May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be right and acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and Redeemer.
“Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us; till we find our rest in thee.” This morning there is good news and there is hard, demanding news. The good news is that Jesus has come. God took on human flesh and dwelled among us. Our sins have been atoned—the power of his act on the cross—and our death has been overcome in the Resurrection. We are free. The hard, demanding news is, however, that our fears still, even almost 2,000 years later, override our freedom.
The theme chosen by Dean Baxter for the Advent preaching in 1997, in this great Cathedral church, is “Waiting for God.” I am pleased and honored, Dean Baxter, that you have asked me to preach on this second Sunday of Advent, the Sunday when we hear the Lukan account of John the Baptizer, the prophet of the wilderness who came proclaiming the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his path straight.” Baruch in the reading from the Appocrypha, also echoes the one whom we call the second Isaiah: “Make level ground so Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.” Straight and level are not words about finding the center or seeking moderation or working toward a compromise. Straight and level are words of justice, of equality. So John comes saying that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
I say this morning that waiting for the justice of God is a dangerous thing. The epistle appointed for this Sunday raises that very concern. Paul is writing to the young church in Philippi. The Scripture tells us that he is in prison and that he is writing to encourage those who are in Philippi to do the good works that will produce the harvest of righteousness. As Christians, we know that righteousness means being in a right relationship with God. The people at Philippi, like those in the church in Thessalonica, were concerned about waiting for what they were calling the second coming of Jesus.; the return. Paul calls this time of the return the day of Jesus Christ. How should they be in those churches? What should they be doing? How should their lives be as a new church? They were concerned that things were not going well. They were concerned that there were those who were, in fact, dying, and they expected Jesus to come again before their deaths. So, their anxiety was enough for Paul to write to them about getting on with doing those things that needed doing, about bringing in the harvest of righteousness.
We, too, are anxious in our waiting. Our fears overtake us as we keep hoping and praying for the day of Christ. And our fears cause us to do things that make us, at times, almost crazy. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernadine, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Chicago, talks about some of the dangers that happen in the human condition when we are in this state: “the tendency towards self-centeredness and the escape from the difficulties of life, both of these are very popular today, and both of these always distort the Gospel, the good news of God in Christ.
In our waiting we are becoming more and more focused on ourselves as individuals, as a church, as a city, as a nation and, indeed, as a world. We are afraid the others, whoever and whatever the other may be. Men and women are always afraid of one another. Those of us who are white are afraid of those whose skins are a different color from our own. God knows those whose skins are a different color from white have been persecuted by those like me, so that fear is present in those relationships. Rich and poor are afraid of one another. Those of use who have more degrees are afraid of those who do not. And on and on it goes. Whatever the difference may be among us, you and I know who the other is. And we are driven by this fear to more and more security systems, whether they be in our homes, in prisons or in weapons of war.
The second tendency that Cardinal Bernadine talks about is our escape from the difficulties and the realities. We have become a people who, in self-centeredness, have gone into a place where those whose skins are different from those of us who are white find themselves congregating together. Those of us who are straight fear those who are gay. And we want to escape from the difficulties. We no longer read the newspapers that give us a longer account of what is happening in the world. I have become one of those who is very good at flicking on channels and, if I don’t like the news, I go on to something else. It’s terrible to me to see the tragedies that are taking place in the rest of world and, indeed, right in this very city.
So, I want, as many of you do, to escape those difficulties. However, that hard news, that difficult news is never the final word for those of us who believe in Jesus Christ. The final word for us is always good news. For making the way straight and making the way level and bringing in the harvest of righteousness, doing justice as the prophets called for, transforms us. It transforms you and me. And those tendencies toward escape and toward self-centeredness are taken away in our doing for others. You and I live always for the risen Christ. Always among others. Whenever the truth is told, or he has said to us, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” we are aware of that presence. Whenever the bread and wine are broken and shared, as we will soon do at this table, we know that the long expected Jesus is here. He is calling us to be people who straighten the way and level the way so the glory of our salvation may, indeed, be shown throughout the world.
It is this salvation that he alone accomplished for us, and when we do justice, we walk with God. The good news is that we have been released from our fears. Our task is to believe that with all our hearts, our souls and our minds so that we may be changed from being self-centered people who walk away to escape the difficulties of this world to being people who reach out to those who are not like us, to the others, to bring the peace we believe God is about to this world.
I want to close this morning by reading to you about a man of justice, a man who understood the Apostle Paul and the prophets Isaiah and John, a man who knew the long expected Jesus had, indeed, come and was among us. They are the words of a modern-day doer of justice, the late Justice Thurgood Marshall. On the day of his funeral, in this place, Dean Baxter preached a homily in which he quoted Justice Marshall about doing justice and how, indeed, it transformed his life and the challenge to us. This is Justice Marshall at his best: “The battle for racial and economic justice is not yet won. Indeed, it has barely, barely begun. The legal system can force open doors and sometimes knock down the walls, but it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to me and to you, and to you and to you.” But then he said this, “Take a chance. Take a chance, won’t you, and knock down the fences that divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison. Reach out, for freedom lies just on the other side.”
That is the challenge to us on this the second Sunday of Advent, to reach out. To reach out to those who are the other. Come out of that self-centered place and that attempt to escape from the world, and know that the long expected Jesus is here. Our waiting without doing justice is dangerous. Our sins and fears, indeed, have been released, and we must take that challenge to reach out because freedom is on the other side. Amen.