All Flesh Shall See

Baruch 5:1-9

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. For God will give you evermore the name, "The Peace of Justice, Godly Glory."

Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them. For they went out from you on foot, led away by their enemies; but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne. For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God's command. For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of God’s glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from God.

Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,

   make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,

   and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,

   and the rough ways made smooth;

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’

John 1:14a

And the Word became flesh…

 

Prayer for the Lighting of the Love Candle

“[God] of all Souls, we give thee thanks for Jesus Christ through whom thou did unmistakably disclose thy love to [humanity]. In his presence, we know how much we have given ourselves to shadows of unreality, killing time and distracting life, exhausting our souls and smothering our freedom, until the glory wherewith life was created passed from us and left us only a hollow dream, a vain burden. Let his spirit enter us to awaken our neglected depths, to stir us mightily by sight and shock of eternal things, and to guide us into paths of faith and simplicity that we might be servants of thy glory in all our works, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (From the Advent & Christmas prayers of Samuel H. Miller, OCBC pastor 1934-1959)



Richard Lischer says, “Violence has a way of making a mockery of words.”[1] Makes preaching on a day like today a challenge, that’s for sure.

On Wednesday I began preparing the text of this sermon when the news of the San Bernardino mass shooting came in and I wondered to myself, “How will I address this act of violence in the sermon? Should I? Will they even remember this on Sunday morning? After all, we just had a big shooting at Planned Parenthood last week. It’s barely breaking news anymore.”

But no matter what I decided about whether or what to say, an even more haunting question lingered: “Is there anything left to say?”

            Are there any words of which violence hasn’t already made a mockery?

            Gun control…yes. Prayers for victims and families…of course. Decrying rampant violence…sure. All the typical words are there – more of them than ever.

            But still, it’s hard not to feel like this never-ending succession of mass shootings is “exhausting our souls and smothering our freedom, until the glory wherewith life was created passed from us and left us only a hollow dream,” as Samuel Miller’s prayer says this morning. With 462 dead from these shootings so far this year and another 1,314 injured, there just are no more words.  

                “Violence has a way of making a mockery of words.”

                On this second Sunday of Advent, we get Luke’s Gospel, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee…” If the context of John the Baptizer’s words aren’t clear to subsequent readers, Luke makes it plain: an emperor, a governor, a ruler – Roman occupation. The Empire thoroughly and effectively dominated the Mediterranean world – welding a war machine no one could effectively resist.

                And there were no more words – nothing left to say. Violence has always had a way of making a mockery of words. Simply no more words.

                But the voice of one crying in the wilderness – one, solitary individual who, frankly, if you had seen him, you would have deemed outrageously eccentric. The Emperor is Tiberius and the governor is Pontius Pilate, and the ruler is Herod and John the Baptizer – a man most anyone would deem unstable – speaks into the mockery of violence “exhausting our souls and smothering our freedom, until the glory wherewith life was created passed from us and left us only a hollow dream,” saying, “Prepare the way…”

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see – all flesh shall see – the salvation of God.” “Prepare the way…”

Words spoken in defiance of that which threatens to smother our freedom and exhaust our souls and strip us of the glory wherewith life was created, leaving us only a hollow dream in its place. Words of a hope-against-hope for something coming that we cannot see coming.

They’re familiar words to those who paid attention in the synagogue. The words of one of the greatest prophets would ring with some familiarity to most. Words not original to the Baptist himself, but words from of old from the Prophet Isaiah – words repeated also by the writer of Baruch – from a period of dejection in the face of violence, making a mockery of words.

In the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile, when the Temple was brought to ruin and the people deported to a land that was not their home, the prophet Isaiah said there was one coming…“Prepare the way…”

Centuries later, when the John the Baptist roaming the Palestinian countryside uttered these words – each syllable spoken within the shadows of foreign occupation from the Roman Empire – the words stirred the hearts of a people for whom words had nearly run out. 

 “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see – all flesh shall see – the salvation of God.” “Prepare the way…”

Words spoken in defiance of that which threatens to smother our freedom and exhaust our souls and strip us of the glory wherewith life was created, leaving us only a hollow dream in its place.

            You know the affect of Advent as well as anyone – the feeling evoked and provoked by this season of darkness, hoping again hope for a light to rise.         It’s the feeling you have when you light the candle of hope the week after the shooting at Planned Parenthood because a small flicker of hope is nearly all we can muster when violence has made a mockery of our words. It’s the feeling of coming together again the very next week to light the candle of love just days after another mass shooting that leaves us reeling. It’s the feeling of there being nothing left to say – no more words. 

On Christmas eve two years ago, my mother and I were making our way back on the five hour drive from Greenville, North Carolina, to our home near Greenville, South Carolina. We had just spent a few days visiting my sister and her husband in the hospital where my sister had been admitted due to contractions very early in her first pregnancy. The doctors said she needed complete bed rest in order to delay delivery of her baby for as long as possible. On the day after Christmas, my mother received a cryptic text message from my sister that just said, “Come now.”

No more words.

            When she arrived after a frantic five-hour trek back to the hospital, my sister had delivered her child. At only 23 weeks gestation, my niece, Rylee, arrived nearly a full three months too soon weighing only a pound and four ounces. One of my sister’s nurses told her that Rylee was one of the two smallest babies she had ever seen in her career as a NICU nurse. I received pictures on my phone as I traveled back to the west coast. In every picture, there were more tubes and monitoring devices and medical equipment than there was baby.

To be honest, I didn’t believe she could survive. I doubt any of us did, really. There was hope, of course. She was receiving all the best medical care possible – and so much is possible these days. But it was a precarious hope – a hope against hope, really. Realistically, a baby so small with so little lung development just doesn’t stand much of a chance.

In the midst of our bleakest hour, a baby isn’t the most triumphant symbol. It doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of our enemies, and it doesn’t it provide much assurance that all will be well and or that peace on earth will prevail or great joy dawn among us with any certainty. But here at Advent, as a symbol of hope against hope as we light the small flicker of the love candle in the midst of mass shootings, waiting on a baby to be born is metaphorically perfect.

Babies can be born too early, or be dropped by their parents, and even survive the most traumatic circumstances and come out unscathed because babies are a resilient, full of tenacity, and a willful striving toward life. But so much can go wrong, too. Premature births and underdeveloped lungs and weakened immune systems means that with babies—whether in mangers or NICUs—there are no guarantees. With babies, there is so much potential for life and health and resilience and growth. And there is the potential for so very much to go wrong, like with hope and love, birthed into the world, fragilely held in our hearts amid the realities of devastation and despair when there are no more words.

So we gather this second Sunday of Advent to light the love candle in defiance of all that threatens to smother freedom and exhaust souls. In this season of waiting and watching for something coming that we can’t see coming – even something as fragile and precarious as a baby – we break silence with song and prayer knowing that violence will seek to make a mockery of our words once again.

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction…and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that you may walk safely again.

Words spoken in defiance of the status quo, a hope-against-hope for something coming that we cannot see coming. This is Advent.

And when freedom is smothered and souls exhausted and the glory wherewith life was created passes from us and leave us only hollow dream – when there are no more words, violence having made a mockery them such that there is nothing left to say:

“The Word became flesh…”



[1] Richard Lischer, The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 5.
  • The Rev. Cody J. Sanders
  • December 6, 2015