2nd Sunday of ADVENT
Luke 3:1-6 (see below)
Today's Lectionary Gospel reading from St. Luke takes us to the essence of the Advent message, which is one of preparing the heart and changing the behavior for the soon appearing of the Son of Man.
To see what is at stake here we need merely ask this question:
What changes in your thoughts and behavior would you make today if you knew that the sudden appearing of the Son of Man was happening tomorrow?
In today's pericope, and next week's as well, we have help to answer this question from the unusual biblical character known as John the Baptizer. John was a prophet of GOD, meaning he had a definite word from the LORD for the nation, and this word, his word, called for the people to take action. He proclaimed a message of repentance and baptism.
In today's homily I want us to think-through this idea of Advent-preparation, using the message the Baptizer preached to those first-century Judaeans as a guide for our own Advent groundwork. In this regard there are three ideas I want us to apply to our Advent journey:
HEAR AND HEED THE WORD OF GOD
CLEAR YOUR HEART AND REPENT
IDENTIFY WITH THE WORK OF GOD
HEAR AND HEED THE WORD OF GOD
What has always struck me as curious was how the Hebrew people of the 1st century flocked to hear this strange man, this desert-dwelling prophet clothed in skins and harsh in message. I have often wondered why such popularity? Could it be that the Baptizer fulfilled their expectations? Could it be that the people were hungry for a fresh word from the LORD? Could it be that because of the brutality of Roman rule and the corruption of the House of Herod that the people were desperate for Divine light and deliverance from their ancient GOD?
I know even today there are places where hunger for GOD's word explodes beyond the capacity to deliver it, where the people's desire to hear from the LORD mirrors that which we find in today's reading from St. Luke, but we must be honest and say that this desire is little present here in the West.
To help us see what I mean think about these words from Old Testament scholar John Bright wrote:
"It is unnecessary to furnish proof that there exists even among Christians a widespread biblical illiteracy, and gratuitous to deplore that fact as disastrous...Uprooted from the Bible we have no proper place to stand...It is...no light thing that the Bible should have become so strange a book to the average churchgoer and (tell in not in Gath!) to many a minister as well." (The Kingdom of God, pgs.7-8)
The thing most devastating about this quote is that Dr.Bright wrote this in 1953(!) when apparently even then the outline of the loss of GOD's word in the population of the West was evident.
We might well ask why the nations of the West have lost even the semblance of Bible knowledge, much less a true word from the LORD? The answer, at least in America, surely lies within the confines of a church that is
culturally captive -- more cultural behavior than biblical behavior (comfort, consuming, and heart-neglect),
a message that is long on individual, personal piety ("GOD has a wonderful plan for your life") but short on the genuine Gospel (Jesus is King), and
a proclamation emphasizing victory, resurrection and gift (believe and be healthy, wealthy and wise) but no lamentation, no cross and no meaning in suffering (remember: take up your cross?).
If this assessment comes anywhere near the truth, then the message now rejected by the society is actually not the message GOD has spoken! That is, and I know this is difficult to hear but I think it must be said, if our discipleship is deformed then our message is distorted, which in turn deforms our discipleship. This means the message we proclaim is a caricature, and not one from the LORD!
Or said differently:
It is we, the church at the beginning of the 21st century, who must, honestly and prayerfully hear and heed the Word of the LORD...
And, it is we, the church at the beginning of the 21st century who must repent...
Which, of course, leads to the second idea:
CLEAR YOUR HEART AND REPENT
It is the church, then, who must hear this fresh Word of the LORD coming to our generation, but to do this we must repent. That is, it is the church who must turn her heart toward home and listen, perhaps for the first time in a long time, for the fresh wind of the message of the Gospel.
But here immediately we see the stumbling-block. To repent is to first see the need for change, it is to first admit that we are wrong-headed and wrong-hearted. It is to come to the mirror:
19 My dear brothers and sisters, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. 20 Your anger can never make things right in God's sight. 21 So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the message God has planted in your hearts, for it is strong enough to save your souls. 22 And remember, it is a message to obey, not just to listen to. If you don't obey, you are only fooling yourself. 23 For if you just listen and don't obey, it is like looking at your face in a mirror but doing nothing to improve your appearance. 24 You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. 25 But if you keep looking steadily into God's perfect law -- the law that sets you free -- and if you do what it says and don't forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it. (James 1:19-25)
This displays the value of Advent in technicolor, for this season calls on us to desire and receive GOD's word to us -- that Word which comes to our moment, to our generation, but it also calls for us to heed this Word to us, which is a word of gentle comfort, but also a Word of unflinching repentance.
Brothers and Sisters, we must turn our hearts to the LORD, now. Now, in this season, we must sincerely offer the LORD our broken, sinful hearts. This means we turn from our pride of thought, our consumerism, our personal peace, our weariness because of grief, and in their place we pursue the LORD with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
"How, Preacher? How are we to do this?"
"We assign Jesus as King, of both our lives and the world."
"Ahhh...Ok, but what does this mean? Some sort of theocracy?"
"Well, if loving our neighbor, literally, as we love ourselves is a theocracy, then yes. For, how can we say we love GOD, whom we have not seen, if we fail to love our neighbor whom we have seen?"
And, if pursuing the peace-making of reconciliation, the love that includes sacrifice of our comfort and our accumulated wealth is a theocracy, then yes, for this is what it means to follow King Jesus!"
Which leads to the final idea. We must, in the end...
IDENTIFY WITH THE WORK OF GOD
Or, should I say, re-identify with the work of GOD?
Now, those 1st century Judaeans were called upon to show their heart repentance by being baptized in the Jordan river. This action would identify them with John's message of repentance and with the preparation needed to receive the soon coming Messiah. The text reads:
"Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
N.T.Wright helps us our understanding of the heart confrontation and challenge the people faced in the Baptizer's message when he writes:
"...since baptism was part of the ritual Gentiles had to undergo if they wanted to convert to Judaism, John's summoning of Israel itself to baptism speaks for itself."
John’s baptism marked the calling of GOD to a new way of being the people of GOD. The Baptizer was offering a way of being that cut across all the people had learned and heeded as GOD's chosen people. GOD was now coming to his people, afresh and anew. Change was in the air. The people must prepare.
Likewise, our baptism identifies us as belonging to the movement of the Christ -- who is the King, including us as part of the new covenant people, the new humanity, the new community of the this one and only King (cf. Phil.2:10-11).
I am, therefore, calling on us, all of us, to remember our baptism. Remember what it meant to identify with the Savior and to become part of his Kingdom people. I want us to remember our promises to the LORD, our vows to follow and heed his word. I want us to remember the times-past of sweet fellowship and determined commitment. And I want us to return there, for this is the call of Advent.
Here we must see the sequence of this heart-work as of great importance. To hear and heed the Word of the LORD we first must repent, but in order to repent we must remember our baptism, our identification, calling and inclusion into the new people of the LORD. We must return to our commission when we joined his ragged band of followers who know the LORD as King and who not only proclaim him as such, but truly live daily this difficult reality with sacrificial clarity!
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee,
and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region
of Ituraea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,
the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
John went throughout the whole region of 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:
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
"Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."