In the name of the living and true God, in the name of the One who is
coming, Amen.

Advent makes me extremely uncomfortable. There is such a built-in
contradiction. Here is the beginning of the Good News, and it’s
announced by someone of the likes of John the Baptist. It does not bode
well. It seems that in order for us to hear the Good News we have to
experience the world differently. And Advent is a time when the world we
know and think we control, falls apart and we stand naked before

The fantastic claim of the Good News of the Gospel is that Jesus
Christ is the test of reality, the test of what’s really real. And he
turns everything upside down and calls for a change of heart. It’s
called “repentance.”

Think about the readings for a moment. About comfort and upheaval at
the same time. “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.” Perhaps
we’re too familiar with this text—and I risk the ire of the
musicians here—maybe it’s been ruined by Handel’s
Messiah. We’ve heard it too often. And then we hear in the
Gospel that John the Baptist is coming preaching repentance and a new
heaven and new earth. Where is the comfort? Where is the Good News in
this after all?

So Advent strips us of our pretensions and justifications and we find
ourselves exposed and left naked, naked by the failed myth of secular
salvation, for example, democracy, free enterprise, globalization,
technology. We imagine they will save us from violence and chaos. And in
the light of our fragility, we might also ask what sort of persons ought
we to be? What would truly comfort us in a world of raucous and
violent certainties?

The comfort of the coming of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords is
neither what we expect nor what we want. In fact, it comes as an “in
your face” shock. So, given the revolution of Advent, where would you look for God in a
world and a Church addicted to polarization? Where would you look?

The Gospel’s shocking answer is there is no place better to
catch the wonder of Christ in this world than in the passion of the
poor, in the people we would rather forget. Christ, as the test of
reality, is shown to us in the place we would rather not look, the place
of powerlessness and dereliction, not at first sight, comforting and
encouraging. John Donne, the great dean of St. Paul’s, London, in
the 17th century, tells us that a naked image of God, is a much harder
thing. And there is much more art, he says, showed in making a naked
picture than in all the rich attire that can be put upon it. And
howsoever the rich man that is invested in power and greatness may be a
better picture of God,—God considered in himself who is all
greatness and all power—yet, of God considered in Christ, the poor
man is a better picture. Christ himself carries this consolation not to
a proximity only, says John Donne, but to an identity. He even says the
poor are He. He is the poor. And so he who oppresseth the poor
reproaches God: God in his orphans. God in his image. God in the members
of his own body. God in the heirs of his Kingdom. God in himself, in his
own person. And there you have the deep contradiction of the heart of
our faith: the Good News, God manifested in powerlessness.

So Advent challenges us with the issue of power and of our speaking
truth to it. Once Hugh Latimer, the reforming bishop of Wooster, was
preaching to Henry VIII. He knew that what he was about to say, the
King wouldn’t like. And so in the pulpit he soliloquized. He said,
“Latimer, Latimer, Latimer, be careful what you say. Henry the King is
here!” And then he paused, and went on, “Latimer, Latimer, Latimer, be
careful what you say. The King of Kings is here!” It speaks to Lenin’s
basic question, “who has the power to do what to whom?” And this is how basically the world works.

To whom do we, then, owe allegiance? Allegiance to Christ crucified
is absurd in the world’s terms. It does turn things upside down. Where
is the comfort? Where is the power? So this humble and naked Christ also raises questions about
Christianity’s exclusive claims. If Christ is “the one,” the test for
reality, where does that leave Buddha? What about other religions, other
powers, and other stories? And what kind of authority does Christ
exercise in all his nakedness?

In this world many people take comfort in believing that they’re
right and everyone else is wrong. A kind of spirit “I’m going to heaven,
and the world can go to hell.” So what are the exclusive claims of
Christianity that come to the fore in the Advent season? Is Christ the
only way? Well, yes, in a sense, but it’s the way of humility, of
gentleness, of peace. And he sends us out on mission.

Father Timothy Radcliffe, who is the former head of the Dominican
Order, the former Master of the Dominican Order, writes that as
missionaries we see partners in building God’s home with us. And that’s
what Christmas is about: building God’s home with us. And he says this
can happen in wonderful and unexpected ways. Our Japanese brother,
Oshida, founded a Christian community on the hill near Mount Fuji. And in
the garden he set up a statue of the Buddha with the child Jesus on his
lap. And the villagers began to come discreetly during the night to leave
offerings. So, a place was coming to be where people of different faiths
could gather and prepare for the Kingdom. People of different faiths
could gather and prepare for the Kingdom. Actually, I quoted that on our website, and I was sited as someone
representing very dubious spirituality. But they didn’t check that it
was by Father Radcliffe. So, I hope he doesn’t get too much blame.

Some Christians believe that paying deference to Buddha is betraying
Christ. So we might ask what does it mean to be Christ-like? How does
he exercise his authority? Does he throw his weight about? Does he
bully, coerce? The One who is coming, who is he? What are the marks
of his sovereignty? How would he treat the Buddha?

Yes, we do make exclusive claims for Christ. We can’t get around
that. But we are shown to be poor followers of the King of Kings. And by
the test of the Gospel there are those who would not call themselves
Christian who follow Christ more closely than we do. Those who inherit
the Kingdom, as we know from the Gospel, are those who feed the hungry,
give drink to the thirsty, who welcome the stranger, clothe the naked,
take care of the sick and visit those in prison. “Just as you did it
to one of the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to
me.” From this we can take great comfort.

So the shock of Advent confronts us with Christ’s subversive power,
putting a question mark beside every other human allegiance, all the
little idolatries that we indulge in. Our ultimate loyalty to Christ
gives us tremendous freedom, and our submission to the King of Kings
enables us to sit loosely to our political and social allegiances. Are
you a Republican? Christ enables you to be a critical Republican. Are
you a Democrat? Christ liberates you to be a critical one. Because deep
down, Christians are independents. And if you are a Christian, what kind
are you? Do you love Jesus? Do you want to follow him?

There’s a recent story from a cathedral in England, of a Muslim, an Imam, in an encounter with some kind of a Christian. The Imam was
speaking at the cathedral and the Christian was outraged, and he stood
up in the middle of the talk and said, “What do you think you are doing?
Why are you here?” And the dean, I suspect, tried to intervene, you
know, slowly, as an Englishman would. And the Imam spoke up, and he
said, “I’m here because I love Jesus. Do you?” Not a bad question. And
we take comfort because the Christ who is coming challenges the old
story of power.

There’s a story from the Dominicans, when the Dominicans went
to what was Hispaniola, now Haiti in the Dominican Republic, in the
early 16th century. The Brethren wrote back to the Brothers in Salamanca
in Spain about the violence done by their fellow Spaniards—and
fellow Christians—to the indigenous people. They were shocked, not
merely by the very existence of these people, but by the violence they
endured at the hands of Christians. And one of them, Father Antonio de
Montecinos, preached a powerful sermon on the first Sunday of Advent,
1511. And he dared to confront the Spaniards with their treatment of the
Indians. Are they not human, he asked? Do they not have rational souls?
With what right do you make war on them? Are you not obliged to love them
as yourselves? And Father Radcliffe notes the irony: the Christian
Spaniards were the idolaters worshipping gold, and the pagan Indians
were Christ crucified.

So ask yourself, where do you see Christ in the world today, and do
you love him? How could those Indians be blamed for rejecting Christ
when they saw the cruelty of the Christians? And this is at the heart
of the mystery of our claiming that the One who is coming is King of
Kings and Lord of Lords. If Christ is the test for reality, then God
help us. We fall far short of it. Because Christ sides with the
oppressed and oppressed people, and they do not necessarily play the
parts we assign them, for, says Father Radcliffe, they are Christ
crucified, and it is the Christians who nailed them to the cross.

So when we claim that Christ is the test of reality, we place
ourselves under judgement. We are called to repentance. So Advent
provides us with an opportunity—so out of tune with the popular view of
Christmas—not only to recover our lost loyalty to Christ, but also the
story of freedom that has been so terribly deformed by prejudice and
un-Christian hatred, leaving the world comfortless with no Good News.

So part of telling our Christian story is to confess that it is not
the only story to tell. Christ is silently and humbly present in other
stories, even sitting on the Buddha’s lap and seen in the faces of the
silent poor. Those Spaniards in 1511 were swollen with imperialist
pride, the arrogance of power. They were possessed like many of us with
an obsessive certainty that they and they alone were right. They present
us with a scandal of un-Christlike Christians.

Just as in Hispaniola the indigenous people were crucified by
Spaniards, Father Radcliffe reminds us that in the Holocaust we have
seen our Jewish brothers and sisters crucified on this same cross. And
maybe now, after 9/11, we may be more aware of how we are at the center
of an economic system which is crucifying much of humanity. And how
Islam may well help us see how better to tell our story as one which
reaches to out to all. All. All our fellow human beings.

And this is from a leading Roman Catholic theologian and thinker, a
beautiful Christian, a wonderful man, and he reminds us that ours isn’t
the only show in town. We believe it to be the ultimate one, not because
of power, its power to bully, but because of its strange and awesome
humility. That’s what brings me to my knees. Christ’s authority
expressed in such breathtaking self-giving. Our Judge, naked,
vulnerable and fiercely humble, is coming and will be suckled at Mary’s
breast. Our King and Savior now draws near. Come let us adore him.

Repentance is key because our longing and need for authority—a King,
an Emperor, a Dictator—makes us vulnerable, especially when things seem
to be falling apart. And so we’re in great danger of giving ourselves
over to things and people less than God, when only God will ever satisfy
us. We cannot live without an appeal to authority. And so we live in a
culture where self is king, where we have no sense of true north in
a spiritual and moral life.

A recent critic of British life writes, “to make up for its lack of
moral compass, the British public is prey to sudden gusts of kitschy
sentimentality, followed by vehement outrage, encouraged by the cheap
and cynical sensationalism of its press. Spasms of self righteousness
are its substitute for the moral life.” This sounds uncomfortably like
us. We are not a people open to the surprise of the unknown.

And George Will, the columnist, put it well. He said, “America is
currently awash in an unpleasant surplus of clanging and crashing
certainties.That is why there is a rhetorical bitterness absurdly
disproportionate to our real differences. It has been well said that the
spirit of liberty is the spirit of not being too sure that you are
right.” The spirit of liberty is the spirit of not being too sure that
you are right. And one way to immunize ourselves against misplaced
certitude is to contemplate, even to savor, the unfathomable strangeness
of everything, including ourselves. And our inability to contemplate
that strangeness, that unfathomable mystery really makes us prey to
forms of cultural and political tyranny.

President Roosevelt in 1939—some of you may be familiar with
this—said, “But I venture the challenging statement that if
American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day
and night by peaceful means to better the life of our citizens, then fascism and communism will grow in
strength in our land.” Democracy relies on responsible and
repentant citizens being truly informed. And our democracy is more
fragile than we think.

Ten years ago the Italian writer Umberto Echo, wrote an essay on the
shape of the mentality which surrenders to an authority which robs us
of our freedom, rather than it being its container. It’s called,
loosely, fascism, a way of thinking or habit of mind. Things like that
the truth is revealed once and only once. An obsessively certain
religion interpreting a fundamentalist constitution. You don’t have to
think. Secondly, doctrine outpoints reason and science is always suspect.
Does that sound familiar? Critical thought is the province of
degenerate intellectuals who betray the culture and subvert traditional
values. And this is one of the biggest lies of this mentality: national
identity is provided by the nation’s enemies, now perhaps conveniently
provided by anonymous Arabs. And the last, from Echo, argument is tantamount to treason—perhaps
the most disturbing of the trends.

And Louis Lapham, in Harper’s,
thinks we are well on the way to a kind of fascism. “After all,” he writes
sarcastically, “we don’t have to burn books as the Nazis did. We can
count it as a blessing that we don’t bear the burden of an educated
citizenry.” The systematic destruction of the public school and library
systems over the last thirty years, a program carried out under
administrations both Republican and Democratic, protects the market for
the sale and distribution of the government’s propaganda posters. The
publishing companies can print as many books as will guarantee their
profit. But the people who don’t know how to read or think, they do as
little harm as frozen snow flakes falling on a frozen pond.

But, take comfort. Christ rescues us from the petty, debilitating
allegiances, the piddling idols for sale in the market place. So ask
yourself, who or what is Lord over you? Where is your primary
allegiance? Christianity, or better, Christ, gets out of hand, and widens
the circle of allegiance and affection to include the whole world.

“What do you think you’re doing, and why are you here?” And the Muslim
responded, “I’m here because I love Jesus. Do you?” John the Baptist
announces Christ’s coming, and what do we see w