120918 Advent 2c Preparing
Luke 3:1-6; Phil. 1:3-11
We are entering a season of preparation and hospitality. Last Thursday I met with David Cosio, Saul and Nalani Rodriguez to prepare an event to inaugurate a new youth group here at St. Athanasius on January 5 and we discussed how to create a welcoming atmosphere for the youth. On Friday a group of members came to prepare this beautiful altar to Guadalupe for the guests that will come to the service this Wednesday night. Last night we hosted a wine tasting event. We included a lot of details to make sure that everyone had a good time. This afternoon some of us will be decorating the Christmas tree to create a welcoming space in the church at this time of the year. A lot of us are thinking about hospitality as we prepare our homes for guests for holiday entertaining. For all of these events we think about how to prepare a welcoming space so that guests feel like we want them to enjoy themselves. Hospitality involves creating a space for other people, anticipating their needs.
John the Baptist was put in charge of hospitality for the arrival of the Lord of history. That’s a tall order. Louis, Chevalier de Jaucourt describes hospitality as the virtue of a great soul that cares for the whole universe through the ties of humanity. Did John rise to that level in his preparations for Jesus? Last week we read Jeremiah’s promise that God would raise a righteous branch from the tree of David to execute justice in the land. That was the Big Promise that supersedes all the little promises that our culture tries to substitute, especially at Christmas time. The Messiah was coming to execute justice. So the job of the one preparing for his arrival was to level the playing field, to create some space in which justice could work.
The playing field wasn’t level when John came on the scene. John talked about preparing for a new reality in the midst of an old reality. Things had to change; something was wrong. So John chose an odd location for its headquarters – the wilderness, an unlikely place for the Lord of History to arrive. It was the best place for doing what needed to be done: valleys needed filling, mountains needed to be lowered, crooked things needed straightening and rough roads needed to be smooth out. That way, no matter where you stood you could see salvation come. In God’s coming reign all will have equal access to salvation. In human history we call that justice.
Choosing the desert was John’s way to symbolize the truth that preparing for Messiah must involve repentance. We already know this is true, don’t we? But do we know how deep the wrong goes? Did people that listened to John know? John apparently didn’t think so. In next week’s Gospel, which is the rest of today’s story, he asked people, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” People had only a superficial a view of how bad things were.
Last week was an interesting week to reflect on this. On the one hand the world focused on George H.W. Bush – his death, his life and his legacy. There was praise from many corners. And there were voices of dissent that were bothered by all the praise, which seemed to forget all the things that President Bush did that hurt people. Also last week saw the prosecutions of Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort. We heard boring, raw legalese, and we heard spins from both sides – one side said it actually proved that the President was not involved, and the other side said that impeachment proceedings must begin soon.
The old reality that requires repentance both in John’s time and in ours goes much deeper than the misdeeds of a President. It is difficult to see clearly the need for repentance when the message is so distorted. When someone shows us something crooked and says it’s straight, our first step must be to say, “No, that is crooked.” When someone hands us a rough stone and says, “Feel how smooth it is”, we must be impolite enough to say, “No, that is not smooth; it’s rough”. Only then can we make them straight and smooth. That’s what repentance is. Too many are shouting, “this is the way of the Lord. Come join us”, and not enough are shouting, “prepare the way of the Lord.”
In the full Gospel passage about John, Luke doesn’t leave this at the level of prophetic poetry. He showed how specific and concrete John’s preparation got. When people asked John what they should do, he said, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.” That way everyone will have the same. Whoever has food must do the same. Tax collectors must collect no more than what the law prescribed, which would put most of them out of business. “Soldiers, (and we might add, border patrol agents) don’t take advantage of the fact that you carry weapons to extort money or service from people by threats or false accusations, which was they way they compensated for low wages.
That is all very interesting as history. But what did John’s words really accomplish? And what does it have to do with us? Jesus came and some still have several coats while others have none; some still take more from others than it is their job to do; and people still threaten each other based on the power of position and weaponry. It seems there is still preparation that needs to be done.
During Advent we focus on two comings of Jesus. John the Baptist was the Hospitality chairman for Jesus’ first advent. But we await a second coming – a second advent. Jesus established a community that became the beginning of the hospitality committee for the second advent. We are part of that committee. We may prefer not to think about that very often. Nothing in our culture calls us to think about preparing for God’s reign of justice. But that’s no different from John’s time: people had to leave the mainstream and go to the desert to hear the message of preparation. And people had to go against the grain of their culture to do what John asked of them.
In every case, preparing for Messiah is about setting things right that have gone wrong; about creating a level playing field for all of creation. One group is not to be at a disadvantage compared to others. Today we would add that the earth is not to be at a disadvantage compared to human beings; the environment is not to be at a disadvantage compared to economic development; the quality of human life isn’t to be distorted by making economic improvement the be-all and end-all of human existence. Spirit isn’t to be set over against matter in a false dichotomy or hierarchy. To act on any of those convictions is to go against the stream of our culture; to repent of the way we have been living. So how do we prepare to be hospitable to God’s coming?
When John said to share coats, and to stop overcharging and extorting he was inviting people to prepare both internally and externally, both spiritually and materially. To share my extra coat with another changes the internal landscape of my life. No longer am I a person focused exclusively on my own needs, my own satisfactions, my own happiness. I become a person for others. That prepares me to be a person who will welcome Jesus when he comes to establish the reign of justice and peace we call the reign of God. Richard Rohr even goes further: “Whenever the material and the spiritual coincide, there is the Christ… Christ ‘comes again’ whenever we are able to see the spiritual and the material coexisting… the Second Coming of Christ’ happens whenever and wherever we all this to be utterly true for us.”
The good news is that this new way of being human is already in us. It’s not something we need to acquire or work towards. It’s something we need to awaken to. As Teilhard de Chardin said, “Christ, through his Incarnation, is interior to the world, rooted in the world even in the very heart of the tiniest atom.” Rohr adds, “and yet everything is also fragmented and fighting this very process of reunification… This resistance is symbolized by the cross: “there is a cruciform shape to reality… loss precedes all renewal; emptiness makes way for every new infilling; every transformation in the universe requires the surrendering of a previous ‘form’… every time you and I hate, fear, compete, attack, judge, separate, we are resisting the full flow of Love, the energy which is driving the universe forward.”
This means that whenever we act as persons for others, our internal nature is unified with creation, and the external landscape of the world around me also begins to find its unity. By sharing my coat I level the playing field in one little corner of the world. Together we help create an environment of receptivity to Jesus’ coming.