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.