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Daisy-Cutters & Crocuses: Has Anything Changed?

Isaiah 35
Matthew 11:1-6
James 5:7-8
Sun, December 16, 2001
Rev. Gerald Hobbs
I preached my first Advent sermon in 1968. Thirty-three years ago. For many of you, that's nearly a lifetime! And in fact, though I hate to admit it, that wasn't even at the beginning of my preaching career; I'd been preaching already for five years or more! But back in 1968, you see, we United Church folk didn't much celebrate Advent. As two of my students - Jan and Robin - reminded me, when they did a hymnbook project for me last week, there wasn't even an Advent section in the old blue hymnal we used then!

Anyway, I began preaching Advent back in 1968. Earlier this week, we met - Ed, Margaret and I - to think about this service, and choose the hymns, as we do every week. I was reflecting, as Ed says, also on what I would be saying this past Thursday in my sermon at the VST Advent carol service. In fact, I found myself looking back over nearly thirty-five years of preaching, since that first Advent sermon, and wondering: what has changed these thirty-three years?

Now you may think that when you get to my stage of life -- you know, decrepit, brain foggy, drearily sentimental -- this is normal. You might be right. But funnily enough, I'd like to think it was not creeping senility that set me going. Instead, it was coming around once again, in the three year cycle of the lectionary, to a text that caught me powerfully the first time I preached it: the story of John the Baptist in prison.

John the Baptist: you remember him? The first part of his story was just read by Gary. Wildman from the wilderness, wrapped in a camel skin - it says camelhair, but probably not your Ralph Lauren camelhair topcoat - living on a diet of locusts and wild honey. (I gather you dip the locust into the honey, and gulp!) But definitely a prophet! People flooded out to listen to the words of judgement, denouncing their sins, the sins of their neighbours, the sins of the priests, the judges, the king! You hypocrites, you snakes-in-the grass! And don't start telling me about your church membership! The whole structure is corrupt. Fortunately the judgement day is fast coming. The axe will be laid to the root of the tree, and trees whose fruit is so obviously gone bad will be chopped down, and thrown into the fire....... Well, many people came, some listened seriously, and One who asked for baptism struck John in particular. This one, John said, this one is the anointed One who is going to bring in the promised day of God.

Interesting man, if a bit odd... like some of those Old Testament prophets. But what's John the Baptist doing in the story of Christmas? Oh, I know, in the wonderful birth stories of Luke's Gospel, of Mary and Elisabeth, John shows up first as Jesus' distant cousin. He has a miraculous birth narrative, too. But leave that aside this morning. In some ways it is window-dressing. Neither Mark, nor John, nor our Gospel tells those stories. And come to think of it, when was the last time you saw a nativity scene that had camel-skin John with his fiery eye in it? Ours doesn't. So what's John doing on the Sunday morning agenda two Sundays before Christmas? The third Sunday of Advent. Is the church just running short of other stories to fill these four weeks of Advent, the season of the preparation, of Jesus' coming? Biblical filler, so to speak, part of the plot to hold us back, until finally on December 24 we can get all the figures at the manger, and enjoy the real story?

Actually, I once did see a nativity scene where John the Baptizer was also present. It was in the Uffizi gallery, in Florence. And amidst what seemed like dozens of similar portrayals of the beloved scene, suddenly one gripped me. For there was John, on the right hand side, along with shepherds ad wisemen: but he was not looking at the baby or even his mother, as were the rest. The artist had set him looking straight into my eyes, as if demanding of each viewer: so,...what about it? What are you doing to prepare the world for his coming?

John is there, to remind us that, as Ed said last week, God's coming has major political implications, for God's way will of a certainty upset the ways in which our world organizes its life. Remember John when next week, we sing the song of Mary, Jesus' mother, a song that celebrates the coming of the God who overturns the oppressors, in order to give shelter to the homeless, food to the hungry, clothing to the destitute, and hope to a weary world. John reminds us of the ancient dreams of the prophets, like the one Gary read from Isaiah: that God's coming into our world will overturn the way things are, and in bringing judgement, in ushering in the Judge who stands at the door - as James said -- will turn our deserts into gardens, our darkness to light, our despair to hope.

But Ed read a second story about John, and I want to take us back now into the Bible narrative. A few years have passed, we don't know how long. Now we find John the Baptizer languishing in prison. Basement floor of a desert fortress of Herod, to be precise, the king whom John had denounced so royally. Funny, isn't it, how often in our world it seems that the powerful seem to get the last laugh. Anyway, rotting away there in prison, with endless time for reflection -- actually, for some of us caught up in the pre-Christmas, end-of term, preparation for festivities in 10 days time, or departure for six months overseas -- at this hectic season we might fleetingly envy him his quiet! But John is prey to major doubts. In fact, when some of the followers of the glorious old days of Jordan show up to whisper a word at the window, and slip a few honeyed locusts through the bars: John blurts out the burden of his doubts. I don't hear any news of the tumbling of the towers of the powerful. What happened after I cleared all the deadwood of hypocrisy? I'm not hearing that a revival of true religion has swept the Temple in Jerusalem. Herod, the Romans, they seem more oppressive and more impregnable than ever. You tell me Jesus of Nazareth is poking around Galilee, preaching: go ask him. Jesus, nothing seems have changed! Was I wrong, then? Are you not the One from God after all, the One for whom we have been waiting so long?

That year of my first Advent sermon. I identified well with John the Baptist, preacher of justice for the oppressed. Some of you will recall your passion, how we burned with the zeal of youth for an end to oppression. That year of 1968, was a year of race riots in America, of entrenched apartheid in South Africa, of Agent Orange and defoliation of entire forests in Viet Nam. But this is where the story of John in prison caught me then, and catches me still now. For in that same 1968, my first Advent sermon year, the prophets of judgement, calling for our world's repentance - Martin Luther King, Jr, Robert Kennedy, Fr Camillo Torres - were assassinated. My youthful hopes for justice, a world made right and noble, were going up in the flames. I suspect that some of you, too, know what I mean, even if your benchmark, depending on your age, your coming to critical consciousness, will be different. You may think of the assassination of President Allende of Chile in '73, or the shooting of peaceful protesters in Quan-jiu in 1980, of the slaughter in the refugee camps in Lebanon in '82, of civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador, even of the Gulf War, another Desert Storm ten years ago. But the question - yours and mine - echoes the same question as that of John: what has changed? Has anything really changed?

In our Advent Lessons, in the Advent carols we sing, in the music Seiichi and I are playing this morning, by another John the Baptist, the French composer Jean-Baptiste Loeillet, we hear again the poetic words. Words of promise, of hope for new life and new possibilities arising from the most improbable places. Of new shoots rising from ancient stumps, of streams appearing in desert places, of unlikely rains that sprout fragile crocus on the desert floor, of the wolf lying down with the lamb, creation in a peaceable kingdom -- and a little child shall lead them. Promise, hope, new life springing out of the unlikely places of desert.

And then we open our papers, we switch on CNN. We see the great barren, still smoking stump of the World Trade towers and hear around them the cry for revenge. We assume the crocus will not make it in an Afghan desert where 7-ton Daisy-cutter bombs guarantee that no blade of grass will survive in a one-mile radius.

The incongruous, leaps out at us, the absurd becomes commonplace. I read the other day of the old lion in the newly re-opened Kabul zoo. Seven years ago, when some army or other successfully captured the city, a triumphant warrior flushed with testosterone climbed into the lion's cage. The lion ate the warrior. Next day the warrior's brother appeared, and tossed a hand grenade at the unsuspecting lion. The lion survived, blinded, in the unpeaceable kingdom of the Taliban, cared for by not a child, but an old warder. Has anything changed? As Israeli settlers and Palestinian militants destroy one another at a town called Emmanuel, what new monster lurches this week toward Bethlehem to be born?

Now many of our contemporaries try to avoid these ugly reminders. I suppose they prefer to respond to the call of some of our politicians, to engage this Christmas in *passionate consumption*. Others turn away, unwilling to see any more. In last Saturday's Globe Michael Valpy wrote a strikingly thought-provoking analysis of the world of Disney. Along the way, he told of a couple whose marriage covenant includes regular visits to Orlando, to Disneyworld, because, as one of them confessed, *I just need regularly to get away from the ugly world out there*. I guess Disney can do that for you; he seems to have re-invented himself in his official biographies, to write out of his life all the unpleasantness, the heart-ache, the prejudice.

But you and I are not in Disneyworld this morning. We have chosen to come here, listening again to the old promises, new life in the deserts of our lives, our societies, our planet... freshly conscious of the death in the deserts of Afghanistan, of New York, of the Downtown East Side, ... the political choices that undermine our national social network that the life's work of Dick and Verna, the character weaknesses that betray our personal hopes, the diseases that mock our dreams as they destroy our bodies. And we hear precisely John the Baptist, the old prophetic cutter of rotten trees, cry out in his loneliness: Jesus, nothing seems to have changed!

Yet We are here, here where we listen again to the story. Here, where ancient symbols and story will in a moment remind us that quietly, in the midst of chaos and evil, God works the miracle of seeding new life. We come here, where we celebrate the persistent belief that God creates new possibilities in our old world, wherever folk, however humble, however insignificant - like those Galilean pesants Mary and Joseph - say *Yes* to the Spirit's invitation. Here, in the midst of a society and church world that is changing so dramatically, as it were at the decaying stump of old Christendom, where God looks for fools like you and me who will say a stammering Yes to the call to be the green shoots of a new community growing to birth in this place each Sunday morning. Like the tiny oak I saw this summer, reaching its frail six inches skyward to the light out of the old pine stump that stands before our cottage. Here, where James invites us to learn endurance and hope from the patience of farmers, who trust the faithfulness of nature's rhythms. Here, where a foolish Christ dares still to invite the whole lost and despairing creation - including you and me - to find itself gathered as one people, of diverse races, nations, cultures, social strata. Here, where like old John, we look into each others' faces, and see lives that are being made new, eyes that are being opened, ears that hear the world's cry for justice, and hope of life. Here, where each week we dare to light the candles, and set the ancient Book upon a stand called *The Tree of Life*. The words, the Light that came two thousand years ago, that comes again each week, that will be born amongst us this Christmastide. This, too, has not changed.