Sunday, December 25, 2016

No Finish Line for the Light of Christ

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City
December 25, 2016

Christmas Day
Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98
Hebrews 1:1-12
John 1:1-14

No Finish Line for the Light of Christ
            Merry Christmas!
            We made it!
            Merry Christmas!
            I say we made it because this morning usually feels to me like we’ve reached the finish line after running a marathon – and it definitely feels like that to me this year - and I bet a lot of you feel the same way.
            A lot of hard work went into preparing for our beautiful services last night. 
            Gail spent many hours rehearsing with the choirs and everybody in our Christmas pageant.
            Susan had many more bulletins to prepare and Vanessa went into overdrive to make sure that this place looked its best.
            The altar guild has had to work overtime polishing and refilling and ironing and all the rest that goes into making our worship beautiful.
            Last Sunday a bunch of parishioners spent a couple of hours greening the church, making this space even more attractive than usual.
            It’s a lot of work.
            And, so many people have spent so much time shopping and wrapping and cooking and all the other stuff that goes into making a nice holiday for family and friends.
            In fact, I’ve learned to not schedule special programs and events during Advent because lots of people are pretty much overwhelmed, overwhelmed with holiday preparations on top of all of our other everyday responsibilities and worries and sorrows.
            On top of that, for some of us this is a particularly hard time, a time when we’re aware of who and what we’ve lost: loved ones who have died, broken relationships, our health, our employment and financial security, our sense of meaning and purpose.
            And, as we’ve been preparing for Christmas, the world has also been reflecting on the year that is almost finished, a year that many will be happy to see go, a year when we learned just how bitterly divided we are, when we heard and saw things in our national life that most of us never could have predicted or even imagined, when we discovered that we don’t understand each other, don’t know each other, don’t like each other and definitely don’t love each other.
            So, this morning it definitely feels to me at least like we’ve reached the finish line.
            We made it!
            Merry Christmas!
            As we do every Christmas morning, this morning we heard the Christmas story according to the Gospel of John.
            John doesn’t tell us anything about no room at the inn or angels appearing to shepherds or about the newborn baby placed in a manger.
            No, John takes us back to…
            “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
            Just like the story of Mary and Joseph and shepherds and sheep and “wise ones” that we saw retold in the pageant last night, John’s cosmic Christmas story never loses its power and beauty, no matter how many times we hear it.
            But, this year in particular what I’ve been thinking about is how Mary and Joseph and Jesus and the shepherds all of the other New Testament people lived during a terrible, terrible time – lived in a blood-soaked land ruled by a brutal empire.
            I’ve been thinking about how all four of the gospels were written during terrible times, when the Jewish people were under attack and seemed to lose just about everything, including the Temple itself, the center of their universe.
            And, you know, the opening of John’s Gospel that we heard this morning, what’s called the Prologue, was probably one of the last parts of the gospel to be written, most likely in the early Second Century.
            By that time, the Jewish people and the earliest Christians had endured so much suffering, so much loss, so much bitter division, and so much fear, and yet after all of that, the Evangelist can write the good news, the best news of all, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
            The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not – cannot -overcome it.
            There is no finish line for the Light of Christ.
            The world did its worst to Jesus, but on the first Easter God raised him from the dead.
            The world did its worst to the people of Israel and to the early Christians and yet they remembered and retold and passed on their stories, trusting in God and being the light in a very dark world.
            The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not – cannot -overcome it.
            So, after everything we’ve been through it may feel like we’re at the end of a marathon, out of steam, barely crawling to the finish line.
            It may feel that way, but, of course, it’s not the finish line.
            There is a new year ahead, which, no doubt, will be filled with challenges and opportunities, losses and blessings, sorrows and joys.
            Our marathon, our journey together, continues.
            So, it’s very good news that there’s no finish line for the Light of Christ.
            There’s no finish line for God’s love.
            So, my prayer is that, first, we’ll all get some rest, but then as we begin the Twelve Days of Christmas, we will open our hearts even wider to God’s love.
            My prayer is that as we begin a new year, we will allow the Light of Christ to shine in and through us, allow the Light to shine in and through us as we welcome absolutely everybody, as we feed the hungry, as we stand up for those who are being picked on, as we refuse to hate, as we give away more of ourselves in loving service to those in need.
            It’s Christmas.
            We made it!
            God is with us.
            The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not – cannot -overcome it.
            There’s no finish line for the Light of Christ.
            There’s no finish line for God’s love.
            And, that is something to celebrate.
            Merry Christmas to you all!           

Saturday, December 24, 2016

"We Belong to Each Other"

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 97
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:1-20

“We Belong to Each Other”
            Merry Christmas!
            It is so good to be here, so good to see the church looking so beautiful, so good to hear all of this fantastic music, so good to hear the Christmas story, a story of God with us in and through a newborn child, a story that, no matter how many times we hear it, still captures our imaginations and moves our hearts.
            It is so good to be together.
            Over the past few weeks, as I’ve prepared for Christmas, I’ve been reflecting on how Jesus was born into community.
            At the very start, as we heard tonight, this community was tiny.
            At first, Jesus’ community was just two people, Mary and Joseph, two seemingly ordinary people, a Jewish man and woman living in a blood-soaked land ruled by a mighty and brutal empire, two people swept up into the events of their day, driven from their home, at least for a time, because of the whims of a faraway emperor.
            At first, Jesus’ community was just two people, Mary and Joseph, two seemingly ordinary people, unable to provide proper shelter for their newborn child, forced to place the precious baby in a manger, the pretty word we say for a feeding trough used by animals.
            At first, Jesus’ community was just two people, Mary and Joseph, who were faithful enough and brave enough to trust God’s dream, and welcome Jesus into the world.
            At first Jesus’ community was small, but it didn’t stay small for long.
            As we were reminded in tonight’s gospel reading, shepherds visited the newborn Jesus, surrounding him from the start with hardworking and seemingly ordinary people who were open to God’s surprises.
            And then, Jesus grew up as part of a community in Nazareth, a small town where life was hard and, by necessity, people had to look out for each other.
            It was a place where the rhythm of life was shaped by the seasons and the religious calendar, shaped by hearing God’s Word in the synagogue, shaped by the desire to keep God’s Law with great faithfulness.
            Jesus was born into community – and grew up in community.
            And then, later, he left home and took up his ministry, preaching peace, healing the sick, offering love to the unloved, and proclaiming that the kingdom of God had come near.
            You know, for some reason, many of us tend to think of Jesus as a loner, striking out on his own, spending a lot of time off by himself, deep in prayer with his Father.
            But, while the gospels do tell us that Jesus was a man of prayer, the reality is that Jesus spent the years of his ministry building and leading community.
            Jesus spent the years of his ministry surrounded by people, welcoming all kinds of people, attracting a ragtag group of followers who wanted to spend time with Jesus because he had Good News, because he was Good News, a bunch of fishermen and tax collectors and women and even the occasional Pharisee who all enjoyed eating and drinking with Jesus, listening to his stories - a community that just loved being with Jesus, even when they didn’t understand him so much.
            Jesus built community, lived in community, a community that was open to all.
            Unfortunately, at what seemed like the end of the story, the community pretty much failed Jesus, betraying, abandoning, and denying him.
            But, at the first Easter, the Jesus community reassembled – and has been reassembling and growing ever since, telling and retelling his stories, gathering around the table, reunited with the Risen Jesus in the bread and the wine.
            Jesus our brother was born into community, grew up in community, built community, lived in community, and lives on in community, right here and right now.
            And, of course! Of course, because this is what we’re made for. It’s how we’re built.
            We are meant to live in community, in community with each other, in community with Jesus.
            It is so good to be together.
            But, you know, today many of us seem to have forgotten this, retreating into our own little worlds, where only we can hear the music streaming from our headphones, where only we can see the words and images on our screens, where we don’t really talk or listen to each other, where we spend our time only with people who live and look and think like us.
            We’ve retreated into our own little worlds and so, no surprise, we don’t really know each other anymore.
            And, predictably, since we don’t know each other anymore, we’ve become frightened of each other, assumed the worst about each other, grown to resent and, yes, sometimes, even hate each other.
            Out in our country and in the world, the shadows have grown dark, and fear, fury, and violence are on the loose.
            We’ve lost our way.
            All of this reminds me of a quote from Mother Teresa of Calcutta who famously said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
            “We have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
            So, after a year of bitterness, anger, and division, and now as we face an uncertain future, maybe this Christmas can be a reminder that we belong to God, and we belong to each other.
            Maybe this Christmas can be the start of a return to community.
            Maybe this Christmas can be the start, maybe just a small start, but the start of a return to community, community where we look out for each other, where we enjoy each other’s company, where we hear each other’s music, where we actually listen and talk to people who see things differently, even if that means we agree to disagree.
            Maybe this Christmas really can be the start of a return to community, community where we rediscover what we know in our hearts: that we are meant for each other – a return to community where we rediscover God, who’s been there, been here, all along.
            Maybe this Christmas really can be the start of a return to community – community, where, like Mary and Joseph long ago, we love Jesus by caring for the weakest and most defenseless, by giving to people who can’t pay us back.
            Let’s return to community, because as Christmas reminds us:
            Jesus is born in community.
            We belong to each other.
            And, it is so good to be together.
            Merry Christmas to you all!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Father's Letter: Trust the Dream

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
December 18, 2016

Year A: The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

A Father’s Letter: Trust the Dream
            This past week I finally had the chance to read a book that got quite a bit of attention when it came out last year.
            It’s called Between the World and Me and it’s written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African-American journalist who writes for The Atlantic magazine.
            The short book is actually a long public letter written by Coates to his teenage son. And in this letter, Coates tells his son about his experience growing up black in Baltimore and then attending Howard University and finally becoming a father and a journalist.
            Throughout the book, Coates writes vividly and painfully about the vulnerability of black bodies: the historic vulnerability of black bodies when Europeans and Americans enslaved and tortured and attempted to dehumanize them, and the present-day vulnerability of black bodies as, over and over, politicians and the police and the courts make it quite clear that black lives really don’t matter as much as other lives, the vulnerability that I’m sure so many of you, so many of our parishioners, feel every day, as you walk or drive around, as you shop, as you apply for work and try to hold on to jobs, as you worry sick about children and grandchildren.
            Coates fears for his son’s safety in our gun-crazed and still quite racist country, fears that his son will join the tragically long list of black people, especially black men, killed in senseless violence on the street or killed when a seemingly routine traffic stop goes horribly wrong.
            So, it’s a painful book to read but it’s also moving and inspiring, because Coates obviously loves his son so much and wants him, despite the obvious vulnerability, to live a rich life filled with love and art and meaning and hope.
            Well, today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the final Advent Sunday of waiting and watching and preparation, the Sunday when we turn our attention from John the Baptist to those other main Advent characters, Mary and Joseph.
            Today we heard Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. Matthew is the evangelist who tells us the most about Joseph, although never once in this Gospel or in the others does Joseph say even a single word.
            Joseph is the silent man of Advent, the silent man of the Gospel.
            So, reading a book written by a father to his son got me wondering and imagining what silent Joseph would say to the teenage Jesus about his birth and the meaning of his life.
            What would the almost certainly illiterate Joseph write if he could to Jesus, this young man who, like every other Jew living under Roman occupation in the first century, was at least as vulnerable as a black person in twenty-first century America.
            What fears and hopes did Joseph have for this Jesus who he had raised as his own son, probably at no small cost to himself?
            And, what I imagined is that Joseph would tell Jesus to do what Joseph had done all those years ago.
            I imagined that Joseph would tell Jesus to trust God’s dream.
            Trust the dream.
            “My son,
            There was a time when I wondered if I could ever, would ever, accept you as my son. Even today, as we work side by side, it still sometimes saddens me when I look at you and see nothing of my family in your face.
            And yet, I do see myself in you. I see myself in the way you walk, the way you carry yourself, the care you take with our work, your desire for every chair and table we make to be absolutely perfect.
            I see myself in you the way you strive to treat everyone fairly. I see myself in you the way you feel sad and want to help all the blind beggars by the side of the road, and all the lepers on the outskirts of town.
             I see myself in you as you keep God’s Law and aim for righteousness.
            Your mother, who has long pondered in her heart all the amazing and mysterious events around your birth, has shared some of our story, your story, with you, but, not being much of a talker, I haven’t, at least not yet.
            But now, I am old and may not have much time to tell you our story.
            Our story began with your mother telling me the most unexpected and very hard to believe news: my young Mary was with child, a gift not from me, but, she said, a gift from God.
            I was angry. I was hurt. I was confused. I wanted to believe her but could not.
            Despite all of this, I surprised myself by still loving your mother. I did not want to disgrace her.
            My plan was to quietly end our betrothal, as quietly and privately as we can do anything in our small town where, as you know, there are few secrets.
            But then in a dream an angel appeared to me, telling me to not be afraid and to take Mary as my wife. The angel told me that you would play a most special role in history.
            So, my son, I faced a choice, the choice of my life.
            Do I trust the dream?
            Well, you know the choice I made.
            It was not an easy choice, as I think you also know.
            In our small town, the busybodies gossiped about the timing of your birth, mocking us, and, yes, I’ll admit, wounding my pride as you grew up and your face bore no likeness to mine.
            It was not an easy choice, but trusting God’s dream has made all the difference for me, for you, and, I believe, so many others.
            What I have learned is, trusting God’s dream makes it real.
            And now I look at you in the shop, so familiar and yet somehow always mysterious, and I know that the angel’s promise is about to be fulfilled.
            I see you gazing off into the distance, looking up to the sky. I see you praying so intensely and listening so carefully in the synagogue to the story of God and our people, and I know our small town Nazareth will not be able to hold you.
            I see you angered by the injustices all around us and I wonder what will happen when you begin to speak out, when you point your life to God whose kingdom is the exact opposite of the kingdom built by the Romans and Herod in their gilded palaces. God’s kingdom is the exact opposite of this earthly kingdom built on the backs of poor people like us, this brutal earthly kingdom soaked with our blood.
            I see you fired up with love for the poor and the abused, and I wonder what will happen when you face opposition from the rich and powerful. They hunted you even as an infant.
            What will happen when the people you thought were your friends get frightened and fail you, or even betray you? What will happen when it feels like even God has abandoned you?
            I will not live to see all of this, to see how you make your way, how you live out your destiny, in our dangerous and broken world.
            And, since you were a little boy you have often not taken my advice. I am at peace with this.
            But, the one thing I want you to remember, the great lesson of my life is: trust the dream.
            Trust God’s dream. Trust the dream.
            With love, from your father.”
            Now for us it’s the Fourth Sunday of Advent.
            Out in the world, in the malls and along the avenues, it’s been Christmas for a really long time, and even here in church today’s gospel lesson is the Christmas story and after the 10:00 service we’ll be greening the church and then we’re off and running.
            It will be wonderful and it will be magical and I hope you’re here for all of it.
            But, behind all the beautiful decorations and gorgeous music, is the story of poor people living in an occupied land ruled by brutal tyrants.
            It’s the story of seemingly simple and ordinary people who, despite their very real fears and vulnerabilities, made the faithful choice to trust God’s dream of a kingdom of love.
            And, look what happened.
            By trusting God’s dream, Mary, Joseph, and most especially Jesus, they made God’s dream real.
            May we also trust the dream.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Finding Joy in a Time of Trouble

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
December 11, 2016

Year A: The Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:4-9
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Finding Joy in a Time of Trouble
            I’ve lived my whole life in the United States, so I’ve never lived under a totalitarian dictatorship.
            I know that some of you, some of our own parishioners, grew up and lived in countries ruled by brutal dictators, places where the great freedoms of speech and assembly and religion were not respected – just the opposite.
            I’ve never lived in that kind of brutal place, but I have visited one.
            Back in the late 80’s, I had the chance to visit East Berlin, the capital city of East Germany, which was ruled by a ruthless government, puppets of the Soviet Union.
            You’ll remember that things were so bad in East Germany that the government was forced to build a wall to keep its own people from fleeing to freedom and opportunity.
            The wall was surrounded by landmines and watched over by guards in towers, guards who were under orders to shoot and kill anyone trying to escape to the West.
            So, when I first visited East Berlin, I was nervous.
            I was nervous at the border crossing, standing in front of a tinted window while on the other side a border guard I could just barely see examined my passport, and exchanged my valuable West German money for almost worthless East German currency.
            Anyway, I was allowed into the East.
            And when I crossed over, to my surprise, I remember thinking how normal it all seemed. Like any other city, people were going about their business, doing their jobs, shopping, eating and drinking in cafes and bars.
            Trolleys and cars made their way up and down the streets.
            It all seemed very normal, but in fact I was visiting a giant prison.
            At the end of the day, with my US passport, I would be able to cross back through the checkpoint into freedom, but all of these seemingly normal people going about their business, these prisoners, could not.
            Over the years I’ve thought about that experience a lot. And, I’ve wondered, is it possible to experience joy in a place like that?
            And, even if our situation isn’t quite so extreme, we all know the challenge of finding joy in a time of trouble.
            Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday we traditionally ease up a little, symbolized by switching our liturgical color from blue to rose (not pink!)
            Today is the Sunday we allow ourselves to recognize that, yes, Christmas is getting close.
            Today is sometimes called “Gaudete Sunday” from a Latin word meaning “rejoice.”
            The problem, of course, is that it’s hard to find joy in a time of trouble.
            And, we live in a time of trouble with our country bitterly divided and about to be led by a kind of government we’ve never really seen before.
            We live in a time of trouble with, they say, a much-improved economy and yet so many of our parishioners continue to struggle and just last week two people who live right here on Duncan Avenue told me that they had to move because their homes are being foreclosed.
            We live in a time of trouble with regrets about the past and fears of the future.
            And, in today’s gospel lesson, we hear about someone else who’s in trouble: John the Baptist.
            Last week we heard about John the Baptist in his prime, dressed up like Elijah, down at the River Jordan preaching repentance to the people, baptizing huge crowds from Jerusalem and the surrounding country, letting the religious establishment really have it – “you brood of vipers’ – and predicting that an even greater one was coming who would baptize – and judge - with fire.
            John the Baptist preached truth to power, and, as usual, power didn’t like it very much.
            The imprisonment of John the Baptist (and his soon to come execution) is a reminder of something we often forget: John the Baptist and Jesus and all the other New Testament people lived during a terrible time, a time when Israel was under the control of the ruthless Romans and their grotesque puppets, Herod and his descendants.
            The Romans weren’t big into freedom for their conquered peoples, and they didn’t tolerate any resistance.
            Crucifixion wasn’t a rare event. Just the opposite. There were times when thousands of crosses stood around Jerusalem, each holding a powerful and decomposing reminder of what happened when you challenged authority.
            So, today we hear that John is in prison and while earlier he had recognized Jesus as the Messiah now he seems to be wavering, or, at least having trouble seeing Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.
            No surprise, the imprisoned prophet John the Baptist is having trouble finding joy in a time of trouble.
            The problem may be that John is not able - or not willing - to see what’s really going on.
            Remember how John had predicted that the Messiah was coming with his winnowing fork, to gather up the wheat into the granary and to cast the chaff into unquenchable fire?
            A powerful image, and even maybe inspiring if you imagine the Romans or other brutal dictators as the “chaff” burning in an eternal fire.
            But, instead of pronouncing fiery judgment, instead of taking up the sword and gathering an army to drive the Romans and their allies out of Israel, Jesus the Messiah gives sight to the blind, gives new steps to the lame, gives cleansing to the lepers, gives sound to the deaf, gives new life to the dead, and good news to the poor.
            And, that’s how God works.
            Especially in times of trouble, if we look carefully we find that God is always at work offering good news, offering healing, and offering new life.
             If we pay attention, we can find joy even in times of trouble.
            I’ve noticed that over these past few months and weeks, in the face of so much ugliness and fear, we seem to be taking better care of each other.
            There have been more people volunteering to feed the homeless, more people bringing food for the pantry, more people in church, finding joy in a time of trouble.
            To be honest, each year our Christmas giving tree is kind of a pain in the neck as the church staff tries to get everyone to remember to bring in the gifts that they promised, but this year nearly all of the gifts were under the tree in record time, offering to children we’ll never meet joy in a time of trouble.
            The other night, at our Stone Soup Community Supper, people seemed a little more willing to linger over the meal, to talk, to really listen to each other, to just be together, finding joy in a time of trouble.
            You know, all those years ago when I visited communist East Berlin, a tall TV tower, one of the tallest structures in Europe, dominated the city’s skyline. Like their Olympic teams that won so many medals, the tower was meant as a sign of the success and power of the brutal regime. You’d see it just about anywhere you looked.
            There was – and is - a giant stainless steel dome on the tower, above the restaurant and observation deck.
            And, to the frustration of the communist rulers who built it as a sign of their greatness, when the sun hits the stainless steel dome of the TV tower it makes an unmistakable sign of the cross, a sign of the cross that glowed over the imprisoned city, a sign of the cross that was humorously called the “Pope’s Revenge,” but seriously offered a sign of God’s presence even in a place with very little hope or joy.
            And, eventually, the East German people did rise up - peacefully, yes, but they rose up, led in part by Christians who offered love against brutality, who offered hope against walls and guard towers, who offered joy in a time of trouble.
            And, sure enough, brutal dictators and ugly walls fell.
            Today our country is bitterly divided and about to be led by the kind of government we’ve never really seen before.
            We may find that our Christian faith is going to cost us like it’s never cost us before.
            Many of us are frightened by that – and frightened by the pile of bills on the kitchen table, the threat of layoffs at work, frightened by an uncertain and unknown future.
            Yet, just like in first century Israel and twentieth century Germany, just like all the time, God is at work.
            God is at work, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.
            God is at work, not using a winnowing fork, but offering love and healing and hope to a hurting world, allowing us, if we look, to find joy in a time of trouble.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Wrong Way

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
December 4, 2016

Year A: The Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

Wrong Way
            This is a little embarrassing for me to tell you, but, I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was thirty years old.
            I waited so long because, over the years, I had developed a kind of phobia about driving.
            I’ve since learned that this is pretty common for people who grow up in cities where you know the driving really is intense: narrow, busy streets; heavy traffic; pedestrians darting into the street just about anywhere and everywhere; speed limits are, unfortunately, rarely enforced; and the rules of the road are treated more like ideals, or, maybe, suggestions.
            Anyway, I had worked myself into a phobia, convinced that I could never be quick enough, never careful enough, never coordinated enough, could never be attentive enough to be a good driver.
            And, for years, thanks to generous friends and halfway-decent public transportation, I was able to get around – just like many of our own parishioners here are able to do OK without a car or even a license.
            But, eventually, Sue convinced me that I needed to face and overcome this fear - and finally get a driver’s license.
            (I’m sure the fact that she didn’t want to always be the one doing the driving must have been a big part of it!)
            I remember being so nervous in the beginning as I was learning, driving so slowly, letting people just pass me, gripping the wheel, wondering how I could ever get used to this awesome responsibility.
            But, I passed the road test and got my license and slowly got used to driving, especially when we lived out in Madison where it was necessary to drive pretty much everywhere.
            And now today, like most drivers, I don’t really think about it. I’m not conscious of all the decisions I make each time I drive – not really conscious of all of my many choices and actions, except when there’s a near-miss, or I pass an accident, or have to drive someplace challenging and confusing, like over the George Washington Bridge, or, when I see one of those red “Wrong Way” signs.
            You know those signs?
            You often see them at entrance or exit ramps, or where the intersection is a little complicated.
            When I see one of those, I always stop and think for a panicked split-second, am I in the correct lane? Am I heading in the right direction?
            And then, once I’ve assured myself that, yes, it’s OK, I’m going in the right direction, I sometimes think: that sign is there because probably someone headed in the wrong direction, and drove straight ahead, right into potential disaster.
            Wrong Way.
            And, you know, over the centuries, that was the message of the Hebrew Prophets.
            Over and over they warned God’s people: You’re going the wrong way!            
            Wrong Way!
            You’re going the wrong way when you worship other gods.
            You’re going the wrong way when you don’t share with those in need.
            You’re going the wrong way when you don’t welcome the stranger and the foreigner.
            You’re going the wrong way when you say and do all the right things in the Temple but out in the world you live like everybody else, like none of that prayer and sacrifice makes any difference at all.
            Over and over, the prophets warned God’s people: Wrong Way!
            And, that was the message of the prophet we consider the last in the long line of Hebrew Prophets, John the Baptist.
            We are re-introduced to John the Baptist, one of the central Advent characters, in today’s Gospel lesson where he appears in the wilderness, dressing and eating like an earlier prophet, Elijah.
            John the Baptist proclaims to the people that they’re going the wrong way and calls on them to repent – to not just say they’re sorry, but to turn around their minds, to turn around their hearts, to turn around their lives.
            You’re going the wrong way! You’re heading right into disaster! And, there’s not much time because the Kingdom of heaven has come near, so, repent!
            Turn around, and be saved.
            And, we’re told that the people heard John’s warning and repented, a lot of people from Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside. They turned around by being baptized right there in the River Jordan, washing away their sins and then, hopefully, heading back in the right direction.
            You’re going the wrong way! Turn around! Repent!
             But, you know, the Bible is silent on how exactly all these people were heading in the wrong direction. We don’t know what sins were being washed away in the Jordan.
            Oh, we know that John – just like Jesus who comes after him – doesn’t have much use for the religious establishment.
            We hear that in today’s reading when John let’s the Pharisees and the Sadducees have it. “You brood of vipers, “ he calls them, criticizing them for thinking that they have nothing to worry about because they are descended from Abraham.
            But, what about everybody else?
            What sins were they washing away?
            Well, I’m sure there were some really serious things, violations of the Ten Commandments: idolatry, lying, stealing, cheating.
            But, I bet for a lot of those people back then, maybe all of the people, one of the sins was simply not paying attention, taking all of God’s good gifts for granted, no longer appreciating the beauty and the abundance all around, and no longer seeing the poor and the hungry and not sharing with those in need.
            And, maybe the same is true for us.
            You know, life can be a lot like driving.
            We get used to it. We all have a lot on our mind and we get distracted. We go through the motions, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, not really thinking about what we’re doing, separated from and no longer really seeing most of the people around us.
            We don’t really pay attention until suddenly we realize that we’ve forgotten about God, until suddenly we realize that we don’t have all the time in the world, until suddenly we realize that we hate and fear those who are different or who disagree with us, until suddenly we realize that we’ve given away almost nothing to our brothers and sisters in need, until suddenly we realize that we’ve made some wrong turns and we’ve lost our way.
            We don’t really pay attention until we see that “Wrong Way” sign.
            The prophets, including John the Baptist, through their words and actions, held up that “Wrong Way” sign in front of the people, calling them to turn around, to repent.
            And, John prepares the way for Jesus, who will also hold up that same “Wrong Way” sign, calling on the people, calling on us, his followers, here today, to turn around, to repent.
            And, better than that, Jesus doesn’t just hold up the “Wrong Way” sign.
            No, through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus shows us the “Right Way” – the way of love, the way of generosity, the way of sacrifice.
            Jesus doesn’t just hold up the “Wrong Way” sign.
            He offers himself as the Right Way.
            It’s the Second Sunday of Advent and all of us in our own way are heading the wrong way.
            And, yes, the Kingdom of heaven is drawing near, but, thanks be to God, there’s still time, still time to pay attention, still time to turn around our minds, hearts, and lives, still time to repent.