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The Reverend Kathleen Killian

Advent 2A/22

Isaiah 11:1-10

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Romans 15:4-13

Matthew 3:1-12

Direction Matters
James Monroe Smith was the son of Scottish immigrants who first settled in North Carolina. He grew up to be a Southern Methodist circuit rider in Illinois and Indiana, and he was my maternal great-great grandfather. While growing up, I heard stories about this broad-shouldered rattlesnake-handling man who won more converts than any other preacher in his area. He saved souls not only from damnation but from drowning in the local waters as his swimming was as powerful as his preaching. Like John the Baptist, he thundered fire and brimstone and exhorted the gathered “brood of vipers” to repent. But unlike John the Baptist, who remained in the wilderness, my great-great grandfather was an itinerant preacher and ever on the move, as was Jesus. 
In my own itinerant life, I’ve experienced the special grace of being a traveler and journeying from place to place. And, as I’ve learned and been given to understand, direction matters. The late Eugene Peterson wrote that the life of a Christian requires “a long obedience in the same direction.” This long obedience in the same direction or faithful attentiveness to the long view seems particularly relevant during the season of Advent as we await the coming of Christ, and the advent of the new age. All week I’ve been wondering and asking myself: to what direction am I obedient? is it always the same? doesn’t our direction quite naturally shift and change over the course of life and faith?  
We all navigate life and faith by some means, consciously or unconsciously, by the light of day or the dark of the night, the compass of sun, moon, or stars, the map of our heart, or the prevailing charter of our times. But as people of faith, I think we can all agree that our direction is Godward; and yet truly, which way is that? how do we get to the kingdom? are we outwardly bound or inwardly oriented? Do we itinerate or stay in place? If God is everywhere, does our direction matter? 
In a word yes—yes!—it matters; because have you read the gospels? have you read the papers? have you read the book of creation, and that of your own heart? It matters that we pass through Advent on the way to Christmas; that we not bypass this season of reflection; that we wait where we are in these darkest shortest days of the year; that we swim upstream from the dizzying blinding rush of the secular holidays. Direction matters. 
This is why every Advent John the Baptist appears on the horizon and calls us into the wilderness. All of our scriptures presume that we are in a far country alongside our ancestors, grappling still with our troubles and those of the world, exiled from the Holy, and awaiting the coming of the Messiah. Biblical wilderness is a place of trial and restoration; it is where Moses led Israel on their way to the promised land; where a hard-hearted generation perished for lack of faith; where Israel was renewed; where Miriam sang; where Elijah took refuge; where David hid from his enemies; where Jacob had a dream and wrested with an angel; where an angel helped Hagar; where Jesus was tested and readied to walk a long obedience in the same direction, setting his face to Jerusalem.
Even at the end of time, in God’s future, the wilderness plays a significant role: as writ in the Book of Revelation, the Woman, who gives birth to a Son who will shepherd all nations, escapes into the wilderness for over a thousand days to a place of safety prepared by God before war breaks out in heaven (12:1-6). 
Might we ask: are we willing to go into the wilderness if only for a season or a day? to encounter the Holy One? to deepen our trust in the divine initiative? For in this existential wilderness our illusions of self-sufficiency and independence quickly dissolve; we realize, as did John the Baptist, that one who is more powerful than I is coming, and is here. 
When the Baptist appears in the wilderness he breaks four hundred years of prophetic silence, crying out for the repentance or metanoia of the people, as did Malachi, Isaiah, and prophets of old: wake up! turn back to God! change your mind, change your direction! 
The prophet’s voice is a rebuking one that yet promises salvation, and a future redeemed. But if we will not admit to our deep need for God’s judgment or conviction, if we do not confess that we have missed the mark as the word sin means, and that our aim is off, then we will miss the greater measure of God’s mercy, love, forgiveness, and joy. If we do not know that we are exiles in our own skin, captives in our own hearts, we cannot truly hear God’s homing word of freedom, hope, and peace. God wants to give us everything! If only we learn to listen, hear, respond, and turn towards the light of Christ, and faithfully follow its blaze.  
All who heard the Baptist’s proclamation to repent, and prepare the way of the Lord, streamed into the wilderness: the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him . . . where they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 
Everyone left the big city, the temple, their work and homes in an exodus to the wilderness, and in a remarkable reversal from the power centers of the world and the center of their lives to the promise-filled periphery of God, from where our Lord himself emerged.
Advent marks such a radical new beginning, and a time of transition; the Baptizer has one foot in the old age that was coming to a close and one foot in the new age that was being born, and he knows it, saying: I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 
As our scriptures reflect, Advent indeed calls us to dwell here and now as we also dwell ahead of time in the promises of God and the long view. In our Old Testament passage, though the house of David had fallen like a tree to the conquering Assyrians, Isaiah foretells of God’s redemptive future when from its roots a branch will grow: A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots; from the Davidic line a king of peace will emerge and reign. 
Isaiah’s language is utterly creational, incarnational, and forward sweeping: the wolf and the leopard, the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear, the child and the asp shall all lie down together in peace. The whole of creation —all nations and gentiles—all humans and animals—and the land itself—will be redeemed by the Holy One.
The psalmist also sings of God’s redemptive and incarnate future that shall come down—direction matters—like rain upon the mown field, like showers that water the earth . . . there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.
In our Epistle, Paul tells the Romans and the early Christian communities to look back to dwell ahead; for whatever was written in former days was written for your instruction, so that all may live in welcome and harmony, and with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul had a huge cosmic vision for the gospel and its wide embrace, in which Jews, Gentiles, and all peoples would be united in Christ. Paul, Isaiah, and John the Baptist all prophesied, preached, and prayed that the life of humanity would be one long obedience in the same direction; that the word of hope and peace is all for all. 
Let us pray: O blessed Prince of Peace, as your children seek to move in your one same direction, as we lament our wayward steps, guide our feet in the way of peace. As we wait in the dark and await the coming of your light—of which we can only bear so much—help us to surrender to this immensity of your great love. Make straight what long was crooked, let the valleys rise, and the hills bow down. Drop down drop down ye heavens from above and let the skies pour down the Righteous One. 
* O Wisdom: Come and teach us the way of understanding.
O Adonia and Leader: Come to deliver us with your strong arm.
O Root of Jesse: Come with the day of peace and do not delay.
O Key of David: Come and lead out those bound in chains.
O Day Spring: Come and shine on those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
O King of the Nations: Come quiet the strife that afflicts your children.
O Emmanuel: Come and bring among us the joy of your kingdom.

Come, Lord Jesus: Come. 
* The seven O Antiphons as presented in St. Augustine’s Prayer Book.