The Second Sunday of Advent
December 8, 2013
The text for the sermon
Matthew 3:1-12: In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’ “
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
The Prayer of the Day:
who called forth the first morning of the world
and brings all things to their final end when all night is vanquished,
make us ever mindful of our journey homeward,
and teach us to live your peace.
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Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.
As you may know, I was visiting my daughter Megan in New York these last two Sundays. About a month ago, I got a call on my cell phone from her boyfriend, Matt. At the time, my cell phone wasn’t working correctly and I could only talk on the phone if I used the earbuds. When Matt called, I was at church. I had been in the fellowship hall talking to Paul Corwin about the Christmas trees, then we came down to the office to talk about the thermostats. At the end of our conversation I realized I didn’t have my earphones, so when Matt called, I had been searching everywhere I’d been that morning: upstairs, in my office and in the sanctuary. I was on my third round of searching when my phone rang. It said it was from Matt, but I couldn’t answer it – because I didn’t have my earbuds.
You have to understand I have never gotten a call from Matt before. So I’m trying very hard not to panic, but of course my fear is that something has happened to Megan. Worried there is some kind of emergency, I send Matt a text message that my phone isn’t working and he should call me on the church phone, and hurrted to my office to wait for the phone to ring.
I grabbed the phone on the first ring only to hear Matt say something to the effect that he was calling to ask my blessing; he wanted to ask Megan to marry him. My response was not what he might have expected or hoped for. I was steeling myself against bad news that Megan was in the hospital or something, and I think he got something more like an “Oh. Oh. Okay.” I took me a moment to warm up and tell him how pleased I was and that they certainly had my blessing.
So Megan and Matt are now in that process of planning a wedding. Megan commented last week that she had thought about being married, but never thought about how to get married. She was not one of those little girls that grew up with a picture in her mind of the wedding she wanted. So she spent most of her free time while I was there searching the Internet for information about weddings and places she might hold a reception. We looked at pictures of dresses and flowers and table-settings – and I got to watch several episodes of a wedding reality show where three brides compete: they attend each other’s weddings and the one with the nicest wedding wins a paid honeymoon. Megan is building a spreadsheet of possible venues where we can get our rather large and scattered families together.
There is the joy of the wedding. And there is the work of preparing for the wedding. Advent is about the joy of the wedding. And it is about the work of preparing for the wedding.
The wedding of heaven and earth
Advent is about the joy of the wedding of heaven and earth. The day is coming when heaven and earth will be united again. The Biblical narrative begins with that image from the creation story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden where God walks through the garden in the cool of the evening, that image of intimate fellowship between God and humanity, that image of perfect harmony, of God dwelling with us. That intimate communion gets broken by Adam and Eve. They lose the garden. And from there begins the sad tale of a world spinning away from God. Cain kills Abel. Lamech vows seventy-fold revenge. Evil proliferates upon the world until that critical moment when God regrets he has made humanity, and considers wiping them out with the flood. But God makes a decision that day not to destroy the world. He decides to rescue it, to redeem the world, to reconcile heaven and earth.
God’s work in the world and in us is to restore the relationship that has been ruptured, to heal and renew and transform the world so that we would once again live in perfect peace. One image that the scriptures use for this reconciliation is that of a perfect king – like in our passage from Isaiah today, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,” from the fallen line of kings descended from David. The Spirit of God will be upon him and he will govern in righteousness, and all earth will be restored to harmony – even among the wild creatures: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, [and] the leopard shall lie down with the kid.”
Another image the scripture uses for God’s healing of the world is that of a wedding: the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven like a bride adorned for her husband. Jesus uses parables of wedding banquets and John’s Gospel contains that marvelous account of the wedding at Cana where Jesus transforms water into wine – where Jesus transforms tears into joy – a sign of the new reality dawning in Christ.
The work of preparing
Advent is about the joy of the wedding. But it is also about the work of getting there. So we hear in this season not only from the prophets the promise of the new day to come. We hear the voice of John the Baptist and the apostle Paul saying “Get ready.”
In his narrative about John’s preaching, Matthew doesn’t include for us the specific examples of what readiness looks like that we find in Luke’s Gospel. But Matthew keeps the central language about bearing fruit that is befitting repentance. It is not enough to claim a biological descent from Abraham; we must live the faith of Abraham. It is not enough to claim the name of Jesus; we must live the life of Jesus.
Getting ready for a wedding is not about choosing the right flowers, food and music. To be ready for a wedding is to be ready for the marriage. You can’t come still thinking that the bride or groom should have picked someone else. You can’t come resenting the other family – or some part of your own family. To be ready for a wedding means that divorced spouses are prepared to be civil to one another, that alienated friends are ready to join in a common celebrations of their shared friends. And for the bride and groom, to be ready for the wedding doesn’t mean that they have “something borrowed and something blue”; it means that they are prepared to commit their lives to one another without reservation.
To be ready for the wedding of heaven and earth doesn’t mean you have come to church all your life. It means you want to do the will of your Father in heaven. It means you are giving up gossip and prejudice and hateful speech. It means you are giving up hardness of heart, greed and pride. It means you are ready to welcome one another, as Paul writes in the second lesson today. You are ready to welcome all people into the community of Christ. You are ready to treat all people with grace and compassion. You are ready to share your bread with the hungry, to clothe the naked and visit those in prison. It means you are ready to do good to all people following the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. It means that you are ready to forgive as you have been forgiven. You are ready to be a healer in the world. You are ready to seek what is true, and to speak the truth in love. You are ready to focus on what is good. You are ready for hope and joy.
The people came to John to be baptized, “Confessing their sins.” And it’s very important that we remember again what this means in the world of the scriptures. Our sins are our debts. We are in debt to God. We owe him. When we have betrayed others, or hurt them intentionally or unintentionally, we feel obligated to them. We “owe them.” In the same way, we owe God for all the ways we have not honored God by our life together.
And by our life together, I mean not just our life as a Christian community, but our life as a human community. When we let someone starve, we dishonor God. When we let someone perish because they lack health care, we dishonor God. When we speak falsely or maliciously about another we dishonor God. It’s why I can’t stand to listen to any politician at the moment. They not only corrupt language and society, they shame God. You don’t have to mention God to dishonor him. When we speak falsely, when we speak without compassion, when we speak from bigotry and arrogance we betray God. Our sins are not just our individual moral acts and failures but our shared acts and failures.
That’s why Israel must go out beyond the Jordan River and get washed in the waters. Israel has to go back out to the wilderness, go back out to the time and place before God has given them the land, and come through the Jordan anew. They have to start over as God’s people.
The nation of Judea at the time of Jesus has a glorious temple with which to honor God in the sight of all nations – but what God asked of his people was not a magnificent temple; God asked for justice and mercy. God asked that they love their neighbor as themselves. To be ready to greet the coming Christ, they must rejoin God’s plan and purpose for them and for the world.
Planning for joy
Advent talks to us about preparation. We are getting ready to greet the Christ who comes to us. But there is a great difference between preparing for a test or preparing for a courtroom trial and preparing for a wedding. We are preparing for a wedding.