(Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 12/6/2015)
Advent 2C Scriptures: Malachi 3:1-4; Lk 1:68-79; Phil 1:3-11; Lk 3:1-6
You might remember a few weeks ago when I said something about how it’s getting harder and harder to read and watch the news and stomach what’s going on in the world. For me, it got even harder this week. I’m sure you’ve all heard about the shooting in San Bernardino this past Wednesday. A couple entered the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, CA with guns and killed 14 people and wounded 21 others, most of them employees there. Obviously, there’s a lot of other information and questions surrounding this, but you can find that out on your own if you’re curious. The main reason that I’m sharing this is that this particular incident of mass violence wrecked me in a way that all of the others haven’t. Hopelessness is not a feeling I’m very familiar with, but it’s what I was feeling as I was reading the news stories and accounts that kept coming in on Wednesday. Another one? Really? When will this end?
I’m sure the same thoughts were swirling around in your heads as this story has unfolded. The mere fact that we have to talk about this as another mass shooting should make us pause. The feeling of hopelessness is a common feeling I’ve heard expressed by many people as we find out about this story.
I think it makes sense that we’re feeling this. Because I think we’re seeing more and more that the culture of the world and of this country specifically is a culture of violence.
One of the pieces of news that I believe has contributed to this feeling of hopelessness is the report that I’ve seen shared on social media, the news, a lot of places about the incredible number of mass shootings in this country so far this year. According to this report, there have been 353 mass shootings so far in 2015. That’s including the latest high-profile shootings like San Bernardino and the 5-hour attack on the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado. Now, the reports that say that define a mass shooting as a single incident where 4 or more people are injured OR killed by shooting. So it’s a broad definition. But still, even by that, 353 mass shootings is a lot. There haven’t been 353 days in 2015 yet. That’s more shootings than there have been days in the year so far.
We were talking about this in one of my classes in seminary, and a man in the class who is of Latin American descent, he said that it’s interesting that we-meaning white people-are just catching on. He said these shootings are a reality of life in the barrios and ghettos, but you don’t hear about them. Now that they’re happening in the white American world, we’re finally catching on that this is a big problem.
These huge numbers of mass shootings aren’t the only thing that point to our culture of violence. We have a justice system that discriminates against our black and brown sisters and brothers in many places in the country, even if we don’t see it here. And that brings about even more racially-motivated violence that is justified because so many structures in this country are set up so that the minority voice is silent so that we only hear the voice of white America.
But that’s still not the only thing that points to our culture of violence, because this is true of the world, not just our country. Deaths in the wars raging in the Middle East over the past decade or more are in the hundreds of thousands, and there’s no sign of that slowing down. So far this year, there have been over 300 terrorist attacks around the world. We live in a culture of violence that just brings about more and more destruction and pain, and that leaves us feeling hopeless.
Now, when we learn about this, it would be easy to throw up our hands and say that we can’t fix this, so why should we do anything? The system that creates this is so much bigger than me, so I can’t do anything about this.
In times like this, it’s easy to hide behind calls to prayer, it’s easy to say “Let’s pray for the victims,” and not actually do anything about it, especially when it seems like we are so far removed from the situation. Now hear me, I am not saying that prayer is unimportant. Prayer is vastly important, and our most powerful tool. I’m not saying that it’s not. I’m saying that in times like this, it becomes an excuse to not take action.
But as followers of Jesus Christ, we are not called to inaction. We are not called to simply wait and pray for Jesus to take us away from this world. We are not called to just sit, do nothing, and watch this world descend into darkness.
Now, we as individual or even as a church or even as a whole denomination, in reality, cannot really do a whole lot in the face of this giant beast of injustice and violence. But we do still have a part to play. As a writer named Sharon Welch says, we, as followers of Jesus Christ, are called to improbable tasks with unpredictable results with the vision that we are preparing the way for God’s good future.
In the Scripture that I read to you, that’s what John the Baptist was proclaiming. With John the Baptist, God did just what I was talking about. God did something about the violence in the world in 1st century Judea.
If you remember, the passage starts off with a confusing list of all the authority figures at the time-fifteenth year of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate governor of Judea, Herod ruler of Galilee, Philip ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanias ruler of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas were high priests. It’s one of those passages you dread having to read in public because of all those long names to stumble over, right? But in that listing, I think we can see a reason for why God sent John the Baptist when he did. God took action in response to the violence in the world at that time. All of those authority figures used violence and oppression to stamp out their opposition. Violence is how they got to the top and how they stayed there, forming this deep culture of violence.
So it was into this world of violence and injustice that God sent John, who was calling for change. John the Baptist was basically saying that the way we’ve been doing things isn’t working. Violence, pain, war, it’s all just getting worse, not better. So John says “Be baptized! Change your hearts, change your lives! Ask God to forgive your sins! Admit that you’re wrong, admit that you don’t really know how to do this thing called life, and return to God!
In the time this was written, John probably just looked like a small drop of water into the ocean. I mean, this was one guy in the wilderness speaking to the whole Roman Empire. But by saying this, John was really preparing the way for the Lord. Raise up the valleys! Flatten the mountains! Make a straight road so Jesus can return and God’s good future can begin!
So John is saying that we, us here today, we have a part to play in bringing about God’s good future. In some changing our hearts and lives and living and taking action into our new identity, it has an effect on God’s good future.
So this means that our actions matter. Our choices and decisions matter. How we respond to the violence inherent in our culture matters. It might not seem like we can do much. But when God sent John the Baptist, a wild-eyed, locust-eating preacher in the desert, baptizing people away from any established religious setting, it didn’t seem like that would do much against all the violence in that culture either. But it did.
God’s good future says that there is hope in the midst of hopelessness. Advent tells us there is light in the midst of darkness. This good future is coming at us, and we are called to prepare the way for Jesus to come.
So how do we do that? John is very straightforward with this-he tells us to change our hearts and lives and ask for our sins to be forgiven.
This is how it all starts, with each of us changing our hearts and lives. Asking for forgiveness for the ways we have been complicit in this culture of violence. Asking God to give us a heart that breaks for all of the pain in the world. Asking God for a spirit that will push us to do what we can to resist the violence, the racism, the hatred in the world. Asking God to change our lives to where we no longer sit idly by while there are human beings’ lives taken by senseless violence, or while our black and brown sisters and brothers still suffer the awful effects of racism that still infects this country and its systems of justice.
It seems like we can’t do much. But God calls us to this risk-to care for others, to care about these issues of injustice, to act on that care, and to do all of that with no guarantee of success.
But John the Baptist gives us hope-this is how we prepare the way for God’s good future. In some way, when we change our hearts and lives, leave our life of sin, and resolve to live like God’s good future, God’s kingdom has already come and the way is prepared for God’s good future to actually come upon the whole world. This is what Jesus brings. At Christmas, we remember a distinct concrete point in the history of the world when God came to us in human form-in Jesus, on that night in Bethlehem. In Advent, we remember that we are still waiting for another distinct point in the future of the world when Jesus will come again and bring about God’s good future. We are called to prepare the way.