The Work of Advent

From Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8

Not long ago, Jeanne, Clivie, and I spent some time at Lake Tahoe—or Lake Taco, as Clivie calls it.  We spent quite a bit of time walking and soaking in the beauty, and letting Clivie lead the way on hiking trails.  One hike we chose was essentially straight up and had lots of steps.  We thought, we’d just go until Clivie got tired; then we’d just come back down. . . .  But he thrived on that trail.  He was delighted.  He didn’t mind the steep climb.  And he loved leading the way.  We finished the whole trail.

And I thought of that trail when I read our scriptures for this morning:
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. . . .
“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. . . .’”     This is the work of Advent. 
Contrary to cultural messages that are decked out all around us, the work of this season is not decorating our homes, lighting the Christmas tree, buying gifts, preparing rich foods.  These things might be fun and special to us, but this is not the work of the Advent Season leading up to Christmas.  The work of Advent is more comparable to the work of the Global Holiday Faire—making sure people receive a living wage for their work, valuing people’s labor, investing in the humanity of others. 

The work of Advent is lifting up every valley, bringing every mountain low, leveling out the uneven ground, making the rough places plain.  The work of Advent is to prepare a way for our God to enter our lives and our world.  The work of Advent is about opening the door for justice.
When I watched Clivie climbing up that mountain with such ease and delight, I thought about another verse from the prophet Isaiah: 

“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb.  The leopard shall lie down with the young goat.  The calf and the young lion and the fatling together.  And a little child shall lead them.” 
There are many ways Clivie can lead me and teach us, and those lessons are important for us to think about.  His tiger and his cow always play, eat, and sleep together.  But there are also important ways we must teach him and guide him in becoming a compassionate, peaceful, justice-loving child of God.  And these lessons are the same lessons we all must internalize and own.  Because these are the lessons of Advent. 
What lessons do we teach my tow-headed, blue-eyed, beautiful, wide-open, impressionable, vulnerable, innately loving, white little boy about privilege and race and justice and hope for all people? 
How can we possible explain to any young person today why people like Michael Brown and Eric Garner are killed with no one having to bear responsibility for it?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, [but] when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”
The work of Advent is about opening the door for justice—unblocking the dams that obstruct social progress and God’s grace.  And justice is not the same as equality, as the cartoon shows.  Justice balances the playing field in a way that does not privilege one at the expense of another.  But as things stand today in our culture and in our world, there is no balanced playing field.  There is a criminal justice system powered on socio-economic disparities that disproportionately convict and penalize people of color.  There is a political system that overwhelmingly favors the interests of the wealthy over the poor.  And there are innumerable financial and cooperate institutions that focus on people primarily as instruments for profit rather than as worthwhile human beings. 

Where is the justice in that? 
Our systems and institutions are infected with the virus of racism and prejudice that work to eliminate those deemed undesirable and disagreeable.  Yet, personal, institutional, and systemic racism is a condition we find extremely difficult to admit we suffer from.  But denial never constitutes an absence of the disease.  We are all implicated in this situation.  And we all have a role to play in addressing it.  Ignoring it does not make it go away. 
And spiritually, we cannot afford even one more senseless death of an unarmed person of color.  Allowing this behavior—explaining it away—excusing this killing diminishes us; it harms us spiritually; it paralyzes part of our souls.  Do you remember, only 2 weeks ago we read Jesus saying, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  Jesus emphatically embodies the marginalized and oppressed in our society.  Can you see Jesus—can you see God—in the people you encounter on the street and as you go about your days?  This is part of the work and the challenge of Advent. . . .
You see, Advent is not all about warm-fuzzy, snuggle up by the fire, wait for baby Jesus by the Christmas tree-type feelings. . . .  Advent is work.  And it’s our work.  Jesus is not just going to come, wave his hand, and make everything right.  So much of that is our work.  Advent is our work. “Prepare the way of the Lord,  make his paths straight. . . .”  We don’t have time to sit around.  Justice is pressing, and it’s our work.  It’s not just the work of the one who is coming.  We have to prepare the way.
This means that the church must work to shape a different public conversation about race in our communities—grounded deeply in who we are and what we believe. 
If we believe that each and every human being is created in the image of God, how does that shape and change the conversation?  How might that affect the ways we demand justice in our communities?

Frederick Douglass once said, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them—neither persons nor property will be safe.”

How can we let this be our reality?  How can we sidestep the work of justice?  Let us break that dam and trust that justice can roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. . . .  Let us work diligently, constructively, faithfully for justice in our own neighborhoods and communities.  Let us find ways to make a real difference in people’s lives, even when we aren’t quite sure where to start or how to proceed.  This, too, is the work of Advent.

The poet Wendell Berry puts it this way:

     It may be that when we no longer know what to do

     we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go

      we have come to our real journey.

     The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

     The impeded stream is the one that sings.
The mountains may be really high and the valley really low—and really, how are we going to level them out?  How are we going to prepare this level path?  The good news is that we are not alone.  We don’t have to do this work alone.  The work of Advent is community work.  We are here—part of this community—committed to the Mighty God who comes in the form of a vulnerable baby.  We all have a role to play, and we all have one another.
Let it be so.  Amen.


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