“Brick by Brick”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
December 9, 2018: Advent 2
My friends, the words of John the Baptist “Prepare the way of the Lord!” rattled around in my head this week, the same question kept coming to my mind over and over. What for? What exactly are we preparing for this Advent season and how exactly should we prepare? This led to other questions. Will I know when I have reached the maximum level of preparedness? Will there be a sign that I am properly prepared? Is there an award for being prepared early in the season as opposed to later in the season? Is this a sort of race to see who can be prepared first? If I’m not prepared, will Christmas be delayed? If I’m not prepared, will my stocking still get filled? This is just a key-hole look into the mind of a pastor when he has a little too much time on his hands.
In all seriousness, what are we preparing for this Advent season? The answer to that question is the birth of Jesus Christ. But even that leads to more questions. I believe that if we want to respond faithfully today to John the Baptists’ call, and to use our time wisely as Christmas fast approaches, we should take some time today to go back to the beginning and consider why Jesus came into the world in the first place. I think from that position we might better understand what it means to prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts and minds and in the world around us.
Some big answers spring up immediately as to why Christ came. To save us from our sins—that’s a big one. To satisfy God’s anger when the world’s penchant for sin and destruction had gotten out of hand—that’s another big one. To give us eternal life—that’s the biggest of all. There is an issue here, though. These big answers, while biblically and theologically sound, were developed long after Christ lived, died, and rose again from the grave. They help us to understand the eternal legacy of Christ and the gifts that we possess in him through our faith. They come at the question from the end of the story. We need to go back quite a bit further to the beginning of Christ’s ministry is we really want to understand why he came into our world. Luckily, we can do that by listening to Jesus describe his earthly mission in the fourth chapter of the gospel of Luke.
The setting is a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. The town has gathered for worship and study as is their practice on the sabbath day. From within the crowd of people, Jesus stands up and moves to the front of the assembly. It is there that he takes a part of the Torah scroll and opens it to the prophecy of Isaiah. He reads: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” With that he rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant and takes a seat. Everyone in the synagogue is looking at him. Jesus then says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
What Jesus means is that he is the person the prophet Isaiah was speaking of who would bring good news to the poor and set prisoners free and heal the blind and proclaim God’s favor. For thousands of years the Jewish faithful had heard Isaiah’s prophecy that God would bring a great liberator, a great healer, a great preacher into the world. I’m sure those same faithful people had prayed over and over and over for God to make good on that prophecy. So you can imagine that when Nazareth’s hometown boy walked into the local church and told everyone that he was that person, they were rightly shocked. But this is Jesus’ mission statement. This is why Jesus came: to bring good news to the poor, to set prisoners free, to heal, and to proclaim the Lord’s favor.
Luke tells us that the people were so angry and confused and shocked by what happened in the synagogue that day that they tried to hurl Jesus off a cliff. Luckily, Jesus walked right through the mob and escaped. And luckily for the whole world that terrible reception in Nazareth did not derail Christ’s mission. Almost immediately, Jesus got to work doing what he had come to do. First he freed a man from an unclean spirit. Then he healed Peter’s mom. Then a man with all kinds of skin problems was made whole. After that, some industrious friends lowered a paralyzed man right smack dab into the middle of Jesus’ house so that he could be healed. Then there are some withered hands that are brought back to life, a couple of sermons preached about the sabbath and rest and not judging others, and then there is the whole thing about taking the plank out of your eye before you try to take the tooth pick out of your neighbor’s eye. And all of that is just in one chapter of Luke’s gospel!
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus preaches a sermon that is nearly four chapters long. Talk about bringing good news to the poor! In that sermon Jesus blesses the poor, mourners, the sick and suffering, the persecuted, and the down and out. In John’s gospel we watch Jesus heal and touch and talk to and love people who are entirely outside the traditional boundaries of the community. He forgives, and tells parables about kings and landowners forgiving the debts of their subjects and servants. Jesus calls Lazarus out of a tomb even when he had been dead for a couple of days, and later he bends down and writes in the sand in order to save a woman who was about to be stoned for adultery. In his final days, our Lord ate meals with his friends and celebrated holidays. He laughed like we do. He cried like we do. He experienced pain like we do.
Saving our souls from sin was just a part of what Christ came into the world to do. The other part was to institute a program of social justice and top to bottom social change. He came into the world to make the world a better and more holy place, a place worthy of the name “God’s Kingdom.” Jesus came in answer to the eternal prayer that we speak every week: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus came into this world to bridge the gap between heaven and earth and to teach us how to make this old world into something beautiful and new. He taught us how to heal broken bodies and to make people whole through the gift of love. He taught us how to open our eyes and soften our hearts. He taught us how to work for justice and equity and peace. He taught us how to forgive and he taught us how to transform violence and anger by turning the other cheek. In all, Jesus taught us that eternal and abundant life isn’t just something we experience when we die…we can have it right now if we’re willing to live like him and follow him faithfully.
Jesus didn’t come into the world to start a religion. Jesus didn’t come into the world to start a church. Jesus didn’t even come into the world so that people would bow down and worship him. Jesus came into the world to change it and to change every single one of us. Jesus came to hit the point home that you and I are were made in God’s image for much more than we can possibly dream of or imagine. Yes, we have gained eternal life through him. Yes, our sins have been forgiven through him. Yes, he has prepared a place for each of us in God’s eternal mansion. And we can worship him and bow down to him. We can fight for the religion that sprang up in his name. We can, and we should, work diligently for the preservation of his church throughout the world. But if his message doesn’t change us, if we don’t change how we live and act, if we say one thing in here and do something entirely different out there, Christ coming into the world means so very little. But if we are changed, if we live the good news each day, if we show Christ to the world as much or even more than we talk about him, there is no end to the transformation God can and will work through us. That is why Christ came into the world. That is what we are preparing for this Advent season. To change and be changed.
My friends, Christian faith is about just that: faith. So much of what it means to be a Christian is wrapped up in believing and clinging to things that we cannot see or touch or hear or feel. So much of who we are comes to us because we are simply willing to step to the edge with confidence that God will either give us a place to stand or the wings to fly. That is what faith is. But that is not all that faith is. Faith is also about how we take the things we can’t see or touch or hear or feel and turn them into actions that make us, our neighbors, and the world a better and more holy place. Faith without works is dead. But works without faith are also dead. We are in this world, we aren’t supposed to be of this world, but we are in it and while we are in it we should be about changing it and making it more like God desires for it to be.
Take, for example, this beautiful bowl. It is for sale in the Fair Trade store that has popped up in the Breezeway this week. It comes to us from one of the most troubled and perplexing places on Earth: the West Bank in Israel. What you can’t see by just looking at this beautiful piece of pottery is that it has been instrumental in helping Israeli and Palestinian women to understand issues of peace and justice. This pottery is the result of a collaborative effort by women who would otherwise be lobbing grenades at each other. A coop in the West Bank brings the women together from opposing sides to learn a craft and to make a living, while also learning with and from people they would never ordinarily encounter. The hope of this work, the pottery and the study of justice and peace, is that the women will go back into their communities and plants seeds that grow a world that is a better place for their children and their children’s children.
You may be wondering why we are having a Fair Trade sale here at the church. You may be wondering why we would lay out a significant amount of money to bring in pottery and tchotchkes from all over the world. You may even be wondering what selling these things has to do with our faith and with bringing the good news of Jesus to our community and to the world. The truth of the matter is that our Fair Trade store is our faith in action. Fair wages for workers reflect our faith. Peace and justice, even when it comes from making pottery, reflects our faith. Empowering people through economics to live better and more productive lives reflects our faith. Bridging gaps between cultures through beautiful scarves and nativities and Christmas tree ornaments reflects our faith. Putting our dollars in places where it brings new life and new opportunities reflects our faith. Our Fair Trade store is a birth of Jesus into the world, a living out of his mission to bring good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, and a message of God’s favor.
When John the Baptist cried out, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” this is the stuff he was talking about. When John cried out, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he was actually calling for us to build a road on which Christ would come into the world. He wasn’t so much concerned with hearts and minds. John wanted a smooth and wide road for Christ to travel on as he brought God’s kingdom into the world. But how would this road be built? Well, brick by brick. And what are the bricks that will pave the pathway of Christ into this world? Our lives. The things we do to reflect our faith. The love we share with one another and with those we might not care for a whole lot. The causes we support that bring healing and peace and unity into the world. Kind words, gentle thoughts, goodwill towards all people. We put down a brick every time we refuse to be baited into a pointless argument. We put down a brick every time we champion the truth. We put down a brick when we visit the lost and lonely, when we pray for God’s will to be done. We put down a brick each time we gather for worship, to sing and pray and sit at Christ’s table. We put down a brick when we buy a bowl that supports a better, holy, and more peaceful world.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, could it be that God’s Kingdom will come, that Christ will enter into our world, when the road is built? Could it be that Christ is waiting for us to lay down a smooth path for him, brick by brick? And could it be that this pathway for Christ will be built by our actions and our faith lived out loud? Christ came into the world to bring real change and he has called us to work in partnership with him to bring that amazing and transformative change to life. He has given us everything we need to do this work and to do it with joy and faithfulness. Where our passions and interests intersect with the needs of the world, that is where the bricks are laid down. Instead of just sitting back and waiting for Christ to come, let’s get to work preparing the way of the Lord. Brick by brick we can put that path in place, so that when Christ comes he can enter into this world swiftly to reveal God’s salvation before our very eyes. That is what we are preparing for this Advent season. That is what we are preparing for every day we are alive. This is what God has promised to do, and the infant in Bethlehem shows us something very, very clearly: God makes good on his promises. May the name of the Lord be praised. Amen.