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The Voice of One Crying Out

Sermon for December 7, 2014 (Advent 2, Year B)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Mark 1:1-8

Title:               The Voice of One Crying Out

“Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation…” (Collect for 2 Advent).

Are you and I called to be prophets? And what could it possibly mean for us to be prophets?

Let’s take a few minutes, my friends, to talk together about the prophets, Saint Nicholas and holiday parties.

We are now smack dab in the middle of the holiday season. Parties and concerts and Christmas fairs and seemingly-endless holiday music and cookies.

But, here – today, right in the middle of all of that, comes the invasion of the prophets! Do they belong here?

Is there any room in all of our holiday festivities for the voice of the prophets?

They certainly don’t seem to fit the scene.

Here comes John the baptizer clothed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey, channeling Isaiah and the Hebrew prophets of old.

All of the prophets are typically odd and unusual. They don’t care about social norms and politeness. Prophets follow a different voice and they refuse to be bound by the expectations of others.

Speaking of Isaiah, did you know that the prophet Isaiah walked through Jerusalem naked and barefoot continually for 3 years? That sounds like a prophet, doesn’t it?

Prophets often undertake bold, radical, symbolic action in order to drive home their message with more power and more effect.

This is not a comfortable task. Not an easy calling.

“What manner of man is the prophet?” asked Abraham Joshua Heschel, that famous Jewish scholar of the 20th century (The Prophets).

One whose “life and soul are at stake in what he says.”

The prophet is a witness, someone who is able to make God audible.

The prophet hears God’s voice and looks at the world from God’s perspective.

To make God audible. To be a living message. To utter words on God’s behalf – to call attention to the contrast between the present reality AND God’s vision for humanity.

Heschel described the prophet’s message in this way: “[the prophet says] No to society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism.”

Here is my question for all of us: how do we carry the call of the prophets with us as we pass through this season of holiday joy and festivity?

Some of you, I’m sure, are wondering: why does this even matter?

Why do we need to carry with us the call of the prophets?

Can’t we just sing Christmas carols and drink the holiday punch?

The prophets matter, my friends, because they remind us of the wildness and the strange otherness of God.

Do you remember the classic scene in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the second (but most famous) book of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, when the 4 children learn about Aslan for the first time?

They are in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, who are explaining to the 4 confused children all about the evil witch and about Aslan.

Slowly it dawns upon the children that Aslan is not a man at all, but rather a lion!

“Is he safe?” Susan asks Mr. Beaver. “Safe?” replies Mr. Beaver, incredulous.

“Who said anything about Aslan being safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe! But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you!”

And a bit later on Mr. Beaver says, “He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.

My friends, there is a real danger that all of our holiday festivities might immunize us against the radical wildness of God!

“Joy to the world!” we sing. “The Lord has come. Let earth receive her king.”

But make no mistake about it! This king comes to invade our world, to interrupt our lives, to disturb our way of seeing, to turn society upside down.

If the Christmas season does not make you feel a bit uncomfortable – if this coming celebration does not cause you to question your priorities and your decision-making – then you can be certain that you’ve only been listening to ONE-HALF of the story!

The jolly half. The festive half. The cute baby and shining lights half.

There’s nothing wrong with that half of the story, but it’s incomplete.

Because what we are preparing for, what we are singing about and celebrating, is nothing less than ultimate reality with a human face. The deepest truth of the universe in the body of a human baby.

The prophets remind us of the strangeness and wildness of God. They always have. They always will.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that the same could be said of the real Saint Nicholas, the real 4th century Bishop of Myra located in present-day Turkey.

We have tamed him, of course – domesticated him into a fat and happy grandfatherly figure. But the real Saint Nick was a passionate follower of Jesus.

It is said that he was one of the more than 300 bishops who gathered for the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea. As Arius delivered his long oratory explaining how Jesus could NOT be divine, could NOT truly be the Son of God, Nicholas became so frustrated that he walked right up to Arius – directly in front of the Emperor Constantine – and knocked him right on the side of his head!

He got into a lot of trouble. Tossed into prison, to tell the truth. Now THAT is a side of Saint Nicholas that we don’t talk about much with our children on Christmas Eve. A bit wild, passionate and unpredictable.

The true saints and prophets of God are always like that.

The great scholar Jaroslav Pelikan expressed the saints’ and prophets’ encounter with God in this way:

“The Holy is too great and too terrible when encountered directly for [those] of normal sanity to be able to contemplate it comfortably. Only those who cannot care for the consequences run the risk of the direct confrontation of the Holy” (Fools For Christ, Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2001).

Did  you catch that? (repeat)

Who among us wants to be a prophet? Any takers? I don’t expect that any of us would choose the way of John the baptizer. I know that I wouldn’t! But that does not mean that we are not all called to be prophets in some way.

Why do we need to be reminded of the prophets during this holiday season?

Perhaps because we all need the courage to speak the truth, even when difficult or uncomfortable.

Prophets are people called to communicate a message at odds with the comfortable world around them. Their speaking involves personal cost and risk.

It also involves an unquenchable, unstoppable inner fire that compells them to speak.

Being a prophet is a hard calling, but I wonder what would happen if we intentionally began to see and understand ourselves as prophets.

I wonder what would happen if we acknowledged how incredibly difficult it often is to say what others don’t want to hear and chose to speak the truth anyway.

I wonder what would happen if we began to be honest even with ourselves – acknowledging the ways in which we’ve silenced ourselves, remained hidden, and not been the prophet God has called us to be.

There is a whole legion of prophets that surround us every day – and of whom we are one. God’s voice and presence are aching to be heard and seen – through prophets, through you and me.

Will you tell the truth? Will you take the risk? I bet you already have. It is not easy, but this much I know:

There is never any reason to be unkind. And it is never unkind to speak the truth.

So here is your Advent entourage, my friends:

Isaiah. John the baptizer. Saint Nicholas. Aslan. That’s a wild bunch, to be sure!

Go and enjoy your holiday parties, your special concerts and festive greeting cards filled with pictures of smiling families. Enjoy all of the cheesy Christmas music and even jolly ol’ St. Nick.

But while you do so, never forget the wildness of God, the utter strangeness of the Holy, the challenge of the truth.

Are you and I called to be prophets? Perhaps yes, and perhaps no.

But know this with certainty: we all need the prophets to remind us of the wildness of God.

And the world needs us to make God audible, to speak the truth in love without fear of consequences, trusting in the Holy One who’s quite wild, you know – not like a tame God at all. Alleluia. Amen.


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