Sunday, December 4, 2011

Advent 2B, 2011: Drenched in the Spirit of God

Lectionary: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

En el nombre del Dios – Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Back in the day, I was a smoker. Both of my parents and two of my sisters smoked. Most of my extended family smoked. One of my uncles even worked for a cigarette manufacturer. Smoking was a big part of our experience of family, of life. To this day, the smell of a stuck match conjures up pleasant childhood memories for me.

When I was pregnant, I couldn’t smoke. It made me ill. But as soon as my daughter was born, I was back at it.

Years later, my daughter asked me to quit smoking. She was old enough (she was five) and smart enough to know that she didn’t want me to get sick or die from it.

I tried quitting… often. In fact, seven times before I finally succeeded. The reason I couldn’t quit all of those times was because I really didn’t want to quit. I liked smoking.

I tried to quit for my daughter’s sake, but that didn’t work. I tried to quit because of the potential damage to my health, but that didn’t work. I tried to quit because I was about to marry Steve and he didn’t smoke – but that didn’t work either.

One day as I prayed, it occurred to me that I had to prepare the way for my quitting. Instead of cutting back or quitting cold turkey, instead of anti-depressants or nicotine gum, what I needed was to prepare a path of grace ahead of my quitting, a path built by prayer.

So that’s what I did. In September of 1987, I began asking all of my praying friends (and some who didn’t pray, but I thought might do this for me) to pray with me beginning Oct 1 – not that I would quit smoking, but that God would grant me the desire to quit.

My goal was to start the new year, 1988, as a non-smoker. Steve and I were getting married in April of that year, and as much as I wanted my new life with him to be smoke-free, it had become clear to me that, on my own, I couldn’t forsake this habit. I knew that in order to quit, something deep within me had to change and in order for that to happen, I had to prepare a path of grace and let God act in me before I tried to do anything.

On December 31, 1987 I smoked my last cigarette. When I awoke on January 1, 1988, I was nervous and a little doubtful that the path I had prayerfully prepared would be enough. But it was, and I haven’t smoked since.

The lesson I learned from that experience is one many of you may recognize still lives in me and in how I minister and serve. You will often hear me recommend the prayerful preparation of a path of grace before doing anything.

In some of the reconciliation conversations I am currently having here and in the diocese, this is my approach: to pray first and for as long as it takes, waiting patiently while God works to bring all involved back into righteousness (right relationship).

When I say I recommend a prayerful preparation, I mean that we agree to set a time to pray together – to set an alarm on our phones, and to heed that alarm. To stop what we’re doing and pray together, knowing that our prayers are ascending to God as one voice – connecting us one to one another and to God, drawing us into righteousness and into the graciousness of God.

As the psalmist reminds us, in the graciousness of God: "Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other." (v10) To kiss is to behave like family. Back then, only family greeted one another with a kiss. This is where we get our liturgical practice of passing the peace. It used to be called the “Kiss of Peace.” The practice of it establishes us as family, which is a deeper, more connected relationship than friendship.

The psalmist continues: "Righteousness shall go before him,and peace shall be a pathway for his feet." (v13)The path of grace is a path of peace. When we get back into right relationship with God, ourselves, and one another, we will know peace.

In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist calls the people of Israel to prepare paths of grace, and make them straight, he says. There’s no circumventing the truth with John the Baptist.

John prophesied to a people in exile – not the forced kind of exile that the people Isaiah prophesied to suffered. John’s listeners were in a voluntary exile – much like we are today. They had so cultivated their lives and their culture that they had come to believe they were in control – or at least could be if they wanted to be.

They had become self-centered and self-reliant and didn’t even realize they had exiled themselves from God. They felt righteous, at least according to their own measures. It was to these that John prophesied. John’s voice was heard crying out in the wilderness because the wilderness is a place that is uncultivated, uninhabited by human beings.

Cities are created by human beings. We build them. We order them. We have control over them - or at least we think we do.

Around the country in places like Atlanta, Miami and even in the mountains of NC you can see walled and gated communities, and perfectly manicured yards and streets. It’s all very neat looking and private. If you don’t live in a certain sub-division, if you don’t have the password to get through the gate, you can’t get in. Sometimes, you can’t even see in because of the walls. It’s safe – or so it seems. Actually, many experts say that these communities are not safer, that it’s a false sense of security they offer, and that, in fact, many of these walled and guarded communities experience higher than average rates of crime.*

The wilderness, on the other hand, is uncultivated, untamed by humans. It isn’t neat or safe - and it doesn’t claim to be. The wilderness is empty and pathless. It’s the part of the garden (hear the symbolism of that word) devoted to wild growth. There are no walls, no gates, no manicured streets in the wilderness. The wilderness is eternally as it was created by God, and we humans have no control there.

That’s why it’s in the wilderness that the voice of the prophet cries out: Repent! Change your habits! Change the way you’re thinking! Change the way you’re living! That’s why it’s in the wilderness that the prophets - then and now - urge us to prepare for rebirth. That’s why it’s in the wilderness that we devote ourselves to wild growth - un-manicured, untamed, and uncontrolled by human expectations or convention. But growth like this requires faith in the God of our salvation.

John used the powerful symbol of water to make his point - ritually bringing people into and out of the birth waters again, outwardly drenching them, cleansing them of the habits or ways of living that they couldn’t forsake on their own, and forming them into a new community – a community of hope.

‘I have baptized you with water,’ John said, but the one who is coming after me, the one who is truly powerful, the one whose sandals I’m not even fit to untie – that one will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

Which brings us to us: in our Baptism, we have been brought into and out of the waters of rebirth and drenched in the Spirit of God. By our Baptism, we have been formed into a community of hope, a community that works together to forsake whatever disrupts right relationships – with God, with one another, and with ourselves - and strive to live in righteousness and in peace.

As a community of hope, we are the voices that can speak tenderly to the exiled among us. I’m thinking of those exiled by the disease of addiction, of those who have exiled themselves from our community and languish in anger or un-forgiveness. I’m thinking of those living in the exile of poverty, unemployment, or discrimination.

As a community of hope, we faithfully devote ourselves to wild growth, resisting the temptation to tame it, manicure it, or control it - leaving it in the hands of the loving God who Created us, who Redeemed us, who Sanctifies us, and who sends us forth as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.

As we enter this second week of Advent, I pray we truly commit ourselves to preparing pathways of grace, (set your phone alarms if you have to!) pathways that will lead us to be transformed by God, so that we may walk in the light of Christ and finally, be found by him to be at peace.


* Sources:, › City-Data Forum › US Forums › Washington,,,,

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