December 8, 2019
Good Morning, “You brood of vipers!” (Laughter, I hope…)
There are probably preachers preaching that message this morning, but thanks be to God, you are a lovely flock, not a brood of vipers!
“John the Baptist may have been like Alexander Whyte, a noted preacher in the early 1900’s at Free St. George’s Church in Edinburgh. It was said that Whyte could be so direct and penetrating that to hear him preach was to take your life in your hands.” (Mark E. Yurs)
But fear not, I do not plan to preach life threatening words today, …. spirit challenging words … hopefully.
What might we learn from John the Baptist’s message this 2nd Sunday of Advent? What John has to say is important and necessary for our souls’ sake.
One might begin by asking, “Why do we have the adult John the Baptist bringing on the scene the adult Jesus Christ as our readings on Advent 2? Why aren’t we reading about the babies to be born to Elizabeth and Mary instead? Afterall, isn’t that what Christmas is about?”
Yes, Christmas is the day we celebrate the Incarnation, God taking on human form by becoming human by becoming Jesus, born of Mary. Advent is the season we prepare for that day. If you have ever prepared for the birth of a baby, you know there is a lot that goes into it – taking care of your health for starters, but also readying the nursery, buying diapers, onesies, blankets… “Nesting” as some call it. My nesting (some 24 years ago) included changing the office in our little home to a nursery. I will never forget Phil (my ex-husband and good friend) saying, “It’s a baby! How much space can it possibly need?”
If you haven’t prepared for the birth of a child, you have certainly had other events in your life that required preparation and intention: planning for a vacation – deciding where to go, how to get there and where to stay… reading about what to do when you get there,
shopping and packing what you need to pack for weather…. And then praying the forecast doesn’t change.
You know the routine --physically preparing, but also preparing one’s heart and mind for the adventure.
Or perhaps moving into a new home… what to pack, what to donate or throw away. How to arrange the furniture…. Do you know what I am talking about? You can think of times in your life where preparations were needed for whatever event was upcoming, right?
So that is what Advent is… a season of preparation… a season of readying our physical space (as you can see has begun here), but also readying out spiritual space…
And this is where John’s message is important – Repent! Confess!
John the Baptist asks us to “examine ourselves, rather than only basking in holiday wonder. We should bear good fruit, rather than only worrying about material things to get or give….” According to John Burgess, “What John – and Advent – remind us is that repentance is not primarily about our standards of moral worthiness, but rather about God’s desire to realign us to accord with Christ’s life. Repentance is not so much about our guilt feelings as about God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image.” (Which, by the way, is why we are using St. Augustine’s words at the invitation to Communion:
“Behold what you are…. May we become what we receive…”.
We come to be spiritually fed, but also to be spiritually transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ.)
The goal of repentance is always about God’s grace, not about making us feel bad. John’s call to repentance is a call to all of us to reform, to live our lives faithfully. It is a call to God-centered living rather than self-centered living.
In The Universal Christ Richard Rohr writes about the Incarnation that “Jesus came to show us how to be human much more than how to be spiritual.”
Jesus’ entire life was the Incarnation, not just the moment he was born. The Incarnation doesn’t begin and end on Christmas. Thus, having the adult Jesus appear on the scene, in the wilderness, with John the Baptist is part of the story of God’s Incarnation. With John the Baptist, the message is how to find a way in the wilderness…. The wilderness is a setting for both judgment and redemption.’ (Wm Herzog II)
Themes of judgment make us good Episcopalians squirm a bit. We try to live loving, affirming, accepting lives. We try not to judge others and are quite happy if others don’t judge us. But judgment exists in our nature. Often our self-judgment is far harsher than God’s judgment… and grace with ourselves much less abundant than God’s grace to us.
In a movie preview a couple of weeks ago, I heard, “You are more than the worst thing you have ever done…”
You are more than the worst thing that has ever happened to you...
John the Baptist’s Advent invitation to repentance is an invitation to accept that you are accepted. To speak your guilt, fear, burdens – your wilderness experiences -- to God and receive in exchange the gift of grace, the gift of acceptance, the gift of release.
Our Advent preparations require us to take a moral inventory and examine those hard, shameful, challenging moments in our lives -- those things we judge and fear God judges as well – and hand them over to God – in other words, REPENT – acknowledge those things, give them to God, release them to God’s care and keeping, and live more freely in God’s grace.
This is the foundation of our faith. This is our hope. That in the wilderness places of our lives, God’s grace does not run short. When you find yourself holding on to the failures and disappointments of life, remember that the Incarnation is for you, …. And you…. and you….
If you were the only person on the planet, God would still have become human in order to show you how to be human. “Faith is accepting that you are accepted. We can’t accept ourselves without accepting God’s radical acceptance of every part of us.” (R. Rohr)
In the moment of silence prior to our Confession today, speak in your heart and mind any wilderness burdens that have taken root in your life. Repent, meaning invite God’s grace to transform your pain into hope. What could be better this Christmas than spiritual awakening, abundant grace and abounding hope?