“Advent: The Art of Letting Go”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Fourth Sunday of Advent
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (NRSV)
For people who watch sports, it’s a familiar scene: Ball-carriers, or base-runners, or shot-takers score and immediately assume postures of self-satisfied bravado. They hold their arms out and tense every muscle to absorb the world’s fawning adoration. In these displays, the athletes seem convinced, or seem to need to be convinced that their touchdown, or homerun, or basket, or goal, or knock-out punch was the first of its kind and the most significant individual achievement in the history of sport.
Such egotism is hardly limited to the realm of athletics. People love stories of individuals picking themselves up by the bootstraps, overcoming the odds to become rich and “successful” through nothing but their own determination and hard work.
Our culture has become so possessed and burdened by the principles of individualism and meritocracy—principles that idolize wealth, power, and fame—that we’re losing much of the fundamental human connection necessary for societies to thrive. We’re losing appreciation for those around us, those who came before us, and those who will come after us.
In such cultures, public service becomes self-service.
The debates necessary for communities to govern themselves devolve into pathetic outbursts of insults and judgment against “adversaries.”
Excess becomes a sign of God’s favor.
Poverty becomes a sign of personal weakness.
The poor and the earth become commodities to exploit.
Christmas becomes a commercial event.
The cross becomes jewelry.
And during a viral pandemic—a global crisis—the simple act of wearing a mask (or even acknowledging that the problem exists!) becomes not a way to love God and neighbor, but a touchstone for one’s loyalties.
On top of all this, in a culture in which everyone is responsible only for himself or herself, sin is a matter of individual failures to think pure thoughts or believe right dogma. Biblical justice, then, which is a matter of communal righteousness, becomes irrelevant; and to some it becomes a four-letter word. Even in the Church!
It’s into just such a twisted, self-obsessed culture that John the Baptist appears. He comes preaching and living a prophetic vision of faithfulness to God rather than to Caesar.
Mark doesn’t get specific about John’s preaching, but Luke does. And it’s evident that, for John, faithfulness means loving one’s neighbors, and repentance means helping to meet the needs of those who are poor or in crisis.
It’s also evident that to the gospel writers, the good news of Jesus didn’t begin with John’s proclamation or Jesus’ birth. God’s kingdom, and a kingdom way of life, began long ago through the proclamations of prophets, through the actions of faithful leaders of Israel, and through the humble and willing trust of people like Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Joseph, Ruth, and Hannah. John’s gospel reaches back even further to say that the beginning of Jesus’ story began in the same beginning referred to in Genesis.
The point in all this is that humankind lives in ongoing successions of both faithfulness and selfishness. None of us pick ourselves up by the bootstraps. None of us are islands. Not John the Baptist; not even Jesus, whose coming is an event for which God has always been preparing because the Christ presence is always unfolding, and it has been since before God said, Let there be light. (Genesis 1:3, John 1:1-5) So, for John, preparing the way of the Lord (Isaiah 40:3) means unburdening, letting go. It means committing oneself to a self-emptying and simple way of life shaped by the prophet’s call to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)
For us, then, Advent means realigning ourselves with the ways and means of Jesus. As repentance, Advent means recommitting ourselves to the work of God’s loving justice which creates that new equilibrium for all Creation which we call the kingdom of God. That’s what Mary declares when she says that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52)
It seems to me that Mark wants us to understand that John the Baptist embodies this kind of prophetic teaching. As an Essene, John’s wardrobe and his diet create a striking persona. In many ways, he’s even more countercultural than Jesus. Think about it, John isn’t the edgy but fashionable teacher who gets invited to Pharisees’ homes for dinner. No, John’s just edgy. He looks and smells like a walking compost pile. As one member of our Sunday school class said, while John’s message may be properly faithful and prophetic, he is “Emily Post’s worst nightmare.” In his feral faithfulness to God, John is as disquieting a biblical character as one can find.
And maybe that’s the rub: Advent preparation is about sloughing off all seductive but self-serving pretense. It’s about emptying ourselves so that we make room for a holy presence that is as ancient as the beginning of time, and yet as fresh as this morning’s dew. God has spoken of such holiness since the very beginning. Creation bears witness to it. The prophets declared it. Saints of every age have lived in such a way as always to be ready to experience that presence and to allow it to be made manifest through them for others.
While we deck the halls with holly and mistletoe, while we load fir trees with branch-sagging ornaments, and while we burden credit cards with debts Jesus will never pay, true Advent preparation means emptying ourselves of all the burdensome, first-world desires we have been assured are needs, but which are just the entitlements of privilege.
Through his passionate teaching, earthy appearance, and prophetic actions, John calls us to confess that those things that feel like gifts and affirmations are really self-inflicted wounds, symptoms of the diseases of selfishness, greed, and fear. He challenges us to renounce and let go of everything in our lives that would claim lordship ahead of Jesus.
“The art of letting go is really the art of survival,” says Richard Rohr. “We have to let go so that as we age, we can [say,] Yes, we’ve been hurt. Yes, we’ve been talked about and betrayed by friends. Yes, our lives didn’t work out the way we thought they would.”1
Our deliberate yes transforms our pain, says Rohr, and if it’s not transformed, we will inevitably transfer the burden. We’ll “hand it off to our family, to our children, to our neighborhood, to our nation.”2
Advent repentance, then, is the art of letting go of our hurts, our fears, our hopelessness. That art includes forgiveness. And forgiveness, says Rohr, “is simply the religious word for letting go.”3
While we all want to be together, right now letting go includes staying in our Covid bubbles a bit longer.
While we all have to care for ourselves and those we love, letting go means sharing more generously in a time when more of our neighbors are suffering.
While we are constantly being provoked into hostility toward people with whom we disagree, letting go means seeking the God-imaged humanity in all people.
And while worldly anxieties plague our hearts and minds, for us, letting go means reaffirming the lordship of Jesus. It means turning from all bitterness and resentment, and following Jesus’ path of holy love and justice for all Creation.
Letting go is more easily said than done, but we don’t do it alone. We do it in community, with and for each other. And we find strength in the fact that communities of faith have succeeded in Advent living for countless generations, even as the world seemed to be falling apart around them.
Friends, Christ is not only coming; Christ is here. He always has been and always will be.
May we trust his lordship and embody his love.