A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
December 4, 2016: Advent 2
Along with waiting, Advent is also about making room. For what? Well, a baby. But, there’s more. Christ coming into the world is more than just the birth of a baby to two scared and anxious parents—Christ’s birth is God’s kingdom breaking into a scared and anxious world. God’s kingdom, as Isaiah tells us, is the absolute reign of peace: the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the calf, and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. These odd couples will be able to live together in peace because the primal things that make one animal a predator and the other prey will come to an end. The need to survive by taking the life of another will come to an end; the lust for power will come to an end; there will no longer be a need to be the alpha.
This is God’s kingdom, and it is breaking into the world with the birth of Jesus Christ. We have to wait, but we also have to make room for this entirely new reality.
But how? How do we go about making room, not only for the baby Jesus but also for a new reality that is so utterly contrary to how things are right now?
John the Baptist is an interesting figure in the gospels. We know that he was the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, both very old and well past the age of parenting children. The same Spirit that gave life to Jesus in the womb of Mary gave life to John in the womb of Elizabeth. His father Zechariah was so doubtful that God could bring life from Elizabeth that an angel of the Lord silenced Zechariah until the time that John was born. There is no record of John’s growing-up years. What we have in the Gospel of Matthew is John the Baptist simply appearing in the wilderness as a grown man. John’s calling from God was to be the herald for Jesus Christ, to be the voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Many came to listen as John cried out on the bank of the Jordan river, and many were baptized by him and confessed their sins.
John’s message to the newly baptized and the crowds gathered to hear him was not warm and fuzzy, though; it was not a message of candlelight and Christmas carols and silent nights. “I baptize you with water for repentance,’ he said, ‘but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John’s clothing of camel hair and his diet of locusts and wild honey was jarring enough, but his insistence on repentance was even more so. The one who is coming, John said, may be wrapped in swaddling clothes as a baby, but as a man he will stand in the barn and separate the wheat from the weeds; the wheat will be gathered and stored, but the weeds will be burned with unquenchable fire. John preaches repentance, because it is repentance that prepares the way of the Lord, makes his paths straight, and makes room for his coming.
Repentance is a holy and healthy practice for all Christians. It is something we do each Sunday in confessing our sins together, and it prepares our hearts and minds to hear God’s word…to make room inside for God’s truth and wisdom. But repentance, confessing sins, is a counter-cultural activity. We are taught by our society to stand by our actions and decisions, to seek the best deal, to get and attain and amass in any way possible, to seek the quick profit no matter who or how many it may hurt. If it pads our wallets, if it fills the building, if it makes you happy, if it establishes a legacy or makes you famous, we are taught and told that there is nothing inherently wrong with the means that get us to the end. Take for example the debacle in the ranks of a certain high-profile bank recently: executives and managers got rich preying on customers by opening and extending credit in their name just to make quotas. Consider the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where it is acceptable to poison a water supply if it means that some politicians can keep their jobs. Consider how sacred land in our country is so often desecrated by industry. Among rising financial profits and the struggle for political power, there is no room or even any desire to see the wrongs that were done and to repent of them and the hurt they obviously cause. This means there is also no room for Jesus Christ.
No one likes to admit when they are wrong. Not one of us here today enjoys admitting that we have failed at something, or hurt ourselves or others or both in the course of that failure. There is nothing pleasant is confessing the ways that we have turned our backs on God and God’s Word, or how we love to be Christians on Sunday but not Monday through Saturday. Yet, that is the reality of our human condition. Sin is the churchy word for it. No one is immune, and you should be skeptical of anyone who says they are. Repentance is so important for people who follow Jesus Christ. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But because of God’s great and unconditional love for us, we have the ability in our fallenness to confess, to admit, to acknowledge, and then turn and go in a different way. Repentance is often thought of as punishment, as a bill that must be paid, as weakness. Jesus already took that punishment, already paid the bill, already absorbed our weakness and turned it into strength: there is a cross and an empty tomb to prove it. Repentance is more than just saying ‘Sorry’ and going about life as usual. To repent is to literally turn and go in another direction, in the direction of God. This is our daily task as followers of Jesus. Repentance helps us to acknowledge the sin and suffering we endure and cause, and then it opens us God’s forgiveness and grace. Repentance is how we clean out the heights and depths of our souls to make room for Jesus Christ.
Imagine with me for a moment God’s vision for your life. What do you think God wants you to be and do? If something doesn’t immediately come to mind, think on God’s vision that comes through Isaiah. God’s dream is an entirely new reality, one where there is no predator or prey, no fear or hatred. God’s dream is big, and from where we are right now, it is hard to see. God’s dream of peace is not so much a goal to be achieved, but a direction by which to set a course.
Now, consider each element of your life: what you do for a living, how you interact with others, why you believe what believe, how you put your faith into action…all of it. Choose one, just one, of these elements for which you know you have to repent, one that does not align with God’s dream of peace. This is not a exercise in guilt and it is not meant to mark you as a bad person or a bad Christian. Chose one element of your life that could use a change in direction. Is there an unhealthy relationship you need to repair or address? Can you imagine using your time differently and toward better ends? Is there some practice or habit that would produce more abundant life for you and those around you? One that I think we all have in common in way or another is bridging the gap between what we profess in Church and how we live in outside of church.
Then, consider one element of our communal life that needs repentance; brainstorm how you might contribute to that. Within this community there are more causes and organizations that contribute to God’s abundant life for all people than you might imagine. Each in their own way—with food or diapers or job training or addiction care or mental health services—is a visible act of repentance, turning from the way of death to the way of life. Can you spend more time volunteering with these organizations? Can you increase your financial contributions? Can you get to know someone who is quite different from you, and in building a relationship with them, help to build a more robust community? Can you begin praying daily for God to open our hearts and minds so that we better direct our time, actions, and resources for change that will last?
This is the process of repentance and it is not as difficult as you might imagine. Working to align just one element of your personal life and part of our life together is how repentance starts and how it begins to change things. Remember the good news of the Gospel: there is only one permanent thing in this life and it is God’s love. The failures of life, the missteps we take, the sins we commit, and the blind eyes we turn toward the world—these are only for a moment…God’s love is forever. This means that changing directions for God’s kingdom is possible. We do not have to be afraid. We do not have to be afraid of admitting that the train has gone off the tracks and that maybe we were driving when it did. We do not have to be afraid of looking weak, because weakness is made perfect in Jesus Christ. We do not have to be afraid of asking for forgiveness, because God’s forgiveness has changed who we are. We do not have to be afraid to reorient, to turn, to repent, because when we do we will be looking into the face of God.
When we do this—when we look to see where God is leading and work little by little so that everything about us moves in that direction—then God’s dream for us and the world goes from dream to reality. When we repent and turn, we take part in God’s constant renewal and redemption of the world. What magnificent work to be involved in! The kingdom of heaven will come near. The eyes of the blind will be opened. The ears of the deaf will be cleaned out. The lame will walk and the sick will jump for joy. The way of the Lord will be prepared and Christ will come to finally and fully institute the peaceful kingdom of God.
On this second Sunday of Advent we are just a bit closer to Bethlehem. Will you be just another inn keeper that has no room for Christ, forcing him and his immigrant parents to wander and search for a place to stay? Or will you be the inn keeper that has cleared out a space in the inn, a place where a mother will deliver her firstborn child? May all of us go about the work of repentance, making room for the Lord Jesus. Jesus is expecting you and he is expecting me. Make room, beloved, there is more than enough. Amen.