Sermon Briefs: Luke 3:16 Part 2
Published in a collection of short stories by Southern writers, Martha Jean1 by Leon V. Driskell is set in the small town of Whitehall, Georgia. Soft drink companies are giving prizes for numbers they put inside the bottle caps. Martha Jean, a high school senior, begins a campaign to win all the prizes she can in the bottle cap contests, and use the cash proceeds to fully equip a recreation center in the Church of Christ basement. Calling in a favor, Martha Jean enlists the help of a reluctant friend to collect bottle caps from local establishments, gouge out the numbers and put all prize winners in a special pile for redemption. As the story unfolds, Martha Jean and her reluctant assistant, Jim, find their lives moving in different directions. Martha Jean's dream of attending a Bible college to pursue a career in Christian Education is placed on hold because of the lack of money. Jim goes away to a university, but goes with thoughts of how unfair it was he could go and Martha Jean couldn't. Perhaps out of guilt, Jim continues to collect bottle caps. During holidays and spring break Jim returns home with bags of bottle caps and, with Martha Jean, continues the labor of gouging and sorting. The story is one of waiting; waiting to discover the really big prize while life goes on for both Martha Jean and Jim. But it is a story of active, engaged waiting. The prize will not come from sitting passively and dreaming it into existence, but in the daily toil of collecting bottle caps and gouging out numbers. With blisters on his hands, Jim wonders what on earth made him do it.
It is of this active, engaged waiting that this passage from Luke speaks.
In a beautiful, almost poetic sermon, Not Clean But Washable2 Barbara Brown Taylor helps us understand that Advent is not about rushing toward Christmas but a time of actively waiting for what lies ahead. Her sermon is a call to honesty, honesty about who we are and our guilt. What is not here in the sermon is a call to feel guilty but, rather, to discover the good news that we can be washed, cleansed of our guilt. There, in the discovery that we are washable, is the answer to how we might actively wait this Advent. One repents or actively turns from doing wrong and seeks a holy life. It is by our repentance, not a one-time thing, a big, never-to-be repeated splash that empties the pool of water, reflects Taylor, but a daily thing, or at the very least a weekly thing, something the people of God do every time they gather to meet their Lord, that we wait. By confessing our sins against God and neighbor, we clean house and empty trash.
Taylor concludes her sermon with the assertion that we are not here (in the church) because we are clean, but because we are washable and because we mean to bathe in God's presence every chance we get.
"Prepare the way of the Lord," John proclaimed in the wilderness, "make his paths straight." That is what he did while he waited and that is what he invites us to do. Standing waist deep in the river, crying out that the water is fine, he invites us to come clean—not only today but every day of our lives, so we look for the Lord who is coming to make the whole creation new.
John Andrew titled his sermon on this passage, The Road Makers.3 Andrew observes that road-makers don't stand high in any civilization, they aren't heroes. They are functionaries. Expendable. Andrew says that curiously and to our great discomfort, God sees us as such, as road-makers. The call of John in this passage from Luke is to become road-makers for God. We are not to continue in our complacency and assumption that all is well between us and God, that we are highly favored and singled out for divine protection and superior to our pagan neighbors. No, God's call is to a little less self-congratulation and a great deal more self-examination. What is needed is for us to say we are sorry, to turn back and to seek the living Lord with fruits of repentance.
And what are the fruits of repentance? Andrew imagines for us that what Christ wants is our compassion and our concern for the issues that cause hurt and damage to the least of these his little ones. Repentance entails becoming road-makers for God, committed to changing the existing landscape for the Lord. Valleys of ignorance, illiteracy, poverty need to be filled and the mountains of uncaring, greedy landlords and the drug-trafficker's profits from the young be made low. Andrew sighs with us and acknowledges that here we may only scratch the surface, but continues that our efforts may dislodge a stone in the way of the Lord's path, or a pothole may be filled if we manage, for instance, to get a relationship right or bring a loved one to terms with his addiction, or put an apology in the place where we have caused hurt needlessly.
The sermon ends with the claim that it is the readiness to be used which God wants from us. God's Kingdom is built upon peni tence, humility, generosity of heart, forgiveness and willingness to start again. "Road-makers for the Lord!" says Andrew, "there is much to be done. For Christ's sake, let us get on with it!"
Stanley Hauerwas develops a contrast between those who genuinely hope, wait and dream and those who play like they need to wait for a while in his sermon, Like Those Who Dream.4 Hauerwas begins with a memory of his Sunday school class when he was five. With the use of a flannel-board, the teacher taught the stories of the Bible. For the story of the sacrifice of Isaac the teacher feared that the story would be too disturbing for five-year-olds, too threatening. Rather than keep the class in suspense as the story unfolded, she quickly took out a large wooly ram and placed it on the mountain, saying, "Don't worry, God is going to supply a ram so Isaac won't have to be killed." Hauerwas said he was in seminary before he realized that God did not tell Abraham and Isaac that there was going to be a ram in the bush. Abraham had to walk all the way up that mountain, thinking, "This is it. I am going to have to kill Isaac." God was not playing and there was no assurance that things were going to come out all right.
Hauerwas shares this story because, he says, we enter the season of Advent saying to ourselves, "Let us play like we need to wait for a while. Let us play like we need time. Let us play like we are Jews." The danger of this, argues Hauerwas, is that if we play at waiting during Advent we will fail to be authentic witnesses to the God who calls us to be a people who genuinely waits and hopes and dreams of the new age to come. If we play at waiting, we reduce the Gospel to a dumb show and our lives to a dumb show. Hauerwas says that it is absolutely crucial for us to learn what it means to be a people trained to wait and hope. Advent is the season when the church does this most intentionally.
This sermon draws to a close with the image of the Lord's Supper as a means for learning how to wait. In the Lord's Supper, "our waiting feast," the world is given hope that there is more to come, and through participating in this meal we are made a part of God's dream. At the table, we join with the Jews in authentic hope and a genuine period of waiting, not arrogantly thinking we know how it all ends. At the table we celebrate our inclusion as "people of the dream" who rightly have learned what a joy it is to have been engrafted into God's promise called Israel.
I began these reviews with a look at the short story entitled, Martha Jean. At the end of that story, Jim receives a phone call at the university. It is Martha Jean. "Your faith did it, James, your faith did it," spoke Martha Jean over the phone. "What is it, Martha Jean? What did we win? What?" Jim heard laughter in her voice and thought now he could stop having to worry about her all the time. The waiting was over; she had finally won something big. She would have her recreation center, and maybe he would have some peace of mind. "Nothing for the recreation center, but it's one of the biggest prizes," she said. "If you want to we'll get the money for it, Jim, but what we have won is a trip for two to Bermuda." "For two?", Jim asked, and then softer: "for two?" The waiting was over, but it wasn't the end Jim anticipated. As he hung up the phone and headed for his room Jim wondered how on earth he had gone and fallen in love with Martha Jean Foley. Perhaps, just perhaps, that is the true treasure in our waiting this Advent season; to learn how to fall in love with the one who is coming.
W. Douglas Hood, Jr.
1. Leon V. Driskell, Martha Jean, Best of the South, ed. Shannon Ravenel (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books, 1996), pp. 1-26.
2. This sermon was provided for my review by Barbara Brown Taylor.
3. John Andrew, My Heart is Ready (Boston, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1995), pp. 3-8.
4. Stanley Hauerwas, Like Those Who Dream, The Bible in Theology & Preaching:How Preachers Use Scripture, ed. Donald K. McKim (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), pp. 134-136.