Sermon, December 4

Preparing the Way of the Lord

Sermon preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh

St. Luke’s, Portland

December 4, 2016; Advent 2A: Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12


Here we are, one week closer to Christmas. Lights are beginning to appear, greens decorate the church and the pressure of presents yet unbought and cards yet unsent lays heavily on our minds. Even our readings echo this sense of anticipation: Christmas is coming. It is almost here. The Christ of Christmas is coming and the kingdom he brings will be amazing indeed. Listen to the stirring words of Isaiah: "A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him. He shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek." "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and fatling together, and a little child shall lead them..." This is Edward Hick’s Peaceable Kingdom come alive, a promise of unity in diversity where red and blue states combine in a royal purple and where the peoples of the world experience the dividends of peace.


The Christmas that comes and the kingdom that it heralds will indeed be wonderful. However, despite messages from TV or in the stores, we are not there yet! As today's readings remind us, before we deal with Christmas, we have to deal with Advent. And, in order to deal with Advent, we need to deal with John the Baptist. John’s message is simple and strong: "Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand." He was particularly harsh with the religious establishment of his day. In a time when so many of the conversations going on these days are about the imperfections of others, John’s words bring the focus home. His message is clear. Though we have a wonderful history, magnificent traditions, and a glorious past, God is concerned with the present. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Our task is to bear fruits that befit repentance.


The Greek word for repentance is “Metanoia.” Close to the word “metamorphosis,” Metanoia is the transformative act of turning around and doing an about-face. In Hebrew, the verb "to sin" is the same as the verb used when an arrow misses the target. Repentance begins with the recognition that we have missed our mark and need God's help to start heading in the right direction. Fruits of repentance are changes in our lives, in our actions, our attitudes, our outlook, and even our tone of voice that show this turning around has taken place. Like stopping before forwarding something on Facebook, deciding not to sending a snarky email, or choosing not to say a critical comment, some of these may only seen by ourselves... or God? Do you ever find yourself wishing that there was an automatic pause that gave a chance to edit after the “send” button was pushed… or a rewind function after some not so constructive words were said? That's what this season of Advent, this pause before Christmas, allows us to do. Imagine what it would be like to spend more time and energy on giving gifts of forgiveness and grace, rather than on buying the right present on line. Consider the honest reflection and sharing that filled this nave following yesterday's showing of“Traces of the Trade.” The power came from personal stories, personal connections, and personal resolve. Fruits of repentance begin to appear when we turn the mirror on ourselves.


This is what is happening in this morning's readings. You need to understand that when I hear Biblical references to fire, I don’t think of hell as much as the refiner’s fire described in Malachi (3:3) and Handel’s Messiah, a fire that melts out impurities and reveals the goodness and gold that is inside. Matthew tells us that John is "the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord." For Matthew, the voice is in the wilderness. John the Baptist is crying out of his own personal pain. You know those secret places of struggle, of doubt and insecurity in our lives? If we can have the courage to speak – and indeed cry out -- from our personal wildernesses, the low places in our lives will be lifted up and the mountains that block us will be made low. People are looking for authenticity. If we can honestly speak from our wildernesses, they will listen… and that transformation and turning around will begin for them as well. Remember that John wasn't called "the Baptist" because of doom and gloom preaching. John the Baptist was called "the Baptist" because he baptized people. His baptism was to wash away sins. The Greek word for “Spirit” is the same as the word for “wind.” When John said that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit, he was talking about a wind that would blow away all the chaff in our lives and leave the good grain of our real selves behind. When John said that Jesus would baptize with fire, he was talking about a process of purification and cleansing that would last forever.


Like the Christmas lights that are starting to pierce the darkness of our neighborhoods, glimmers of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom are beginning to appear. We can help that happen the littlest of things. To the church in Rome, Paul writes, "Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you." In the Tuesday Bible Study, I read this and thought “no problem. We are good at that here!” Tuesday afternoon, I received a letter from a gay couple who had come to St. Luke's out for about a year but decided to leave because they didn't feel welcomed by those they met here. As someone pointed out yesterday, we have a large number of people of color who come here during the week, but very few on Sunday... and those who do come often find themselves sitting alone in church or standing alone at coffee hour. The Pharisees and Sadducees were good religious people, skilled in the scriptures and traditions, and deeply schooled in the faith. They thought all was going well... but had gotten off track and forgotten what their faith was all about. Christmas is getting closer. On this second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist says we can't rest on our laurels. We may even need to do some turning around. It’s time to bear fruits that befit repentance and prepare the way for Christ to come.

Posted in: Sermons 
Post Date: Sunday, December 04, 2016 12:25 PM