Monday, December 5, 2016

Sermon, December 4, 2016: "What Are You Preparing For?"

Community UMC, Quincy
“An Advent Question: What Are You Preparing For?”
Pastor Andrew Davis
Isaiah 11: 1-10
Matthew 3: 1-12
December 4, 2016

        How’s that preparation coming for Christmas?  Have you got your tree up yet?  Nativity sets?  Lights?  Presents?  I think it’s pretty safe to say that it’s really beginning to look a lot like Christmas around town now that we’ve had Sparkle, which I was definitely excited about and eagerly anticipating!!  Once we get into that first week of December, the hustle and bustle of the holidays is in full force, but not quite high gear quite yet.  Give it another week, though.  I do have to say there is something special about small towns and the holidays, as it seems like it’s extra festive here and reminds me of something we would see from Currier and Ives, Norman Rockwell, Thomas Kinkade, and others who love to use sentimentality to grab our attention.  I think some of the commercials we’ve been seeing on TV since Thanksgiving also do a good job at that, or tug at the heartstrings.  Or like Thursday night, I think we are a little closer to prepared now that “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has been on ABC.  I feel like I’m a little closer to prepared now!
        But while we are maybe a little more ready to enjoy the Christmas season than we were last week, we are in the second Sunday of Advent this morning, continuing along our journey in the season of waiting, watching, and preparing our hearts for the new hope, joy, peace, and love that we receive and give at Christmas.  But as we engage with our texts this morning, what are we preparing for?  We see in Isaiah God’s peaceful kingdom and a new day when all of creation is at peace with one another with the joy of a child leading, but then in Matthew we encounter John the Baptist as the “voice who cries out in the wilderness,” repeating a prophecy found in Isaiah 40, “prepare the way of the Lord.”
        Last week, we had a couple of texts that dealt more with end-times, as it was more about the beginning with the end in mind.  Our reading from Isaiah almost reads more like what you would see in a Norman Rockwell or Thomas Kinkade painting, an idealized, sustaining image of what a peaceable world would look like, as the prophet is pointing at new life that is possible.  I think about pruning, which many of us need to do as winter approaches, in order to make space and prepare the bushes, shrubs, and trees for new growth to take place in the Spring.  But also seeing how animals that would ordinarily be part of another’s food chain, such as the lion and the lamb, or wolf and ox laying down together also strikes up a beautiful image, as “these verses articulate the deep and persistent human hope for justice and peace, and within the Christian church, this text expresses the promise of a Messiah who will establish peace on earth.”[i] When we ask what we are preparing for, we are preparing for the day when we can see justice and peace here on earth. But, we have a lot of work to do and that’s going to mean rolling up the sleeves to show how a peaceable kingdom that we hope to prepare for is possible. 
        But another way we work towards preparing our hearts to establishing a peaceable kingdom is to repent from our wrongdoings and our shortcomings before each other and before God.  We hear John the Baptist saying this in verses 2 and 3 of our Gospel lesson, as John says “repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near” and to “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” in which John is quoting from Isaiah 40: 3 (NRSV).  Like preparing our yard for Spring by pruning our bushes, trees, and plants, we also prepare to take part in the sacrament of Holy Communion in a little while by having the opportunity to confess altogether our sins and shortcomings.  When we are willing to repent and make room in our hearts for God’s presence through the sacrament, we prepare our hearts for the amazing, wonderful gift of grace that is available for us to receive through taking part in the sacrament.  There are many instances where sin is sometimes swept under the rug for convenience, but sin also brings us down.  That’s why it’s necessary to repent and prepare our hearts for Christmas by unloading some of the baggage we may carrying with us that bring us down so that like receiving the grace available through Communion, we too can receive the hope, joy, peace, and love that Christmas can bring to us. 
        As I was preparing this morning’s message, I got a little laugh from my colleague, Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser at Discipleship Ministries in Nashville.  In her preaching notes for today, Dawn describes John the Baptist as “a scary dude in a scary place.”[ii] Quite honestly, if I saw someone come screaming “repent for the Kingdom of heaven has come near,” and wearing an outfit of camel hair, I would probably be a little unsettled (Matt. 3: 2, NRSV).  Okay, I’d probably have some not so nice things to say, but during this time period and during the time that Isaiah is writing in, there was already enough happening in the world. John lives in the wilderness, but even amidst the scary appearance, people still listen and for them, “John first brought the Good News: A much more powerful one was coming” which foreshadows the new way and new kingdom that Jesus will ultimately teach about in his earthly ministry.[iii]
But as we wait, watch, and prepare for Christmas, we have this good news that we can take and share with others, and I think even more so today, we need to repent, but also prepare the way of the Lord once again.  Repent gets such a bad rap and it oftentimes gets associated with that message of hellfire and damnation, but as Professor Ron Allen points out, repent literally means to “turn around, or to have a dramatic change of mind and direction.”[iv] That’s one of the wonderful things about Advent, that we have this opportunity to turn things around.  This past week, several of us began our Advent Study, The Redemption of Scrooge by Rev. Matt Rawle based on Charles Dickens’ timeless classic, A Christmas Carol.  As I talked about in a sermon in September on Lazarus and the Rich Man from Luke’s Gospel, I talked about the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and how he was selfish, miserly, sad, lonely, and downright miserable with only his money as his companion.  Without giving too much away of the plot, Ebenezer Scrooge has the opportunity to repent, to turn himself around, and become a new person at Christmas. 
And perhaps that’s what we need to do as we prepare our hearts for Christmas and the arrival of Jesus once again, by turning around our lives where we need them to turn around in as we prepare the way of the Lord and prepare our hearts and minds for the hope, joy, peace, and love that Christmas can bring.  While this is typically a happy time, or supposed to be, some are still in the wilderness of grief and loss, but the good news is that despite all that happens around us, the discord, the conflict, the violence, we have a voice that still cries out from the wilderness to remind us that something more powerful is on its way and that a new day is still ahead.  That’s good news we can share as people of faith, that we have this opportunity to repent and receive God’s abundant grace, which we can also share with others.  We also have our work cut out for us if we are to ever see a peaceable world where the lion will lie down next to the lamb and not have the lamb for dinner, but it is possible, naïve and foolish as that may sound given the darkness of the world around us.  So as we continue along our journey in Advent, what are you preparing for as we continue moving towards Christmas? 
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen. 

[i] The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 139. 
[ii] Ministries, Discipleship. ‘Second Sunday of Advent — Preaching Notes’. 2016. Accessed December 1, 2016.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Lewis, Karoline. ‘Commentary on Matthew 3: 1-12 by Ron Allen’. December 4, 2016. Accessed December 1, 2016.

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