A sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent (Year C) on December 9, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY. If you’d like to read the day’s scriptures, click here. If you’d like to listen along as you read, click the play button below.
Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east
and see your children gathered from west and east
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that God has remembered them. (Baruch 5:5)
These are words from the Book of Baruch. This book called Baruch is a patchwork of readings. Biblical scholars believe that the chapters all came from various sources and were put together into one book by Jewish editors and writers sometime after Rome had occupied Israel. The book was named in honor of Jeremiah’s friend and assistant, Baruch ben Neriah.
Jeremiah, if you recall, is one of the major prophets, the prophet who led the Hebrew people while they were in exile in Babylon. And these readings that make up the book of Baruch, talk a lot about the experience of exile – words of sorrow, pain, suffering, fear. But also hope, comfort, peace. They are words filled with the knowledge of being split in two, as if living apart from one’s own soul. And then finding God again.
Worldly exile is a consequence of war. And war is about exerting power.
I’ve told the story of Ancient Israel before: How the 12 tribes decided they needed a king to keep themselves safe from the invasion of surrounding nations. How the kingship didn’t last long before a thirst for power caused a split in among the people of Israel. How the split made Israel susceptible to surrounding nations who invaded them.
The thing they thought was going to save them is what split them in the end.
Babylonia was the final nation to wage war on Israel and, when Jerusalem was captured, when it had finally fallen, the Babylonians sent the Jewish leadership into exile – in Babylonia – to ensure that the Israel could not raise an army to fight back.
In other words, the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of its leaders, meant the end of Israel.
At least, that’s how the story of war goes. But that’s not what happened.
The most miraculous thing about the story of Israel, which is the story of our ancestors, and the story of our Jewish siblings, is that war was not the end of Israel. Defeat, exile was not the end of Israel.
If we stop to think about it, these are stories that should belong to history, but they belong to faith. So, why are they a part of our story of faith?
The Hebrew Scriptures are an account of how people came to know God. How people have come to understand themselves in relation to God. The Hebrew scriptures give us the narrative of those who were left behind under the rule of other nations and those who were sent into exile and how both peoples remembered their true identity in the midst of all the turmoil.
In other words, it was who they were as people who lived and breathed in God that mattered to them, not who ruled over them. Their identity was about who they were in relation to God, not in relation to a nation.
And this is so hard for any person to remember because we often take great pride in our nation, and rightly so much of the time. But the larger story, God’s story, is that nations rise and fall. Empire is just that… empire. Empire is not of God. It never was and never will be.
The larger story of God is that God alone will always be. God’s reign is the reign of Life. As long as life breathes, God loves. We belong to God, not to a nation.
This is a very appropriate lesson in the world – especially now because it’s such a divisive time in the life of our own nation with so many people having such wildly divergent opinions about what it means to be American, that we seem to have lost a sense of who we are and faith in ourselves and one another as a people.
But what is real, what we are called to remember, is that our true identity rests in God alone. And just as this is so important to remember right now as we consider the world around us, it is, perhaps, more important to remember and understand this in relation to ourselves and our own heart.
For all of us have a part of our self that we feel like we need to hide away, a part of us that we have some sense of shame about or tenderness towards, a younger part, a more vulnerable part. And in some way it feels like we must make war on our own heart, exerting power over the most tender part of ourselves because we’re so scared to bring it out and let it be seen. And so we send that piece of our soul into exile.
Each Sunday during the season of Advent has a distinct theme, all of which focus on different aspects of God’s Love as we prepare for the Incarnation at Christmas: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.
Last week, we appropriately heard Roddy’s story from Deacon Sue – a story of freedom which demonstrates God’s Hope. Roddy, who has been a prisoner on Death Row for 19 years and is being released soon. He has always maintained his innocence and, in that, keeping a sense of freedom – God’s Hope – alive in his heart. Roddy’s story reminds us how Hope is about freedom, how we keep ourselves free in the midst of our worst nightmare even if it lasts for 19 years.
This Sunday the theme is Peace. And how, when we finally accept that we belong to God and not to a nation, that we belong to the Eternal Love and not to this warring transitory world, this is when we find true Peace.
When we lay down our belligerent tendencies, when we drop our defenses, when we refuse to take sides, when we learn to see God’s Holy Love in every aspect of this amazing Creation, even when a member of this Creation is acting in hateful ways…
When we see God’s Love infusing every single cell and God’s Spirit breathing over all the earth, then we know that God is indeed the Ground of all Being. We all share one God.
And when we see the world from this vantage point, nations and borders and walls and wars become utterly meaningless. They make no sense. If we see the whole universe as made of the same fabric of God’s Love, and if we know ourselves to be an intrinsic part of that fabric, then how can we possibly hate a part of ourselves, a part of that fabric, a part of God’s Love? How can we make war against a part of ourselves?
It’s not some ridiculous pie-in-the-sky notion. This is basic theology and we forget it all the time. The real world is that which is of God and of God alone. All the rest of it… is humans forgetting. Humans being human, nothing more. Trying to exert power, trying to wage war. And exile is always a consequence of war.
Baruch’s message to us today comes from a place that knows the pain of being in exile and the profound peace that comes when we suddenly realize that God has never sent us away and that this exile is of our own making because we have forgotten. It is a message of Hope and Peace because it is a message of repentance. Repentance, not a word we necessarily associate with hope and peace but that’s what this is really about – returning to God.
Arise, O Jerusalem (we are all Jerusalem) stand upon the height;
look toward the east and see your children (see us all)
gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One
(as we hear God’s whisper to return to God, that we are wholly beloved members of a Holy Creation)
rejoicing that God has remembered them. (Baruch 5:5)
In fact, God never forgets us. It is we who forget God.
This is what John is talking about in today’s reading from Luke – repentance. When John preaches a baptism of repentance, the Greek word here is “metanoia”… literally a change of mind. The invitation to remember who we are and whose we are.
No matter what the state of the world is, as along as life breathes, God loves. And this is the remembering of the reality that in God alone we have our reality. This is what brings us peace and helps us to be more peaceful people in and for the world.
Our neighbors at Congregation Emanuel, our Jewish siblings, use a beautiful prayer book called Mishkan T’filah, the words mean “dwelling place for prayer.” And every week at Centering Prayer here at St. John’s we use a prayer from that book to end our time together. I’d like to use that same prayer to end today’s sermon.
Let us pray:
May we find peace with those we love,
growing together over time.
May we be at peace with ourselves
and with the labors that fill our days.
May we fashion peace in our world
with wisdom and gentle patience.
Blessed are you, God, who blesses us with peace.
(Mishkan T’filah, pg 97)