Wilderness Advent-ure

On December 8, 2014, in Sunshine Cathedral, by Rev.Dr. Robert

Advent 2 Sunshine Cathedral Wilderness Advent-ure Rev Dr Mona West I noticed on the social networking site ‘Tumblr’ that Advent was a trending topic. When I clicked on it there were various images and quotes from hundreds of blogs about Advent. They ranged from quirky Advent calendars and mystical poems to stick figures of reindeer […]

Advent 2
Sunshine Cathedral

Wilderness Advent-ure
Rev Dr Mona West

I noticed on the social networking site ‘Tumblr’ that Advent was a trending topic. When I clicked on it there were various images and quotes from hundreds of blogs about Advent. They ranged from quirky Advent calendars and mystical poems to stick figures of reindeer and cookie recipes. None of them featured a wilderness. Yet, that is where John beckons us on this second Sunday of Advent. He is a voice of one crying out in the wilderness and what is amazing is that people follow him out there. Some of them wanted to question his identity—“Are you Elijah? The Messiah? The prophet?” Some in our community might ask, “Are you a leather man? A bear?” Nadia Bolz-Weber claimed that John the Baptist reminded her of the people she sees panhandling on the corner in her neighborhood, except he would be holding a sign that says “Will preach for locusts and wild honey.” There was something compelling about his message of repentance and preparation that caused people to follow him out into the desert, not out of curiosity, but out of longing. One could say that Advent was a trending topic in John’s days.

Of all the sights and sounds of our current Advent season, wilderness is typically not one of them. When was the last time you saw a Christmas card with a stark image of the wilderness on its front cover? But scriptures tell us that the wilderness is important for salvation history: the Exodus of the Israelites lead through the wilderness and Jesus’ public ministry begins after a period of ‘testing’ in the wilderness. These stories teach that the desert is a place not only where God can be known more deeply but it is also a place where humans can know themselves more deeply. Advent is about God coming to us, but John reminds us that we must also go to God.

John appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a message of repentance. Repent. That is not a word that usually rolls of our tongues during this season. We don’t go to shopping malls, check out stands, and Christmas Eve services saying, “Repent.” “Have a Merry Repentance.”

Advent is a season of preparation for God coming to us and our coming to God and repentance is part of preparation. It causes us to slow down and reflect on the actions and attitudes in our lives that may be creating road blocks on this highway in the desert to God.

Author and professor, Wendy Wright, claims that “repentance is not necessarily the gloomy and self-loathing practice it is sometimes made out to be. To repent is not to be confirmed in what that little voice within keeps whispering: that you are no good, that everything bad that happens to you is your own fault, that if only others knew what you were really like, they would cease to care for or be interested in you. No. True repentance begins with the felt knowledge that we are loved by God. We are children of God. If we cannot find ourselves there then perhaps our preparation might consist of the prayer that we might know ourselves as beloved, that the divine lover might reach down into our self-hatred…and touch us….Repentance consist not so much in flagellating ourselves over our ‘failures’ as in courageously and painstakingly reorienting our priorities, unlearning old patterns, turning our faces, like the sunflower, toward the dawning of the light of God.”

This quote from Wendy Wright is related to our reading from Thich Nhat Hanh for today. The Holy Spirit reminds us and confirms in us that we are God’s beloved. The Spirit assists us in our repentance and we assist the Spirit through our practice.

Now Robert and Durrell know that I will never pass up an opportunity to talk about spiritual practices….Typically we don’t think about spiritual practices during Advent, we save those for Lent. But in the history of the Christian church, Advent was a penitential season, much like Lent. There are things we DO to prepare for the coming of the divine into our lives—not just during Advent or Lent, but in all seasons.

A spiritual practice can be just about anything, as long as it is done with intention to open us the work of the Holy Spirit. They are not about our willfulness (our willpower—that would be the unhelpful kind of repentance Wendy Wright wrote about….) they are about our willingness. Our willingness to trust in God’s love for us and open ourselves to its transforming power.

There is no such thing as a generic holiness. There isn’t this ‘cookie cutter’ Christian life that all of us are supposed to emulate. That is the power and the scandal of the incarnation—God with us. God with you. God with me. God comes to us in the particularities of our lives, the contours of our stories, the challenges of our addictions and habits.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ spiritual practice. In fact research has shown that each of us has a particular spiritual temperament that will resonate with some practices better than others. Some of us are more concrete and reasoning in our spiritual life, others are more spontaneous, while others lean more toward mystery, and others toward social action.

Our practices do not have to be elaborate or self-denying. They can be simple. I love this poem about prayer by Mary Oliver which makes this point:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

John the Baptist invites us into the wilderness of Advent to truly know ourselves and to understand how God’s love and grace is made manifest in the particularities of our lives. Marcella Althaus Reid has said that the desert is a place where people who did not fit in with society were to be found. John and Jesus were unsettled spirits gathering at the margins of Jerusalem’s authority….

In the fourth century another group of unsettled spirits went out into the desert of Egypt. The emperor Constantine had converted to Christianity and proclaimed the entire empire to be Christian. The men and women who fled to the desert during that time, went there to be closer to God. They knew that God and empire did not mix. And just like people followed John out into the wilderness, people of the fourth century followed these men and women, who later became known as the desert fathers and mothers/Abbas and Ammas, out into the desert. They sought out the fathers and mothers for a ‘word’ from God to take back into their lives in the city. These words have survived today in what is often called The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, or The Wisdom of the Desert.

Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not become fire?

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