Malachi 3:1-4 Canticle 4The Song of Zechariah Philippians 1:3-11
As Shane and his wife were driving home from church, she mentioned, “Cindy sure is putting on weight. Do you think she’s pregnant?” “I didn’t notice dear.” “Well, did you see how short Diane’s skirt was? And at her age.” “I’m sorry, dear, I didn’t notice.” “Surely you noticed the way the Smiths let their kids crawl all over everything during worship.” “No, dear, I didn’t notice that either.” “Honestly, Shane, I don’t even know why you go to church anymore!” Ah, living in community - how we view the community of faith is important in how we live into it.
All the readings for this day focus on the coming acts of God. The dominant mood is one of joyful expectation, but not without some reference to the dark background that precedes the coming salvation. Malachi’s messenger of the covenant brings good news to Jerusalem, but also a period of purifying judgment. The Song of Zechariah affirms the coming of the Messiah and looks to the culmination of God’s promise and peace. Paul’s warm and joyful thanksgiving for the community at Philippi, looks toward to the “day of Christ.” The Gospel reading reports the call of John the Baptist, characterizes his message as a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and cites the announcement of salvation from Isaiah (40:3-5).
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 our lives leading us? Is it enough to feed our human soul, to touch our human heart, to direct our footsteps?
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. 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.”
Advent is a season of preparation. At home people are cleaning, getting out their Christmas decorations, getting a tree, baking, hosting and attending parties, and simply getting ready for Christmas. But into our Advent “busy-ness” each year enters John the Baptist. He interrupts our schedules and demands that preparations of a different kind be made. John demands that we get ready for Jesus. Before we bask in Christmas joy and the birth of the Christ child, John forces us to examine ourselves and our world. In the style of the Old Testament prophets before him, John challenges Advent people with a message of personal and corporate self-examination. Advent, John reminds us, is a time to prepare to welcome Jesus and not simply to welcome our invited Christmas house guests.
When we welcome our guests, we want everything to be right. The coming of guests prompts the host or hostess to straighten up, but also to fix things around the house that have been neglected – a broken hinge, a loose towel rack, burned out lightbulbs. John’s life was so different. John the Baptist does not seem like a character who would have understood all that needed to be done to welcoming company into his home. He spent most of his time in the wilderness eating locust and wild honey. Eating locusts and wild honey, after all – hardly the place for a quaint bed and breakfast.
Even though John wasn’t thoughtfully cleaning up, he did understand how people ought to welcome their God. John’s bold preaching in the wilderness called people to preparation. His challenging words called people to self-examination, along with all those things on the “to do” list, if they were going to be ready to receive the one coming after him. John’s prophetic message called people to get ready to receive Jesus.
Outside the church, people are drinking eggnog with their neighbors, singing along with Michael Buble’ while waiting on hold, and hanging garland on their Christmas trees. But in worship, the people of God hear the challenging words of John the Baptist. John the Baptist and his message of repentance can’t be avoided. He appears in the Advent readings every year, causing us to listen and respond to his challenging words. John confronts us, commands our attention and demands our responses.
John’s challenge is to repent and prepare. True repentance (metanoia in Greek) means literally to change one’s mind, turn around, reorient oneself. John calls all people to turn to God, and from sin, to seek God’s forgiveness, and to prepare the way of the Lord. Later he will give very specific and practical examples of what this entails.
Prepare the way of the Lord! If that is the central message of our passage, there is meaning in God’s choice of John, the wilderness dweller, as messenger. In Luke, the word of God comes neither to the emperor nor to the governors, and not even to the high priests. It comes to simple John, son of Zechariah, whom Luke introduces in the first chapter of his Good News.
John the Baptist is to us a great prophet who prepared the way for Jesus, but compared with the political and religious leaders of his day, he was just an ordinary guy – and yet, God chose John, and not the religious leaders to be the messenger. God sent the message to John, not to Rome, not to Jerusalem, but out in the wilderness. In the wilderness, the often scary and confusing place where God had spoken to God’s people in the past and through which God had led God’s people to a new and promised life. God’s choice of John and where God spoke to John are indications of what God expects from us. Our repentance, our turning around, will likely involve us looking at the structures and the systems and the people in the world around us in new and different ways.
“Prepare the way this Advent,” the prophet John cries out. John makes us uncomfortable. Maybe this is John’s purpose – to make us uncomfortable enough to truly repent and prepare for the coming of Jesus.
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. It is important to remember that Advent is not just a season in which we recall an event of the past – Jesus’ birth – but also 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.
But we do not 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.
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.