“He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.
He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.
He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.
He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.”
This beautiful poem, entitled “Advent Calendar,” was written by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams about twenty years ago. In 2011 it was set to music by the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, and since then has been featured yearly at the Cathedral’s Advent Carol Service. It’s a haunting piece that always moves me to tears.
Despite its beauty, it is also at times quite ominous. The last stanza builds, with frantic discord, and the words “toss him free” are cut off abruptly at the end of the line, as though an invisible cord has been snapped.
Finally, the last line, “He will come like child,” is quiet and moving, full of awe, slipping into a major key right at the end, like a gentle smile.
He will come like child – like this child here with us today, brought among us to be baptized into the Body of Christ.
This truth is the essence of joy for me. How appropriate: this Sunday is traditionally known as “Gaudete” Sunday, or “Joy” Sunday. Some churches mark Gaudete Sunday with a pink candle on their Advent wreath. It’s a great Sunday for a baptism.
You can hear it in the readings for the day. If I might summarize quickly for you again:
Zephaniah: “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”
Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Oh…yes, Lord!
Luke: “You brood of vipers!”
John the Baptizer? John the Buzzkill – the spooky wild-eyed preacher, the unexpected son of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s, dunking folks in the Jordan and munching on locusts in the outback – the one to whom the word of the Lord came.
Not to anyone from that long list of names that prefaced the chapter, not to Emperor Tiberius, or the governor Pontius Pilate, or King Herod; not even to either of the high priests, Annas and Caiaphas.
To John, the weirdo in the wilderness, a man dedicated to the Lord and yet mucking about in the wasteland, all alone, accruing no royal position for himself like some of the prophets of old.
Why not? Was his message not for them? Rich and poor alike came to him.
Perhaps his message was not a message for gilded halls. Perhaps it was too hard to hear in such places.
John’s message was to “repent.”
Repentance is not just “turning over a new leaf,” or “being born again.”
Repentance is shadowed by the past.
It means turning around, getting back to the right path.
It’s about newness marked by hard times.
It’s about open arms and wounded hands.
It’s about recognizing the many systems within which we are tangled – infants and elders alike – and using that knowledge to break free, over and over.
It’s about birth, in the same way that resurrection is about birth.
And it is a joyful thing.
See, I think joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness for me is an uncomplicated, pure, and sunny emotion. Joy is woven with darker threads of grief and past pain. Joy is tied to hope, and hope does not exist without a portion of emptiness, longing to be filled.
Joy has teeth.
This tension is where the necessity of the season of Advent really hits us at the core. In the wider world there is such a desperate, rabid focus on fellowship, noise, and colour at this time of year, and I love every minute of it. But it’s out of balance.
In moments of joy, the world is so bright and the heart so large. It is wild…but not chaotic.
It is radical.
The word radical comes from the word radix, or “root.” I think the sharp edge of joy comes from that connection to earthiness. Its sharpness comes from the ache of our hearts stretching up as high as they can go, and the rest is ecstasy at the realization that the reaching could even be possible.
And baptism is the same, isn’t it? We are buried in water, and burst forth into new life – brand new and soaking wet. Death and chaos clings to us – and it is through those that God plunges to pull us into air and light. We affirm and celebrate the deep and the zenith together.
This is the incarnation: the descent of the perfect one into imperfect creation, and our hope for his return.
But is this return really joyful news? “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the tree. Every tree that does not bear fruit will be cast down and thrown into the fire.”
Do we really want the perfect one to return to us, as we are? We are an apocalypse-haunted culture. Today, we worry about Daesh, or ISIS, or whatever name we choose to give them. Before them, though, there were other terrorists, other freedom fighters, other victims, and other heroes – all of whom were far more nuanced and faceted – far more human – than we could ever realize over the course of a lifetime.
However we feel about it, this violence, this chaos, is nothing new.
In only a few weeks we’ll tell the story of a family forced to relocate for tax purposes only to be chased into exile by a murderous king. Jesus grew up walking the major Roman trade routes through his country, walking under the shadows of crucified Jewish rebels, strung up to warn potential zealots of the price of rebellion.
The people of Jesus’ time whispered together, “We shall be avenged by God’s Anointed One. Just as God saved us from exile, so will God’s messenger save us from the yoke of the Romans.”
And then, generations later, people huddled in house churches and arenas and whispered, “We shall be avenged by God’s Anointed One. God’s messenger will return and bring about the end of the age.”
Neither of these things occurred as expected. The Temple was destroyed and the Jewish people forced into diaspora. The Christians were imprisoned and executed, and Jesus did not come. Later, the Christians gained the Empire, and the Church grew far bigger than expected, and fell prey to all the same temptations to which every Empire had fallen and will fall.
But the stories don’t end there.
This is the truth that gives incarnation its light: the Anointed One is never the one we expect.
It is not the one who rules through violence, or the strong, clean, muscular Superman who descends in power and majesty, adorned in gold.
It is the infinite one robed in finitude, the king clothed as a slave, the ageless wrapped in swaddling clothes.
Like a child, he was terribly perceptive and spoke whatever came to mind. Like a child, he was terribly vulnerable, and accepted it wholeheartedly without question.
There is no need to fear his advent.
Our judge was judged unjustly, and returned speaking peace. Our king served us, and commanded us to love one another. Our Son of God came to us as a beloved son born to the poor and dying with the poor. Our Messiah anoints us with the fire of the Holy Spirit.
This is the one to whose care we will commit the life of this child: a child himself, with all the wisdom and vulnerability of a child.
When John calls the crowd “a brood of vipers,” it probably leaves you with a nasty mental image. But the Greek word for brood is “offspring.” You offspring – you children – of vipers.
The same word can also be used for “fruit.” You fruit of vipers.
“Break the cycle,” John says. “Don’t continue to bear the fruit of vipers. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. You can. You are not lost. You can turn around. It’s never too late.”
What must we do, they ask him.
It’s so simple: Be kind to one another. Give what you have in abundance, and be satisfied with what you have.
It’s an incredibly empowering message. It doesn’t presume that the poor cannot contribute. It doesn’t presume that the rich will not. It doesn’t presume that this child here among us today, who will go down to the waters and come up again a new creation, marked by the Holy Spirit, cannot be a minister among us right now, right here, simply by our own joy in her presence.
Be kind. Give what you have in abundance.
A child can do it. An elder can do it. All genders, all ethnicities, all sexualities, all ages, all capabilities, all people.
In baptism, in Advent, at Christmas, we affirm this truth: that the divine has come down not merely to touch or teach, but to be veiled in flesh, and all to close the gap we imposed between us – and to do this all because it is just that stupid in love with us.
“Bear fruit worthy of repentance. It is never too late. It is never too early. And the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I.”
He will come not like a warrior. He will come not like a king. He will come like child.
Rejoice in his coming. I say again, rejoice.