Sermon – December 8, 2019 – Second Sunday of Advent

Grace and peace to you, this day and every day, from God our Creator, from Christ our Savior, and from the Holy Spirit, who gives us hope. Amen.

Although the temperatures seem to keep bouncing around between 20 degrees and 50 degrees, this evening/morning is when we mark the second Sunday of Advent. This is the season in the church when we reflect upon what it means to be the people of God, when we wait in anticipation of Christ’s birth, and when we hope for newness and restoration in our lives, and in our relationships, and in our world. This is also the time of year when we have lots, and lots of getting ready to do …

Ok everyone, it’s time for a show of hands. Who here has a Christmas season to-do list with over 10 items remaining on it? … Ok, good, I thought it was just me … Who knew there was so much involved in getting ready for Christmas? … Cleaning the house. There’s cookies to bake. … Preparing the calendar to accommodate the many and various gatherings when we meet up with family, with old friends and new, and with coworkers. … Gotta find an ugly Christmas sweater. … There’s cookies to bake. … We’ve got to decide what we’re getting for whom, to purchase these gifts, to wrap them up in colorful paper and bows or the ever-popular gift-bag. … There are meals to plan, groceries to buy. … There’s cookies to bake. … The tree has to go up. … We have to find the right strand of lights with all the functioning bulbs. … We have to make everything feel warm and welcoming with the traditions we cherish. … There’s cookies to bake. … Sorry, once I get a delicious thought in my head, I can’t let it go.

There’s a recipe that comes down from my Grandma Awanda’s side of the family, for a cookie called pfeffernusse. There are several recipes out there, no doubt, but this one is for the harder version of the cookie and calls for eight eggs (yes, eight), 2 pounds of sugar and flour (each), along with cloves, cinnamon, anise seed, fennel seed, coriander seed, and requires a 36-hour preparation time beforebaking. Sure, the recipe is a little eccentric but the cookies are delicious and it warms the heart to enjoy a family tradition.

In our Gospel text this evening/morning, John the Baptist enjoys an eccentric diet of his own (locusts and honey?, yuck!), but more than that, he is also calling to the people to get ready, to return to their traditions, and to bear fruit that characterizes such a tradition and such a return to it. He calls to the people of Judea and to you and to me. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” God is doing a new thing! Change is afoot! What was long foretold, is now coming to fruition! Hope is blossoming! (pause)… And this newness and this nearness requires something of the people of Judea and of you and me as well. It requires repentance.

Repentance isn’t one of those typically Christmas-y words. It’s not like jingle!, or cheer!, or snow! It is hard to imagine Buddy the Elf gleefully reminding movie audiences to repent. Repentance is a spiritual practice. Repentance  is one of those things we usually associate with the season of Lent. It is a spiritual practice that requires … well, practice. It is a centering of our hearts and our minds and our spirits onto the restoration, healing, love, and gracious gift of Immanuel, God with us. It is a reflection upon those things in our lives and in our hearts that seek to distract, dissuade, and deter us from our relationship with God in Christ.

And this is what John the Baptist is all about. The people of Judea come out to him, heeding his call for repentance, confessing their sins, and cleansing themselves in the baptismal waters of the Jordan. Our Gospel text says that John the Baptist is the manifestation and fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah’s prediction that one will be crying out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to an IKEA; there’s a few in Chicagoland, one in Indianapolis and St. Louis …. anyway, IKEA is a furniture, furnishings, sort of store that was founded in Sweden and has since spread across the globe. And if you haven’t been inside of one, they are pretty huge. They’re so huge, they have little maps posted throughout the store so you can figure out what way to travel along the winding path to find the route to bookshelves or office desks. The winding path is intentional, obviously, to keep the consumer trapped and entranced. Having been in a few IKEAs, I can tell you that after a while you will feel like the prophet Isaiah, wanting for someone to make your path straight, so you can find your way to the parking lot.

When the Spirit of the Living God inspires Isaiah to prophesy that we should “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” this is God calling to you and to me that we need to make commitments and concrete steps to assist in expediting the many and various and real, tangibleways that Christ is known among us. Making His paths straight isn’t about constructing the best interstate highway to handle the traffic needs of the area. It is about allowing our lives to become the smoothest and most efficient conduits they can be for God’s Kingdom to work in and through us. God’s Kingdom comes without our asking, but in ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ we ask that it may come also to us and through us. Making His paths straight is about identifying the things, ideas, or relationships that we’ve allowed to become undone from their divinely created purposes and then rectifying these divergences. It is about opening our eyes to see that things are not more important than people. It is about opening our hearts to know that people are not more important than other people. It is about opening our ears to hear the stories of other people’s lives, of other’s fears, of other’s pains, and of other’s joys.

Most importantly, making His paths straight, is about opening our mouths. It is about opening our mouths in repentance. To repent and confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. That, as much as we want not to, we keep returning to behaviors and habits that negatively impact our relationships with one another, with creation, and with God. To say aloud to our Lord and our neighbor that we have not lived for Him and for them as we ought. That we have desired property, or status, or reputation, or power, for ourselves, more than we have desired to receive all of God’s good gifts, graciously from the Father’s hand. To open our mouths and our hearts and confess that when we have repented of our sin, when we have committed to living afresh as Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we have not evidenced that repentance with a fruit; with a change in behavior or mindset or relationship, that testifies to the loving, gracious, and life-giving mercy of God in Christ.

But be not afraid little flock, you are not going to be cut down and thrown into the fire like fruitless trees or chaff from the threshing floor.

[Evening: When we prayerfully sing together our confession unto the love of God in Christ, which fills the night with wonder and warms the weary soul, Christ hears our prayers for hope and warmth and restoration. God in Christ forgives you and forgives me; sets us free and makes us whole.]

[Morning: Earlier we confessed together that we have failed God and our neighbor. Together as brothers and sisters, we asked God for mercy, wisdom, and guidance. Thanks be to God in Christ Jesus, who forgives you and forgives me and invites us to watch and rejoice as He makes all things new.]

In our Gospel text, it is kind of easy to read John the Baptist’s ridicule of the Pharisees and Sadducees as if these critiques couldn’t possibly be applied to us as well. We’re not religious leaders who surround ourselves with vibrant messages of repentance, of redemption, and of hope while not internalizing that vitality in such a way as to transform our lives or the lives of others. … Are we?… We don’t presume that our lengthy familial histories and our walk with Christ give us preferential treatment in the Kingdom of God. … Do we?Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to put a wet blanket on the season of Advent. … Advent is a season of waiting, of preparation, and a season of hope. … When we wait … when we prepare … we don’t have a shortage of things to be honest about, to repent of … and therefore, and this is the Good News folks, therefore we do not have a shortage of things for which to be hopeful.

When we repent before God in honest and contrite hearts, it is because we believe that God revealed to us in Christ Jesus is a God who will forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Our identities are grounded in a God who is merciful and loving and therefore, the things we have done or failed to do, should no longer be those things which haunt us. They are opportunities to hope for the newness and goodness of God in Christ to come among us in our lives, here and now. Because the almighty and everliving God comes to earth to become enfleshed in the person of Jesus Christ, because God is so committed to redeeming and restoring our repentant, and even unrepentant, hearts, because of this … we have ample reason to hope for and anticipate Christ among us.

So, what do we hope for? How do we anticipate Christ among us? Do we hope for a spirit-filled and Christ-led congregation and leaders to guide us as we grow into the next year? … Do we hope for safe travel? Do we hope for reunions with those we love? … Do we hope for God’s hand throughout our process of discerning our identity and calling a new pastor into our flock? Do we hope for more sustaining and welcoming communities in our towns and in our world? … Do we hope for leadership that inspires by example? … Do we hope for an end to violence, and anger, and injustice, and all those things that give rise to fear?

Our reading from Romans this evening/morning, repeatedly emphasizes Paul’s desire for his audience (and for us) to be steadfast and encouraged by scripture and community so that they (and we) might have hope. Hope in the church is found in community; in community that welcomes the other. Hope is found in encounters with unknown strangers in our midst; in shared sorrows and shared joys. Hope that is founded and grounded at the table, where Christ meets all our hopes and fears and offers us his Body and Blood. In Christ, our hopes are fed and our fears are washed clean.

And so, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. … May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Thanks Be To God. Amen.