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Moving with the Currents of God’s River: Sunday, December 10, 2023

The Second Sunday of Advent:
Isaiah 40:1-11
1 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

From the mid 1800s to mid 1900s there lived a brilliant Episcopalian (i.e. American Anglican) woman named Vida Scudder. She was a professor, author, and activist, and had been one of the first women ever admitted to graduate studies at Oxford University. In a lecture she gave in the UK about 100 years ago she remarked that “movement, not stability, is the law of the Christian life.”* Which goes against what we (or others) often presume: that faith is an insulation from change. When I’m ever in the position of talking about Waterloo Region to someone who doesn’t know it, I love mentioning how we have shopping malls with horse stables in the parking lot. A unique and quirky attribute. And an example of faith insulating a community from change.

But Scudder insists: “the true Eternity [meaning God] in which the religious person consciously abides is no majestic frozen pause, but an unfolding life that flows for ever from the Divine.”* A nice image of God: coursing toward us (and our world) like the currents of a river. While there’s something to be said, and certainly a time and place for stability and caution, there are times — and Vida Scudder would say it’s most often the case — that we need to move to meet this flowing river of God. Or be open to moving with the currents of this God who moves, and flows. [That’s a big part of what our tradition is getting at in calling God Trinity: Rather than a frozen, self-contained Thing (whether an old man or some formless gas): God is a series of relationships in which Love flows within God and then out to the world, and then brings us, in that current, up into Divine headwaters. But that’s more of a sermon for Trinity Sunday in several months. The point here is that God flows, crests, burbles, undulates… And maybe that helps us imagine God in new ways, or maybe strengthens some very traditional ways — thinking, especially this week, of God’s love and power coming to people in baptism — in water. ]

Last week, the first Sunday of Advent, part of our changing of the calendar (with the colour of blue — again another water connection) part of our turning the page was turning to the Gospel of Mark for this year (and because it’s pretty short, sometimes we’ll dip into John). Mark is short, and also really punchy; maybe we could say “choppy,” to use another water-related word. It moves quickly, like rapids. And over and over again, sometimes more than once in a story, the narrator uses the word “immediately.” (“The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] into the desert…. [I]mmediately they left their nets Continue Reading: [title] and followed him…. The healed person stood up and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them, so they were amazed” and so on.)

So no wonder, a generation or two later, when life gets a bit more normal and domestic in the early Church, that some people get worried. In that second reading the writer’s trying to reassure them: ‘The Lord’s not being slow… but patient… it seems like slowness to us, but a thousand years is like a day to God.’ Think of how at the cottage, some people just dive into the water, and get acclimatized to it all at once. I’m not like that. I go up to my ankles, five minutes later, my knees. Have second thoughts. Might eventually get halfway in. Then probably run out. Unless I summon the courage finally get my head wet. And then at that point everything seems less freezing. We’re all different, and this slowness or silence of God is God giving more people more time to get into the water.

But The Gospel of Mark is an adventure story. It dives into the deep end. There’s no prologue or prelude like the other Gospels: nothing about Jesus’s mysterious conception and birth; nothing about family and geneology. Jesus just shows up, and things are going to change. There’s a wild man out in the wilderness shouting “Prepare the way of the Lord…” Straighten out your lives and straighten out this world. Put your energies into making a conduit, aquaduct, or canal for God’s action to flow through. So smooth out the mountains, and raise up the valleys in this work.

Here right at the beginning of this new Gospel there’s movement: As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.” In just the second verse of the book it’s saying ‘turn back… turn back to the Book of the Prophet Isaiah to help you understand what’s being narrated.’ And then once we finish the story — which doesn’t take that long, because it moves so quickly — Mary, Mary, and Salome go to the tomb, find it empty, and an angel says to them: ‘go back. Go back to Galilee, where this adventure with Jesus and his disciples started. And there’ll you’ll find him and he’ll make sense of all of this for you.’ Both at the beginning and at the end we’re called to turn and go back. To spin [like a washing machine] in a cycle of going deeper. Like every church year we get back to Advent, or we get back to January 1, and it’s the same day, but also hopefully different. Hopefully you’ve gone deeper over the last cycle.

The language used down at the river where people “from the whole… countryside and all the people of [the city] were going out to [John the Baptizer], the language used is “repentance.” It has to do with, at its simplest, changing your mind, or turning from one direction to another. As the idea developed through history is would get associated with converting, not so much from one affiliation or label to another, but more like moulding your life according to certain values and practices. Like ‘this is important, and my life’s going to reflect that.’ And that’s what the people down at the river are responding to. They’re realizing things in their lives and in the world need to change, and they’re going to live in a way that reflects that. So just as that teacher I mentioned, Vida Scudder, said that the Christian life is largely about “movement,” the people being baptized are moving out to the river where good things are happening, and they’re repenting: turning from one direction to another. Turning with the currents of God, to move in those better, life-changing and life-saving directions. And we do that to this day in our practice of baptism (we saw it just a few weeks ago): ‘Do you turn away from the evil forces that destroy God’s creatures?’ and ‘Do you turn toward Jesus?’

Advent is a season of repentance. We build it (and Lent) into the ordering of the year, because it’s helpful to be given opportunities — alongside others — to take a hard look at the things that are not right; the areas where we’re being called to move, and turn around. And be encouraged to take on some practices that help us with that. Extra time for study, or prayer. Some are drawn to one-on-one confession with a priest, which some don’t realize is part of our Anglican toolbox, right there in the green service book, in the section after baptism. Because after our big turning toward Jesus in baptism, we know that there are times when we need to right the course now and again. Though this isn’t forced. There’s an expression often connected with Anglicanism: “all may, none must, some should.”

So whether it’s in that form, or in other, subtler ways, the message here today is that our Christian life involves moving… moving with the currents of where God is going. Maybe to a refreshing, bubbling brook, maybe into deep, immersive waters. “Again and again you call us to return” it says in one of our eucharistic prayers. To turn, move, spin to and with God. Maybe with urgency and immediacy. Maybe with a molasses-like slowness. But God is in that. And know that you’re not alone in this. So today and this season before Christmas be curious about that channel, or canal, or aquaduct that you’re being called to shape in your life. What direction is it leading you toward, and what do you need to clear out, dig up, or smooth out to help in that process?

© 2023 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Social Teachings of the Christian Year: Lectures Delivered at the Cambridge Conference, 1918, Christopher Poore and Andrew Raines, eds. (Galesburg, Illinois: Seminary Street Press, 2022), 11.