This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/10/23, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: 2 Peter 3:8-15a & Mark 1:1-8. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
Something is coming.
Something is coming, and we don’t know what it is yet.
The world has to change. It simply must. This old world is barely holding itself together; it feels as if it could rupture explosively at any moment. It could, and it will. We can feel it in our bones.
Horrors in Gaza. The grinding war in Ukraine. Saber rattling over Taiwan. Political upheaval throughout the world. A cultural civil war threatening to tear us apart. Uncontrolled climate change, surging forward as the oil companies tell us that they will “go green”, while scientists tell us it’s time to “brace for impact.”
We’re in a period of seemingly endless deconstruction of every idea, authority, and institution. Nothing is sacred. We live in an age of radical isolation. Who can we trust? What can we believe in?
There’s something profoundly broken. The fabric of our world feels like it is tearing. What will happen next?
Something is coming.
John the Baptist brought this message to the people who came out to him beyond the river Jordan, two thousand years ago. He stood in the archetype of the prophets of old. He was the messenger, sent ahead as herald of the change. He was the one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight!”
John gave those who came out to him a community and a place to stand in. He told them that a new age was coming. It was coming, but it had not arrived yet. John taught his followers a way of repentance. It was practical. He instructed them how to prepare themselves, their families, their community, so that when the Day of the Lord arrived, they would be ready.
The people who came out to John in the wilderness could sense that their own society was on the brink. They felt the social fabric tearing, on the edge of collapse. They could feel it in their bones: Something was coming, and they didn’t know what. I’m sure they would have loved it if John would have told them. I’m sure they would have flocked to John if he said that he was the messiah, and that the kingdom of God had finally arrived.
But that’s not what John said. It’s not what he taught the people. John didn’t claim to be this new thing. He didn’t even claim to know what that new thing was – not in specifics. But John prepared himself, and he prepared those around him, to recognize the new reality that was coming into the world. He prepared to yield himself to this new reality, the new kingdom, the surprising Messiah, when he finally arrived.
In George Fox’s Journal, Fox describes how he wandered the countryside, lying in ruins in the aftermath of the English Civil War. Fox was looking for some sort of clarity in the midst of the horrifying, teetering world in which he found himself. Fox was looking for an answer that would give him peace, but he found none. His heart and soul longed for the kingdom of God, but the priests and rulers and wise men knew nothing of it.
At that same time, there was a group of men and women known as the Westmorland Seekers. They were, in many ways, much like John’s community out in the wilderness beyond the Jordan. The Seekers gathered and sought answers together out in the wilderness of rural northern England. Like John’s community they could sense that something was not right with the world, that something was broken and that the little coherence that the world had was about to shake loose. They didn’t know what the kingdom looked like, but they had become convinced that it was drawing near.
The Seekers could sense – like John did, like Fox did – that the various churches and factions and powers were all led astray and leading the people into darkness and death. They could sense that there was a fire coming, a new baptism that would cleanse the world, and they decided that they would not wait for the cleansing to come to them. They would seek to cleanse themselves while they waited on the Lord.
Like the followers of John the Baptist, they separated themselves from the factions of a world that was tearing itself apart and waited for the coming of the Lord to guide them.
For those of us who are familiar with the biblical narrative and the history of early Quakers, we know how this story ends. We know that John’s community does indeed see the coming of the Messiah. The change arrives, and many of them choose to follow Jesus into an entirely new reality. The Seekers do hear from the Lord, and when Fox comes among them with the message of Jesus being here to teach his people himself, they receive it with joy. A whole new day has dawned, because the light of the world has arrived.
When we focus on how the story ends, it’s easy to forget John and his community. It’s easy to forget the Seekers. They fall into the background as we bask in the glory of Jesus’ arrival and the joy of the early Quaker movement that was so set ablaze by passion for the gospel. We forget about the tension that the earlier communities held, the doubt and not-knowing. We forget about the faithful endurance that was required of them, to wait in the darkness when they could not see the light.
We are in the season of Advent. It’s the part of the year where we in the Christian church are invited to enter into the darkness and longing that precedes the coming of the Savior. We are in the season of darkness and anticipation, and we are ready for it. We are well-prepared. Because we are, in fact, experiencing the darkness. We’re experiencing the longing. We’re experiencing the temptations and fears that come with living in the time before the coming of the Lord.
Jesus is coming. The kingdom of God is coming. An answer is coming. Amid the violence and hatred. Amid the injustice and lies. Despite the feeling that we just can’t take it anymore, and something has to give: Something will give. Something will move. The Holy Spirit will descend like a dove before our eyes. A voice from heaven will speak. The light of the world will shine on us. Jesus will emerge from the water, here to teach his people himself.
But for now, the darkness. For now, the waiting. For now the faithful endurance and patience of those who do not know, but who – in spite of it all – still trust and believe in God’s promise.
Now is the time to inhabit the spiritual space of John the Baptist and the Westmorland Seekers. It is time to embrace a repentance that leads us to love, and helping: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and sharing what we have with those who need it. In this time that calls for courage and risk, here is our moment to embrace the ambiguity, the doubt, and the waiting – just like John, and Fox, and the women disciples who visited the tomb early on Saturday morning.
Now is the time to find courage in the silence, because we do not wait in vain.
Jesus is coming.