Sunday, December 27, 2009

Twilight.... No, Not THAT Twilight!

This past Wednesday, the daughter of one of my parishioners passed away after a long illness. In a large church, one could be forgiven for sticking with the Lectionary text and letting the funeral do the talking for the loss, but in a church where, on a good Sunday, you'll see 25 people, that isn't an option.

So a few of you will read this and rightly accuse me of recycling an "old" sermon. While it hasn't been published on this blog before, I posted a version of it over on the "old" Circle Six Magazine forums sometime in 2008 or early 2009. By the way, give that magazine a look, I think you'll find it a really well-done piece of Internet.

I say all this because I don't like reusing sermons, and in fact my mentor and friend Rev. Dr. Doris Chandler was quite opposed to it - she never saved her old sermons, and only saved the children's sermons so she'd be sure to never repeat them. Yet when faced with the cold certainty of death, this is really the only thing I have: it's night, it sucks, and it's real... but the dawn is coming. I promise, it's coming.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.
For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

This is the Word of the Lord.

This reading may be familiar to you as one of those that is most often read at funerals. And while it’s appropriate for funerals, it's also true that I Thessalonians 4:13-18 is brimming with reassurance for every time of life – expectation, joy, and hope. Maybe it isn't the traditional Sunday-after-Christmas reading, but I think you'll agree that it's one we need to hear, especially today.

Certainly, the first-century Christians for whom this Epistle was written would have needed all the joy and hope they could get. It’s an understatement to say that they let a very difficult existence. They were, for the most part, very poor people; servants, slaves, laborers, with a few people of means in their midst. They met in small groups in people’s homes, surrounded by a culture that most often despised their very existence.

The Roman philosophy of governing, you see, was built on a theocracy. The emperor, or Caesar, was regarded as a living god, but even in Roman culture he was one god among many. The Romans, like many polytheistic societies, had gods for every detail of life, from the successful conquest of war to the abundance of harvest, to the opening and closing of doors. The Romans assimilated gods from other cultures as well, and allowed people relative freedom to worship whatever or whoever they chose to… as long as, once a year, they burned a pinch of incense as a sacrifice to the god Caesar.

The Jewish people were exempted from this practice, and were hated for that exemption. Jewish Christians held the same exemption, at least until they were expelled from the Jewish fellowship in the 80’s AD, but for Gentile Christians, the first Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me” flew in the face of honoring Caesar as anything more than a human being. Many people gave in to the pressure to sacrifice to Caesar, because those who did not give in risked loss of property, employment, home and family, freedom, and even their lives.

Add to this the fact that, in any social philosophy based upon religion, any misfortune that society suffers is generally blamed on those who do not hold the same religious worldview. Famine, drought, earthquake, attack from outside enemies, all of these were at one time or another blamed on Christians who, since they would not worship the gods of the culture, were regarded as ‘atheists.”

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the persecutions that these Christians were threatened with and subjected to every day, but I want to offer one example taken from the reign of the Emperor Nero.

In 64AD a fire started under mysterious circumstances and raged through Rome, destroying much of the city. Suspicion immediately fell on the Emperor Nero, not only because he was a complete fruitcake, but because he had made no secret of wanting to tear down much of the city and rebuild it on an even grander scale. Nero needed a scapegoat, and quick, and he settled on a much-hated Jewish sect called “Christians.”

No one knows how many Christians Nero put to death, but we know that he wasn’t satisfied to just kill them. He wanted them to suffer for the entertainment of Rome. Nero had some Christians sewn into animal skins and torn apart in the Circus Maximus by dogs and wild animals. Others he had dipped in wax, suspended from cages and burned to provide lighting on Vatican hill while he raced his chariot.

So you can see that it was not only unpopular to believe in Jesus, it was deadly.

When Paul wrote to the young church at Thessalonica, it was probably only about 20 years since the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There would have been many people still alive who remembered Jesus, perhaps had heard him speak or seen him heal, and quite a few with firsthand knowledge of the Resurrection. Still, many members of the church at Thessalonica would have been Gentiles, experientially and geographically removed from the Resurrection, the event that defined their faith. Not so different, in other words, from you and I.

It’s no wonder then that this letter, the earliest written document in the New Testament, makes a point of reminding the Thessalonians that, no matter what, Jesus had triumphed. It’s a reminder we all need to hear, and often, I think.

We live, after all, in an odd, twilight time. It’s nothing new; we’ve been living in twilight for about 2,000 years. We know that Good Friday was not the end. We know that this Christ, whose birth we celebrated this week, utterly defeated death and conquered the forces of evil, ascended to heaven and sits in triumph at God’s right hand. We know that the Kingdom of God has been established in power.

Yet if all of this is so, why does so much evil persist in the world? How could centuries of persecution, as bad and even worse than Nero’s, have been allowed to occur, and why does persecution of Christians go on, around the world, even today? What about the evils of Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and Darfur, just to name a few? Why do people still die? Is this Kingdom of God real, or are we the biggest fools in the universe?

The easiest answer, the most obvious one, anyway, is to say that the Kingdom of God is not yet here, that Christ’s final victory over sin, suffering, injustice and death will not come until the history of the world itself ends.

And since we can find evidence for both views in Scripture – the Kingdom of God has come, the Kingdom of God will come – somehow, both statements, though apparently contradictory, must be true. But how?

The late theologian and teacher Shirley Guthrie offers this story as explanation:

On June 6, 1944, at 6:30 am, Allied forces mounted the single largest invasion of all time against Nazi-occupied France. D-Day signaled the utter defeat of Nazi Germany and the absolute triumph of Allied forces in World War II. Yet the hostilities did not end until almost a year later – May 7 and 8, 1945, VE day, when Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered.

The Germans fought a number of desperate fall-back battles all across Europe. Many lives were lost and a lot of damage was done before the final surrender. Yet with that decisive battle in Normandy it was clear that the war was won, even if it was not yet over.

The decisive battle of human history took place when, in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God “invaded” the world, and conquered the ruling forces of evil. The Cross is a completed work, so the war has been won. Yet we await the final triumph of the risen Christ at the end of history. So between the times, in this twilight, the deadly battles continue, even though the outcome is already assured. We remember what God has done and therefore can have hope for what God will do.

I’ve used that word “twilight” several times now, haven’t I? I want to be absolutely clear on what I mean by this word, which is by the way Shirley Guthrie’s word. It applies in so many ways to the Kingdom of God, to our personal faith journeys, and especially to the life and ministry of Fairfield Highlands Presbyterian Church, this family of believers who is sharing this week not only in the celebration of the birth of Christ but in the grief at the loss of Evelyn's daughter. It applies, ultimately, of course, to life itself.

Because when I talk about the twilight we are living in, I don't mean the kind of twilight that comes right before the darkness of night falls, cold, silent, and impenetrable. That kind of twilight spells the end, and it's a twilight we're all too familiar with – we as a human race have been there, and done that... and in Christ, God has said “enough!”

Back when I was a youth director, I'd take a group to the summer conference in Montreat every year. Several of the regular conference attendees had a tradition on the last night of the conference. Everyone who didn't have to drive home the next day would stay up all night, and in the early morning hours a group would set out in the darkness to climb to the top of a nearby mountain. Saying it that way makes it sound like a harder climb than it really was. In reality it was a fun journey; there was a lot of stumbling and giggling and dropping flashlights and such. The goal of the trip was to reach the mountaintop in time to see the sky go from black, to purple, to steadily lighter shades of blue until the sky erupted into loud “hosannah's” of color as the dawn broke over the Blue Ridge Mountains.

That's the twilight I'm talking about – when the first rays of dawn are just beginning to color the eastern sky. Night is as good as over, the darkness is conquered, and we see the promise of a new day!

“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died… For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever!”

This is why we hope. This is why we believe. Despite sickness and crime and evil and persecutions, despite economic downturns and foreclosures and layoffs and political uncertainty, and even in the face of the ultimate night, the closed casket poised over the open grave, we hope!

Because, yes, Christ has died.

But Christ has risen!

And Christ will come again!

This is our amen!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mary Sang and John Danced...

This sermon got its fuel through the generosity of my Twitterfriends. I started a conversation about us Protestants not knowing what to do abouot Mary, and received lots of suggestions and eye-opening guidance from Keke Pounds, Minister Bob Chapman, Rev. Heather Dethloff, and Rev. Katie Mulligan. While only Heather's quote made it into the sermon, they were all instrumental in helping me see important messages in the Lucan account of Mary and Elizabeth.

Honestly, it never ceases to amaze me, this phenomenon of social networking. This past week, the loose group that identifies itself by the #outlawpreachers hashtag on Twitter lost one of our own. Gideon Addington, whose Tillich quote helped write my sermon two weeks back, passed away. To one degree or another, many of us have been reeling from this, - shock, raqe, loss, it's all there. By all appearances Gideon should have been no more than a collection of letters in groups of 140 characters or less. Instead, I've lost a friend, somehow.

I've got no real smooth way to transition from that into the message, so I won't try. I look forward to your comments.

Luke 1:39-55
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."
And Mary said,
"My soul magnifies the LORD,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

This is the Word of the Lord.

She woke up in that breathless, shocked kind of way that says she hadn't realized she'd gone to sleep in the first place. Her mind had raced all night, replaying again and again what she had seen, what she had heard, how she had answered when the angel revealed her destiny. It had been so exciting, the thrill of being used by God to bring the Messiah into the world!

But now, in the stark light of day, she began to see the trouble ahead. A virgin with child? Yeah, right. She was barely even engaged, and now she could kiss marriage to Joseph goodbye. Her parents were going to freak when they found out!

Just then she thought about Elizabeth, about that strange story circulating about her pregnancy – Her husband had been struck mute, hadn't said a word since the day he had performed his priestly duties in the Holy of Holies.

It had gotten out that he'd seen an angel who had prophesied about Elizabeth having a child, and lo and behold she was six months along by now! And oh, how the gossip mill was grinding over that one! Surely, if anyone would know what to do, if anyone would believe her at all, it would be Elizabeth!

Her parents were more than willing to let Mary go; Elizabeth was a relative, after all, and not getting any younger, so having Mary there to help around the house made perfect sense.

I can imagine that, as she walked the road to Elizabeth's house, Mary's spirits lifted and her thoughts soared. Imagine – God chose her, a teenager from a backwater town, as the one to bring the Hope of Israel into the world! At last, after all these centuries, these thousands of years of waiting, the Messiah would enter into the world!

It seems like we Protestants only really talk about this unwed teenage mother once a year, this Sunday before Christmas. Yet there she is, kicking up the dust of the narrow country road as she hurries to Elizabeth's house – she is what Reverend Heather Morgan Dethloff calls “the first evangelist,” and her response to Elizabeth's excited and prophetic greeting – “My soul magnifies the LORD, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior...” was “her first sermon.”

But this was more than a sermon, more than a song. It was prophesy.

God had for too long been transcendent, remote, and unreachable. In many ways, it could be argued that this remoteness was something that humankind – or at least the part of humankind with voice and authority – found comfortable. A God who was appeased by sacrifices and communicated to through a professional priesthood (if at all) was in many senses a predictable, a controllable deity. If the only way to God is through a priest or some religious official, then both the people and, in some sense, God, can be kept in a manageable position.

But a God that can be controlled, predicted, limited, held at arm's length? That is no God at all.

Anyone who reads Scripture consciously can see that this transcendent God fully intended all along to be immanent, to be present with Creation, to be involved and invested and immediate! All of the sacrifices are done away with in that once-for-all sacrifice of God made flesh! The barriers to all of humankind being in direct relationship to their loving Creator are, like the Temple veil, forever torn away! And now, as Mary sings her song, as Elizabeth's son dances in her womb, that great day of Emmanuel, God-With-Us, is at hand!

At hand... but, as Mary sings and John leaps with joy, (and like so many things in our spiritual journey), not yet. Scripture tells us that Mary and Elizabeth stayed together for three months. Reverend Kate Huey quotes Henri Nouwen, saying “'For three months Mary and Elizabeth live together and encourage each other to truly accept the motherhood given to them.'” Huey goes on, “As Nouwen reads this story, neither woman had to wait alone for the extraordinary events to unfold, slowly, as pregnancies do: 'They could wait together and thus deepen in each other their faith in God, for whom nothing is impossible. Thus, God's most radical intervention into history was listened to and received in community.'”

This final week of Advent, we are reminded that we, too, wait. And like Mary and Elizabeth, we wait not as individuals, but as community – as the Body of Christ. We wait not just to celebrate the fist coming of Christ as to experience that “meteor of grace” that will be Christ's second coming! Like Mary and Elizabeth, we wait in community... supporting, guiding, and most of all praying for one another. Timothy Mulder writes, "here is a preface for Emmanuel. We humans are not meant to go through the tough or the wonderful alone. Both need to be shared.”

And we Resurrection people share not only with one another, but with the risen Christ, through that same Holy Spirit which gave the good news to Elizabeth, which gave Mary song.

Whatever gifts await us under the tree, whatever Santa brings, we share with one another that greatest of gifts – Christ has come, has died, and has risen again! And that same Christ both lives in us, unites us as His Body – and will come again!

Thanks be to God!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Share. Be Fair. Don't Bully.

Seriously, without David Lose or the folks at Preaching Peace, this sermon would have been a big ol' pot of I-don't-know. Good thing God knows how much help I need to be articulate, huh?

Luke 3:7-18
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin 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. Even 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."

And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

This is the Word of the Lord.

I would never dare to accuse the unknown Elves who put together our Lectionary of having a sense of humor, but this weeks' readings come pretty close to suggesting just that. We get “sing, rejoice, exhult, rejoice, rejoice again, do not worry.”

I confess that during this Advent season I've been looking forward to talking about the birth of Jesus, to reading about the star in the east and the shepherds and wise men, about the angels proclaiming the birth, and when I started reading this week's Lectionary texts I got my hopes up. “Sing, rejoice, exhult, don't worry.” All right!

Then this hairy guy dressed in animal skins, this John the Baptist, pokes his head up out of the wilderness and shouts “you brood of vipers!”

It makes sense, though, doesn't it? God is a God of surprises, after all.
The Gospel reading is a good example. John addresses the people gathered to listen – Pharisees and soldiers, poor people and merchants, tax collectors and artisans – by calling them all 'snakes.' He demands their repentance, foretells wrath to come, belittles their heritage, and the people respond not by arguing or threatening or throwing stones or even walking away – instead, they ask “what then should we do?”

Well, certainly, John's response, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” should have entailed something complicated. After all, the people he was addressing were steeped in religious tradition of one kind or another – traditions which demanded that prayers be said precisely, that rules be followed stringently, and that sacrifices be carried out meticulously. Repentance has to involve expensive gifts and time-consuming acts, sweeping reforms and some degree of public humiliation, doesn't it? Repentance has to be a big deal, and the fruits of repentance have to be cumbersome!

But what does John say? What are those fruits?

To the poor: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax collectors: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the soldiers: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

What John says to the crowd is not at all complicated. It is simple. It is easy. It is attainable: Share. Be fair. Don't bully. Not the stuff of cathedrals and choirs and Damascus-Road epiphanies; more a kindergarten or playground lesson. Share. Be fair. Don't bully.

Simple, easy, attainable, but all too easy to misinterpret. Here's what I mean: If John were instructing these groups of people in how to gain a state of repentance, how to earn repentance, how to get to a place where you're allowed to repent, John wouldn't have been at all controversial, because he'd have been prescribing religious actions to a people steeped in the habits and attitudes of religion.

Now, I'm defining religion as (quoting “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” Religion, as such, is not a bad thing, but it is a template, a framework, a language and context from which one develops and strengthens a relationship with the Living God.

Yet what seems to happen all too often is that this template of religion – the rituals, devotions, the code – this template serves to supersede or to replace the relationship – the spiritual part of the formula. One of the best quotes I've read recently is this: “religion is for people trying to avoid going to hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there.” In this context, repentance is a spiritual act, not a religious activity.

John isn't inviting people on a journey to hopefully get to a place where they are allowed to repent. John is telling them how to prove they have repented.

The Greek word for “repentance” is “metanoia,” which translates to “think differently after.” To change your way of thinking. Repentance is a thing which happens between ourselves and God, and from which we emerge thinking differently than we did before.

This is going to sound like John going off down a rabbit trail, but bear with me, and maybe it'll all fit together. I don't know if I've talked about “The Thump” before. “The Thump” is something that is almost unique to pastors and preachers, especially those of us whose full-time work is in the regular old business world.

It's where I'm talking with someone about anything at all, and somehow in the conversation it comes up that I am a preacher. I can almost audibly hear “The Thump.” The person I'm talking to may or may not have been using bad words, may or may not have been talking about a bar they had gone to, or whatever, but immediately the conversation will turn to how they go to church, went to church, like church, like God, love their mother, Jesus is their homeboy, whatever. Out of the blue, they're suddenly Joe Christian. Who knew?

I can, however, point to cases where “The Thump” didn't happen. Where the conversation did not change when my beloved vocation came up... because it did not have to, there was nothing to excuse or justify or build up. And it wasn't that they didn't cuss, didn't drink, didn't smoke, eschewed jewelry, said “brutha” a lot and wore long skirts. That may or may not have been true on any and all counts. It was that I was speaking to someone whose life was truly grace-filled, who was genuinely living what they believed.

What we see in John's words is that, when we think differently, we act differently. What we believe is evident not in our words, but in our actions. What we know to be true is what we act upon.

That can be enormously liberating to know. In some ways, though, that knowledge can be either mildly depressing or it can be paralyzing: I know, for example, that I can point to several dozen times in this past week alone where my actions and my words have not at all reflected my belief in the risen and soon-returning Christ. I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I have not loved the Lord with all my heart and soul and mind and strength. If I think that I have to do everything right all the time or else, I might decide to not do anything at all!

But repentance, like our overall relationship with the Living God, is in itself a journey and not a destination. In John's words we see not a complete and systematic theology, but baby steps within a state of being someone who lives the grace-filled life of repentance.

We've talked a lot this past few weeks about things we can do differently during Advent, not as a way to hopefully properly prepare ourselves for Christ to come and maybe we hope we'll be acceptable and all, but as a way of response to the love and grace of a God who has already sent Christ to us and for us, a loving Christ who will certainly come again. Whether it's taking part in the Advent Conspiracy or pulling down a particularly pesky altar in our lives, we've been talking about taking small steps in response to God's grace. Simple things, like buying one less gift and giving the money saved to a charity. And for all the thunder and fire and winnowing forks and worthy fruits, all the frightful imagery in John's pronouncements, he is in reality speaking of the same kinds of things – simple fruits, if you will. Share. Be fair. Don't bully. Think differently.

I don't know if Paul, who would have been Saul at the time, was in that crowd listening to John, but in his letter to the Phillipians, the Apostle writes about some simple and profound things which demonstrate what we believe. I want to close with that passage from our reading this morning, as found in The Message Bible.

“Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you're on their side, working with them and not against them. Help them see that the Master is about to arrive. He could show up any minute!
Don't fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God's wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It's wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.”

Let us pray...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Prepare the Way...

Thanks to Gideon Addington for the Tillich quote I mangle below, and to G. Kevin Baker for the big ol' chunk of text attributed to him below.

Weeks like this make me wish I had more opportunities to write and preach. Much could be written about the Uganda death-to-gays bill and about the continuing silence of certain Christian leaders on the matter. Then there's the ongoing struggle that a family in my church is having with addiction and its consequences.

But the beauty of serving a congregation is that there's always another week, another opportunity.

Luke 3:1-6
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
This is the Word of the Lord.

By whatever name it's called – the Christmas season, or the Holiday season, or the season of Advent – these weeks leading up to Christmas are something of a paradox. This season is, in theory, a time of preparation, yet is in practice a time of distraction. Speaking about today's readings, Pastor G. Kevin Baker says, “While we are rummaging around in the closet for the silver tinsel, the prophet Malachi is warning of a refiner’s fire where silver and gold will be purified and refined. While we are raising a tree to anticipate the gifts that will appear beneath its branches, Zechariah speaks of a mighty savior raised up with the gifts of mercy, forgiveness, peace and redemption. While the malls overflow with people trying to find the best gift for Christmas day, Paul prays that the people in Philippi will be overflowing with love so that they may be found pure and blameless on the day of Christ. While the world announces preparation for a holiday, John [the Baptist] announces preparation for a way.”

And what a preparation, what a way! And, in John the Baptist, what a strange vessel God chose to proclaim that preparation. Luke provides a list of dignitaries and rulers as a way of pinpointing in history when John appeared: Tiberius, the Emperor of Rome, and by extension ruler of most of the known world.

Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, controlling armies and tax collection and holding the lives of every human being in Palestine in his grasp. Herod ruled Galilee, Philip ruled region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, where Cesaeria Phillipi was located, and Lysanias ruled of Abilene, where Damascus is located. The high priests of the Jewish faith were Annas and Caiaphas. These were men of power. Men who commanded authority. Men who got attention. Men who everyone knew. Men who could have changed everything with a single word!

Yet the word of God came to none of them. Rather, that word came to a strange man living in the wilderness, wearing animal skins and eating bugs and honey to survive.

So John went to the banks of the Jordan. Even today, the Jordan River symbolizes a boundary, the border between the nation of Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan. Hundreds of years before John the Baptist, the river stood as the last barrier between a tribe of runaway slaves and the land of promise they had dreamed of. That day, so long ago, the priests who carried the Ark of the Covenant stepped into the Jordan and the waters parted. But times had changed: the Ark was lost to history, and the priests were part of the problem.

John went to the banks of the Jordan. On the one side was the established world: Jerusalem, with its gleaming temple, the highways and towns of Judea, vineyards and olive groves and farms. On the other side was the wilderness, where John had lived, where so much was unknown and unexplored. John, in effect, invited people to leave the known and the comfortable, and to journey into the unknown, the frightening, the place of preparation.

Through the prophet Malachi, God had promised to send a messenger, one who would prepare the way for the Messiah. Yet God did not choose the powerful, the famous, or the wealthy to announce the preparation, and for good reason.

Because however much people talk about change, however often politicians promise it, TV preachers proclaim it, and singers sing about it, it's generally true that anyone who has power or influence or authority does not want anything to change. Their power, their wealth, their influence and their fame is based on things being the way they are. It's true today, just as it was on that day when John went to the banks of the Jordan and began to proclaim the words of the prophet Isaiah: the mountains of the absolute power of Emperor Tiberius and Pontius Pilate must be, would be brought down, the valleys of the absolute debauchery of Herod would be filled in, the crooked ways of false piety and worship of power of the high priests Annas and Caiaphas would be straightened out. Change was coming, and it was not man's feeble attempts at modifying the status quo, this was God's kind of change!

No longer would humans be forced to search for God in temples and on mountaintops and at the sacrificial altars or behind the curtains of the Holy of Holies. Try as we might, humankind couldn't go to God... so God would come to us. “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

John went to the banks of the Jordan and began to proclaim the words of the prophet Isaiah: the mountains of our personal idols – greed and lust and jealousy – would be brought down, the pitiful valleys of self-loathing and jealousy and petty hatred would be filled in, the crooked ways of our own false piety and worship of power would be straightened out. God's change was coming, and part of the preparation for that advent was something more powerful than political upheaval or the ouster of the religious establishment: personal repentance.

This season of Advent and the season of Lent are opposite sides of the same coin: times where we who call ourselves by the name of Christ make time and effort to consciously and intentionally repent of sin. Note that I didn't say “repent of your sins,” or even “repent of our sins.”
There is no plural there, because, as the late theologian Paul Tillich put it, “sin does not mean an immoral act..."sin" should never be used in the plural, [it is] not our sins, but rather our sin [that] is the great, all-pervading problem of our life.”

I mentioned last week that, in Scripture, repentance isn't feeling sorry for the stuff we've done, sackcloth and ashes and all of that. To repent means to change – change one's mind, change one's ways, change one's direction. In the context of “sin,” it means to remove the obstacles separating us from a closer walk with God.

Like John on the banks of the Jordan so long ago, God calls us to pull down the mountain-sized altars in our life – altars to gods of ambition and jealousy and harbored grudges. God calls us to fill in the holes where we hide the embarrassing stuff, the things we dare not admit to, and hope that somehow God doesn't notice. To straighten out the crooked paths we've beaten in the way we deal with people and issues and conflict...

...And on and on and on the analogy could go, and it could include things like altars to celebrities and to possessions and sports teams, valleys of how we use our money and our free time, paths of how we speak out for the oppressed and treat our family and pray and study Scripture, but the point is made, isn't it?

The word of God came to John, and John went down to the banks of the Jordan to prepare the way of the Lord. The Word of God, made flesh, has come to you and to me. What shall we do this Advent season to prepare the way for God in our lives, and in our world?

Let us pray.