Friday, December 20, 2013

“A Child For Us” - December 22, 2013

Text: Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 2:1-14 We have a friend in Illinois named Frances. She is 95, still living alone, still at home, although she is slowing down. Every year, around Thanksgiving, we will get our first Christmas card in the mail - from Frances. It is kind of a marker that the season is officially here.

The Christmas card tradition is changing, as people increasingly go digital. Letter writing in general is kind of a lost art, with Christmas being perhaps the one time folks will send a Christmas letter along with their card or family Christmas photo. 

But while some are sending emails or posting their Christmas greetings on Facebook, others are taking it to another level. Some people are creating complex, choreographed family Christmas videos – there was one with a family dancing in their Christmas pjs making the rounds this week. Some folks will even build elaborate sets in order to film their spectacular family Christmas video. It can be pretty impressive, but for those of us who can barely find time to send a few cards, it can make us just feel more inadequate as far as our seasonal preparations go.
  Everybody wants Christmas to be picture-perfect. For most of us, that doesn’t go as far as learning dance moves and building a set and filming a video, but think about the scenes depicted on the Christmas cards that we send and receive. 

Christmas cards can be very different, some with scripture and religious sentiments, others more of the Winter Wonderland variety, some with Old St. Nick and others with a puppy and kitten on front. But different as they may be, every card is cheery. Every outdoor scene is peaceful. Every home is warm and cozy. Every Santa is jolly and every tree is beautifully decorated. Everyone gets along, including children and animals. In every nativity scene, the humble stable is beautiful. Mary has a glow about her and looks remarkable for someone who has just traveled a long distance and given birth out in a barn. Baby Jesus is always happy and cooing and the animals are all quiet and reverent. Our Christmas cards represent a kind of alternate universe in which everyone is doing well. There is no wrenching poverty, no substandard housing, no hurting families. Everyone is pleasant; there are no Charlie Brown trees, no worn out mothers and no crying babies. And to judge from Christmas cards, you’d think people would be clamoring to have their baby born in a barn, with a bunch of animals all around – it looks so wonderful. Obarnacare, we could call it. 

Let’s face it: the Christmas you will find on Christmas cards is not very real. Whether it is a contemporary scene or a Victorian Christmas or a depiction of that very first Christmas, what we see on cards is not very realistic. But those are the cards that are made and those are the cards that we buy because we all long for that picture-perfect Christmas. Nobody would want a card that shows a modern family fighting on Christmas morning, we want a scene of domestic bliss. Nobody would want a scene of an ice storm with damaged trees and power outages, we want gently falling snow. Nobody wants a card showing a poor family with an empty cupboard, eating spam and macaroni for Christmas dinner. And nobody would want a card that shows Mary and Joseph looking scared and haggard or the shepherds as hard-living guys you would be afraid to have live in your community, much less visit your home. We want beautiful people on our cards. 

Christmas cards may not exactly convey reality, but they do convey our hopes and dreams and aspirations. And we all aspire for a warm, wonderful, joyful, happy, perfect Christmas. 

Some will go to great lengths to insure such a Christmas. Professional decorators will come to your house and do your decorating for you. They will set up the tree, decorate your home, put up your lights, the whole bit. Brite Ideas Decorating in Omaha has over 300 franchises nationwide. It’s a booming business. To decorate your home for the holidays, prices start at about $1200 with no real limit to speak of. I checked their website and unfortunately, they are sold out of their 10' Cherry Blossom Tree with Color Changing Iced Trunk, which retails for $5,272.50 – which I assume that does not include set-up and take down. Fortunately, their 12’ LED palm tree is still in stock, and it’s a bargain at $2747.25. (I love their precise pricing.)

It’s not cheap, but a lot of people find this very attractive. No more second-rate decorations, with homemade ornaments and chipped pieces from years past. These trained professionals will set up a perfectly coordinated holiday masterpiece, and you can have a light display outside that will have cars lined up around the block to see. 

It’s not just our decorating that may be lacking. Who has time for baking? And let’s face it - some of us are not that good in the kitchen. Why do it yourself when you can go down to the bakery and get all kinds of wonderful Christmas goodies. Or, you can rent a baker to come to your home and do your baking for you – that way you get the great smell of fresh-baked cookies in your home. And of course you can also hire someone to do your Christmas shopping. Doing all of this would make things easier, and the end product might be a lot better than if you were doing all of this yourself. You would be one step closer to that perfect Christmas. 

But let’s face it – you could have someone else doing all of these things, and the people you hire could all be models of efficiency and artistry, but it still would not be a perfect Christmas. There is something about our participation that is far greater than having things just right. 

The second chapter of Luke is one of the best-loved chapters of the Bible, telling of the birth of Jesus. The words are beautiful and moving and poetic, but we can lose the power and the surprise of what is being said. 

Luke reports that angels – messengers from heaven – announce the birth of a Savior who is Christ, the Lord. We’ve heard that so many times that we can lose the revolutionary, audacious quality of the announcement. 

Jesus was born in the midst of Roman occupation. The backdrop of Jesus’ birth was an empire in which the emperor was worshiped. Kurt Willems writes about this:
Caesar Augustus was called the “son of god” who was the great “savior” of the whole earth through bringing “peace” to Rome. The announcement of this was heralded as “good news.” (These) themes are examples of the propaganda that was spread via the media of the imperial religion. What is quite interesting is that these are the same themes that permeate the birth narrative in Luke’s gospel.
It is not Roman soldiers making the announcement, it is angels, messengers from God, who bring the news:
I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
The Son of God is born, the savior, bringing peace – and this is good news. Jesus’ birth is a complete counter, a complete repudiation of the power structure of the world. It is not just the announcement of Jesus’ birth that stands as a challenge to worldly power. It is also seen in who the announcement is made to. 

Most of us have little acquaintance with shepherds or shepherding, and certainly not as it worked in ancient Palestine. These shepherds were in the fields, with the sheep. At night. Living in the fields, or as the King James puts it, “abiding” in their fields. You didn’t just check in on the sheep every once in a while, provide food and water and let the sheep go. Sheep could wander, there were predators, there were dangers. Maybe they took shifts, but if they did, a night shift shepherd was not what you would call a status kind of job. In fact, it was even lower status than you might imagine. It is not simply that they were on the lower rungs of the social ladder, unkempt, unclean, working with dirty animals. Shepherds and other “people of the land” were beyond the pale of religious respectability. Their occupation and way of life made it impossible for them to follow the prescribed rituals for religious purity. They were ceremonially unclean and could not participate in worship at the temple. 

The announcement that the Son of God, the Messiah, the Lord, was entering the world, bringing peace, bringing hope, bringing Good News, is made not by Roman officials, but by angels and heavenly hosts. The Savior of the world was not Caesar, but a baby born in Bethlehem. And the announcement was made not to the elite, not to the power brokers, not to the wealthy, not to religious leaders or even to those who were thought of as religious people, period, but to shepherds – socially outcast, economically disadvantaged, religiously ostracized. In Jesus’ birth, absolutely everything is turned on its head. 

And there is more: the shepherds are told that this child who is the Savior is born in Bethlehem. Not Jerusalem, the Holy City, the center of Jewish life. But Bethlehem, a nearby town with an inferiority complex. Luke points out that Bethlehem was the City of David and that Jesus was a descendant of David, and for Jews with a sense of history, this was important. But don’t get the wrong idea: Bethlehem was anything but a glamorous sort of place. 

Bethlehem was the “City of David,” and I imagine that it put that tag line on its municipal sign the way every town tries to make itself look good. Mason City – the original River City. Grinnell – Jewel of the Prairie. Winterset – Birthplace of John Wayne. Sheldahl – the biggest little town in three counties. And Bethlehem – the city of David. OK, it had been awhile, about a thousand years since David had lived, and it was not exactly a bustling metropolis. It would never amount to much in the shadow of Jerusalem, but King David had been born in Bethlehem. 

Jesus was born there. Not at Bethlehem General, not in a family home, not in a nice home, not in a home period, not even in an inn, but in a stable, a place for animals. He was set not in a crib, but in a feeding trough. 

All in all, it was pretty much the opposite of what anyone would plan in order to impress. And yet because of all of this, the message is absolutely, undeniably clear: this is a birth for everyone. God is not bound by nation or wealth or power or privilege or notions of piety or religious correctness. This child, this savior, will be for all people. What did the shepherds do with the angels’ announcement? They did not just sit back and feel hope and gratitude. They did not pass the news on to other, more appropriate people who might go and visit the child. They went themselves. They got moving. They participated in the experience. 

When it comes to Christmas it is easy for us to become observers rather than participants. There are plenty of people who can do Christmas better than we can. There are homes that are better decorated, cookies that are more perfect, gifts that are more tasteful than what we give. For that matter, we could find a beautiful midnight Mass on TV and just skip going to the Christmas Eve service. 

We could do all these things, but we don’t because we want to experience all of this for ourselves. Like the shepherds, we want to go and see the baby for ourselves. We want to be a part of the Christmas story. 

And the wonderful thing, the incredible thing, the message of Christmas is that this is all for us. This child, absolutely, was born for all people. This child was born for us. Christmas does not live up to whatever ideals of perfection we may see in Christmas cards and viral videos. There are families where not everyone will make it home this Christmas, because someone is in jail, or someone is in Afghanistan, or someone is in the hospital, or someone doesn’t want to be there, or someone can’t afford traveling, or someone isn’t welcome. There are families that have suffered loss, and will have to face an empty seat at the dinner table. This can be a lonely and stressful and hectic time. The reality is that Christmas can be messy. 

Just like that first Christmas. Ideal is the last word you would use to describe it. Mary, about to give birth, making a long journey. The couple was not yet married, and tongues wagged. She and Joseph traveled to his ancestral home for the census. Their nation was occupied by a foreign power, and the trip was all so that Rome could collect taxes. They arrive in Bethlehem, and there is no place to stay, no room in the inn. They wind up in the stable out back, with some animals. 

And then who shows up to welcome Jesus’ birth? The grandparents are not there in the waiting room. Excited friends do not arrive with “It’s a Boy” balloons. The only visitors are strangers – rough shepherds. 

It wasn’t pretty. But if we think about it in another way, Christmas is beautiful. Because it says to us that God comes to us in all of the messiness of our lives. God does not wait for us to clean things up, to get our life together. God does not wait for us to make ourselves presentable.

One of the names for Jesus is Emmanuel, God With Us. And more than anything, the birth of Jesus says that God is indeed with us. A child is born – for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

“Hail, Mary” - December 15, 2013

Text: Luke 1:26-38

If you are even a casual football fan, you are probably familiar with the “Hail Mary.”  Your team is behind, there are only seconds remaining in the game, you have maybe 40 or 50 yards to go or more and there is only time for one desperate play, so your quarterback heaves the ball into the end zone, if he can throw it that far, and you pray that somebody on your team catches the ball and wins the game.

Sometimes it works.  The most famous Hail Mary was probably the Boston College vs. Miami game a number of years ago when in a high-scoring back and forth game, Doug Flutie threw the ball into the end zone as time expired and his teammate brought down the pass to win the game for Boston College.  That pass led to what college admissions counselors called the Flutie Effect, as there was a huge increase in college applications to Boston College the next year.

Every football team will practice the Hail Mary play, and seeing as though the Cyclones have frequently been in desperate situations late in the game, I have no doubt that ISU spends time practicing this play.

Well, why call it a Hail Mary?  Essentially, the pass is a prayer.  For years, Notre Dame had used what it called Hail Mary plays, but the term was popularized when Roger Staubach of the Dallas Cowboys threw a desperation, game-winning pass.  Staubach was hit as he threw the ball and had no idea that Drew Pearson had made a miraculous catch and won the game.  Talking about it afterwards, Staubach, a devout Catholic, said that he threw it and said a Hail Mary.

Now the term is so common that if you google Hail Mary, the football play comes up before the Hail Mary prayer.  I’m not kidding.

But for many more people, and for centuries before football was even invented, “Hail Mary” is a prayer.  The Hail Mary is the best known prayer of Catholic devotion, but it is not what we generally expect to hear in a Baptist church on a Sunday morning.  The fact is, Protestants in general aren’t sure what to do with Mary.

Peter Gomes, who died almost two years ago now, was the minister at the Memorial Church at Harvard.  He told a story about Dean William Ralph Inge, whom he said was known as the “gloomy dean” of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  (This has nothing to do with the story, but how would you like to be known as the “gloomy dean?”  It would be like saying that I am the gloomy pastor, which I guess would make Susan the cheerful pastor.)

Anyway, according to the story, when Inge died, he was ushered into the presence of God.  Jesus came down from God’s right hand and said, “Ah, Mr. Dean, welcome to heaven.  I know you have met my father, but I don’t believe you have met my mother.”

We don’t always pay much attention to Mary.  It might be obvious, but without Mary, there is no birth.  Without her, there is no Christmas. 

Hail, Mary.  The Hail Mary, or Ave Maria, is the best known Catholic devotional prayer.  “Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”  The prayer is based on scripture from Luke chapter 1.  In our reading, the angel appears to Mary and says, “Greetings, favored one!”  Or in another translation, “Hail, thou who art full of grace.”  And then later in the chapter, when Mary visits her older cousin Elizabeth, who is also with child, Elizabeth says to Mary, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

As we think about “The Cast of Christmas” - the various people who had a part in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus and the announcement of that birth - we can hardly go without considering Mary. 

The angel Gabriel - a messenger sent from God – appears to Mary and delivers a message.  He says, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.  You will conceive and give birth to a son and he will be the savior of the world.  He will reign forever and his kingdom will never end.”

This sort of thing does not happen just every day.  Or ever.  Can you imagine what this experience must have been like?

It isn’t easy to be confronted with a message from God.  We know from Mary’s words and from the angel Gabriel’s response to her that she was perplexed and afraid.  And that is probably Luke’s very understated way of putting it.

We do not have a record of Mary’s thoughts as this conversation was going on, but I can imagine some of the questions she had.

First – "Am I hallucinating?  Is this real?  Is this a dream?" 

And then, "This is making no sense.  Why me?  Of all people, how did I get chosen?  Are you sure you have the right address?  Are you sure you have the right town?  I’m sure there must be some huge mistake."

But the question she asks out loud to the angel is a very practical, and very reasonable question.  Mary is a young girl, maybe 13 or 14, scholars say.  She is young, she is not sophisticated, she is not experienced with angels or men or  the ways of the world, but she knows enough to understand basic biology and she knows that there is no way, that it would be impossible for her to have a child.

But the angel tells her that this will be the work of the Holy Spirit, and that nothing is impossible for God.

There are no doubt other thoughts and questions, and there will be plenty more.  Like, "Will Joseph stick around, will my parents still love me, will I be dragged into town and stoned for sleeping around?  And you say the child will be the king of Israel, but what about me?  Will the pregnancy go alright, will there be someone there to help me when the time comes, will I survive the birth?"

There were a great number of unknowns, but the one near-certainty was that this would not be easy.  Nevertheless, Mary says Yes.  “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

There are those who have characterized Mary here as quiet, submissive, and obedient, and not in a good way.  There are those who read this and see Mary as being passive through the whole experience.  Some have a hard time making Mary a role model because girls need to learn to be active and engaged.  They need to learn to be leaders, to take charge.  The vibe that you can get from Mary is kind of backward, too meek, too deferential.  One could draw the conclusion that being faithful means being passively submissive.

I don’t think that’s the case.  I don’t think that is a fair reading of the text.  Is Mary’s obedience more demeaning than Jesus, when in the garden he says “Not my will, but thy will be done?”

There are those times when strength may be seen in submission.  God gives her the power to become what she was created to do and become.  Mary affirms the promise that is in her.  You could understand Mary giving birth to Jesus in the same vein as Bach writing the music he was given to write, or Rembrandt painting with the gift he was given, or Mother Teresa doing the work she was called to do.  Mary said yes to God the same as Isaiah and Elijah and John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul, and in saying yes, she discovered her life’s work.

Finals start tomorrow.  Some students will be graduating next weekend.  Other will graduate in the spring, or the next year, or the next, at least hopefully.  And the question that gets asked, and gets asked more often the closer you are to graduation, is “What’s next?”  “What are you going to do next year,” or “What are you going to do after you graduate?”

So often the response is, “I don’t know” or “I wish I knew.”  And it’s not just those finishing school; there are plenty of folks a good bit older trying to figure out what their life is about.

The notion of an angel appearing and delivering a message about your life, about your future, about your place in the big picture of God’s purposes, might scare you to death.  It would me.  But if you really think about it, it might be a good thing.  It might be a wonderful thing – to know what it is we are called to do, to know what our life is about.

In Mary’s conversation with the angel Gabriel, she discovered who she was, who she was meant to be.  She discovered her vocation and calling.  And it wasn’t so much that she passively submitted to the plans placed on her; she decided to use her life furthering God’s plan for this world, a plan of which she was a vital part.

Mary said yes.  She was the only one, the only one in the history of the world, who had that particular decision to make.  She said yes to carrying, giving birth to, and raising the Son of God. 

We are not going to be confronted with that particular decision, but our stories are not completely unlike Mary’s.  We talk a lot about all of the choices we have, but sometimes, not infrequently, our plans and visions of the future give way to the plans that life has for us.  Sudden illnesses, surprise babies, family emergencies, economic upheavals, unforeseen opportunities can overwhelm our best-laid plans and confront us with new callings. 

I have been thinking about Nelson Mandela, who died last week.  Most of you are familiar with his story: as a leader in the African National Congress, he was arrested and sentenced to life in prison by the apartheid regime in South Africa.  At his trial, he said:
I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. 
Mandela served 27 years in prison on Robben Island.  He was finally released in 1990, days after the ANC was unbanned.  He was elected president of South Africa three years later.  And the choices he made would determine the fate of that country.

Amazingly, Mandela chose forgiveness and reconciliation.   The nation could have descended into civil war, but the care and respect he had for all people, even his former enemies, changed the nation.

Sometimes the circumstances we find ourselves in create the opportunity for greatness.  Nobody would have guessed it when he was born, but the times Mandela lived in and the extreme personal hardships he endured helped make him not only a national hero, but a world leader like no other in our time.

The same could be said of Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr.  The times we live in, the situations we face, can call forth greatness.

On paper, you wouldn’t think Mary had much going for her: young, poor, in a backwater country, not born to a family of privilege or power.  But Mary lived at the right time, a time when God chose to act in human history, and God called her.

“Greetings, favored One!” said the angel.  “The Lord is with you!”  “Hail Mary, full of grace.”  But here is the thing: Mary was not chosen because she was full of grace.  She was full of grace because God chose her.  God did not set our looking for the perfect young woman to bear Jesus.  It was more a case of because she consented to God’s call, Mary was the perfect one for the job.

The Eastern Orthodox Church calls Mary theotokos – god-bearer, the one who brings God, in Jesus, into the world. 

Meister Eckhart, a medieval mystic and theologian, wrote “we are all meant to be Mothers of God.”  It sounds weird, sounds really odd at first, but he is exactly right.  We are all called to carry into the world something of the grace and love and compassion and holiness of God which we have been given.  It’s not just Mary, and it’s not just the Nelson Mandelas of this world, it’s you and me.  We all have those times when life overtakes whatever plans we may have made, and in those moments it is for us to say yes or no to God’s call.  The way we respond – our yes or no – makes a huge difference.

Mary is an example of faith for us.  She gives birth to Jesus and is there with him all of his life.  At a wedding in Cana, the wine was running low, and Mary asked Jesus to act.  She knew what was in him, and he performed his first sign, or miracle.  Mary continued to be there for her son, through his ministry and right to the foot of the cross.

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”  Mary’s role was unique.  But I don’t think it is too much of a stretch this morning to say,

Hail, Jenna
Hail, Pat
Hail, Emma
Hail, Dustin
Hail to each of you!
Hail, First Baptist: the Lord is with you.  And it is for us to say Yes.  Amen.

I am indebted to Peter Gomes and Barbara Brown Taylor for inspiration for this sermon.

“How to Prepare for Christmas” - December 1, 2013

Text: Matthew 3:1-12

Good morning - You brood of vipers!

You repentance-fakers, saying the right words and acting all holy-like!  Your social standing and your family history don’t mean a thing.  Quit talking, quit posturing, and change your lives!  Bear fruit worthy of repentance! 

You’re nothing but a bunch of snakes!

Well, I thought that I might take a cue from John the Baptist’s playbook on winning communication.  John is one of those characters that show up in the season of Advent.  He was the forerunner of Jesus, the one who paved the way – John was Jesus’ advance man.

But I’m thinking, maybe emulating John is not the way to go.  He comes off – just a little strong.  But once you get past his gruff exterior, his message – well, it’s at least as harsh as his demeanor. 

Today is the first Sunday of Advent.  This is season of hoping and waiting, a season of expectation, a season of preparation for the joy and the wonder and the great celebration of Christmas.  We light a candle each week and the light grows as we get nearer the celebration of Jesus’ birth. 

And we begin this season of wonder and joy and expectation with – with some wild man insulting us?  With a bizarre figure telling us to turn or burn?

John is one weird dude.  Look at what he eats: locusts and wild honey.  Eating locusts was not unheard of, and Leviticus chapter 11 even spelled out the kinds of locusts you were permitted to eat.  Sure, they have a lot of protein, but I once had a cicada fly right into my mouth and it really wasn’t that appetizing.  John was eating locusts by choice.

And then he has honey to go with the locusts.  Well, if it works for Great Plains Pizza, I guess it would work for locusts.  But have you ever gone after wild honey?  Harvesting honey from domestic bees can be a lot of work, but harvesting wild honey is not only a messy job, it can be dangerous.  We try to get our kids to sit up straight and have some semblance of etiquette at the table, and John just has a grab and go meal of locusts and wild honey.

And then there is the matter of his clothing.  Camel hair makes burlap seem nice and soft.  An odd fashion choice, to say the least.  He is an outdoorsy, hardworking kind of guy – so why not flannel?  Why not Carhartt? 

John looks odd, dresses strangely, eats weird stuff.  He is not interested in social niceties.  John is not the kind of guy you want as a role model for your kids.

John should have been a priest.  That’s the way things worked back then.  A son was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps.  Even Jesus honored the tradition, becoming a carpenter like Joseph.  But not John.  Not only did he reject the priesthood, his whole life was a critique of the religious establishment.  His clothing reminded people of the prophet Elijah, who had a lot to say about society and kings and politics and justice.  John’s style and dress and manner were all designed to upset the apple cart.  John was rude, crude, and socially unacceptable. 

But these are mostly superficial issues.  We pay way too much attention to the way a person looks or talks or dresses or what they eat.  So, let’s go beyond appearances.  Maybe more to the point, John is just plain annoying.  Especially in this season of the year.  John has a lot of nerve. 

Can you imagine getting a Christmas card from John the Baptist?  There would be a big snake on the front of the card.  You open it, and it says, “Greetings, you brood of vipers!  If you want to have a Happy New Year, you better turn your lives around.  Happy Holidays, JB.  P.S. I never thought that much of your family anyway.”

In this season, there are performances of the Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol and The Greatest Christmas Pageant Ever.  There are all kinds of Christmas specials on TV: Frosty the Snowman and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.  There is a chipmunk Christmas.  But you will definitely not find a John the Baptist Christmas Special. 

John seems completely out of place in this season.  And while we are thinking about Christmas cards, there is a reason that Hallmark doesn’t make cards with John the Baptist.  You can find Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the wise men.  You can find words from the Old Testament prophets, you can find themes of joy and peace and hope and love and light.  But you won’t find a card with a theme of repentance, and you will not find John the Baptist.

John is rude, he is annoying, and yes, he is even embarrassing.  He flaunts convention and tradition, disrespecting his elders.  He scoffs at authority.  He forages for food.  He has fashion issues.  And on top of it all, he is called a Baptist.  We work hard to not be thought of as barefoot and backward and obsessed with hellfire and damnation, and then every Advent, John comes along and undoes all of that.

John is rude and annoying and embarrassing.  But the worst thing is – are you ready for this?  Here’s the worst thing.  The worst thing is, he may be right.  Don’t you hate it when people like him turn out to be right? 

Let’s look at his message.  His message is about preparation – getting ready.  In introducing John, Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”

John prepared the way for the Lord by preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins and baptizing those who responded. 

It’s a novel idea.  It’s not the way we usually prepare for Christmas.  When people ask, “Are you ready for Christmas?” what comes to mind?  You probably think first of all about your shopping.  Have I bought something for everybody on the list?  Will that sweater fit dad?  Will my niece be happy with an iTunes gift card?  And then you may think about cooking.  Will we have ham or turkey for Christmas, or maybe do something different – what about enchiladas or lasagna?  And what about all the baking?

And then, you may think about getting the house ready.  You need to put up your outdoor lights.  You need to get the tree up.  There is cleaning and straightening and decorating to do.  And then, some of us get ready for Christmas by getting our calendars sorted out.  We have to synchronize our schedules and fit in the school concerts and the church dinner and the work Christmas party and that play or concert we want to go to, all while working around the ISU basketball schedule, of course.  And then we have to arrange get-togethers for the family.  Maybe both sides of the family.  Maybe 3 or 4 sides of the family.

We are busy doing what needs to be done, making preparations, when John the Baptist shows up and sticks his nose into our Christmas, calling for repentance of all things.  He is abrupt, and it is not at all convenient.  But maybe we need to be inconvenienced, just a bit.  Maybe we need to be embarrassed about what we have made of Christmas.  Maybe we even need to be offended, just a bit.

We need to ask ourselves: after all of the shopping and parties and TV specials, after all the cookies and fruitcake, after all the carols and family dinners and gift-giving, what has changed?  We go through these days leading up to Christmas, and in a few weeks, it’s back to the regular routine of life, and then we do it all again next year.

There is nothing wrong with that, of course.  It’s nice to have a change of pace.  There is certainly joy to be found in all that happens in this season.  But there is a reason that this is the most stressful time of the year.  There is a reason that for many people, it is the loneliest tie of year, the hardest time of year.  And it is possible to forget the reason for all of the celebration in the first place. 

Maybe we need a character like John to shock us back into reality.  John calls us to repentance – to turn our lives around.  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Well, let’s face it: repentance is not a big seller.  It’s not what you would call a crowd-pleaser.

There was a Doonesbury comic strip where the minister, Rev. Scot Sloan, is talking to a couple inquiring about church membership.  He describes the basic approach of his Little Church on Walden: “I like to describe it as 12-step Christianity.  Basically I believe we’re all recovering sinners. My ministry is about overcoming denial, it’s about recommitment, about redemption.  It’s all there in the brochure.”

The wife says, “Wait a minute - sinners? Redemption? Doesn’t that imply guilt?”

The husband says, “I dunno, there’s so much negativity in the world as it is.”

The wife adds, “That’s right. We’re looking for a church that’s supportive, a place where we can feel good about ourselves. I’m not sure the guilt thing works for us.”

But then the husband says, “On the other hand, you do offer racquetball.”

But the wife reminds him, “So do the Unitarians, honey. Let’s shop around some more.”

Repentance seems like such a downer.  Fortunately, it really doesn’t apply to us, does it?  I mean after all, it’s for sinners – real sinners, people who don’t go to church like us.  Or, we may think of repentance as a one-shot deal that we took care of years ago, when we were baptized.  In our better moments, we might say, “OK, we all need to repent from the materialism and self-centeredness that affects us all.  We know we’re not perfect and we could all stand some improvement.”

But that is still a shallow understanding of repentance, shallow in that it is rather vague and general.  Susan and I heard Presbyterian minister and homiletics professor Tom Long speak at a conference this fall.  He describes repentance in this way:

Whenever we return to an old and well-worn passage in the Bible and do not, through nostalgia or willfulness, have it to say only what we expect it to say, but allow it to encounter us anew, creating new and demanding possibilities for our lives, we have repented.

When we invoke some experience in our memory and discover, in our remembering, more evidence of the hand of God there than we first saw, more signs of the grace of God than we ever knew were there before, more call for gratitude to God than we have yet expressed, and we find ourselves wanting to live a different, more faithful and more obedient tomorrow because of what we have discerned, we have repented.

Whenever we return to the faith we have been given, to the gospel we have heard so often, to the stories which have been told again and again, and find there not a retreat, but a renewal; whenever we discover that all that God has done in our common yesterdays is pointing us anew to the Christ who comes this day, to forgive our sins and to make possible a tomorrow of faith and joy, we have repented. 

Repentance comes in many ways.  When in our hurried life we visit someone and are able to set aside thoughts of tasks that have to be done and errands that have to be run and work waiting for us and listen, really listen, when we are truly there in the moment, we have repented.

Or, when we are able to set aside judgment of others long enough to look and see their need, or we are able to set aside our critique of others long enough to see their gifts, or we are able to set aside our fear of those who are different long enough to see our common humanity, we have repented.

What if, in this season of Advent, we really did seek repentance?  And what if, instead of looking for others to repent, we listened to John, and we ourselves repented, and looked to Christ?  I have a feeling that would go a long way toward bringing the hope and peace and joy and love that we seek in this season – to our lives, and maybe even to our world. 

John preached repentance, but it’s very interesting to me that John did not go after people.  He didn’t seek crowds; crowds sought him.  John didn’t do an ad buy or a direct mail campaign.  He didn’t have a TV show.  He didn’t use social media.  And he certainly did not have an image consultant.  John went about things pretty much the opposite of what any evangelist would tell you to do.

His appearance and demeanor and personal habits said, “I could care less what you think.”  John just went and set up shop out in the wilderness.  And people flocked to him from all over the Judean countryside and from Jerusalem itself.  Unlikely as it seems,  John’s message drew people.  He had something they needed.  Maybe repentance is something we all need.

John had issues, no doubt, but he had fire and passion and a deep belief that things could change—that change is possible.  And it is.  And maybe we prepare for the change God has for us, maybe we prepare for Jesus’ coming, maybe we prepare for Christmas, by repenting – by turning around, by turning toward Christ, by opening our hearts.  

While we are making our Christmas lists this year, maybe we need to add repentance to the top of the list.  Amen.

Advent Series

Our Advent sermon series is "The Cast of Christmas."  We will look at some of the people surrounding the birth of Jesus and the announcement of that birth.

December 1 - "How to Prepare for Christmas" (John the Baptist), Rev. David Russell

December 8 - "A Stand-Up Guy" (Joseph), Rev. Susan Russell

December 15 - "Hail Mary" (Mary - but you probably guessed that!), Rev. David Russell

December 22 - "A Child Born for Us" (Angels and Shepherds), Rev. David Russell