Preparations of the Heart

Advent 2A, December 8, 2013

Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Advent, the season of waiting.  We have been waiting almost two thousand years for Christ to come again.  But we were not the first to wait.  By the time Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God’s people had been waiting for centuries for the Messiah to come.  There had been prophecies and stories, speculation and wondering.  Our first lesson today, from the book of Isaiah, is one of the passages where God tells them what the Messiah will be like and what God’s kingdom will be like when the Messiah comes.  It’s a beautiful picture with words that have resonated through the centuries—a vision of peace and security, justice and righteousness, of people and all of creation living in harmony together.  God’s people had been waiting for a long time for that vision to come true by the time Jesus began his ministry.

We, too, are waiting; we are waiting for Christmas and the celebration of the Messiah’s birth, but we are also waiting for the Messiah to come again in glory and establish the kingdom that Isaiah foretold.  We are waiting for that kingdom of new growth; we are waiting for the glory of Jesus to shine forth throughout the world.  We yearn for peace and justice; we tell stories of generosity and the “spirit of Christmas” filling hearts across the world.  We gather together with loved ones, and try to get along better.  We try to be nicer.

And then we hear today’s Gospel reading, about John the Baptist preaching fire and damnation.  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? … Even now, the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  Merry Christmas!  Not.

John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin.  He was only a few months older than Jesus, but he was already a well-established religious leader by the time Jesus started his public ministry.  He was a bit of a spectacle; he dressed like a wild man, or like the prophets of old.  Many people came to see him; they came to hear his message, but I wonder if some came just for the spectacle.  To stare at the weird crazy person.  But whether they came to gawk or to listen, John had a message for them.  John the Baptist’s whole mission was to get people ready for the Messiah to come.  Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!  Get ready for the Lord’s coming!  Don’t just ready your homes, prepare your hearts and minds and lives!  John the Baptist did not care if people liked him.  He wasn’t in it for popularity or riches or anything else.

In my experience, people don’t like to be told that they are sinners who need to repent.  In fact, it’s one of the fastest ways to get people to shut you out.  Particularly religious people—religious people are often quick to see the ways other people are sinners, but have all kinds of justifications for why their own sins aren’t really sins at all.  But at the same time … we all know that the world is a sinful, broken place.  We’ve all seen it, experienced it.  And if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we are sinful, and sometimes broken, too.  There’s a relief that comes with admitting it; there’s a relief that comes with the honesty of saying “I have sinned, forgive me.”  There’s a relief that comes from turning away from the sinkholes of our guilt and shame and fear, and towards a new way, a better way of living and thinking.

That’s what repentance means, you know.  Literally, “to repent” means “to turn around.”  Turn away from the darkness; turn towards the light.  Turn away from your fear; turn towards hope.  Turn away from your anger and hate; turn towards love.  Turn away from your sin; turn towards God.  Change is possible; a better way of life is possible.  But only if you turn from the way of sin and death and brokenness, and turn toward the healing and life that only God can bring.

Yes, the kingdom of God is near, John the Baptist said.  That kingdom where the wolf lives with the lamb, and children are safe even in the midst of wild animals and poisonous snakes, that kingdom is near.  The kingdom where the poor and the meek get a fair and right chance, where God’s spirit of wisdom and understanding comes with the Messiah, that kingdom is near.

But that kingdom can’t come while things stay the way they are.  The sin and brokenness of this world has no place in God’s kingdom.  And much as we’d rather not admit it, a lot of the brokenness of the world comes from our own hearts and actions and words, things we do and things we fail to do.  Sin isn’t just something bad people do; everyone sins.  All of the hurt we cause ourselves and one another through our sin, that just isn’t compatible with God’s kingdom.  When the Messiah comes, the sins will be sorted out and excluded from the kingdom.  If you choose to stay with your sins, if you aren’t willing to turn away from them towards the Messiah who is coming … you’re going be in trouble.  Getting ready for the coming of the Messiah doesn’t just mean making things look nice for a party; you have to be willing to confess the ways you have hurt yourself and others.  You have to be willing to turn away from your sins to the only thing that will save you, the only thing that will heal your brokenness: the Messiah, God’s only Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

That sounds like a big thing to ask, and it is.  We can’t heal our own brokenness, and sin has its claws deep into our souls.  We can’t save ourselves; and all too often our repentance is short lived.  We fall back into bad habits.  We sin again.  We hurt ourselves and others over and over again.  We repent, but we do not bear fruit worthy of repentance.

The good news is, it’s not up to us and our efforts.  Christ came so that we might be saved; God’s only Son, the Messiah, died so that we might live.  In baptism we are tied to Christ’s death and resurrection; in baptism, we are washed clean; in baptism, our sins are forgiven and our brokenness is healed.  We sin, and sin again, and we and all of creation will remain broken and sinful until that day when Christ comes again.  But through it all, Christ reaches out to us, again and again, calling us to turn towards him.  All we have to do is respond.  All we have to do is turn to him and take his hand.  And when we stumble and fall again—as we will—Christ is there to help us up again, if we let him.  If we turn to him.  If we repent.  If we open our hearts and our minds to his coming, and welcome him in.

In this season of waiting for Christmas, we do a lot to prepare our homes.  We clean, we decorate, we plan parties and dinners.  We think a lot about Christmas coming, do we think enough about Christ’s coming?  How well do we prepare ourselves?  We talk about the “spirit of Christmas” and loving one another; we toss money in Salvation Army kettles and watch heart-warming movies.  We spend a lot of time trying to be nice.  Being nice can be a good thing, and being generous and loving is certainly something we as Christians should be doing all year round.  But are we going deep enough?

John the Baptist reminds us that Christ’s coming is not just a matter of a cute baby in a manger with angel choirs singing familiar carols.  Christ’s coming means the coming of the kingdom of God.  Christ’s coming means that things will change—that we will be changed—and that we are called to turn away from our sin and turn towards Christ.  May we be ready for the coming of the kingdom.

Amen.

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