Sunday, December 06, 2015

The Word of God Comes in the Wilderness

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
December 6, 2015

Year C: The Second Sunday of Advent
Baruch 5:1-9
Canticle 16: The Song of Zechariah
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

The Word of God Comes in the Wilderness
            It’s the Second Sunday of Advent – the second Sunday of this four-Sunday-long season of holy preparation. We prepare for the birth of Jesus in great humility two thousand years ago – and we prepare for the return of Christ in great glory.
            And, on this second Advent Sunday we are reintroduced to one of the central Advent figures, John the Baptist.
            It’s only the Gospel of Luke that gives us some background on John – that John’s mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary were kin – that John’s father Zechariah was a priest – a man of faith who was struck silent when he doubted God’s power, doubted that his old wife could be pregnant with new life.
            Zechariah was struck silent until his son John was born. Then he burst into the song that we said today in place of the psalm:
            “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people to set them free.”
            Zechariah sings to his young son, John: “You, my child, shall be called the Prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.”
            Luke also tells us something else that’s easy to miss. He writes:
            “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
            In the wilderness.
            The word of God came in the wilderness.
            For the people of Israel, the word of God coming in the wilderness would have been no surprise. Their most profound encounter with God happened long ago in the desert wilderness, on the long trek from Egyptian slavery to freedom in the promised land.
            The word of God came in the wilderness, giving the Law to Moses, making an eternal covenant with God’s people, promising to never let go, no matter what.
            The word of God came in the wilderness to Moses and his people - and the word of God came in the wilderness to John the Baptist.
            And the word of God John received was repentance – repentance which we often think of as simply confessing our sins and asking forgiveness but really means so much more than that.
            The word of God that John received in the wilderness was repentance – which means not just saying sorry but, with God’s help, turning our lives around to live the lives of love, peace, and generosity that God has always intended for us.
            The word of God comes in the wilderness.
            I guess that shouldn’t surprise us.
            Out in the wilderness, it’s quiet, so quiet that we might actually be able to hear the voice of God.
            Out in the wilderness, it’s dangerous, so dangerous that we might actually remember that we depend on God alone.
            Now, you know I’m a city guy, so pretty much the closest I get to the wilderness is maybe a walk through Lincoln Park.
            But, then again, you know, here in Jersey City, we have a different kind of wilderness – the quiet wilderness of many city blocks where the only activity seems to be the stream of people entering and leaving liquor stores and young men loitering on pretty much every corner and people waiting warily at the bus stop – the dangerous wilderness where people are forced to live behind bars in their own homes – the dangerous wilderness where life is so cheap and blood is shed so easily.
            Yet, the word of God comes in the wilderness.
            As you know, the past six weeks or so have been rough in Jersey City with outbursts of violence especially in the southern end of the city, along Ocean and Old Bergen Avenues, at cross streets like Van Nostrand, Winfield, and Neptune.
            For about the past year and a half, some clergy, including Rev. Laurie and me, have been going to pray at the site of each homicide in Jersey City. We go one week after the event to avoid much attention – to simply pray – to pray for the dead, for the perpetrators, for families and friends, for, as we say in our prayers here each week, peace on the streets of Jersey City.
            Sometimes there are elaborate shrines with signs and autographed t-shirts, votive candles, liquor bottles, and more. That’s hard.
            And, sometimes, there’s nothing – no trace that a human being was extinguished in this spot just a week earlier. That’s harder.
            Yet, the word of God comes in the wilderness.
            As many of you know, after the recent burst of violence, the clergy of our community organizing effort, Jersey City Together, requested a meeting with the Chief of Police. No reply, though we were able to meet with the captain of the South District, who told us about the efforts to stop the violence.
            But we wanted to meet with the chief. And when that didn’t happen, we acted, gathering at Old Bergen and Neptune, the site of what had been the most recent homicide – the most recent homicide at least until last night when a man was stabbed and killed just a few blocks away on Monticello.
            Over at Old Bergen and Neptune, we spoke out against the violence. We demanded action by the police and elected officials.  And, we prayed – we prayed using the service that the clergy use at all of these places, but this time in public, with lay people from our congregations, and people who were just passing by and stopped to see what was going on.
            As we started the service I noticed a young man standing close to me with another right behind me on a bike.
            They both looked like those guys you see on the corner, wearing hoodies and showing tattooed hands, but now I was able to get a closer look and see their young, almost innocent, faces.
            I didn’t know how they’d react, but I held out my bulletin and invited them to participate in the service.
            I couldn’t hear the kid behind me but, to my surprise, the one next to me joined in, saying the psalm, making the confession, asking God’s forgiveness for his part, our part, in turning God’s beautiful garden into the hell of Old Bergen and Neptune.
            After the service was over, the kid on the bike pedaled away, but the other young man stayed next to me, so I told him my name and he told me his, and we shook hands.
            Then he pointed out a woman who he said was the wife of the dead man, a woman whose face and eyes were still stunned by grief.
            The word of God comes in the wilderness.
            And, what was the word of God in the wilderness of Old Bergen and Neptune?
            It was God’s age-old promise to never let go of us, no matter what, no matter how much we mess up, no matter how much we turn God’s beautiful garden into hell, no matter how much precious blood is shed.
            It was God’s age-old call to repentance, to not just confess our sins but, with God’s help, to turn my life – our lives – around and live the lives of love, peace, and generosity that God has always intended for us.
            It was the way of the Lord: God’s age-old – and oh so very, very difficult, so counter-cultural and counter-intuitive - call to love every single person, including all those young men in hoodies hanging out on the corners, including those shot and those who do the shooting, including those we fear and, yes, even those from across the street or around the world who mean to do us harm.
            Long ago, the word of God came to John the Baptist in the wilderness.
            Today, the word of God comes to us in our wilderness:
            I love you.
            Love one another.
            The word of God comes in the wilderness.