December 10, 2017 Second Sunday of Advent Isaiah 40: 1-5; Mark 1: 1-8
Prayer: Dear God, we ask to feel your presence in this dark period of waiting and anticipation. Help us to go through Advent with reverence and repentance. We pray in the name you wore while among us, Amen.
Mountain to Valley to Mountain
Those of you who grew up in Greenville remember the old Fox Theater, the Carolina. You may even remember the Paris, where no one went but men in raincoats.
You remember shopping at Belk and Ivey’s and Meyers Arnold on Main Street.
You remember storing your fur at Sedran’s, eating lunch at Woolworth’s, visiting the public library on North Main Street.
In the days before suburban shopping malls were built, Greenville’s downtown was thriving. I remember my mom and her best friend taking me and my best friend to see Gone with the Wind when we reached the magic age of 12.
I remember spending many a Saturday on Main Street, getting into a movie with six Coke bottle caps, trying on clothes, having lunch at a cafeteria.
But then McAlister Square was built, and downtown began to fade. By the time I came home from college to work in The Greenville News building on South Main, no one wanted to be there. The department stores were gone, the movie theaters were gone, the library had moved. You didn’t dare go below the Camperdown Bridge after dark.
Even news reporters, who’d pretty much go anywhere, drove over to a little storefront bar on East Washington called Zorba’s.
Forty years later, you could spend an entire reporter’s salary in bars and restaurants you could walk to from South Main. The Camperdown Bridge is gone, and the park below it is well lit and safe. The Reedy River has been reclaimed.
The Peace Center brings in national Broadway shows and acclaimed musicians. Celebrated restaurants from Charleston, Asheville and elsewhere vie to open in Greenville’s downtown. A minor league ballpark pulls in thousands.
Even offshoot streets like Coffee and River and Brown are awash in thriving commercial establishments.
What once was high was brought low. What once was low has been made high once more.
Such is the story of Isaiah, the prophet of Advent. Our first Scripture passage today comes from Isaiah 40: 1-5. He is writing at a time when most of his Israelite people were living in captivity in Babylon. For the Jewish people, it was the lowest point of their lowest valley. And their prophet is offering hope, comfort, a view of a pendulum that will one day swing once more in their favor:
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
The only constant is change. If Greenville was a hill in the 1960s, it became a valley in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s that then became a mountain in the 2000s.
If Israel was a hill in time of King David, it became a valley during the Babylonian exile that might just become a mountain with the coming of Messiah.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low.
This is the promise of Advent. This is the promise of our God, our Emmanuel, coming to be with us. To live among us. To stand in solidarity with us.
In a similar way, Triune United Methodist Church was a thriving church throughout the first half of the 20th century. I can’t tell you how many people have told me of being baptized here, married here, teaching Sunday school, establishing lifelong friendships.
During my first several years here, Ken Stannard and I had lunch every month at S&S Cafeteria with a handful of women in their 80s and 90s. Some of them had come to Triune as babies. It had been home to them.
But then as downtown fell on hard times, so did this church on its outer edge. Nearby Poe Mill crumbled. Drugs and crime and prostitution moved in. And people began to flee the church.
For people who had been raised and baptized and confirmed and married here, for parents who had raised their children here, for grandparents who had sacrificed to construct these buildings, that was extremely painful. The process was slow and agonizing.
Finally, when church members could no longer support it, Triune dissolved as a Methodist church. It was handed over to a sister, Buncombe Street, to be revamped as a mission church.
And unlike so many churches that wither away or are sold or torn down, Triune actually was re-invented, re-imagined, re-constituted as the missional Triune Mercy Center. And then those faithful Methodists who had overseen its rise and fall and rise said they liked what we’d done with the place.
And they gave us all this property and these buildings. That was an incredible gift. Mountains arise because of faithful people.
Just like Isaiah foresaw, from mountain to valley to mountain.
With the coming of the Advent season, we celebrate the eruption of the volcano that would build a mountain in the first century. Reading from our gospel passage,
Mark 1: 1-8:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the 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.’
The other gospel writers dwell a little longer on this story. But as the football coaches say, Mark gets ’er done.
When the gospel writers sat down to write their stories of Jesus, they saw John the Baptizer as this voice in the wilderness prophesied by Isaiah centuries before. John’s appearance signaled a swing of the pendulum. Those valleys were about to be filled in. Those plains were about to rise into mountains.
But Mark does something else to tie John back to the Jewish Scriptures. He describes John this way: “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.”
Those of us in the 21st century -- not so well attuned to our Bibles – might think, “Hmmm. That John sounds like a wild man.”
But to those early Jewish-Christians who heard Mark’s gospel read in their synagogues, that description of a man clothed with camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist rang all kinds of bells. It would be as if we read this description of someone: “The man was fat and jelly-bellied and wore a long white beard. His suit was bright red, accessorized by a black patent leather belt and matching boots.”
We’d know immediately the man was supposed to invoke Santa Claus.
So this description of John – clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist -- reminded first-century Jews and Christians of someone. A wild man of a prophet named Elijah. One who was described in the Old Testament as “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” (II Kings 1: 8)
But why? Why did Mark want his readers to remember the wild, wilderness-dwelling Elijah when he told them about John? Because there was another passage in the Hebrew Scriptures, the last words of Malachi, which were the last words of the Hebrew Bible.
“Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” (Malachi 4:5)
As the Jews understood it, Elijah must come back before the messiah could appear. To this day, when Jews celebrate the Passover to commemorate their deliverance from Egypt, they set a place for Elijah, in case he comes back. They don’t think he has.
But for Christians, for Mark, Elijah did come back. He came back as a hairy man wearing a leather belt around his waist. He came back as a baptizing man named John.
It was Mark’s way of saying, Okay, now the Lord can come.
I think it’s also a way for Mark to link a mountaintop in the Old Testament to a mountaintop in the New. The stories of Elijah and his buddy Elisha are a high point of the books of Kings.
Their supernatural, god-like exploits would be echoed in our gospels. Their lifetimes were remembered, were revered, as a high point in God’s activity among his people.
And so as Mark introduces the story of Jesus, he begins by linking this forerunner John to the mighty prophet Elijah, a mountain of a man from centuries before.
John was signaling the time when Israel would rise once more with the birth of its Messiah.
As we celebrate the coming of this same Messiah, that is where I see us today, in this city, in this church. Back on a mountain of sorts.
We’ve got a lot to be proud of . There is no doubt we have climbed from the valley, this Greenville that finds itself on every Top Ten list that’s ever been assembled.
But almost everyone from City Council to consultants to developers admits that we have been caught asleep about the need for affordable housing for our most vulnerable citizens.
Our own Russell Stall won election to City Council last month. I think it had to do with his deep understanding of the need for housing for our workforce and for our chronically homeless alike.
People – and I certainly include us in this – want to help out with food and clothes and blankets, with immediate needs. But the truth is, you can actually extend someone’s homelessness by making it more palatable, more comfortable. The clichéd truth is, the cure for homelessness is a home.
Our community is going to have to tackle the big issue – a lack of housing that people on $700 a month can afford. And I’m so thrilled that a person who has worshiped with us for years, who has talked to homeless people, who has friends who are homeless, is now on our City Council.
For we on the mountain have responsibilities. In a sense we owe a debt to the faithful people who came before us.
Someone else sacrificed to build this church, this beautiful campus. Someone went without a new Sunday dress, a new Sunday suit, to pay their tithes for this sanctuary. Then a whole lot of someones went against their denominational polity to turn the whole kit and caboodle over to the likes of us.
That makes me want to make them proud. I want to deserve their trust by providing real and meaningful help to the people who come here.
So even if there’s a measure of nostalgia that the church is not what those folks remember from their first trip to the mountain, they can appreciate what it’s become on the second trip.
From mountain to valley to mountain. It may always be this way.
And whether it’s a church or a city or a nation, there is always the necessity for those temporarily on the mountain to reach back, to make sure everyone is included, to make sure everyone has a view from the mountain top.