One of the certainties of human life is that we need to be reminded, again and again of the truths we know. They are not inscribed forever, once we first learn them, but we need to be reminded and recalled to their truths again and again as we travel through our lives.
What is true for people is true also for communities. Speaking truths once is not enough, but we need to repeat them again and again, until over the years they become part of the knowledge of our individual and communal hearts. That is the purpose of liturgy – to slowly inscribe the grammar of the Scriptures and the story of God’s redemption into our minds and lives, like water dripping onto our stony hearts and slowly wearing away the sharpnesses.
The Scriptures are full of the stories that need to be heard again and again: God’s longing and call to us, our human nature which flees God’s presence and constantly erects idols to stand between us and that loving and intrusive gaze.
Day in, day out, week in, week out, we read the Scriptures to remind ourselves again and again of those stories. God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, God’s salvation through famine, exile, law-giving, wandering in the wilderness, through judges, kings and Diaspora.
There are times, in the year, when we read again some of the most distinctive voices of the Scriptures, the prophets, and Advent is one of those times.
I always like to think of the prophets as the caregivers and therapists in our lives. They are at the same time comforting and challenging, they are full of judgment and full of compassion. They point out to us our foibles and blindnesses, and knock over the defenses we have labored to build so that the grammar of God has someplace to sink in. And when they have broken through the haze of self-deception and egotism, when they have aired our dirty laundry and raised up before us the poor and disposed, and brought home to us the ways that we have ignored God and loved only ourselves, when they have done that, they comfort us. They speak words of the coming salvation, of the Messiah, the Savior of Israel, who will bring both God’s judgment and God’s salvation to fruition.
God’s judgment and God’s redemption, go hand in hand, the abrasive voices of the prophets teach us:
The main problem, of course, is that we don’t like to talk or think about God’s judgment. Too often, we have heard from churches, from pastors or priests, from parents or from slightly crazy folk on street corners the story of God’s judgment. We have heard that God is an angry God, a God who is waiting to tick off our sins on the list which reads “Naughty and Nice” and decide where we are going. More often than not, we feel as if we are going the wrong direction, and we fear that God’s vengefulness, God’s judgment is waiting to spring, front-loaded against us, and only the super-spiritual, the über-elect, the crème de la crème of the most spiritual will make the cut. Life is a cosmic game of “Survivor” and every day, every hour someone is getting voted off the island. God is simple, God is myopic; an angry, vengeful God who is both capricious and horribly predictable.
But the prophets really tell us a far different story. They tell us that we are foolish, human people. They remind us that we can just never seem to get ourselves together. They speak to us of our complacency, of our comfort, of our blandness and our duplicity, in the face of human suffering and the demands of the divine. They lift a mirror before our faces, and the image that we get back is not as pretty, or as sympathetic as we might like.
The words of the prophets are not fundamentally comfortable words to hear. They are constantly restless, always probing, words that fester and disturb. The prophets are like loose teeth that you want to worry with your tongue, or a scab that you want to pick. They are never settled, always questioning; when you feel home, watch out.
But the prophets are not simply about judgment. Because there are moments when their tone changes, and they can tell that we need not curmudgeon rebuke, but comfort and hope. We need not simply the possibility of God’s redemption if we straighten ourselves out, and return to God again, but the story beyond the story, the narrative beyond that of God’s anger, the hope of God’s astonishing redemption, whatever our state.
The message of the prophets is both judgment and redemption, and so we are told also about God’s love beyond measure, God’s perpetual forgiveness, the restoration of God’s chosen people, and the Messiah, long expected who is coming.
And we need both. We cannot hear about grace without brokenness, sin without redemption; either one or the other, without a myopic vision. Sin and grace, judgment and redemption, they go hand in hand. Cheap grace, cheap judgment, both are, in the end, simply cheap. Either is too little, too late. Only when we hear both voices is the fully dimensional vision of God apparent.
For God is not myopic. God is three-dimensional, multi-dimensional, all-dimensional. God knows both our foolishness and sinfulness, and our hopefulness and our hopelessness, which run full of complexity, in the course of our lives, and the prophets are the stereoscopic vision, the stereo sound of God’s constant unwillingness to let us settle into ennui, and God’s constant unwillingness to let us settle into damnation. No complacently is too deep to avoid God’s disturbing, and no sin too dark to avoid his redemption.
Yesterday, with the prophets filling my mind, the news flashed around the world that the Diocese of Los Angeles, in electing two suffragon bishops, had elected a woman in a committed same-sex relationship. Which means that the fighting and rhetoric of 2003 will be brought up again, with the added energy of the debate over women’s ordination. And Anglican Communion will once again teeter on the brink of falling apart, and attempt to decide whether to impale itself on the horn of civility and simply not talking too much, or on the horn of radical justice and inclusion.
And although I have some pretty clear thoughts about full inclusion of women and gay persons in the life of the church, my first thought was one of fear and exhaustion. Really? Right now at this tension-filled moment? Really? We are going to spend all this time and energy fighting about this, while poverty, violence, abuse, and disease, run rampant in our streets and around the world? Really? With the church shrinking and struggling and with parishes closing, we are going to fight about this? Really? After we, hope against hope, managed to preserve a sort of separate peace in the Anglican Communion? And filled with thoughts of the prophets I thought “Would that there were prophets in our day who could wake us out of our smugness and comfort us in our brokenness! Would that there were prophets who could treat on this…”
But we have heard the prophets from beginning to end: angry Jeremiah, fearful Jonah, Job, Amos, Micah, all of them, masterful Isaiah, even down to John the Baptist in the Gospel this morning, channeling Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
We have no need of a modern day prophet to harangue us, because we have heard the words of the prophets, and they are still challenging and comforting, for the conundrum that the Episcopal Church finds herself in, and for each and every day of our lives. We have heard the prophets, and while their message of judgment and redemption are not about the Diocese of Los Angeles, or the Anglican Communion, still they ring out as true and full of challenge and comfort to us. For this time in the church, the prophets say: There is no smug certainty or complacency, on either the left or the right of this current debate which God will not break us out of, and there is no sin, no rhetoric of anger or hatred, no schism, beyond God’s loving redemption.
And for the other days of our lives they say “Repent your sinfulness, and return again to the Lord. For the moment is coming when all shall see the salvation of our God.” We have no need of a modern day prophet to harangue us, because that Word pointed to, and prefigured in the prophets has come among us. He has come into our lives and hearts with the same message of repentance and salvation that the prophets teach us. He speaks and says to us:
There is no smugness or arrogance or certainty or complacency that God will not disturb us out of, through the Scriptures and through the circumstances of our lives, and there is no darkness, no isolation, no sinfulness, no living hell beyond the salvation of our God.
Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft
6 December 2009
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia