Well, it’s good to be back after a week away. I heard you had a good beginning to the Advent season last Sunday. I heard the excellent Advent sermon Fr. John Roop offered, as well. Advent is—indeed—‘chronologically disorienting,’ as John put it, the Christian year beginning some four to five weeks before the end of the calendar year. Advent disrupts our sense of time for spiritual purposes—that we might be re-oriented in heart and mind to the promise that Christ will come again.
Advent is not only a season of disorientation in time, but also of place. Whenever purple garments hang on the altar furnishings and round the shoulders of the clergy, the symbol indicates not only a change in time and season, but a change in geography. Twice a year, purple arrays the nave—in Lent and Advent. In both seasons, we’re ushered into the wilderness.
And it’s St. Matthew who leads us into the wild. Matthew takes us to the wilderness for quite a spell—an entire chapter and then some in his Gospel story. In the wilderness of Judea, just beyond the River Jordan, we encounter three successive events that shape the life and ministry of Jesus—the Voice of John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, the temptation of Christ in the desert. These events are an unbroken sequence in Matthew’s story, but for us they construct a spiritual bridge between Advent and Lent. These seasons invite us to the wilderness to experience the story of Jesus there.
Places are loaded with meaning in Matthew’s story. Before John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, Matthew has just completed the episode of the holy family’s flight to Egypt and return to Nazareth. There’s no small allusion to Israel’s past here. Matthew sees Jesus re-orienting the story of Israel in his life, re-directing that story in a new way. This extended episode in the wilderness tells us much about the past and foreshadows the future in the Jesus story. It is as if the wilderness is a character in the narrative itself.
Good storytellers understand the importance of places in a narrative because places hold memories and memories convey our longings. Just as Egypt evokes memories of Pharaoh’s cruelty (now compared with the Jewish King Herod, no less), so the Judean wilderness and the Jordan River evoke memories of anticipation and longing for home—a home promised to Abraham where Israel may dwell safely in the very presence of God.
Yet the wilderness has a double meaning for the sons and daughters of Abraham gathered at the Jordan. Not only do they remember the Exodus and entry into the Land of Promise, they remember Exile. Seventy years Israel suffered exile and estrangement from the Lord in the desert of Babylon. How long, O Lord? Israel cried in the Psalms. The longing for home dwells deep in the soul of Israel. Nowhere stirs that memory, that longing more than the wilderness. O come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heavenly home, we sing this Advent season. Make safe the way that leads on high and close the path to misery.
Advent takes us into the wilderness so that we might feel the ache of exile, the deep longing for our true home. This world is not our true home. And we need the regular reminder that we cannot make this world the paradise for which we long. Only God can do that. In the end, the wilderness teaches us that our true home is not a place, but a Person—God in Three persons.
This week we have watched with great sadness how harsh and cruel this world can be. Our own Smoky Mountain wilderness has been ravaged by fires, destroying hundreds of homes and public buildings. We have witnessed tremendous loss, but also tremendous courage among first responders and volunteers. We have also heard the testimonies who have lost their houses. The loss of a house is a traumatic event, yet we hear families saying that people make the home, not the house itself. Structures can be rebuilt. The wilderness has a way of clarifying where home truly is—home is a person—people—more than a place.
When John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, he wants to prepare his people for the homecoming that is a Person more than a place. In that symbolic place, he says ‘prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’ He’s quoting Isaiah’s promise that there is coming a day when our exile will end, when God will make his home with us again.
Before that day comes, in the days of our present exile, our longing for our true home, we have a task at hand—repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Other translations say, ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ The wilderness is a border territory to the Promised Land, the last station before crossing into Canaan, but it’s also a place of decision. That’s in Israel’s memory of the wilderness, too. You might even say that Israel’s memory of the wilderness haunts her.
In the wilderness, Israel put the Lord to the test at Meribah, demanding water from Moses. Israel later wrote a song about that event—Psalm 95—to remember the consequence of testing the Lord. Turn there in your pew Bible for a few moments, on page ???. There they believed God abandoned them, bringing them to the wilderness so they would die of thirst. There the Lord instructed Moses to strike a rock and water flowed from the rock to quench Israel’s thirst. At verse 7, the psalmist writes, ’Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, thought they had seen my work…They are a people who astray in their heart…they shall not enter my rest.’
In other words, Israel got relief in the wilderness, but what did she suffer there? A hardening of her heart. The wilderness was not just a place on earth, it had become a place in the heart. / Remember, this Psalm remembers the Exodus story. Think back to the beginning of the Exodus story—whose heart was hardened when Israel was in Egypt? Pharaoh’s. Israel had become as unbelieving of God’s power as Pharaoh. /
The psalmist writes centuries after Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness, yet he speaks as if it can happen again. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. The wilderness remains in our hearts, but the wilderness is a place of decision. Within the wilderness of our hearts; where idols clamor for our worship; where jealousies divide us from one another; where envy makes us restless; yes, here in this arid place within, we can choose the Kingdom of God. And when we do, those decisions open up pathways for the return of the King so that he make his home in our hearts.
I’ve been in a Charles Dickens phase recently. It started with David Copperfield, which I began reading over Thanksgiving [It came recommended from John Roop, who apparently loves a sprawling novel with dozens of characters and subplots]. I’ve set aside David Copperfield for the time being to read A Christmas Carol this Advent season. I fell in love with this story as a child when I first saw the theater version performed at the Clarence Brown Theater. Like many of you, it’s become an annual tradition to read or watch this classic tale each December.
Yet these many years I have overlooked the Advent themes that make this Christmas tale so beloved. Ebenezer Scrooge is the Victorian edition of a Pharisee. His hard heart makes life miserable for those near him. Yet when we meet the Ghost of Jacob Marley and the three Spirits of Christmas, we see that Ebenezer Scrooge is a haunted man.
Do you want I find interesting about the meaning of the word ‘haunted?’ It derives from an early German word for ‘home.’ / Whenever you are haunted by something, it usually means there is a deep longing for home underneath that fear or pain. / Maybe that is a new way to consider sin. Sin is estrangement from God and one another. When we are haunted by sins, it’s because we’re longing for home, for reunion. / But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to Scrooge.
So Scrooge is a haunted man. At the beginning, we only hear ‘humbug!’ but as the story progresses, we learn that underneath every humbug is the cry of an estranged man, a haunted man, a man longing for home. That’s why you see the three Christmas spirits taking Scrooge to homes and family gatherings. With the Ghost of Christmas past, we see Scrooge returns to his youth. We meet his beloved and joyful mentor, Fezziwig, and the love of his heart, Belle. He momentarily experiences the joy of youth again, only to relive his scorned engagement.
When the Ghost of Christmas present appears, Scrooge enters another home—the home of his nephew Fred Cratchit. Scrooge’s hard-heart refused Cracthit’s regular invitations to their home, which made his heart blind to the suffering of Tiny Tim. Yet, Scrooge’s cold heart begins to thaw as he witnesses the joyful celebration of Christmas despite the family troubles. But it turns to sadness again when Scrooge becomes the source of the Cratchit family jokes.
When the Ghost of Christmas future appears, he haunts Scrooge with the greatest separation from home—the grave. Scrooge beholds the gravestone of Tiny Tim before seeing his own grave marker. The sight terrifies him and he pledges to honor the spirit of Christmas within his heart. It is a repentance scene, a turning from greed and bitterness towards others.
When Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning, we see a hard-hearted Pharisee transformed, a man serious about ‘bearing fruit in keeping with his midnight repentance.’ Repentance for Scrooge isn’t a dour obligation, it brings the dawn of joy. He makes a generous contribution to the charity he previously scorned. He purchases a Christmas turkey for his nephew. And where does the story end? Where else? In a home. The spell has been broken, Scrooge is no longer a haunted man, but becomes another father-figure in Tiny Tim’s life.
Whatever wilderness we are facing in our hearts; whatever past mistakes, sins, and regrets haunt us; there always lies within us a pathway back home. Repentance may seem burdensome on the front end, but it’s about relieving burdens. It’s about the return of the King to the home of your heart. So come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer Our spirits by Thine advent here/ Disperse the gloomy clouds of night/And death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel. Amen.
Image by Domenico Ghirlandaio, “Preaching of St John the Baptist” (1486 and 1490).