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“Advent One: Something Even Better” Isaiah 40: 1-11 and Mark 1: 1-8
November 29, 2020 Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church
Long before there were chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Long before there were halls decked out with boughs of holly and Christmas trees festooned with tinsel and lights, there was a longing and an ache. The longing was for justice. The aching was for peace. The desire was for wounded souls to find healing and for wrongs to be made right.
Into that longing and that ache came the words of the prophet Isaiah: comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, her sentence has been suspended.
And then, hundreds of years later another voice rose up in the wilderness addressing similar longings and a similar aches, the voice of a messenger named John saying prepare the way for One who is coming, someone more powerful than me, someone whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.
So desperate, so ready were the people to hear John’s message and to receive the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins that he proclaimed, that they flooded out of Jerusalem to find him. They came to be baptized not just from the city, they came from the whole Judean countryside to receive the grace that was on offer and the renewal that was promised.
As I tried to imagine that scene in my mind’s eye this week and as I tried to consider what that picture would look like in today’s context: throngs of people lining up and gathering around John. The first image that popped into my mind was an image of people lined up outside a big box store on black Friday. Suddenly in my mind’s eye, John the Baptist became a greeter at Walmart.
It’s one of the first things that comes to mind when most people think of getting ready for Christmas isn’t it? When am I going to get my shopping done? Am I going to get it done on time? Am I going to find that special something I am looking for? Can I get a good deal on what I am looking for or on other things that may or may not be on my shopping list?
And we are willing to stand in line to get those deals and those special gifts.
Christmas crowds are something we have become quite accustomed to.
Christmas has become a festival of consumption in our day and age. And I don’t want to be overly harsh about that because I participate in that festival myself.
It’s hard for me to imagine Christmas without presents under the tree. It’s hard for us to imagine Christmas without the many traditions we have become accustomed to over the years: Christmas concerts and Bright Lights in Stanley Park, office parties, open houses and family and friends gathered around the table. It’s hard for many of us to imagine Christmas Eve outside the sanctuary of a church because it’s all we’ve ever known in our entire lifetimes.
It’s hard for us to imagine but this year we are having to do just that. We are going to have to find a different way to do things.
But here’s the good news. Discovering a different way, a way not previously imagined, is what the very first Christmas was all about.
Clear the way in the desert. Make a straight path. That’s the invitation of John the Baptist, the invitation to prepare or make a new way, to turn away from what is broken, to turn away from what is wrong with ourselves and with our world, to turn away from the way things have always been, so that we can turn towards healing, justice, forgiveness, peace and hope, the way that followers of Jesus call, the Jesus way.
I know that this call to discover a new way is challenging for many of us. I’ve already heard some people say “we’re not even going to bother putting up the tree this year.” Persisting in the face of challenge opens new pathways and brings its own rewards.
One of the things we are going to be doing throughout our Advent series called “We believe even when…” is reflect on the way that music can impact our lives and to do that even when we can’t sing together. Today we are consider the way that music can be an act of defiance and resistance.
In 1941, Rafael Schachter, a young Czech conductor was arrested and sent to Terezin concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. Determined to sustain courage and hope for his fellow prisoners, he hatched a plan to enrich their souls through music. He started asking who among them could sing. Eventually he recruited 150 prisoners for his choir. At the end of gruelling days of forced labour, he taught them the words and music to Verdi’s Requiem completely by rote. The Requiem was performed on 16 occasions for fellow prisoners. The last and most famous performance came in 1944 when Schachter’s choir performed for high-ranking SS officers from Berlin and the International Red Cross to support the charade that the prisoners were being treated well and flourishing.
Although that performance could be considered further exploitation of an already exploited people, survivors describe the performance as an act of defiance. Surrounded by the worst of humanity, they were determined to remind everyone of humanity’s best.
Through the most horrific of circumstances, they made way for unimaginable hope, peace, love and even joy to be made known.
The way through the wilderness is found by creating beauty. It is found by being defiant. It is found by saying to the darkness I beg to differ. I choose to believe, even when my beliefs are being challenged.
Perhaps one of the most hopeful things about Advent and Christmas this year is that because we can’t fully fathom how it is going be for us, there is more room for the element of surprise, more room for the unimaginable to take hold.
All those people who flocked to see John the Baptist in the wilderness experienced something from him that was life-giving. Their lives were renewed, their hopes restored. But at the heart of John’s message was a promise that the One who was coming after him would offer them something even better, something unimaginable.
There is so much about the festival of consumption and the Christmas traditions that we cherish that are actually quite life giving. But what if, it’s true that at the heart of the season there is something unimaginable, something even better to be had, something that can satisfy our deepest longings, heal our biggest divisions and soothe our our greatest aches, something we cannot manufacture or buy, a presence who’s coming is certain and sure.
What if what we think is already good can be even better. What if it’s coming can happen more readily when we are willing to make a way for it to reach us and others, through beauty, through creativity, through defiance, through a willingness to change and be changed and by simply saying despite all that is wrong, we are going to choose to believe in what is right.
The good news is that discovering a different way, a way not previously imagined, is what the very first Christmas was all about. It’s what our Christmas can be about this year too, if only we believe.