Sunday, December 04, 2011

Purple and Blue Preparation

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 4, 2011

Year B: The Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
(2 Peter 3:8-15a)
Mark 1:1-8

Purple and Blue Preparation

In her sermon last Sunday Lauren talked about how in a very real way we Christians live in two worlds – the world of the church and the world outside the church doors. That’s always true, of course, but we’re probably most aware of our split existence during these weeks leading up to Christmas.

This time of year both worlds encourage us – urge us – to prepare in very different ways for Christmas. Out in the world that preparation mostly means buying and buying some more and also wrapping presents, decorating our homes, and getting cards and packages into the mail.

The church also encourages us – urges us – to prepare for Christmas. Here in this world during Advent there are two types of preparation – two types of preparation that I’ll call purple preparation and blue preparation. And in order to really prepare for Christmas we need both types of preparation – purple and blue.

This Wednesday evening I’ll be leading my first Compline for Kids service since I’ve been back. Many of you know that the program begins with the children and me making pizza in the church kitchen. I remember being a little, um, hesitant when I first heard that this was part of my job, but over the years I came to enjoy it. And I think the pizza is pretty good, too.

Anyway, once the pizzas are in the oven, the children usually work on some craft or service project that Mary Lea has created. Then we say grace. Then we eat. And then we come into church for a beautiful, if a little chaotic, service of music and prayers and a brief reflection from me.

I remember a couple of years ago trying to think of a visual way to talk about Advent when finally I decided to use our Advent vestments to illustrate the purple and blue sides of Advent.

At the service with the children gathered around me I held up the chasuble (that Lauren is wearing right now) and began my talk. Unfortunately, the children – who, of course, normally would hang on my every word – now only wanted one thing: to touch the chasuble… with their greasy pizza hands. At the last second I pulled the vestment away from them, just barely avoiding a serious altar guild crisis!

Maybe that didn’t work so well. But, I still think our vestments offer a good illustration of the purple and blue sides of Advent.

Many of you remember when the color for Advent was purple and it was a season of repentance and sacrifice very much like Lent. In many churches (including here) in more recent times there’s been a shift to blue – a color associated both with hope and with the Virgin Mary. And that’s very appropriate since Mary is one of the central figures of Advent – the young woman who said yes to God, accepting the awesome gift and responsibility of bringing Jesus into the world.

Although blue now dominates the season we still haven’t lost the purple – if you look carefully it’s right here in the lining of our vestments. And the purple is very much in our gospel lesson both today and next Sunday when the spotlight shines on that great prophet of repentance, the other central figure of Advent, John the Baptist. Or, as he’s called in the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptizer.

So, whether we like it or not, during Advent the church gives us two Sundays worth of John the Baptist – two weeks of purple preparation - because the truth is that without repentance we can’t truly experience the hope of Advent. And without repentance we can’t truly experience the joy of Christmas.

Today we heard the opening verses of the Gospel of Mark. Most scholars agree that Mark is the earliest of the four gospels to be written, probably around the year 70 – drawing on stories about Jesus that had been passed around for decades both orally and in writing.

Mark is both the oldest and the most barebones of the gospels. Apparently the author doesn’t know about or isn’t interested in any birth stories about Jesus. If all we had was the Gospel of Mark there’d be no Christmas pageant.

Instead of birth stories, Mark opens his gospel with a simple but profound declaration: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

It’s kind of redundant to begin the gospel… by telling us it’s the beginning of the gospel. But that opening makes more sense when we consider that the Greek word that’s translated as “the beginning” can also mean “the starting point, foundation, origin.”

Mark’s opening line suggests that the story of Jesus’ life that he’s about to tell is the foundation of the good news that his community was sharing and experiencing in the First Century. And Mark’s story of Jesus’ life is the starting point of the good news that you and I share today.

Mark begins his beginning by looking back to the prophets of Hebrew Scripture.

The prophets had two main roles. One was to call the people to repentance. Over and over the prophets called the people to turn away from their wrongdoing and to turn back to God.

The prophets’ second task was to offer a vision of the world transformed by God – to offer a vision of what the world could really be like, of what the world was always meant to be like. The prophets offered a vision of a world that was and is possible if only we accept the invitation to turn back to God.

In today’s first lesson from Isaiah the people of Israel have endured exile in Babylon but now that bleak time is drawing to a close – as the prophet says, the term has been served, the penalty has been paid.

Then Isaiah offers a vision of a transformed world where “every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill made low.” Isaiah offers a vision of a world in which “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all the people shall see it together.”

In the gospels John the Baptist is presented as the last of the Hebrew prophets – he plays the role of messenger described in Isaiah and he dresses like Elijah. Like the prophets before him he calls the people to repentance – he calls them to turn away from wrongdoing and to turn back to God.

And, like the prophets before him, John the Baptist also offers a vision of a world transformed by God – a transformation that begins with the birth of Jesus, the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.

Mark tells us that John’s message of repentance was popular – people from the country and the city came to be baptized by him in the Jordan. And Josephus a near-contemporary Jewish historian agrees that John had a wide appeal.

John’s popularity shouldn’t surprise us. I’m sure back then people felt the weight of their sin – really felt the burden of not loving God and not loving one another.

I’m sure back then people were quick to put their own self-interest above the needs of others. I’m sure back then people found it easy to look the other way when they saw people suffering in mind, body or spirit. I’m sure back then people chose to assume the worst of others rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt.

The offer of repentance and forgiveness – symbolized by washing in the Jordan would have been very attractive.

And I’m sure that many of us here today feel the weight of our sin – really feel the burden of not loving God and not loving one another.

Fortunately, God still invites us to repent. Fortunately, God still offers forgiveness. If only we turn back to God.

So, it’s now the Second Sunday of Advent and the spotlight is on John the Baptist. We’re given this time of purple preparation so we can truly experience the hope of Advent. We’re given the opportunity to repent so we can truly experience the joy of Christmas.

We Christians live a split existence, so while we answer the world out there when it urges us to prepare for Christmas by buying and buying some more, let’s make sure we also answer the call to repent – to turn away from whatever separates us from God and from one another. Let’s make sure we turn back to God.

Then, freed from the burden of our sin, we’ll truly be able to experience the blue preparation of Advent. Freed from the burden of our sin, we’ll truly be able to experience the hope of a world transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Freed from the burden of our sin, we’ll truly be able to experience the joy of Christmas.