A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Three women stood by the ocean, looking at the same sunset.

One woman saw how great and beautiful it was and enjoyed it. Like most people, she had little passion about the bigger ideas that might come from her experience. She wasn't interested in the grand scheme of things. It was just a beautiful sunset. She saw with her first eye, and it was good.

The second woman also saw the sunset. She enjoyed all the beauty the first woman did. Like all those who love technology, science or theology, she also enjoyed the ability and power to make sense of the universe and explain her discoveries. Through both imagination and reason, she saw with her second eye, and it was better.

The third woman watched the sunset as well. She knew and enjoyed all that the first woman and the second woman did. But on her spiritual journey she had learned, over and over again, how to progress from seeing to explaining to "tasting." As she looked she remained in awe before a magnificent mystery that connected her with everything else in creation. She used her third eye, and it was the best of all.

Richard Rohr, who tells this story about three men, says that, after a lifetime as priest, monk and spiritual guide, he has come to see almost everything as a balance and tension of opposites,. Rather than "it's either this or that," the spiritual life and all of life, he says, is "both this and that." Like today's passage from Isaiah: both the wolf and the lamb, both the nursing child and the asp (Isaiah 11:1-10).

An example would be: we come to know someone not just by what they say, but also by what they don't say. All saying must be held in tension, then, with "unsaying." All knowing must be humbled by unknowing. That is, we know, and we do not know. Without this kind of dynamic balance, Rohr says, people become short-sighted, "arrogant, exclusionary and even violent" (The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, p. 11).

When we see with our third eye, something different happens. By some coincidence (or God-incidence), our body, mind and spirit are all open to God and to life. All parts of us are aware at the same time. Looking at a sunset, making a three-point goal in basketball, receiving Holy Communion these moments are described in all religions as moments of real "Presence." With our third eye, we can experience God's "presence" as a moment of deeper, inner connection. Presence can produce both great sadness and great joy.

Advent is a season that invites us to use our third eye. Actually, there are three Advents. First, the Advent of the past, when Jesus first came into the world as a lowly infant. Then, the Advent of the future, when "Christ will come again," in the language of our liturgies. And . . . there's the Advent of the present, the coming of Christ right here, right now if we dare to look with our third eye.

John the Baptist was a prophet in the Old Testament sense. He also went before Jesus, foretelling a New Covenant. But what was his message? "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (Matthew 3:1). In third-eye language, he might have said, Look back, remember, admit your past, so you can look forward to a new future with God. And pay attention to what God is doing, here and now! Life with God, John reminds the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders of his time, is about fire, which they both fear and desire. Life with God, John reminds them and us, is about Baptism, which is about both repenting looking at and changing life and rejoicing, knowing God's reign, God's kingdom is very near.

John seems to be focusing on just one eye: repentance. He's looking hard and long at those religious leaders under a prophetic microscope, and he does not like what he sees. "You brood of vipers!" He's calling them a bunch of snakes! But John is using more than just his first eye. He tells them that, just because they are steeped in the Old ways, just because they were raised in the faith of their father Abraham, that doesn't mean they will automatically make God happy. They might believe the right things, but they need to DO the right things. The religious language is: BOTH orthodoxy (right believing) AND orthopraxis (right doing). When both "right believing" and "right doing" come together, we can live a third-eye kind of life: right living.

I wonder: if he were here today, what might John the Baptist have to say to us? Maybe he would say, "If God loves you enough to welcome you into God's family through your birth, through your baptism, through your presence here today, then God also loves you enough to expect something more of you than simply coming to church. You are both cherished by God for who you are and responsible before God for what you do. Use your third eye. It's both-and living God wants from you."

Using our third eye means holding everything up to the light, God's light. Music is an important part of our liturgical life, our worship of God. Here's one, last third-eye perspective, on some music, a beloved hymn of the church. If there is one Advent hymn people tend to know, it's Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, "O come, O come, Emmanuel" (# 56 in our Hymnal 1982) These eight verses, called the Advent antiphons when written in the nineteenth century, were originally meant to be sung one day at a time, to help prepare for the birth of the Christ child.

Each antiphon or verse addresses God by a different name. The name for God in verse two, "thou Wisdom from on high," is a reference to the Biblical tradition of praising God with feminine imagery and language. This verse ends with, "and teach us in her ways to go." This hymn has BOTH feminine images AND masculine images AND other images for God. God is both Wisdom and Lord and Jesse's branch and key of David and Dayspring from on high and Desire of nations. And Emmanuel, which means the immanent God, the Present God, the Presence. Eight verses contain seven images of God, and one image both begins and ends all the verses: Emmanuel. "God with us." God present with us and to us and for us. God right here, God right now.

All these both-and images help us think about the both-and God. But what about both-and us? What about the refrain we sing at the end of each verse: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel // shall come to thee, O Israel! Is that a both-and, third-eye response to the God who calls us to both repent and rejoice?

What if we sang:

Repent! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O people of All Saints'!

Wouldn't that be more in line with what John the Baptist is saying? Wouldn't that be more authentic and include those parts of the hymn's text that talk about "Satan's tyranny," "the path to misery," "the gloomy clouds of night," and "our sad divisions"? What about BOTH "Repent!" AND "Rejoice!"?

Let us pray. Repent! Rejoice!
Has come to thee . . .
Shall come to thee . . .
Is coming now,
O people of Great Hall . . .
O people of All Saints'!