After last Wednesday I am near the place where I dread checking out the news. There is just so much that is awful and disheartening: killings abroad, killings in at a Planned Parenthood Clinic, killings in San Bernardino. We are living in a sad, sobering time where each day we discover a new depth to darkness and despair. In between each tragedy we live with the inevitable dissection of what happened, who is to blame, and what should be done about it. It is a conversation – well, not so much of a conversation as it is people yelling at each other with no one actually listening – that tears us down and tears us apart and fosters only a spirit of anger, meanness, and hopelessness.
Jonathan Safran Foer, is his novel Everything Is Illuminated, wrote this about one of his characters, but he just as easily could be describing our country as a whole:
She was a genius of sadness, immersing herself in it, separating its numerous strands, appreciating its subtle nuances. She was a prism through which sadness could be divided into its infinite spectrum.”
As a people we have responded to the times we live in by immersing ourselves in sadness and in the process we have become a prism through which sadness can be divided into its infinite spectrum. If this is true, and I think it is, then the biggest challenge we face in the world today is not how to secure our safety. It is not how to identify those who mean to do us harm. Our biggest challenge is spiritual.
There is no question but that we live in a difficult and challenging age. There is little we can do to change this reality. But how we respond to our times – how we allow it to affect us – is well within our control. Chronic sadness, hopelessness, and despair are choices we make in response to what we experience. No one forces them on us. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “Sorrow looks back. Worry looks around. Faith looks up”. What do you choose?
This morning’s first reading was taken from the inter-testament Book of Baruch. It is set during the period of the Exile, a time after God’s people had been conquered militarily, taken from their devastated homeland, and forced to live in Babylon. It was about as bleak a time as anyone of us could ever imagine. God’s people lived in captivity for more than two generations until no one alive had ever experienced anything other than life in Babylon. In that dark time Baruch’s words shined with the brightness of the sun:
Take off the garment
of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
and put on forever
the beauty of the glory from God.
Put on the robe of the righteousness
that comes from God;
put on your head the diadem
of the glory of the Everlasting;
for God will show your splendor
everywhere under heaven.
We like to say, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.” Baruch might change that up a tad to say, “When the going gets bleak, put on festive clothes and celebrate.” In the face of real life social and political problems he points to a spiritual solution: “We must mourn no longer. It is time for us to reflect the beauty and the glory of God. We will choose in whom we live and move and have our being. And people everywhere will know and see who we are, what we believe, and the power of God working in us.”
Today’s gospel reading demonstrates how Luke sets his story in a historical context: the emperor, the governor, rulers of various regions, and religious leaders in the temple. All of these people possessing all the world’s power and yet the word of God comes not to them nor does it come through them. God’s word is spoken by a prophet preaching not in the halls of privilege and power, but in the wilderness. His message is simple: “Repent of what you have become and be baptized into what God would have you be.” It is a call to choose spiritual renewal in a time of darkness and despair.
Advent is a season of waiting. We wait for God’s promise to be fulfilled. In a little more than two weeks we will celebrate the birth of Jesus and receive its gifts of peace and hope and light. But these gifts won’t sweep around the globe like some kind of holy tsunami transforming everything in their path. Peace and hope and light are more like the image Baruch gives us: new garments we put on and wear after we take off the old garments of sorrow and affliction. They come into the world as God’s free gift. They are made real in the world through each one of us as we wear them.
Shannon Alder, in her book 300 Questions to Ask Your Parents Before It’s Too Late, makes this obvious, but important observation: “Anger, resentment and jealousy don't change the hearts of others, they only change yours.” As I watch and read the news I am keenly aware of how what is happening is changing us, changing me. Looking backward and looking around without looking up has a way of affecting our wardrobe, doesn’t it. It makes us people of the moment rather than representatives of Eternity. I for one need to hear John’s call: “Repent of what you have become and be baptized into what God would have you be.” I need to take off the clothes I am wearing and put on the clothing of peace and hope and light that reflect the beauty and the glory of God. I began Advent last Sunday with a simple, three-word message: Take Advent Slowly! Here are this week’s three words: Change Your Clothes!