Prepare the Way: Stand (Pt 1 of 7)
In the parsonage dining room, I have a wonderful old, dark-oak table. It was given to me by a friend who used to procure antiques, and when I received it, it was already in poor shape for having spent a few seasons largely unprotected from the elements in a leaky barn outside of Lancaster. The damp and cold and heat and dryness of the seasons warped the table top. So I brought it home, sanded it down, re-glued the original rabbet joints, braced the table so that it was no longer warped, then re-stained it and brought it into the dining room. And it’s a wonderful table. It’s where I write my sermons. It’s where my kids do their homework. Crafts, like dyeing Easter eggs and making get-well cards or doing puzzles are all done here. Here is where the important conversations happen. Where ideas are hatched. Where solutions are found. And, of course, it’s where we give thanks when we gather for dinner. But one evening, not long after its restoration, as the boys and I were enjoying a meal, there was this “pop.” We immediately noticed a small crack had formed at the end of the table, running with the heavy grain in the wood. And before we could say a word, a second, much-louder “pop” resounded, and a fissure had opened, splitting two planks and splintering the faithful rabbets that held them together for so long. Wide-eyed, my boys simply said, “The table is ruined!” I said, “No but it’ll need to be fixed again.” The stress of trying to straighten the years of neglect of the table was too great. And we then finished our meal — and several meals afterward — on the old, cracked table. Last summer, I again tried to fix the table. But this time, parts of the crack are still visible, and the rabbet joints are a little bit rough. They are reminders that any day now, the table may just “pop” again. For now, I have a table. But what will the table look like tomorrow, or in a year or longer? Will it ever be fixed? Will there ever be a new table to take its place?
Advent Today marks the First Sunday in Advent— Advent, which is derived from the Latin word meaning to come. And what is coming that we’re expectantly anticipating? To be theological, we would say Advent is “The season that proclaims the comings of the Christ “— whose birth we prepare to celebrate once again, who comes continually in Word and Spirit, and whose return in final victory we anticipate.” This is the yet and not yet aspect of our Advent hope. That is, Christ was born, and he suffered and died to reunite us with God for all of eternity, and subsequently, we are called to live now a kingdom life. One that we together call the body of Christ. One that we work to encourage one another to expand into that kingdom, and one that we work hard to continue what Jesus began. We literally are Jesus’s body.
Jeremiah In our first reading today in Jeremiah, the prophet is encouraging God’s people to stand strong. The backstory is that God’s people had been disobedient and unfaithful to their covenant with God: I will be your God, and you will be my people. God’s promised land was divided into Israel and Judah, and God’s people began listening to humans — kings, false prophets, and the priests of false gods… And God’s hand left the people, and the surrounding countries — specifically Babylon — infiltrated, conquered, and removed God’s children out of the Promised Land — where they suffered in exile in nations such as Babylon and Assyria. Imprisoned, the prophet Jeremiah pens a letter to the scattered Jews. We call this the Little Book of Consolation, which we read part of today in verses 14-16. The House of David will be restored, and a new king from the Davidic line will rule forever. His name will be The Lord is Our Righteousness. And only one sacrifice would be needed for all time. Of course we know that Jesus comes from the line of David. We know that he is Our Righteousness. And we know that it took just one sacrifice — Jesus’s death on the cross — to reestablish unity and allow for kingdom living for all time. God’s people, scattered, confused, traumatized, received these words with great anticipation. What is to come, they thought. What is Advent. Luke In Luke, we push all the way to the final chapters. We may, today, have been expecting to hear about John the Baptist calling us to prepare the way — the very title of this sermon series that takes us clear through the New Year — Epiphany. But we’re way past that already in this reading. Jesus is very much alive and teaching and preaching, and it’s just before his death on the cross. And he gives the people — like in Jeremiah’s day — the picture of a new reality. A prophecy. “There will be signs,” he tells those gathered to hear him teach, in verse 25. There will be confusion … people will be afraid, he tells them. These will be signs that God’s kingdom will be near. What is to come? What is Advent. Yet and not yet Yet and not yet. How can something be here but also something that we’re waiting for to come? Both offer Hope — that first candle we lit this morning. Christ’s birth in the world as the Human One — that is the mortal one, just like us — has come into the world to transform it and us. That right now is available to all of us simply for the asking. To live today in the kingdom as the body of Christ. What are we expecting when we choose to open that gift that Jesus’s birth, death and resurrection gave us? True joy. The ability to change the world today. The ability to let Christ transform us today. ### We live in a world today in which we want what we want. And we often can get it if we work hard enough at it, whatever it is. But those are the material things in our world. Cars, houses, anti-aging procedures, memberships… of course, we look at that stuff in church as negative things or maybe just things that can’t truly buy us happiness. But, of course, we could also use our physical resources to save lives, to end wars, to end suffering. To end malaria and other diseases. To end poverty. To end hunger and starvation here and around the world. We could do that, and we should, just as Jesus calls us to. But there is another component that’s outside of our control. We can’t force someone to love us; we can’t always heal a person who is ill. we can’t bring people back from the dead. The gift of Christ allows us to be transformed. Now that maybe doesn’t look like those things that we just named above; but it’s in the knowing Christ and receiving Christ’s gift that is the ultimate transformation. That with Christ, we can expect to change the things we can change — those things that maybe we did name above by using our God-given gifts and talents and resources to make the world a better place. To build true brotherly and sisterly relationships. To love our neighbors as ourselves. But the transformation isn’t the those things; the transformation is that our hearts are changed. That we will rest in the comfort of Jesus’s arms. And that the yoke that we bear upon our shoulders to exercise these gifts is very light. Christ’s gift isn’t that we see the results of the things we want changed; The gift of Christ that changes us is the ability to do these things; to become Christ in this world. And we expect and anticipate that Christ will work through us in this way. And that is what’s to come today. But what is to come tomorrow is much greater. And we have to be ready. We have to prepare. We have to be alert, and understanding, and anticipatory. And hopeful. Our lives, our world Many of us here today may be experiencing discouragement. As the world defines it, Christmastime can be stressful. It can be demanding. It can make us feel inadequate to be able to provide. And it can be lonely and depressing, too. Our world, too, is a great, big mess. With wars, suffering, divisions, and hate. In a sense, we are a people who have been exiled, too. Separated from the things we know are real and true and possible. Peace on earth. Peace in our lives. True love. Pure joy. Goodness. Today, a prophet calls to us. Advent. Look at what has come. Look to what is coming. Prophecy: Imagining a better world and a better life and working toward making those dreams a reality. Not with the distractions and busyness and competitions and worrying… Those, Jesus tells us, will blind us from seeing the true Advent. That which is to come. It also blinds us from what already has come. We, too, need to see the signs of the coming kingdom. Being ready for what is coming means being available to it. Do you see? If we’re not making ourselves available to it, we’ll miss it. If we don’t know what kingdom activities look like and we’re called to, we’re unavailable. Broken The broken table works just fine, but any day now, it might not. And that fracture in the structure is a daily reminder — no matter what bounty is placed on the table — that it’s probably not a great idea to put out the best China and crystal… Because when that thing pops again, it’s going to take everything with it. I can choose to ignore it, or I can be ready for it. I can work to make the table look and perform the way it was mean to; the way it should. Or I could let it further deteriorate. Take my chances. Cover it with a tablecloth and pretend it’s not there. Choose not to see it; forget about it altogether. This, of course, is a metaphor for our lives and our world. The table needs to be available. Useful. Worthy of holding the bounty. Our lives must also be worthy of holding the bounty that is Christ. We can sit complacently, or we can stand, look at what the gift of Christ has done for us, understand the examples of what Christ wills for us, and live our lives as a reflection of that gift. To build a better world. To help others live better lives. To repair that which God made and we’ve broken or let deteriorate. The kingdom is near, Jesus tells us. Near means within our reach. And yeah, maybe we just blindly wait it out. For Christ to come on the clouds of glory and make the change. Here’s the key: Unless we open our eyes and begin understanding what the change Christ calls us to make looks like, we’ll never see it. We will miss the Advent. And so I offer you this today: If you come and go from this hour of worship, back into the distracted, self-centered busyness of this season and our lives, if your spiritual needle doesn’t feel like it’s moving in this season, and you’re not expecting anything to change and certainly not anticipating what Christ can do in your life, then I invite you now to open your heart to Christ. To ask Christ into your life. Maybe you’ve already done that. Maybe several times. But this time truly ask to see the gift that Christ has given. Not to see proof in that thing that you want in your life. But that even without any of it, that Christ is so much more than enough. So abundant, so overwhelming, that our life is completely transformed in ways we cannot even fathom. Supernatural ways by a supernatural God. That today, we don’t just wish for this love. We expect it. Because the one who was born to give us love already resides in our hearts is found in our communities has the power to change the world, and the power to change our hearts. Let us, O God, stand on this, now and forever. Let us, O God, expect your will be done. Let us, O God, anticipate the change in our lives and this world. Thy will be done, amen