Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent, Saturday, December 7, 2013. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Dominican Retreat & Conference Center, Niskayuna, NY, for the weekend Advent retreat, “Awakening the Heart”.

Isaiah 11:1-10 Romans 15: 4-9
Psalm 72: 1-2, 7-8, 12, 13, 17 Matthew 3:1-12

God of steadfastness and encouragement

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant us to live in harmony with our selves and one another, and may the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing, so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

How good it is to be on retreat with you!  In the world outside, the weeks before Christmas are marked by an inextricable blend of the tacky and the touching, the paltry and the poignant.  One minute we’re deafened by the jingle-jangle of cash registers springing open, the tap-tap-tap of innumerable fingers on innumerable keyboards pressing the “Send” button, the whoosh of millions of plastic credit cards sliding along a metal track.  The next minute we’re listening to music so beautiful, it melts the heart.  One minute our jaws are dropping at the crass commercialism of the season, the flood of catalogues pouring into our homes, the advertisements relentlessly plugging the greedy message that I actually heard on the radio, “Aren’t the holidays all about getting what you want?”  The next minute something surprises us by its tenderness – maybe a kind word, an unexpected phone call from a friend, or the sight of a December moon rising in the sky. 

I’ve been thinking about the enormous machinery of the quote/unquote “holidays” that kicks into high gear between Halloween and Christmas.  Some of us are making an effort to unplug from the “Christmas machine,” for it’s easy to be flattened this time of year by the frenzied pressure to buy, eat, and drink more than we really want to.  Just about everywhere we go during Advent the message is pounded into us that our true identity is to be a consumer and that our noblest purpose is to shop.  “Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!” cry so many voices around us.  “Only so many shopping days ‘til Christmas!”

But just when we’re feeling most overwhelmed or saddened by the absurdity of this season, by the ways that a secular society tries to co-opt our religious longings and channel them into the idolatry of things, we are touched by a quiet moment of grace.  I remember visiting a mall one Advent, and passing a baby in a stroller who was looking up into an older woman’s face.  Crowds of shoppers were hurrying past, but the child and the woman seemed entirely oblivious.  The two of them were exchanging a gaze of such steady, mutual delight that I couldn’t help stopping to look.

The woman glanced up at me and smiled.  “This is my granddaughter,” she said.  “Isn’t she beautiful?”

“Yes,” I said.  “She is.”

In fact, they both were.  So much beauty is released in the world whenever we love each other, whenever we remember what matters most.

A voice is calling to us today out of the wilderness of materialism, out of the wasteland of worry and loneliness, out of the barren places of regret, nostalgia, and greed.  “Repent,” says the voice of the prophet, the voice that rings in our own deep core.  “The kingdom of heaven has come near.  Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Someone is coming among us.  Someone is longing to be born.  Get ready to welcome Him.  Prepare for the birth.

How do we prepare?  By listening to the inner voice of love that is always sounding deep within us.  By attending to the steady pulse of God.  Here in the darkest month of the year, Advent invites us to rest our souls in the steady presence of God.  God is something like the basso continuo in a Bach cantata, that steady bass line that gives the music its foundation.  In the music of Bach, instruments carrying the melody often swoop and plunge and rise and soar, but beneath them all we hear the abiding, steady pulse of the bass line.  God is like that.  God is like a melody that plays under the surface agitations and changes of life.  In Advent we listen for that hidden music, the steadfast love that quietly sustains all things. 

Steadfast.  That’s a good word for God.  It’s a word that St. Paul uses in the passage we heard from his Letter to the Romans: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus” (Romans 15:5).  In English, the word “steadfast” comes from two old words that mean “a place that is fast,” “a place that is stable.”  When you are steadfast you have a place to stand.  You are firmly fixed, established, constant, resolute.  “Steady!” That’s what the helmsman cries in a rough sea to keep the ship on course.  “Fast” in this usage means firm.  Just think of that lovely line from one of the psalms: “Your right hand holds me fast” (Ps 63:8).

That is what Advent is about: an invitation to dwell in the steadfast love of God.  Life may be full of change and challenge, loss and stress, but behind and beneath and within all things, we abide in the steadfast presence of God. Trusting in that steadfast love, we set aside time to pray, to rest a while in the quiet running bass line.  Trusting in that steadfast love, we pause a while and share openly with God everything that lies on our hearts–our sadness and loneliness, our disappointment and frustration. Trusting in that steadfast love, we pray our grief and longing, our anger and hope, only to discover again–often to our surprise–that God is unimaginably close.

But as that prickly prophet John the Baptist reminds us today, God’s steadfast love does not only comfort and console.  It also breaks us open.  It creates upheaval.  John the Baptist proclaims that the one who is coming “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt 3:11b). Jesus comes not only with the sweetness of a baby, but also with the turbulence of an earthquake.  In his baptism of fiery love, everything less than love is revealed and burned away.  As John the Baptist declares, the one who comes after him will take “his winnowing fork in his hand, and he will clear the threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Mt 3:12) – vivid words that describe the upheaval we experience in God’s presence, when the blaze of God’s light illumines our darkest corners, and everything that is false in us – all our patterns of lying, selfishness, and deceit – are revealed and stripped away, and everything that is sound in us is welcomed and gathered in.  Trusting in God’s steadfast love, we let ourselves be changed.  We let God’s love burn through us, like a purifying flame.

Expect disturbance when Jesus comes, not just quiet.  His all-inclusive love shakes up our inner lives, our relationships with each other, and the world’s status quo, upsetting every kingdom that hoards power and privilege for the few.  Expect agitation and upset.  The holy love that wants to draw the world to itself will always contradict the forces of injustice, intolerance, and greed.  Expect disturbance.  In the aging, overgrown forest of selfishness and empire building,  of militarism and over-consumption, “even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees” (Mt 3:10a).

When we trust in God’s steadfast love, we listen to our heart’s deepest desire.  We listen to our deep yearning for the fullness of God, for the coming of God, for the reign of justice and peace in this beautiful and broken world.  Come, Lord Jesus, we cry in Advent.  We are hungry for you.  We long for your love.  We yearn for the day when the harmony of humanity and nature will be restored, for the day, as the prophet says, when “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).  The longing we feel for justice and peace is a God-given longing, a longing that God has planted in our hearts and that we hope never to betray.

So, friends, on this quiet Advent night, I invite us to listen for the melody of God’s steadfast love, that basso continuo that sings beneath all the changes and the stresses of our lives.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Help us discern your presence in silence and in upheaval.  When we are confused by the clamorous voices all around, sing us your inward melody of peace.  Transform us, change us, and make us your own.  Fill us, we pray, “with all joy and peace in believing, so that [we] may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).