Sunday, December 9, 2012

Second Sunday in Advent
Malachi 3:1-7b
Psalm 66:1-12
Philippians 1:2-11
Luke 3:1-14 (15-20)

And the multitudes asked him, saying, What then must we do?

I don’t know about you, but my house is chaotic right now. I unpacked all my Christmas decorations and set them where they will go, but the displays have not yet been completed. I manage to get a few things in place in between everything else I have to accomplish, but it could take me days to get it all done. We bought and put up the tree last Friday, but there are no lights or ornaments or tinsel on it. The box of decorations is on the floor, have picked through as I was making decorating decisions.

There is a bag full of cards on a chair to be addressed. I have cookbooks open to recipes I want to try and there are gifts waiting for wrapping paper cluttering up my guest room. We could not eat dinner on our formal dining table right now if I wanted to do so because it is covered with ornament hooks, silk flowers and piles of other things necessary for readying the house for Christmas. I look at this mess and I wonder if I’ll ever get it done. I also wonder why I am doing it.

After all, Jesus is going to come whether I have a decorated tree in my living room. He’ll come if I don’t buy gifts for distant relatives. He’ll come if I don’t bake a single cookie (although I like to think He’d enjoy them if He came!) Christmas is not about all those things. They are nice traditions, and I won’t be giving them up any time soon, but that’s not why Jesus came.

The story of John the Baptist reminds us of that in today’s text. We are reminded in today’s Gospel lesson of the words from Isaiah the prophet concerning John. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ye ready the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight.” John was that voice, and the message he spoke was not a happy one to many who were listening. “Ye offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” This is a much different word than what we usually hear at Christmastime.

But we look to the words of John, words which came much later in Jesus’ life, because the incarnation we celebrate is about much more than the birth of a baby. John wasn’t crying out in the wilderness for us to visit a manger in a stable. He was inviting people to prepare for the coming Kingdom of God. His message of repentance might seem harsh to us at this time of year when we are focused on joy and peace and generosity, but Jesus came for more than an excuse for lights and eggnog and parties. He came to save us. If we ignore this reality, we miss the real reason for the season. Jesus didn’t come to be born, He came to die.

The words of John are interesting, if not a bit frightening. He calls those seeking his baptism a ‘brood of vipers.’ He wonders who warned them to flee the coming wrath. He saw hypocrites among the crowd who thought a little water was going to make things right for them. They were joining in the latest fad. They were following John because he was popular, and after all, it might work, right? They thought that the baptism would keep them from harm, from judgment.

John’s baptism was never meant to be a magical solution to an age-old problem. He baptized those who came with humble hearts who were looking to be changed. His baptism was about repentance, and he would not baptize those who would not turn back to God. The crowds heard the warnings of John and thought that God was about to break into the world in a powerful way. They wanted to be covered, but they didn’t want to do any of the hard work to be prepared. They thought the baptism would protect them from the dangers to come.

Malachi makes it clear that the Day of the Lord would not be a pleasant experience. “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.” Imagine what it would be like to be tempered with the fire necessary to purify silver. It is no wonder that they thought it was worth getting a little wet in the Jordan to protect themselves from that sort of judgment.

But the refining process is necessary because it readies us to stand in the presence of God. There is promise in that image of the refiner. God does not abandon us to the heat, or the wrath. He is there with us, through it, transforming us by His grace. We should not run from the power of God, for it is in the power of God that we are made new.

As we were studying these texts on Sunday, I thought about those who are preparing for doomsday, which some believe is coming on December 21st. They are building shelters, stockpiling food, buying arsenals of weaponry. They think they can escape the coming doom, but for what? If this should happen, however it might happen, what will be left? What sort of life will they have after the apocalypse? How will Jesus find them if they are buried in a bomb shelter a hundred feet underground? Is that how God wants us to prepare for His coming? Is decorating and baking and wrapping the sorts of things we should be doing to make way for the Lord?

I like to think that if December 21st is the end of the world, then Jesus will come on December 20th. If so, then what should I do?

This is the question that the crowds asked John as He was preaching and baptizing at the Jordan. The multitudes asked, and John said, “He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath food, let him do likewise.” The tax collectors asked and John said, “Extort no more than that which is appointed you.” The soldiers asked and John said, “Extort from no man by violence, neither accuse any one wrongfully; and be content with your wages.” And so, in this second week of Advent, we ask, “What should we do?”

John answers, “Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance.”

Paul answers, “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.”

We are being called to live a fruitful life, one that glorifies God. We aren’t meant to run away from God’s refining fire, but to experience it. We are meant to be changed, transformed into something beautiful and holy. Advent has become a time to talk about hope, to look forward to the coming of Christ, but in days gone by it was a season of repentance. Are we meant to be lost in the chaos of all our preparation? Or are we meant to be growing deeper in faith as we draw nearer to the Christ?

This is not to say that we should reject the traditions of Christmas that we love, after all they can be ways through which we make a joyful noise and praise God. That nativity puts Christ in the center of our celebration. The tree is symbolic of life and growth and creation. The lights represent the Light of Christ. Baking cookies is a way of sharing hospitality. Gift giving is a way for us to reflect the generosity of God and to share our blessings with others. These are not bad things.

They are not bad, unless we think they are a way for us to flee the wrath to come. Are we decorating because we have to? Are we trying to win a neighborhood lighting contest, or do we really want our light to shine in the darkness? Are we sharing those goodies that we bake? Are we giving thoughtful gifts, or are we just spending money on useless things because it is expected? Will our preparation make way for the Lord?

During this Advent season we are waiting for the coming of the Lord, both in the manger and in His glory. What should we do? John calls us to live the life of repentance. This is not a time to run away and hide, or try to find our own way of surviving the coming wrath. Now is the time to turn to God, to seek Him, to follow Him as He works on our hearts, cleansing us and transforming us into something new. By His grace we’ll respond with acts of kindness that reflect God’s grace and make Him shine in the world, manifesting the fruits of righteousness in keeping with God’s purpose for our lives.

Back to Midweek Oasis Index Page