Isaiah 11:1-10 Psalm 72: 1-7, 18-19 Romans 15:4-13
It seems that I am always working on sermons in my head, or thinking “that will preach” when I experience something. On the Monday before Thanksgiving I had an accident. A woman ran through the red light by the post office and hit my car on the driver’s side. The seat belt an air bag made me sore and I had a catch in my neck and I had difficulty turning my head. I thought about my aunt and uncle who took two people to drive a car. My uncle never turned his head when he drove; my aunt did all the turning. It was pretty scary to ride with them. We all have those places where we can’t see clearly. We all have times when blind spots catch us.
We all have blind spots. A blind spot is a small area on the retina where the optic nerve leaves the eye and which is insensitive to light.
I began thinking about how many blind spots I have that are hindering the preparation of my heart during Advent. Blind spots, we all have them…whether it is being too busy to daily set aside time for God in prayer, study, meditation, Centering prayer or enjoying music. Is it during those times that I am simply going through the motions in reading devotionals or scripture, when I’m not really involved or invested in my own spiritual growth? Do I think that I have extended a welcome or shown hospitality to someone and in reality, I overlooked them? Of course, we all have blind spots. That is why we need other people to help us through life. The more people, the less likely the possibility of the blind spot affecting us, especially as we experience people with different backgrounds in different contexts. We need each other in this community of faith.
With the promise of Advent, we all want something more. Advent asks the question, what am I spending my life on? What is the star that we are following now? And where is that star in your life leading you? Is it enough to feed your human soul, to touch your human heart, to direct your spirituality?
Advent is a time of remembering that God is abundant life and that we are called to share our abundance with others. Our lives reflect our hands and heart and feet at work in the community of faith and in the world. Joan Chittister reminds us that we all are each a bit of the will of God for the world. She reminds us that the glory of God will come to this world when it comes in us. We are called to do more than relive the birth of Jesus each year, we are called to make Jesus present now, in our hearts, in our lives, in our relationships, in our actions. Nelson Mandela says, “We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just for some of us, but for everyone.”
Today’s readings shift the mood from lament and longing to the good news of God’s coming soon. Both Isaiah and Romans remind us of the conditions in the world that persuade some that salvation is near at hand. But those same texts boldly make their announcements of comfort and redemption to waiting believers. Isaiah 11 talks about the root of Jesse bringing the Messiah to us. Psalm 72 helps us enjoy now the anticipated consequences of God’s presence in our lives.
A major emphasis in these lessons is hope, based on the confirmation of the Old Testament promises by the coming of Jesus. The apocalyptic dimensions of the season are played out in the Gospel lesson, the account of the appearance of John the Baptist with his announcement of the kingdom of God.
In Advent we wait to celebrate the light of Christ coming into the world – but in the waiting we see a world that is filled with brokenness and darkness, filled with pain and little promise. It is important to remember that Advent is a time for us to look within, to prepare our hearts. Preparation for Christmas continues with readings that kindle hope for the future reign of God in all the world, a reign of justice and righteousness.
On this the second Sunday of Advent, the Gospel readings each year treat the person and work of John the Baptist. All four gospels deal at some length with John, because the church understood John’s function to be one of preparing for the Advent of Christ – the coming of Christ. He was the one of whom Isaiah spoke (Matt. 3:3; Isa. 40:3), who was to prepare the people for “the great and terrible day of the Lord.”
But we don’t want to rush past John to Jesus. There is time. The accents of last Sunday continue in our text today; the time of the Lord’s coming is near, and the preparation for the event is of primary importance. If we are true to today’s lessons, Jesus is not yet introduced as the Coming One. John comes announcing the last days, the age of the Messiah, the time that is ushered in by the Advent of Christ.
The Advent season has no more appropriate voice than that of John the Baptizer. Matthew identifies John by title, the Baptist. John was a prophet both of anticipation and of preparation, the twin themes for beginning Advent.
“In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” With these words Matthew doesn’t just launch the story of Jesus but he provides a title for his narrative. Matthew, by reading the sources available to him, says that prophet Isaiah proclaims the coming of the Messiah. Here we see how the Bible understands itself. Although the coming of Christ is a new thing God is doing, it is not without a past. John’s preaching is news, good news, but it has a history, a memory. Memory is the soil in which hope survives. That which is remembered is the promise of a faithful God.
In a more immediate sense, these words point to the prophet John himself. It is John who bursts upon the scene creating new excitement, stirring hearts, and gathering all of Judea and Jerusalem to the Jordan River to hear his message of repentance, confess their sins, and receive baptism and forgiveness of sin. John is the beginning of the Gospel, for it is his dynamic ministry that prepares the people for the one mightier than he. His popularity and influence made an impact on political and religious leaders as well as on the common folks. John, by the description of his personal appearance, may seem to be more of a character than charismatic. He was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locust and wild honey.
Years ago, when I was a young married woman, my husband and I were watching a Georgia game with friends. One of our friends brought a date – a woman we had never met. I don’t really remember much about her. But my friend and I went to the bathroom together and were making fun of her – gossiping, judging, laughing, cruel comments. When we opened the door, she was standing right there. I was mortified…I said, “How long have you been standing there?” I will never forget her reply, “Long enough.” Long enough for me to see the pain of judgment…the pain of rejection. I can only hope that this memory helps me not repeat that situation. And that others have not seen my face of judgment. Long enough to want to show a face of respect. Now, that will preach!!
John the Baptist experienced that face of judgment a great deal. His appearance was unusual to say the least. I have this image of John coming out of the wilderness with wild flowing hair, badly in need of conditioner, maybe with bits of branches and bugs nestled in it. Embedded in his beard, are pieces of locus and drops of honey, evidence of previous meals. I can see why the Pharisees, who were deeply committed to obeying all of God’s laws, had a hard time believing this man, that this wild man knew anything of God’s will. The Pharisees were obsessed with appearance, recall the stories of their visible piety and need for others to think they were perfect in their obedience to the law.
And then there were the Sadducees, who were more politically minded in their search for Levitical purity. So this man who does not have the hair or the wardrobe of a politician, really a public relations nightmare, was telling them to look at their lives and to repent.
Matthew concludes his presentation of John with a brief summary statement of his messianic preaching. John does not identify this person to come by name. We are thinking Jesus, but the narrative asks us to control ourselves and let the story unfold in its own time. He is alluded to by phrases such as, “he who is coming after me” and as “more powerful than I.” The identification of the One whose Advent is near rubs up against John’s humility (“I am not worthy to untie his sandals”). If God can use a man like John to proclaim the coming of Christ, God can use each of us.
John is a kind of “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” kind of guy. He is clear on his role of baptizing with water, as distinct from the Holy Spirit and fire. The Advent of the Messiah means that the differences among people and their futures will become evident. John’s preaching makes it abundantly clear that one aspect of the Lord’s Advent is the full revelation of the kind of people we are and of the consequences of character and conduct that wait for us.
John baptized people as a sign that they had asked God to forgive their sins and had decided to live as God was calling them to live. Baptism was an outward sign of commitment. To be effective, it had to be accompanied by an inward change in attitude leading to a changed life – the work of the Holy Spirit. John said that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This looked ahead to the Acts account of Pentecost (Acts 2), when the Holy Spirit would be sent by Jesus in the form of the tongues of fire, empowering his followers to preach the gospel. John’s statement also symbolizes the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing God’s judgment on those who refuse to repent.
When we truly look at ourselves, do we encounter the stirrings in our hearts that reflect the hopeful signs of the birth of baby Jesus, or do we catch a blur of busyness, not directed to the glory of God. We celebrate the coming of Christ into the world, and we are called to embody the light of Christ, to live in the light and to be people of light, as last Sunday’s Collect says, “to put on the armor of light.” Advent calls us to keep our eyes on the Christ Child who is light because the world needs people who can witness to the light. Even in times when darkness and loss are all around us, we are called to keep our eyes, our hopes on Christ. To be able to walk as a Child of the Light, we must turn away from those things that distract us, that derail God’s mission and turn toward the light, and in so doing, we are saying that we want to follow Jesus. Amen.