Sunday, December 10, 2006

Second Sunday of Advent
Malachi 3:1-4 or Baruch 5:1-9
Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and all discernment; so that ye may approve the things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and void of offence unto the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are through Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God.

Well, most of the decorations are up, most of the shopping complete. There is still so much to do – a few ornaments to make, cookies to bake, presents to wrap, cards to address. It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas around here, and feel like it, too. Despite the work that needs to be done, both for our family and for our church, I think we’ll make it relatively stress free through the season.

I wasn’t feeling that way last night, though. I looked at the amount of work that needed to be done and I felt like there was no way it could all be accomplished. It seems like Thanksgiving was weeks ago and I usually have much of this work done during the days immediately following that holiday. Yet, as I looked at the calendar this morning, I realized that Thanksgiving was very early and there are nearly three weeks left to prepare. I need to be careful, however, and not let time slip away because Christmas will be here before we know it. If I wait, I might be too late.

We have the wonderful opportunity to see several scriptures this week that look forward to the coming of the Messiah. The two possibilities for the first lesson show us the preparation made before the time – the foretelling of the coming of Christ. The passage for Luke which serves as our psalm for the day foretells the work of the messenger promised in Malachi. In the Gospel lesson we meet John the Baptist, the promised messenger who would proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God. This passage refers to our text from the apocryphal book of Baruch, a book that gives us some wonderful images of waiting.

We wait for many things. When I was a youth, I used to travel with my parents to the shore for a weekend each spring. They were there for a convention; I was there to have fun. I remember getting up very early on some of those brisk spring mornings to go to the beach to watch the sun rise. It was one of my favorite activities. I always checked ahead to find out what time the sun was expected to rise. Then I would wake up a little earlier, walk down to the beach and wait. It seemed to take forever for the sun to rise, but eventually I would catch a glimpse of some light peaking over the horizon. Minute after minute it would get a little brighter until I could see the outline of the sun. Then suddenly the sky would fill with light and color and brightness.

It was a much safer time, so long ago, that I really did not have to worry about being alone on the beach in the dark, but even then there were moments of discomfort. I was cold with the chill in the air and I wondered at every footstep on the boardwalk. You never know what can happen in the darkness, so we rejoice at the coming of the light. When the sun finally rose above the horizon and the sky was filled with light, I no longer felt any concern for my safety.

It is hard to imagine these feelings of discomfort at this time of year, at least for most of us. Throughout Advent we prepare for the holiday – shopping, decorating, baking, wrapping. We attend parties and parties and programs featuring our children who sing with gusto and joy even if they are out of tune. We enjoy this time of year because even the grouchiest people have moments of pleasure. Yet, there are dangers as we wait the coming of the light – overindulgence, ill health, disaster brought on by the carelessness or willful actions of others. Though we enjoy the season, we can’t wait until it is over so we can stop living in such excess.

I don’t know about you, but every year I promise myself that I am going to make this Advent and Christmas much simpler. I promise myself I won’t do too much. I promise myself – and God – that I’ll focus more closely on ‘the reason for the season.’ I fail, every year. I suppose that’s why it is good that we meet John the Baptist so early in the Church year. John reminds us what is happening and calls us to prepare.

For what are we waiting? Ask the children and they will tell you that they are waiting for Santa and all the presents they will open on Christmas morning. For most people, especially Christians, Christmas is about that baby who was born and placed in a manger. So for them, Advent is about waiting for the birth of Christ. Yet, the nativity was a historic event that took place two thousand years ago and is not really repeated every year. So while we do focus on the manger and the story of Jesus’ birth during this time of preparation, that is not what John is proclaiming. After all, John was born just a few months before Jesus. He was not crying out in the wilderness, calling for people to come see a baby. He began his ministry when he was thirty years old, not long before Jesus also began preaching and teaching.

Have you ever wondered about his life? John was born to very elderly parents. How long did they live after he was born? What happened to him? Did he end up living in the desert alone from a young age or did Zechariah and Elizabeth have family nearby who could care for him? We do know that John was an unusual man. He wore sackcloth made of horsehair and ate desert insects. He was a wild man. The description we have seems almost unreal. It would be easy for us to write off John the Baptist as a mythological character in a story made up by some ancient author.

However, in our Gospel lesson Luke puts John into historical context. Luke gives an accounting of the leadership – Roman and Jewish – that were in power when John the Baptist began his ministry. These same characters come to play later in the story, both John’s and Jesus’. Since there is a historical record of these leaders, it adds a note of credibility to Luke’s story and gives us the assurance of knowing that John the wild man was real. We can also rest assured that the rest of the story – that of Jesus Christ, His birth, ministry and death – is also real. When the story is filled unbelievable details, like the story of Jesus, then it is important to include information that would make it a trustworthy story.

The Gospel does something else for us this week. It keeps us from viewing this season in just the soft glow of Christmas lights and images of warm fuzzies on cold nights. John’s message is not one of sweetness, but of repentance. John does not call people to quietly kneel before a manger but rather to turn around and be cleansed of all that keep them from their God. Something has to happen before they can stand before their God.

In the Old Testament lesson from Malachi, we see the kind of cleansing God is calling us to receive. “But who can abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner's fire, and like fuller's soap: and he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, and refine them as gold and silver; and they shall offer unto Jehovah offerings in righteousness.” There are two images of cleansing in this passage and though the end is the same – purity and cleanliness – they are very different.

The refiner’s fire is extremely hot because it burns out the impurities from the liquid metal without destroying the metal. The refiner is actively involved in the process, but from a distance. With launderer’s soap, the process is much different. The launderer is physically involved – applying soap directly to stains, scrubbing the stains until the garment is perfectly clean. Though these are two very different processes, they both describe the relationship we have with God. We are cleansed by the refiner’s fire and by the launderer’s soap. Impurities are removed both when we experience the harsh realities of life but also as we experience the loving kindness of our God. Through the tough times and the intimate moments we are made ready to stand before our God.

It is interesting that we see two different images of John in today’s texts. In the Gospel lesson we meet the wild man who is crying out in the wilderness for repentance. In the passage from Luke that serves as our psalm, Zechariah speaks to graciousness of John’s calling in this world. Luke writes, “Yea and thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Most High: For thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to make ready his ways; To give knowledge of salvation unto his people In the remission of their sins, Because of the tender mercy of our God, Whereby the dayspring from on high shall visit us, To shine upon them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death; To guide our feet into the way of peace.”

These were the first words that came from Zechariah’s mouth after nine months of silence. When the angel met Zechariah in the temple to proclaim the good news of his son, Zechariah doubted. He was struck dumb because he questioned the angel Gabriel. When John was born, Elizabeth named the child John, according to the wishes of Zechariah. The people questioned this choice because John was the first born son. It would have been typical of families in that time and place to name him after his father. Zechariah shook his head and motioned for something to write with and he told them, “His name is John.” From that moment he could speak again and the first thing he did was praise God. He also prophesied about his son. John came to bear witness to the coming of forgiveness, to proclaim the grace and mercy of God.

Yet our Gospel passage, also from Luke, seems somewhat harsher. Zechariah prophesied about John’s witness to the love and mercy of God, but at the beginning of John’s ministry the call to repentance seemed so much harsher. Here we are reminded of both the tenderness of God the launderer and the harsh refiner’s fire that cleanses us of all impurities. John’s message was both harsh and gentle, both law and gospel. Though he was a wild man, he was the voice of God proclaiming the coming kingdom.

On this second Sunday in Advent we hear this call, not a call to bow down before the manger as the shepherds and wise men in the Nativity story, but a call to turn around and see the Lord of our salvation – strong and merciful, powerful and full of grace – coming in His Kingdom. As Christmas approaches we long expectantly for the baby in the manger, but even more so we look forward to the second coming of Christ, the King of Glory.

It might seem like it is taking forever, like the sunrise at the beach. We are waiting in darkness and though we get those glimmers of light, we wonder what is taking so long and we worry about what could happen until that time. But then, as Malachi reminds us, “the Lord, whom ye seek, will suddenly come to his temple.” It might seem like it will never happen, but it will come suddenly upon us in God’s time and in God’s way. And when it does, the world will be filled with light.

The alternative Old Testament text for this week is from a book we rarely use, the book of Baruch. Baruch was the secretary to Jeremiah, though many of the scholars doubt that the book was actually written in that time or place. However, it is written about the restoration of exiles, perhaps referring to the return of the Israelites from their sojourn in Babylonia. The imagery in this text is beautiful – of a people coming home after a long separation. They are coming home to the place they lived and to the people they left behind, but also to the God of their faith and hope. The prophets warned the people before the exile, but God gave the prophets the voice of comfort to help the people through that difficult time.

The exile was like the refiner’s fire, purifying the people so that they could be restored to their relationship with the Lord. The words of Baruch proclaim the lovingkindness of the launderer, who will cleanse the people and tenderly bring them home. Through Baruch, God promised to make the way easy, to bring the mountains low and the valleys high. It is hard to read a passage like this when we are going through a tough time. After all, it often seems like the way is difficult. We do suffer. We face illness and dis-ease. We face stress due to financial troubles. We face the consequences of overindulgence, particularly at this time of year. Even if we repent, the way never seems easy. It seems like the mountains are more difficult to climb and the valleys are very low. The darkness is overwhelming.

Yet we have all known people who have faced the most incredible circumstances who have made it seem like the way is smooth. They go forth in faith knowing that even though times are difficult God is with them. That is what it was like for the Israelites. The mountains were still there, the valleys did not go away. However, God was before them, guiding them. As they kept their eyes on Him, the way did not seem so hard.

We are given another image in Baruch – the promise to those left behind. The promise for them was that the time would come when they could stop mourning for those lost – they would return. “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting; for God will show your splendour everywhere under heaven.” This promise is for those in Jerusalem. “Get ready, make yourselves ready, for they are coming home. “Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height, look towards the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them.”

I remember what it was like when my husband came home from a deployment. Bruce served for several months in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. When it was time for him to come home, I made myself beautiful and went to the flightline to wait. As the planes came in, we eagerly edged toward the plane, always watching. I could not hold back the joy when the door finally opened and I saw him get off the plane. When they finally allowed us beyond the barrier, we all ran toward those we loved, grasping them with love and hope and peace. Our separation was over; it was time to start anew.

That is how it must have been for those returning exiles. They followed God as He led them home. Meanwhile, the people left behind waited anxiously to see their loved ones coming over the horizon. Like the sun in the morning, it must have seemed like it would never happen. But then, one day, there would be the glimmer of movement on the horizon. The excitement would grow as more and more people came into view until suddenly the whole nation would be visible, together again.

Advent is indeed a time of waiting. It is a time for looking forward to the coming of the Christ. It might be a time of difficulty, a time of tempering by the refiner’s fire. It might be a time of cleansing by the launderer’s soap. Perhaps we are like those who are going home, traveling over mountains and through valleys with our eyes on the Lord so that it seems like a level path. Or we might be like those who are anxiously and longingly awaiting the return of those we love. Whatever it is we are experiencing today, Christmas is not just about getting ready for a holiday or about waiting for a baby in a manger. It is time when we are called to repentance, a time when we are to prepare for the coming of the King of Glory. The manger is past, and it is a joy for us to remember. But there is another Day coming, a day for which we long, when Christ will come again.

This is why Paul was so concerned for the Philippians. He knew that though they were doing well at living the life they had been called to live, they would face difficult times. There were those who had gone into Philippi to stop the growth of the Church and destroy the faith of the young Christians. Paul wrote to encourage them to stand firm in their faith and to keep their eyes on Christ. The Day would come, and Paul’s greatest concern that they would be ready. “And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and all discernment; so that ye may approve the things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and void of offence unto the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are through Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God.”

As it was Paul’s prayer for the Philippians, it is my prayer for you during this season. Whether we face the refiner’s fire or the launderer’s soap now is the time to be cleansed and to be ready. For the Kingdom of God is at hand. He is coming to lead us home. He will make the mountains fall and the valleys fill so that our way will be easy. Let us keep our eyes on God as we grow in faith and mature in our life in Christ. Thanks be to God.

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