that, obviously, is to say that if God is love, not wrath, that God is forgiving and understanding.

Yes. And.

What about the ways that we hurt each other? If God just writes everything off, that also must include genocide, atrocities, child abuse — and is that justice? How could a good God allow all these things?

Besides that, repentance has a good and necessary place in our lives, we just usually call repentance by another name: saying sorry. The person never says sorry — who never feels remorse, or who in church language, is never repentant — is a gigantic jerk that no one wants at their Christmas party.

I read an article this week in the Washington Post that was posted by the bishop who ordained me. Bishop Gordy is himself a Southerner, and the article was called “Not My Alabama.” It was in reference to the news coming out of Alabama, not just in the past few months, but in the last century, and the ways that the rest of the nation looks down its nose at Alabama only — and this is key — because it allows the rest of the nation to use Alabama as a scapegoat.

He writes, “if Alabama makes us uncomfortable, it is perhaps because our own foibles are writ a little larger there, magnified that we may see ourselves for who we are and what we are becoming. Alabama hosts rank partisanship and evangelical fervor (both religious and political) that contravenes the Christian spirit. It has demagoguery and scapegoating, the demonizing of fellow citizens, zealotry, suspicion and tribalism — but in none of this is [Alabama] alone. In Alabama it just seems to play out on a wider screen. It is the mirror we shun — not just a state but a state of mind. We hold it at arm’s length because we cannot face the truth about ourselves.”

In other words, Alabama is host to the same issues that play out everywhere else. Alabama is also my home: a place of hospitality and welcome and sweet tea and good-natured people of every race with a wide variety of political views who have one thing in common as Alabamians: they will not let you leave their house hungry.

The article concludes thus: “In each of us, there is a bit of Alabama, the shameful and the noble, warring for dominance.” (2)

Alabamians know this because history rightly will not let us forget this war for dominance within our state and within ourselves.

When my friends with rosier political views tell me that they do not believe in sin, I usually respond, confused: “The world is messed up, though.”

The world is clearly not as it should be. Things are broken. People are capable of incredible good, but we are also capable of incredible cruelty, division, oppression, abuse. Inside all of us there is “the shameful and the noble, warring for dominance.”

Given this reality, we have two choices.

One of them is fundamentalism: that we know what is sinful and what is righteous and we need to impose this harshly on ourselves and on everyone else. We often forget, because fundamentalists are so far outside the fray and because they kill people, that fundamentalism has understandable motivations. If we can be sure that we know what God wants and that God will be angry that we don’t do it, we better act fast, because God is coming and boy does he look mad. The stakes are high.

We can consider that Scripture and our tradition also speak of mercy as strongly as they speak of justice. And, as I say all the time, that God is the main character in the Gospel story, not us and our achievements.

The problem with fundamentalism is that for all its talk of salvation, it’s the people and their efforts who are actually doing the saving. It leaves no room for God to come and save. It leaves no room for grace.

The Bible, and most of Christian thought, however, do.

“Comfort, comfort, my people!” God cries out during our Isaiah passage for today. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low… the people will see it together.”

Christian theologian Fredrick Buechner describes grace this way:

“AFTER CENTURIES OF handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody’s much interested any more. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left. 

Grace is something you can never [acquire] but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. 

A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace.

Have you ever tried to love somebody? 

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.” (3)

Grace.

Grace is how we can believe that despite what we see all over the place, maybe, just maybe, the end is not near but the beginning. That the world is beyond human repair but maybe there’s a sliver of a hope that it’s not just us working on it.

Grace is Advent.

And those slivers of hope, those little glimpses of the grace of God, show up everywhere from the nightly news to your grandkids’ smiles to the kindness of a stranger. Or maybe today is your day to be the kind stranger because by doing so, you can give someone else hope that maybe kindness isn’t dead — that maybe, just maybe, despite all this mess, something is about to happen: the beginning is near.

Indeed, some people still like cable, but apparently,

“… for everyone else, there’s DirectTV.”

Just like some people like fundamentalism and find comfort in its harsh rules and harsh punishments and anxieties and violence, and some people like cheap grace and not thinking too hard about things that don’t make them feel good, and some people like throwing their hands up in exasperation because everything on the news makes them depressed.
…….Woo!

But for everyone else — for everyone — there’s Advent. Amen.

1. You can watch the commercial here.
2. You can read the whole Post article here.
3. Frederick Buechner is an 
theologian, author, and ordained Presbyterian pastor. This quote is from Wishful Thinking, published in 1973.

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