A sermon for Advent 2 (Luke 3:1-6), December 9, 2012
Back in my college days, I was part of a marginally successful rock band. When I tell people about this, they often get wide-eyed and want to hear road stories about the glamour (or debauchery) of the rock-and-roll lifestyle. When this happens, I will usually disappoint them. Because most of what being in a rock band involves — unless you are incredibly famous — is monotonous physical labor. You might as well just wear brown shorts to every gig, because you’re basically a UPS driver that gets to play real a guitar instead of an “air” one on breaks. You load the van up, you empty the van out. You set up on stage, you tear down. Then, you load the van up, you empty the van out. By the time you get to play any music, your arms are tired and your back is sore. This is why most musicians will tell you that all marijuana is, in fact, medical.
Of course, the amount of physical agony and fatigue is relative, though, to how much stuff you have to carry. Occasionally, we found ourselves up here to the big-time — where there was a sound engineer and a top-of-the-line sound system. But, primarily, we played the college towns … at places that weren’t big enough to have their own PA systems. So, along with all our instruments, and guitar amplifiers, and effects boxes, and cables, we would also bring crates full of microphones and stands, audio mixers, power amplifiers, and racks of effects, and large speaker cabinets. We had accumulated the stuff over the years, and used it for rehearsing in the house where most of us lived together on Ward Street on the Southwest side of beautiful Macomb, IL.
Before every show, we would pack everything up that was strewn about in the living room, and we would make the journey from the house, through the back yard to the alley where our band vehicle — a late-60s Winnebago motor home — was parked. Like zoo animals pacing back and forth at the front of their cage, we all participated in this long, heavy parade so many times that we wore a path in the grass from the back door to the Winnie.
Consequently, we knew where everything was that would be beneath our feet on that path. We knew which of the back stair treads were loose. We knew the pitch and every dip that was in the yard. We knew where a tree’s roots had broken the pavement at the edge of the alley. Even in the house, we could navigate our way around the furniture, and the recycling bins, and the aluminum can castles.
Actually, not all of the band members knew the walk to the Winnie in the way we did. Our keyboard player, Eric, went to school in the big city of Peoria, so he didn’t play all the gigs with us. He was more wild animal than zoo creature. I’ll never forget one afternoon during load-up, Eric was there and he was trying the be helpful. So he was picking up everything in sight taking it out. But with every trip, he seemed to run into something. Carrying a monitor speaker, he ran into a chair. And he grunted, and with frustration simply said “Stuff!” Carrying an armful of microphone stands, he knocked something off the table. “Stuff!” he said again. It kept happening over and over.
Boom. Into a pile of newspapers. “Stuff!”
Blam. Into the charcoal grill. “Stuff!”
Crash. Into lamp. “Stuff!”
If there had been a rake in the yard, he would have stepped on it. If there had been a banana peel, he would have slipped on it.
Finally, something happened to Eric. He had this really powerful meltdown, and he screamed. “Ahhh! Stuff! STUFF SUCKS!”
It was a prophetic moment. Well, maybe a talking donkey moment. But there was still something of God in his cry. Because he was so right. It does. Stuff sucks.
The stuff we carry, it often obscures our vision.
The stuff we surround ourselves with: it just gets in the way.
And, of course, this isn’t limited to the kinds of things we might put in a junk drawer or keep in a storage unit.
Stuff is just as much about emotional clutter. Stuff can be our own desire that trips us up. Stuff can be the escapist dreams that have no redemptive purpose. Stuff can be nostalgic memories that keep us from accepting our friends and family for who they really are. Stuff is what keeps us from paying attention to what is important. It is what keeps us from seeing where life is beautiful and troublesome. Stuff is what keeps us from seeing the handiwork of God that is all around us here and now. It is what keeps us from dreaming about what God has in store for the days that are coming.
As I do an inventory of my life, I cannot believe the stuff that I still have cluttering things up. Expectations about my future. Inane ideas about my past. Grudges. Prejudices. I’ve become so accustomed to it, that I step over it like that tree root, or around it like those loose back stairs. But when I invite someone else into my life and they start tripping on the stuff, instead of cleaning it up, I say “That’s just part of me. You’ll get used to it.”
Maybe, sometimes I’ll reorganize it; I’ll put it deep into a closet, into another box far away from the steps of the people I love. But then it gets so full. And the closet bursts open, and somebody ends up slipping on my stuff and hurting their back. Sometimes its me. Sometimes it is my family. Sometimes it is a colleague. Sometimes it is a friend, or a church member. Like an emotional hoarder, my stuff puts my health, the lives of the people I care about, and wellbeing of people who care about me at risk every day unless something happens that gets me to clear a path.
In this gospel reading, we get a glimpse of the kind of stuff that was going down in the world at the time of Jesus. And most of it was really terrible for the average person. The Roman empire was occupying the whole of the Mediterranean region and much of Europe. At that time, the emperor began to require all of his occupied people to serve in his army. He banished the Jews from Rome and sent them back to live in their homeland under the rule of a governor who didn’t want to be there, crooked local leaders who cared more about what they could take rather than what they could give, and religious leaders who had cozied up to them all.
Meanwhile, in the streets of Jerusalem, ordinary people tripped over the stuff of backroom deals. On their way to the market, the fell over the stuff of corruption. The temple to the most-high God was so full of stuff that the courtyard was unpassable. And the weight of all this stuff had the people fatigued. They began to blame their plight on those who had little power to affect anyone. The diseased and the poor were forgotten because nobody could see them anymore. Instead of looking at their own stuff … what they contributed to the mess of their lives … the people focused on the periphery. The prisoner, the outcast and the widow became easy targets. They were the broken stuff that was cluttering up their world that once was.
Into this world — from its outer edge where few dared go — came John “the Baptizer.” A miracle child whose birth was unbelievable to even his father, John lived off the beaten path. Many thought he was crazy. Few could relate to him. He was like that brilliant friend who never spoke. He kept himself away from the stuff because he knew what it was doing to his people. But there came a point when he could no longer stay away. As the margins of society kept being pushed into his secluded world, Luke tells us John encountered the word of God. In fact a more accurate translation of this phrase from Luke’s gospel — “the Word of God came to John” — might be “the word of God happened to John.” Instead of being in control of the world of God in a moment of self understanding, The word of God happened upon him and overtook him. It is as if the wake of God’s Spirit … moving in a mission of peace and reconciliation … knocked John over. And he finally had the need to speak.
He remembered the words of Isaiah, and began shouting “God is coming, people! God is approaching, so get the stuff out of the way. Get yourselves out of the way. It is all going to be leveled out, and if you don’t clear a path, you may just become part of it.
“Regardless, you are about to witness something amazing. God is going to save us. All of us will be saved from this stuff that is killing us. All of us will be saved from this stuff that has us mesmerized, and paralyzed, and lobotomized.I know you believe that God has given up on us. I know you have grown accustomed to the stuff that clutters our life together. But the stuff is about to be made into landfill. Make sure it isn’t what you have built your whole life around.”
And people listened to him. People who knew what the stuff was doing to all of them. They brought it all to the river and put it in the water. The stuff that was on them, they washed off in the water. And a movement of hope began. No longer were the people just rearranging boxes. No longer were they trapped behind the bars of an oppressive regime. Instead, they began to occupy the open spaces of life where stuff could not live. They began to live in the fields of hope which are vast. They began to camp out at the edge of the sea that is love and feast upon what they pulled from it. And they waited … for that moment when God would arrive and all the other stuff would pass away.
As Advent continues, we are all given the chance to remember what has happened in the past … and we are given the opportunity take stock, with hope, in what can happen through God’s Spirit in the days to come. Unless we do both … reflect and wait … we risk our faith becoming the very stuff that trips us up.
So we remember that God has moved among us before. And we give thanks for the ways that we’ve heard the voice of John call us to a transformed life. But we also pray for the peace of God … the kind of peace that surpasses all understanding … to rush over us like the waters of a morning rain.
In Advent, we are given the opportunity to remember the times when the love of God has crashed down upon us. And we pray that God will happen this way again … into the self-made minefields of our stuff, to liberate us from the monotony of the path of avoidance. Love lets us deal with our stuff honestly.This is the way grace happens. And this is the way peace comes.
When God happens to us, we then realize what our most profound longing had been all along: that we not be alone in this endeavor of life; that we not be left to manage all this stuff, but to have a partner and friend in our creator who will sort through it with us.
It is there, in the happening, that we see the stuff of God that is holy. Dreams become callings. Expectations become opportunities. Grudges become conversations. Prejudices become confession and forgiveness. And life itself … it becomes what it was always meant to be: a joy for us all, together. May that be the Advent that happens to us this year. May God happen to your stuff.