6 December 2020
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness…”
One lone voice. Far out in the wilderness…Does anyone hear it? Is there even an echo? Or does it just disappear on the wind?
Isaiah was not on Twitter. John the Baptizer did not have an instagram account. None of these pronouncements were simulcast on CNN, Fox, and NPR…they were not retweeted and shared and made into memes…Pundits didn’t offer analysis and opinions of them endlessly in a 24-hour news cycle. No. One voice…in the wilderness…crying out… the words disappearing on the wind. “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
John the baptizer actually resembles Elijah more than Isaiah…Elijah was another lonely voice in the wilderness…Fleeing from Ahab and Jezebel, he stood alone in a cave on Mt. Carmel and cried…”I am moved by zeal for the Lord, the God of hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life,” (1 Kings 19:10 &14, Jewish Study Bible). And what does God do? God instructs him to go to the edge of the cave, and God passes by…first there is mighty wind, then an earthquake, then a fire, but God in not in any of them…and then there is “a sound of sheer silence”, “a minute stillness”, “a soft murmuring sound”, “a still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12, NRSV)*…and then, presumably, just the sound of Elijah’s heartbeat, disappearing into the vast empty wilderness…
Prepare the way of the Lord. It is these small, incremental—almost infinitesimal—ways…that God’s message gets out, and the way is prepared…
An angelic presence whispers to a young woman she will bear a child…a group of shepherds catch a message on the wind that a child is born…group of travelers from foreign lands reading silent signs in the sky discover a child…the wind blows…the message spreads…the way is prepared…
John appears in the wilderness wearing camel hair and a leather belt proclaiming a message of repentance. Simeon and Anna appear in the Temple gaze upon a child in the crowd, and proclaim, “my eyes have seen the savior” (Luke 2)…The sick, the dying, the marginalized, the possessed catch a glimpse of God and cry out…who hears them? Who pays attention to them? The way is prepared.
Another young woman stands at a tomb and sees… a gardener? …an angel? something…her words…”I have seen the Lord,” echo a bit longer. A couple walk along a wilderness road…meet a stranger, eat a meal with him, and their eyes are opened…A pharisee, a persecutor of the church, walks down a different wilderness road and falls to the ground…hears a voice…and is transformed. This is how the message get out…this is how the way is prepared. The voice of one…and one…and one…and one…in the wilderness…in the temple…on the road…in the houses…on the streets…the voice of one…crying out—or merely whispering—prepare the way of the Lord…a cry that is carried on the wind to the one who needs to hear it.
The great 20th century theologian Karl Rahner wrote: “How strange! […] here is the voice from the wilderness where everything is swallowed up by the wind, where nothing has any settled shape, where the cry is lost upon the air. Dies away, that is, but is not lost. For though it reaches nothing else, it does reach the one to whom it is addressed.” (Karl Rahner 1904-1984, sermon for Advent 3(B), from The Great Church Year.)
The voice of one…crying out…”prepare the way.”
Our Advent preparations are going to be different this year. Our Christmas celebrations will be smaller…more intimate…in many cases more lonely. And you might even wonder…what’s the point? Why bother preparing or decorating or cooking…if no one is going to be around? I can think of a couple of reasons.
One is that we all know that we live in a time of unbelievable noise…of information overload…of overflowing email inboxes…and 24-hour infotainment—video-on-demand…instant access…virtual reality…and this Advent might offer some opportunities for unplugging…for turning off, and tuning out…for carving out some space … some times and places and ways and means to wait…to listen…and maybe even to hear that still small voice… consent to that minute stillness… engage in that sheer silence…and yes, to even rest in the solitude…because those are all ways to prepare The Way.
The second is that hearing that still small voice is only half of the equation. You, along with Isaiah, and John and Peter, Paul and the Marys…you also are the voice of the one…And your cry of in the wilderness…your message of good news…needs to be heard. You proclaim the Gospel and prepare the way as you write cards, and make calls, and zoom with friends and relatives, and coordinate “porch-shares” or mail pies, or donate to food pantries….your Gospel message might be that while you are lonely you are not alone…while we are physically separated we are still spiritually woven together…while you are struggling help is available…while death and fear seem to be everywhere…love and goodness still prevail.
Maybe that cry doesn’t get carried on the wind…Maybe that message gets transmitted via telephonic wires, or electronic cables, or through face-masks across physical distance…but however it is communicated … and though it may reach nothing else, it will reach the one to whom it is addressed.
So make your preparations, friends. Mourn the loss of Advent and Christmas the way it used to be…mourn the loss of friends and relatives…and singing together and eating together…and raising a glass…but prepare…neither Isaiah nor John had any idea that their cries in the wilderness would make any difference at all…and yet…here we are. May we have their faith to cry out and prepare…and trust that God will carry our messages of hope and love and charity to those who most need to hear it.
*There are many translations of this phrase. The Jewish Study Bible translates it as “a soft murmuring sound.” Robert Alter, in Ancient Israel renders it, “a minute stillness,” and the King James Version is, “a still small voice.” The point appears to be that God speaks not only in “seismic manifestations”, in Alter’s phrase, but also in extremely subtle forms of communication.