Click on the play button above to hear audio of this Sermon.
People in New Orleans people keep time according to a hurricane, the one named Katrina. Spend a few days there talking to the locals, and you, too, will fall into the Big Easy rhythm, a particular way of tracking time and categorizing events and experiences, houses and neighborhoods, well-being or not. There’s “before the storm” and “after the storm.”
This before-and-after method of time-telling is not unique to New Orleans, of course. Nor is it a modern invention.
For Noah’s descendants, there was time before the flood and time after. For the ancient Hebrews history meant before the exodus, hope was defined as after the wilderness, the Jordan and Jericho, and into the Promised Land. Then there was the time before kings and after, the time before exile and after, the time before the temple—and after.
The trick, of course, the spiritual and existential challenge, was to consider what remained constant from before the before all the way until after the after. The graced gift was to remember that God was in it all, always and forever there, even before the very beginning. And from the remembering came the faith, the trust, the hope that God was present still, that God was not yet finished with the world or her people, that God would somehow get them through another sea, to the other side of yet another wilderness, into a new promised land and onto a still unseen future.
As time marched on, so did history’s before-and-after lists. They vary according to place and culture, religion and race, with time being measured by wars and regime changes, earthquakes, floods and fires, revolutions and emancipations, plagues and cures, marches and laws, stock market crashes and Supreme Court decisions. Before and after, before and after.
Chances are you have your own before-and-after benchmarks: before graduation, after meeting The One, before settling down, after getting a job, before kids, after diapers, before midlife, after a move or a diagnosis, before a devastating loss, after an untimely death, before grandkids, after retirement.
More than a millennia ago, some people—and then entire nations—actually decided to mark time by the barn-birth of an impoverished itinerant teacher-healer-troublemaker who had been executed by the state. Which is how we got B.C. and A.D. In much of the world, everything that happened was measured by its relation to Jesus. Before Christ and after, before resurrection and after, now more inclusively known as Before the Common Era, and after.
These days some of us wonder if we have arrived at another historical watershed. Regardless of how they voted on November 8, many Americans now are speaking in terms of before the election and after, and for some people—particularly the poor and marginalized—life since the election already is different: less certain, more vulnerable, less predictable, more frightening, less hopeful, more turbulent, less empowering, more hateful.
Before and after, better and worse, forward and backward and back and forth, all over, already, and not yet.
For some of us, this in-between time is uncomfortable, dispiriting, unsettling, sometimes dangerous, deeply unnerving, occasionally scary as all get out. We don’t know where we’re going or how we’ll get there, what is happening or what the future holds.
And yet life has always been about, history has always been made, and the future ever determined by what happens in the here-and-now, between the before and the after, the darkness and the light.
That time and place when, into the clear-cut devastation, decline, and looming death comes a voice proclaiming possibility, rebirth, justice, and a preposterous peace: a shoot from a stump, a branch growing from underground; justice for the poor; wolves and lambs, leopards and goats, lions and calves all dwelling and feeding together, led by a child.
That situation when, into the wilderness of political and military occupation, personal loneliness, life-sapping illness, job uncertainty, or deep discouragement or depression, comes a voice saying, Prepare the way! Get ready for a new thing! Make way for the Lord: Love Come Down, God With Us in a New Way, the Light No Darkness Can Overcome.
Prepare the way for the new life that is already within us, already among us, already rooted and still growing even though it may look dead. Prepare the way for a future with hope. Prepare to be transformed. Prepare for the ways of this world, and maybe even the ways of your life, to be turned right-side up and inside-out from the unholy mess they’re in. Prepare to kiss your lifelong wounds goodbye as you are loved into wholeness. Prepare to be renewed. Prepare to be redeemed. Be so audacious as, in these dark times, to prepare for justice. Be so faithful as, in these days of hateful division and bullying, to prepare for peace.
We know the before. Now, even as we struggle through the present and fear the future, we must live toward, lean into, what comes next: after we make room, after we open our hearts to the impossible and unknowable, after we surrender control and the certainty that we know it all. After, my friends, we repent.
Or so John the Baptist told his beaten-down contemporaries.
“Get over yourselves,” he said. “Stop thinking you’re better than everyone else. Confess your sins and get right with God. Repent! Turn around.”
This was not exactly an encouraging word. The Jews of first-century Palestine were struggling to keep themselves and their religion alive under the brutality and injustice of Roman occupation. They were poor. They had little hope. They were searching for answers, only to be told to repent.
I can imagine them thinking, “But John, we’re not the problem! We’re not the bad guys! Why are you telling us to repent?”
“The realm of God is near,” John repeats. “Get out of the way. Make room.”
It is so tempting to believe we are in charge. It is so exciting to think we know what to do: how to win elections, how to eradicate racism, how to lift people out of poverty, how to organize for change and justice and peace.
“Get out of the way,” John says. Make room for God to break in. You want to organize the grassroots; God wants to change your heart and correct your vision. Prepare for something new and different, something that you haven’t yet imagined. You, who are bent low over your work; you, who invested all your hopes and energies in the powers and forces you can see, lift up your eyes; consider your smallness; delight in the greatness of your Saving God. Repent early and often of every hateful thought and vengeful motive. Prepare the way for the One who is coming with the power of the Spirit and the fire of justice. Turn around from your fear and make room in your heart for God’s subversive justice. Humble yourselves. Make way for the peace that surpasses all logic.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking—or at least I think I do—because I’m thinking it and feeling it, too.
Really? People on our campus, at our workplace, are getting death threats; I’m getting hateful phone calls and harassing emails, and you want me to repent? Everything I care about is in jeopardy, and you’re telling me to humble myself, to make room, to prepare the way and wait in hope and trust? Come on, this is Amherst! Come on, I’m a social justice activist! Come on, I’m fired up with righteous anger. Come on, we’re God’s hands and feet!
I spent much of last week in meetings and conversations, on phone calls and email threads about what we can do—what the clergy are going to do, what our churches are going to do—about verbal attacks and death threats on Hampshire College, about ridicule and unfair coverage from Fox News, about undocumented immigrants in our midst, about the concerns of women, LGBTQ folks, and other minorities, about the besieged Native Americans at Standing Rock, about the future of our planet, about racist, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic hate speech. Many of you did, too.
Life in the wilderness of defeat and marginalization is hard. We feel lost in the dark. Our best-laid plans look dead. We panic and thrash about, trying to figure out wait to do.
Watch out for that stump, Isaiah says. There’s new life springing forth.
Prepare the way, says John the Baptist.
Become the way, says Jesus.
Stay woke, says Advent says. Wait and watch. Prepare the way. Repent.
Remember who and whose you are. Remember that you are a beloved child of God, as is everyone you meet. Give thanks that God is with you, God is in you, God wants to work for you and through you. Delight in the awesomeness of Spirit. Ground yourself in God’s never-changing goodness. Let go of the before and make way for the after. Live toward the realm of God, even when, especially when, it feels impossible and preposterous. The wolf lying down with the lamb? Practice kindness. Take the long view. Consider that this is not the end of the world but simply another bump on the road to justice. Consider how to make the path straight. Remember that God does her best work in darkness and wilderness, in wombs and tombs. Prepare the way—not for your agenda but for the extravagant love and divine justice of God.
As you survey the rubble of your hopes, consider that, like that righteous ruler growing out the roots of a seemingly dead tree, the Spirit of the Lord rests on you—a spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of mindfulness and reverence for God.
Consider that the peace we long for, the justice and peace we work toward, require an audacious imagination, a cheeky trust, an undaunted willingness to prepare for, and then follow, the Jesus way.
Let God’s power work in you. Let it prepare the way. So that you, too, will delight in obedience of the Holy One. So that you, too, will not judge by appearances, or make decisions according to hearsay; but act with respect toward the poor, and choose for the well being of the powerless. With a word you—yes, you!—will disarm tyrants, and blow away all oppression. For justice shall be the belt around your waist, and faithfulness the coat around your shoulders. 1
You who slog through the darkness and fear of these days, prepare the way for the glorious after.
You who grieve over the apparent death of your dreams, dare to imagine. Make way for a future you might never see. Prepare for the after, even now.
“Plant sequoias.” 2