Advent 2: Entering Mystery: From Wilderness to Forgiveness

This is the Message I gave to New Garden Friends Meeting on December 10, 2017.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, 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,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:1-8)

The Sterile and “Certainty” Modern Life

Here is a track from Radiohead’s “OK Computer,” not typcially a song played during advent, but as we go on through this message my hope is you will begin to see how it is related.

Fitter happier
More productive
Not drinking too much
Regular exercise at the gym (3 days a week)
Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries
At ease
Eating well (no more microwave dinners and saturated fats)
A patient, better driver
A safer car (baby smiling in back seat)
Sleeping well (no bad dreams)
No paranoia
Careful to all animals (never washing spiders down the plughole)
Keep in contact with old friends (enjoy a drink now and then)
Will frequently check credit at (moral) bank (hole in the wall)
Favours for favours
Fond but not in love
Charity standing orders
On Sundays ring road supermarket
(No killing moths or putting boiling water on the ants)
Car wash (also on Sundays)
No longer afraid of the dark or midday shadows
Nothing so ridiculously teenage and desperate
Nothing so childish
At a better pace
Slower and more calculated
No chance of escape
Now self-employed
Concerned (but powerless)
An empowered and informed member of society (pragmatism not idealism)
Will not cry in public
Less chance of illness…

What do you hear in these lyrics? What stands out to you?

What I hear is a description of a very sterile and modern life.
The voice of Apple’s “Fred” emphasizes lines like:

Slower and more calculated
No chance of escape
Concerned but powerless

This describes a life where everything is laid out. Everything is expected. There is little emotion. Little surprise. And no uncertainty at all.

The message behind “Fitter Happier” points to the modern tendency to want things static, ordered, sterile and certain. We want no surprises and we put great effort into ordering our lives that way.

Our whole society bends this direction. Think about the past year and a half or so: how do we respond to changing cultures, demographics, emerging economies, global information culture, and more? We try to harken back to an illusory “golden age.”

What is the “American Dream” if it is not an appeal to the desire for class certainty in the lives of people who lack such certainty?

What about White Supremacy? Is it not a particular structure that guarantees certainty to one race of people at the expense of other races?

What undergirds the roots of the military industrialized complex if it is not a striving to erase all uncertainty for those who wield military might?

Things like retirement, better tax structures, endless diet programs, modern medicine, rigid exercise regimens, education, increasing hours in the work week are all attempts at delivering us from uncertainty.

John Says Repentence is a “Wake Up”

And here is where John’s message, deeply troubling and subversive, makes impact.

If modern society tries to put us to sleep in the pursuit of no surprises, then John’s message breaks into the middle of our sterility with a message of repentance and forgiveness, two practices that unlock uncertainty.

If our modern society is setup to follow a formula of expectation, then John’s message is an invitation into mystery.

In this second week of advent, we focus on the practice of spiritual preparation. Spiritual preparation runs counter to everything around us that tries to lull us to sleep.

Spiritual preparation is the work of opening oneself up to mystery, preparing oneself for something yet unheard of or experienced.

We Quakers say we believe in this every time we show up to meeting for worship, or meeting for worship for business, and enter into “expectant waiting worship.”

And yet I wonder, how many of us come prepared to truly enter into the full mystery of Christ? The possibility that we might truly encounter the unknown.

The ability to be surprised, to practice awe, and enter into the mystery of the work of God in the world is a deeply powerful Spiritual practice.

The Rabbi and Jewish Theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote (From Who Is Man? 1965, Ch. 5).

…Wisdom is fostered by awe. Awe precedes faith; it is the root of faith. We must be guided by awe to be worthy of faith.

Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the world becomes a market place for you. The loss of awe is the avoidance of insight. A return to reverence is the first prerequisite for a revival of wisdom, for the discovery of the world as an allusion to God.

I believe that John’s “preparing the way” is a call to this kind of awe, this kind of surprise, and seeing that be open to uncertainty is in fact what is needed in order to accept the new work God will do in the birth, life and ministry of Jesus.

Forgiveness as a way into Mystery

As we close this morning, I invite you to consider how John’s call to forgiveness is linked to our ability to be open to uncertainty.

Here John is in the wilderness, literally on the margins of society, drawing people out from Jerusalem, out from the temple, out into the unknown.

Not only does John’s message in the wilderness reveal that God’s work always originates, sides with, and returns to those on the margins, but he also calls people to repentance and forgiveness.

(Two words that do not seem to register all that high in the Quaker lexicon of faith.)

How can we be prepared for the coming of Christ in our lives, or be prepared for the work of God on the margins and in the wilderness, if we are not first able to learn the practices of repentance and forgiveness.

Repentance is learning to say, “I screwed up.” It is learning how to take responsibility for ones own actions and how they impact not only others, but ourselves as well. It is recognizing that what I want and what I do are not always in alignment with what God wants of me.

Forgiveness is the ability to see the same is true in others. Forgiveness is the hard learned practice of relinquishing control over the narrative. This is how forgiveness can make way for uncertainty.

When I forgive, I open myself up to the mystery of that which is beyond my control.

Buddhist Jack Kornfield once said,

“Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.”

And I would add that it is the very thing that opens us up for the possibility of a new future together.

John the Baptizer knew the people would not be able to receive the new subversive message of Jesus, who came to challenge the political and spiritual empires of the time, if they were attached to their personal as well as societal hurts.

As we make our way deeper into the advent story, I invite all of us to open ourselves up to the mystery of Christmas, welcome uncertainty that comes from forgiveness and prepare ourselves for the new work of God in the world around us.

So instead of “fitter, happier,” maybe it will be more “filled with awe” and “open to new surprises.”