“All People Shall See,” Message from Second Sunday of Advent, Year B

“All People Shall See”

Second Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 10, 2017

Isaiah 40:1-11     Mark 1:1-8

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

One of the features Shawna and I would visit during the Sabbatical were castles.  Whether in Germany, Scotland, Ireland, Slovenia, or any of the other places, castles are an established part of the landscape, in terms of geography, history, and culture.  Prominent rulers made use of castles and entire techniques of warfare were developed around castles.  Back in the day when some form of rocks or sharp sticks were the weapons, either through catapults, spears, or arrows, castles were mainly places of defense with motes, stores of food and water to survive long sieges, and high walls with gates that could be lifted up or closed and locked.  Fortresses!

One castle we visited in Slovenia, the Predjama Castle, is built into a cave along a major cliff, with a stream flowing out.  The occupant was a crook who kept robbing the treasury of the Austrian Emperor.  Soldiers kept the castle under siege, but couldn’t figure out how the occupants could throw fresh fruit at them months into it.  A secret entrance high up on the hill; they smuggled in food.  But eventually he got killed and the castle was taken.

History is filled with stories about those times and places, when and where, powers collide.  That old saying, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts, absolutely,” seems to echo through the ages, and violence is often the result of human obsessions.  Our scene in Mark is no different, and “John the Baptizer” is one who recognizes this, his life shaped as a prophet calling people to turn to God, to trust in God’s redemption.

John is the son of religious authority, and can trace his roots back to Aaron.  His mother, Elizabeth, is likely related to Mary, mother of Jesus.  His father, Zechariah, is a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, although tradition has it that when King Herod slaughtered the innocent children under two years old in Bethlehem, Zechariah would not divulge the location of his son, John, so Herod’s soldiers killed him in the Temple.  This would mean John grew up away from centralized power of the Temple system, and many think he was part of the Essene community, a very strict sect of Jews who lived in the Qumran area, where more recently the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

There is so much history when it comes to the prophet John!  By the time this scene takes place he is wearing clothing made from camel’s hair and he eats off the land a simple diet of insects and wild honey.  In other words, he is an ascetic, practicing severe forms of self-discipline and abstaining from any indulgence.  He seems to be leading a solitary life, like a hermit, because everyone has to go out to him, in the wilderness.

Can you believe “they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins?”  Out in the wilderness…, in other words NOT in the Temple in Jerusalem.  They were baptized by him…, in other words, NOT the official, ordained priest of the Temple, but by this prophet working on the margins.  NOT through a ritual cleansing in the official wash basins, but in a small river that doesn’t have any prestige, some historians even say he was using a tributary and not the Jordan at all.  Confessing their sins…, NOT having the priest make sacrifices on the altar, but turning to God on their own.

All the people of Jerusalem and the whole Judean countryside; John has celebrity status, yet he is humble.  The High Priest dressed in fine robes in Jerusalem had quite a regiment of ritual cleansings before he would even be presentable in the Temple, let alone make sacrifices at the altar.  He had a separate sky-walk to get from his expensive home to the Temple, so he could avoid touching anybody on the street, especially the ritually unclean.  Yet here is John clothed in itchy camel hair on purpose, standing in a river, fully accessible by everyone.

Christianity has taken many forms over the last 2,000 years, mostly defaulting to the Temple, Sacrifice, Clergy model, very similar to our liturgical traditions involving an order of worship, usually a church building, a facility, and professional clergy.

But this story from Mark about John the Baptizer reminds us of other models, such as the one from the years 300 to 600 as we remember those often called, “The Desert Mothers and Fathers.”  These, also like John, were mainly hermits, people in the wilderness who sought to live a more faithful life than they thought possible through the mainstream of social structures and Empire religion.  Pilgrims, spiritual explorers, seekers, would go out into the desert to visit, to learn from the wisdom gained through spiritual disciplines and solitude.

In an article called, “Blurring the Boundaries: Paradox in the Spirituality of the Desert Mothers and Fathers,” Richard Bonacci explores this mystical side of Christian faith.  He says “the movement into the desert…is also a transformation of spiritual and psychological significance.  It is where we encounter in humility our true selves, where we talk to God, and our demons talk to us.  Our journey into the desert is not one of escape but of encounter with the fullness of our humanity and with the awesomeness of God, the ground of our being.” (Presence magazine, An International Journal of Spiritual Directors, Vol. 23 No. 4, December 2017, pg. 32).

Let’s make sure we recognize that we’re not just talking about sand and rocks of an arid environment.  Desert is not only a physical place, but can be experienced in our lives at any time.  Desert means wilderness, somewhere we are away from the familiar or what’s considered normal.  Maybe it’s an addiction we face, or some form of challenge to the way we thought life was supposed to be.  Deserts blur the vision of the horizons we thought we could see, and living on the margins can be both very disorienting and illuminating.

The Desert Mothers and Fathers “understood the destructive nature of the material world,” especially when it came to attachment, and the regrets and longings that go with that attachment.  Bonacci says, “the real threat for seekers [is bringing] their emotional baggage into their spiritual desert.  The abbas and ammas spoke often of what we call the deadly or capital sins.  Of particular concern for them were envy, pride, and an unhealthy need for recognition.”  Quite the luggage, huh?

As John calls people to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, he is calling people away from envy, pride, and the unhealthy patterns.  “Envy is destructive” because when we continually compare ourselves with our neighbors, and we judge them, this makes it very hard to be compassionate.  Compassion involves going with people “to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken,” and with envy we are not likely to have this desire for compassion.

Pride involves an idealized sense of ourselves.  In fact, we become so focused on our self-image that we really can’t handle reality.  Bonacci puts it, “When we fail to look to God for the source of our virtue and compassion, we are on shaky ground.  The only antidote for pride is our being one in the pain and suffering of all humanity.” (pg. 33-34).  Again, how many people want to willingly enter the pain and suffering of all humanity?

That third deadly threat, an “exaggerated need for approval,” makes us too “dependent on the respect and affection of others.”  The desire for recognition can become destructive.  When all you’re after are approval ratings, you can lose any sense of your true self.  “The desert elders considered it their task to disillusion those who came to the desert to be applauded for their efforts or to find a quick spirituality.”  They probably said things like, “Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but…”  They would rather be called foolish that be promoted and acclaimed as holy and saintly.  They did not like drawing attention to themselves.

The greatest lesson involves humility.  “Without humility, we are in danger of mistaking our own thoughts and desires for the will of God.” (pg. 36).  “To acknowledge your pain, weakness, and failings is positive, and repentance and healing are essential.”  Holding on to past sins and regrets is counterproductive to “gratitude for God’s loving mercy and kindness.”  (pg. 37).

John the Baptizer and the Desert Mothers and Fathers approached ascetic disciplines as a measure, a tool to gauge sincerity in the spiritual journey.  Most people don’t want an encounter with God, they don’t; it would seem too frightening because encounters with God can be disturbing as well as comforting.  That’s what most people want: spiritual comfort.  The prophets are calling out the Word of God: “Comfort, comfort, my people.”  But we are also called to the wilderness so we can sort out what voice it is that we hear.  Spiritual disciplines do not give us a deeper relationship with God, but they do prepare us to have willingness to encounter God.

Do you want to encounter God, even if it’s a mix of comfort and disruption?  Are you willing to repent, to turn to God and away from some false understanding of yourself, especially envy, pride, and the need for recognition?  What desert is on your threshold?  What wilderness is ready to test your spiritual intentions?  Are you interested in spiritual disciplines that help prepare us to encounter God?  Are you willing to go into the wilderness, humbly receiving simple sustenance, or do you prefer the security of the castle, trying to survive the siege with what stores you have saved up for yourself?

Castle warfare came to an end.  Culture evolved and what once worked stopped working.  May we, on this Advent journey be willing to explore the margins, where faith honestly recognizes that what once worked, may not work anymore, and each day is a new day calling us forward in a new way.  Wild honey is amazingly sweet, but you gotta get stung a few times, yet this discomfort helps us appreciate this golden gift of nourishment.  As we follow the Jesus way, may we more and more prepare for encounter with God, for discovery of our True Self in Christ, and be open to the grace and workings of the Holy Spirit.  And, may God be glorified, now and forever.  Amen.


“Awakening to Now,” Message from First Sunday of Advent, Year B

“Awakening to Now”

First Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 3, 2017

Isaiah 64:1-9     1 Corinthians 1:3-9     Mark 13:24-37

First Presbyterian Church of Sandpoint, Idaho

Pastor Andy Kennaly

One of the very noticeable aspects of travelling last summer on the Sabbatical, spending three months on the road, is how important it is to not just be a tourist, but to get to know people.  Having friends along the way makes a huge difference.  For example, Jason and Julia Powell loaned us, “The Old Lady.”  That’s what we called the motor home we borrowed.  It’s slow, outdated compared to newer models, but it’s what Shawna and I used to travel to Italy.  We did a big loop, from Germany, through Switzerland, into Italy, down to Assisi, and then up through Austria and back to Germany.  Ten days of adventure with a mix from traffic jams and crazy drivers to quiet solitude and reflection.  It was an amazingly good trip.

One of the highlights was visiting Dani and Ramona and their daughter, Laura.  They live in Switzerland, a small town named Glarus about an hour up into the mountains from Zurich.  We first met Dani and Ramona three summers ago up in Nelson, B.C., while on Selkirk Loop bicycle tours.  They said if we were ever in Switzerland, to let them know; so we did.

At the time, they were living upstairs from the snowboard shop that they own, and downtown is rather busy with noisy street traffic.  They like to get away from that commotion, so they rent a campsite for the whole summer along the shore of an alpine lake up one of the valleys from town.  They had us follow along in the motorhome and we parked right next to their spot.  We had a cookout in the evening, then they joined us for breakfast the next morning because it was raining, and it was nice to have that space out of the weather.  But as the rained slowed down a bit, we went on a day hike.  Leaving the motorhome parked at the lake, we rode with them, back through town, further up another valley, then up a narrow, mountain road to the parking lot of a cable car.  We took this gondola up the steep mountain into the clouds, and spent the day hiking back down, through the mist, catching glimpses of the mountains, and having a great time.

One of the areas the trail passed through was a summer pasture, a farm with many dairy cows filling the valley with the sound of bells.  The cows had those big, Swiss cow bells around their necks.  Dani and his family had been through there before, and they knew which building to approach at the farm, walking past the barking dog along the way.  He knocked, shouted around, and then someone answered.  The woman of the farm invited us in, and this building was where she processes the milk into cheese.  She gave us a tour, and then we sat at a couple tables, she sliced up some cheese, gave us something to drink, and it was great.  We bought some cheese at an absurdly low price, thanked her very much, and continued on our way.  After spending the day hiking back down to the car, we drove back to town, and Dani and Ramona pulled out all the stops for a traditional Swiss dinner of Fondue.  After supper, Dani brought Shawna and I back up to the lake where the Old Lady was sinking into the grass because of all the rain.  We had to get pushed out the next morning, but then we were off to Italy.

Had we been on our own, as tourists with minimal knowledge and experience of that area, we would not have even known about that lake and local campground.  It was beautiful up there, surrounded by rocky peaks of the Swiss Alps, a perfect place to park that motorhome, save the mud of course.  Had we been on our own, we wouldn’t have known about that day hike, or what trails to take, and for sure wouldn’t have even made it past the barking dog.  We would have thought we were trespassing and must have taken a wrong turn, but instead we were more than welcome.

Had we been on our own, we would have missed experiencing the life of a young family with their daughter crawling around the floor getting into things while mom and dad get a special meal put together for company.

But we were not on our own.  We didn’t just see Switzerland, we experienced Switzerland.  We had a local connection, friends excited to share their lives, their culture, the things they find important and enjoyable, and our Sabbatical experience was far deeper and meaningful because of this care they shared with us.  We are not mere tourists trying to enjoy the scenery, taking selfies at arm’s length.  We are family friends, where relationship is more than transactional, but involves an engaged, interested connection taking the wellbeing of the other into account.  Relationship is grounded in love, and this is expressed through hospitality, trust, a sharing of resources, and reciprocity based not on duty or obligation but thankfulness and genuine concern.

So here’s the deal: as we come into the First Sunday of Advent, opening ourselves more and more to Christ and preparing to remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus, we come not as tourists.  This morning we approach Isaiah, and the Apostle Paul, and Mark as those greeting us like companions on the journey of faith.  They are the local connection sharing an experience of love.

Typically, Advent begins the Christian year with a look at the end.  The Apocalypse, the end times, the coming of judgement; aspects that many promote as Advent themes.  This morning’s scriptures have some elements of this, but they are filled even more with simple, welcoming invitations from friends.  We are invited to awaken to the nearness of God, even now.

David Lose recognizes this in his commentary on this morning’s readings, especially Mark’s Gospel.  He says, “Because while many read this passage and others like it as Jesus’ predictions of the end, I think it can instead drive us back into the present with renewed energy to see the people and situations around us as gifts of God that we are called to love and care for.

Notice, for starters, that there is no mention in here of the end of the world, no indication of final judgment, no call to flee the day-to-day realities and […] responsibilities of life, only the promise that “he (the Son of Man) is near” (29). Indeed, if we recognize that the key temporal markers of the parable that concludes this passage – evening, midnight, cockcrow, and dawn – as identical to the temporal markers of the passion story about to commence […] then we realize that much if not all of what comes before – darkening of the sun, the powers being shaken, etc. – also correspond with key elements of the passion narrative (Mark 15:33, 38, etc.). Mark, in other words, isn’t pointing us to a future apocalypse (“revealing”) but rather a present one, as Christ’s death and resurrection change absolutely everything. For once Jesus suffers all that the world and empire and death have to throw at him…and is raised to new life!…then nothing will ever be the same again. Including our present lives and situations.”  (http://www.davidlose.net/2017/11/advent-1-b-a-present-tense-advent/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28…In+the+Meantime%29).

Mark is our friend on the inside.  To project these passages into some future revelation is to miss the local connection of the here and now.  To keep awake, to be alert, to live a life of expectancy that the Risen Christ is in each moment as God comes to us as we are, being awakened to now changes everything.  “Heaven and earth will pass away;” this is an image of how transformative the nearness of God’s grace in Christ really is.

From Mark’s call to stay awake, to Isaiah’s reminder that we are they clay and God is the potter, lovingly shaping the work of God’s hand, to Paul’s reminder that God is faithful and we are called through grace and peace into relationship in Christ.  This is Advent!  This is now!  Claimed in God’s love, live in divine Presence.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.