The time of Advent and the days leading up to Christmas is a provocative time.  When I say, provocative, I do not mean the sensation of something provoking us, an irritant when the stressors of the season get under our skin.  But instead and in keeping with the Latin root of the word, provocative (pro-vocare) this is a time to “to call forth” raise one’s voice for something, to lift up one’s voice in support of an issue, cause or concern. 

This is a provocative time of year--a variety of voices call our for out for our attention.  In another year, I might make mention of the plethora of advertising calling out to purchase something (iphone, tablet, video game, car, sweater) without which we cannot live a happy, fulfilled lives  

But there are these days strident voices clamoring for our attention.  Public and political rhetoric has escalated; provocative voices cry out alarm for the safety of the citizens of the U.S. Some may assume I am speaking about the realities of terrorism at home and abroad.  But instead, I mean to provoke you this morning—to call forth, to sound the alarm regarding the scourge of assault weapons with which hundreds of innocent children, women and men have been murdered week after week, month after month, year after year here in the United States.  And all the while our government, strangled by well-financed devotees of the second amendment and the gun lobby, do little to protect the rights of law-abiding American citizens who yearn to live free of fear, desiring to go to class and school, meet for worship, or attend public meetings without the threat that they might not make it home alive.    

It is noteworthy that the editors of the NYT, for the first time in 95 years, removed the editorial from its traditional place on the editorial page of the newspaper on Saturday placing it as the first column of the front page of the paper.  That editorial was a provocative call--not to arms--but a call that moral Americans, outraged by the senseless killings of so many innocents, come to our senses and ban the proliferation of weapons and ammunition designed to kill with brutal speed and efficiency.  The weapons used in these senseless killings were not designed for sport—hunting birds and animals, but specifically to pierce reinforced armor.  These unnecessary killings have created such grief that the lives of hundreds of college students, elementary school children, as well as their families and communities, and all of us have been forever changed, never to return to a time of innocence free from fear.  How in the name of God can the majority of law-abiding citizens continue to be swayed by a few, well-financed denizens of destruction hiding behind the tough talk of terrorism and the gun lobby, and do little to protect the innocent victims and their families in these United States? 

Ironically, among this cacophony of strident voices resounding all around us, the Church has also been raising its provocative voice. Do take note of the provocative voice for example of the Pope who dares to speak out about many matters with humility and in name of all humanity and God.       

The cry of the church is the cry provoked by John the Baptist, that rough and tumble man of the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord—the crooked, he says, shall be made straight, the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh see the salvation of God.  For those of us whose heads and hearts are easily turned by the glamour, glitz and goodies of this world as well as the strident cries of alarm resounding on every side, John’s cry is a provocation—a call to re-direct our attention, to embrace a power and presence alive since the time of Jesus.  This time of the year the church lifts up its cry—a call that we be attentive to something different, something new, someone coming into the world, yea, who is already here even though many do not see that all of us be discerning and wise awaiting the Holy One.     

Advent is the time for the church to be the church.  Like the Hebrew prophets who provoked the nation especially in the midst of upheaval, persecution and oppression, Abraham Heschel, a prophet of the 20th century once said:  “The art of the awareness of God, the art of sensing (God’s) presence in our daily lives cannot be learned off-hand.  God’s grace resounds in our lives like a staccato.  Only by retaining the seemingly disconnected notes comes the ability to grasp the theme.”.

This time of the year we read the Hebrew Scriptures with particular attention.  Malachi, Isaiah, Micah, Baruch, Zephaniah call us to grasp an idea God is weaving into our lives, which is a vision we easily miss distracted as we are by strident voices of fear and gloom.  The idea is that God is alive, God is REAL and calls us to a deep awareness.  Not everyone can hear it or see it.  Nevertheless, God is doing a new thing, God is making Godself known. 

Some years ago I stumbled upon a book whose author was a professor of theology whose three-year old daughter attended a preschool.  This father recognized that he knew little of what his daughter did during her days at school. Whenever he asked her: what did you do today? She usually, as is often the way with children, replied with a bland report: nothing.      

Frustrated by his inability to sense of all the changes happening in her dynamic life, he created a game they could play together. They now play, What did you notice today? There are two rules to the game. The first rule is, one can’t say, “nothing: unless you don’t feel like playing the game.  Its o.k. not to play.  And the other rule is that you have to try to describe what you noticed, to say, what is it like.

 His relationship to his daughter changed, dramatically.  As they ask one another, what did you notice today? and listened carefully as the other responds, they both found that they listened more, watched more, sought words with which to describe the particular things and images of their lives. He says, now we concentrate on the particular, on what has impressed itself on our senses. He says: I am learning…I have found myself noticing a lot more. Putting his theological hat on, the father says:

 Too often, it seems to me, we assume that “seeing God” requires us to pass entirely beyond the material world. Or that we must move into a space so radically interior that the living world disappears from view. Neither of these ideas is consistent with the Christian understanding of Incarnation.

 By noticing, paying attention we claim the heart and soul of Advent. How are we finding God in the particulars of our lives?  Where is God in the grief and sorrow and fear overwhelming our days?  Am I feeling angry, afraid, more faithful, more apt to pray these days?   It is the particulars, even moments of deepest sorrow and pain that Jesus’s words and love changes us, heals us, transforms us. John the Baptist says, Watch, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come. What will you notice today?

Sermon by Rev. John H. Branson

Second Sunday of Advent (C)

Malachi 3:1-4; Ps 126; Phil. 1: 3-11; Luke 3: 1-6