Prepare the Way

+ A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent (Year A) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on December 8, 2019 +

Text: Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

Audio: LINK

There seems to be an eternal debate that is waged this time of year: what is the appropriate seasonal greeting?
Some howl at the use of “Happy Holidays” while others insist that there are numerous celebrations this time of year that make “Merry Christmas” insufficient—not to mention its liturgical prematurity.
So perhaps those of us who observe a full season of Advent before that celebration of our Lord’s birth should take a cue from John the Baptizer in today’s gospel—perhaps we should just stick with “You brood of vipers!”john-the-baptist

He really embodies the spirit of the season, doesn’t he?
This John the Baptizer, or as our Orthodox siblings call him, John the Forerunner, is such an interesting figure, isn’t he?
Between the camel hair coat, his strange choice of diet, and his positively *jovial* message, we may not want to spend too much time with him.
I mean, I’m guessing we don’t really want to invite John to our holiday parties any more than we want to invite that street preacher outside Sounders and Mariners games—you know the one with the megaphone and the giant ‘repent’ sign.
But we sure do get a healthy dose of John every Advent.
Because in some ways he really does embody the spirit of this season…doesn’t he?
No, certainly not the season of busyness and stress, not the season of commercialism and revelry, but the season of hopeful anticipation, the season of prayer, the season of preparing the way for our Lord.
John urges us to look beyond the concerts and the shopping and the parties that litter this season and look into ourselves, to take stock of how we are living into God’s kingdom which has come near, and to repent—to reorient ourselves—so we can reflect Christ living within and among us.

The late mystic and monk Thomas Merton offered a perhaps more cheery version of John’s cries of repentance when he wrote, “The Advent mystery in our lives is the beginning of the end of all, in us, that is not yet Christ.”[1]
Whitte BirdOr that story of a man whose son decided to whittle a bird out of a block of wood: When the father asked him how he could know how to do such a thing, the son replied: “It’s easy! You just cut away anything that isn’t the bird.”[2]
John is proclaiming in the wilderness, proclaiming to us, that God’s kingdom is near, that it has already started, and if we repent—if we reorient ourselves and our world to follow Christ—we can be a part of that coming reign that is already here.

And while Matthew tells us that “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea” were going out to the Jordan to hear John’s message and be baptized into this coming kingdom, this prophet takes special aim at the Pharisees and Sadducees—the religious elites, the ones who were faithful in worship and study of scripture, the people who seemed to have it all together.
He reserves his powerful rhetoric for the ones who could easily sit back and assume that their piety, their faithfulness, even their ancestry would automatically include them in the coming reign.
It’s to those people, and if we’re honest, I think it’s to these gathered people here—myself included, that John is directing his message of repentance.
That we can’t sit back and assume everything will work out.
That we have to get to work and help make God’s kingdom a reality.
And in John’s trademark fiery style, he is urging us to cut away anything that isn’t the bird, to end anything in us that is not yet Christ, to winnow any chaff that hides the grain of wheat within us, to clear away anything that separates us from embracing the fullness of the kingdom of heaven that has come near.
And when we do this, when we remove those barriers that are within us and around us, when we burn them and completely remove them from our lives, we will be left with a perfect grain of wheat, a beautifully sculpted bird, an openness to fully receive Christ and his reign so his kingdom may be made manifest within and around us.

st-john-the-baptist-icon-726And so, as John the Forerunner bursts back into our lectionary, as we hear the cries from Jordan’s banks calling out to us, I wonder what is holding you back this year—what are you seeking to end?
What is preventing you from embracing the fullness of Christ’s reign?
What is in the way of the kingdom of heaven taking root and blossoming, not just in your life, but throughout the entire world?
Perhaps we are bound by grief or doubt, busyness or stress, pain or fear.
Perhaps we are beset by gloom or despair, exhaustion or hopelessness, animosities or prejudices.
Just as we know that our society, our world, is being held back by division and violence, greed and cynicism, racism and sexism, homophobia and transphobia and so much more.

I don’t know about you, but my list of chaff, my list of things that are not yet Christ in my life and in this world are so long that I have to dare to claim John’s message of an unquenchable fire as good news.
Because I know that this clearing, this removing, this repentance to which we are called is going to take much longer than the four weeks of Advent.
And while John’s words demand an unmistakable urgency, while it’s imperative that we get to work, while the ax is laying at the root of those trees ready to take them down, this unending fire reminds me that with such a monumental task we don’t have to do all the work right now, that this is not a limited time offer.
And it reminds me that we are not alone in this work, because God is still working, God is still removing, God is still winnowing those things from us and from our world that would prevent us from embracing the fullness of God’s reign.
That the trees within and around us that are not bearing fruit will at last be cut down.
That those barriers will finally be removed and destroyed.
That we will be forever liberated from those burdens.

And out of the cutting and removing, the ending and the burning, a shoot shall come up from that old stump, and a branch shall grow from those roots.
Something new shall spring up and the kingdom that Isaiah foretold will be a reality—and it will be a new world.

Swanson, John August. Peaceable Kingdom, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. Original source: – copyright 1994 by John August Swanson.

When the urge to destroy is removed and the fear of death is ended, the wolf shall live with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; former predators shall feed with their former pray, and children and snakes will play together.
And when that day happens, the whole world shall live peaceably and in harmony together in the fullness of God and it shall be glorious.

My friends, we know that it’s going to take a lot of work within ourselves to find this complete openness to God’s reign—to clear away the things that are blocking us and reorient ourselves to Christ.
It’s going to take a lot of work to ready this world for the kingdom of heaven—to prepare the way of our Lord and make his paths straight—to resist the powers and structures that seek to limit God’s liberating power and burn them away.

But, my friends, this is the work of Advent.
This is our time to take stock, to assess the situation.
This is our time to wrestle and pray, to examine and repent, to proclaim and prepare.
And in a culture that demands quick fixes and instant gratification, we hold on to this season that acknowledges that everything will not be easily righted, that there is a lot of work to do.
We adjust our vision to see through the lens of Advent, acknowledging both what we can do now and what this world will someday look like.
We take solace in the message of Advent that tells us, ‘Not yet—but soon.’
And we hold on to the hope that we have in Advent’s mystery—not the easily gained and lost hope that this season may try to instill within us, but the deep and abiding hope that Jesus our Savior has already come, that Christ continues to come to us each day, and that Christ will come again to finally realize the kingdom of heaven in our midst.
And as we wait for the fruition of God’s full and perfect reign, we do more than just wait, we take our place with John the Forerunner to prepare the way of the Lord within ourselves and throughout the whole earth.

[1] Merton, Thomas. Seasons of Celebration: Meditations on the Cycle of Liturgical Feasts, 95

[2] Adapted from a story mentioned in a commentary for the Second Sunday of Advent by Elaine Hewes in Currents in Theology and Mission 46:4 (October 2019).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s