Advent 2, December 10th, 2017 by the Rev. Dr. Rob MacSwain

When I was preparing my sermon for this morning, I went back through my files and found that I preached here at the Convent on this exact same Sunday, the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B, three years ago in 2014. If any of you were here then, don’t worry: I’m not going to repeat that sermon, but I am going to take one major point from it, namely that this is a dis-oriented chapel.

Oriented chapels have altars in the East end of the building. Why? Because at least in relation to Europe, where these matters were hashed out centuries ago, Jerusalem is in the East, and Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection happened in Jerusalem – the Holy City.  Not only that, but East is the direction of the sunrise, the direction from which warmth and light enter our world. That’s East, so if this chapel was oriented the altar would be over there.

But rather than East, over there, the altar is located here, in the South end of the chapel, no doubt because of the remarkable vista. Rather than a traditional East-facing altar, oriented toward Jerusalem, our altar looks out into the world as such, into God’s glorious creation.

Now, when I preached here on this Sunday three years ago, I tried to make the most of this frankly anomalous situation in a very clumsy way, by lamely explaining what the architecture of a traditionally-oriented church symbolizes, namely a journey of repentance from the darkness of the West to the brightness of the East. So, I said, if we were in an oriented chapel, then we would enter at the West end and then come forward to receive the Eucharist at the East End, and so forth and so on.

I persisted in making the argument based on the traditional architectural layout because the primary theme of this Second Sunday of Advent is indeed repentance. In all three lectionary years, A, B, and C, this is the Sunday when John the Baptist makes his dramatic appearance in the desert, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” But what does it mean to repent? It means to turn around, to make a 180-degree change of direction. Three years ago I said that we should thus understand repentance as re-orientation – turning from West to East, moving from darkness to light.

And what I preached three years ago was good and proper, a perfectly fine Second Sunday of Advent sermon. Unfortunately, it failed to take account of the basic rule of church architecture, which is that in a battle between the liturgy and the building, the building always wins. The building always wins.

That is, it doesn’t matter what the preacher says, it doesn’t matter what the music says, it doesn’t matter what the vestments say, it doesn’t matter what the Eucharistic prayers say: if these things are in fundamental tension with the architecture, their impact will be diluted at best and simply lost at worst. No matter what they say, the building still has the final word.

There’s a term for this among architects and town planners, it’s what they call the “built environment,” and the basic idea here is that the built environment is far more powerful and important than we often give it credit for. The built environment is not just a neutral space that we can fill with whatever words and music and clothes and ritual actions that we want, but an active space that shapes and directs and to some extent controls what can be effectively said or sung or worn or done in that space.

And so instead of telling the congregation to look over there, at that wall, and to pretend that the chapel is oriented to the East, I should have followed the direction of the built environment, what the architect who designed this chapel wanted it to say, and so I should have said, “Look here, behind where the altar actually is, and through the window to the landscape that is consecrated by being in the line of sight beyond the altar.” So, as a matter of fact, this chapel is not dis-oriented after all: yes, it is not oriented toward the East, toward Jerusalem, but it is oriented—it is oriented toward creation, to the Cumberland Plateau and the valley beyond. In short, in this chapel the built environment points us to the natural environment, to the world that God created and redeemed in Christ.

In particular, on this Second Sunday of Advent, this chapel points us not so much to John the Baptist but to the wilderness from which he emerged. And we are thus directed first of all not to the gospel lesson today but to the reading from Isaiah. In a week in which the contested political and religious significance of Jerusalem has been much in the news it is thus fascinating to hear, “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term.” And then to hear again the famous words:

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 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. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

This is not a naïve and Romantic endorsement of nature as such, just as it is, for it is clear that it must be radically transformed for its redemption to be completed: valleys will become mountains and rough places smooth. Likewise, as the passage continues, we hear:

All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

So the fragility and transience of nature, both human and plant life, is insisted upon, and contrasted with the immutable permanence of God’s Word. And yet, at the same time, it is in the wilderness that the glory of the LORD is to be revealed. Not in Jerusalem, but in the wilderness—and so we are thus pointed back to John and the Gospel lesson after all: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And 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.”

Rather than forgiveness and salvation being oriented toward Jerusalem, the people of Jerusalem must be oriented toward the wilderness: they must leave the comfort and security of their urban setting and find God in the desert and the river. God is likewise calling us to repent and let go of all that holds us back from following Christ. While living in this world of natural and built environments, we must be increasingly oriented toward what our reading from Second Peter describes as the “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home,” where, as the Psalm says, “Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.”

But while we await the new heavens and new earth we must not neglect “this fragile earth, our island home.” This wonderful chapel orients us to God’s good creation, to the wilderness in which the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and in so doing reminds us of our responsibility to care for what God has entrusted to us.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. Amen.