Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12
December 8, 2013
|The Peaceable Kingdom|
Edward Hicks 1780 –1849
From tree trimming and decorating, to shopping and gift wrapping, to cooking and baking, all through December we prepare for Christmas. Advent is a season of preparation: spiritual preparation, not just for the celebration of the birth of Jesus preparing ourselves for life with Jesus as our sovereign throughout the year.
I thought my normal schedule was busy but this month, I have to be careful to not double book myself.
Some of us make New Year’s resolutions perhaps Advent is a time to make new resolutions for our faith. A time to regroup and seek out new ways to grow in our faith.
We are all prone to lose spiritual energy and momentum. Advent is an annual opportunity for a spiritual tune up – to prepare ourselves to follow Jesus into the New Year with energy and enthusiasm.
Matthew 3:1-12 introduces John the Baptist as the voice of one crying out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord!” His message of spiritual preparation for Jesus’ ministry also points us to our spiritual preparation in Advent.
N: In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,
R: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
N: This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
R: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
N: Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them,
R: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do 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. 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. ‘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. His 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.”
There is an old story that describes a painter who thinned out his paint to save money on a job. No sooner had he finished painting than a great rainstorm hit the house and washed the watered-down paint off the walls. The voice of God thundered down from on high: “Repaint and thin no more!” While this is a funny story, it does make the point that John is calling us to change our ways.
John is described more than anyone else I can think of in the New Testament and he seems a bit odd even for that time. His presence means more than we think. In my reading this week, Jan Richardson mentions that “John’s presence, so early in the Advent lectionary, calls us to see that beneath the twinkle lights and trimmings that permeate these pre-Christmas days, there is a terrain more spare and elemental: a landscape in which we learn to turn away from what distracts us so that we can welcome the one for whom we are waiting.
Unlike Luke, Matthew wrote nothing about the birth of John the Baptist nor about Jesus’ childhood. He jumped from moving from Egypt to Nazareth John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus.
“In those days” (v. 1) is not a statement about timing but about God’s readiness for which John was preparing.
Four hundred years had passed since the last Hebrew prophets (Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi). Now comes the prophet predicted in Isaiah 40:3. John’s wardrobe and diet were non-verbal signs that he was a classic Hebrew prophet. Where they pointed to a distant future, John’s message was much more immediate. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” What Isaiah saw as someday John saw now!
With the death of Nelson Mandela, we’ve heard him called a modern prophet. In 1990, when he was released after 27 years in prison, he said, “I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people.” In some ways what he said at Rice University in 1999 reflects something of a response to the message of John the Baptist. “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
Our preparations for Christmas are some combination of cleaning, decorating, shopping, wrapping, cooking, parties. John called people to prepare for the kingdom of heaven and for Jesus to start his ministry by repenting. That may not seem too festive, but positive repentance is like thorough house cleaning before decorating. It clears out accumulated debris to make room for fresh joy.
Repentance is a turning of direction. We sometimes think it is a shameful thing but it purely a spiritual practice.
Bob Eldan says, “John wants there to be an unimpeded straight path between Jesus and us. Then with Jesus’ baptism we can feel the holy breath and be enthused, and have fire in the belly, and even walk barefoot across hot coals, the hot coals of life’s problems. Such would be our enthusiasm. We lose this enthusiasm, douse water on the fire, when we domesticate what Jesus offers,….”
John’s baptism was modeled after ritual bathing expected of Gentile converts to Judaism and implied that they were as impure as the Heathen and needed be cleansed for God. The good news was that those who had been ritually excluded were invited to be included.
Jesus, the one coming after John was going to purify with power, as the shoot from the stump of Jesse in Isaiah 11:3-5, or the image in Revelation 19:11-16. For any who long for peace and justice, righteousness and mercy, he was a timely hero, not a dreaded terror.
For the pious, this was a message was an unwelcome threat. For those troubled by their sin, the invitation to repent was an open door to freedom and joy.
Advent is a season of spiritual preparation to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas.
One of my good friends, told me that his daily motto, is to be faithful to what is ahead of him today. You may not being doing anything say religious but you can be faithful and complete the day with the faith in God and recognizing God’s presence.
I just completed a program, Bethany Fellowships that gave me a dedicated day of silence. While those were needed hours, and I hope for more of those. My days now only allow me to include God in my daily activities. If we do this during Christmas, it should not be that hard to keep up with during the year.
One of the Benedictine vows is conversion of life, not turning from sin and trusting Jesus for the first time, but conversion of life is a daily expectation. We begin each day inviting the Holy Spirit to use Scripture, prayer and the Christian community to clean out old things that impede following Jesus and fill the gaps with new things that promote keeping pace with Jesus.
Step 10 of AA’s 12 Steps captures this: “Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.”
This sheds some biblical light on Nelson Mandela’s, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
I have had a 20+ year discipline of writing on a calendar a line or two of how I was most aware of God that day. It sharpens my spiritual awareness. You may want to do that for the rest of Advent, and continue through Christmastide, which ends with the visit of the Magi on Epiphany, January 6.
At just the time the world is in a frenzy, Advent puts our preparations in the context of a spiritual retreat, not what we do but doing with spiritual mindfulness. Preparing food and wrapping gifts, sending and receiving cards as prayers for those we love. Parties as opportunities to nurture relationships. Music and decorations prompt us to recognize and meditate on how Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us.