Advent Stories: Sermon for December 7, 2014

Mark 1:1-8
1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;

1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”

1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Advent2

I don’t watch a lot of movies. I really have never been good at sitting still long enough. But there is one exception: Christmas movies. Right now there is a stack of them next to our TV: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Elf, Christmas Vacation…the list goes on. And each December I probably spend more time than the rest of the year combined watching movies.

I’ve found that the same is true for others too. There’s something so special about the Christmas stories we grew up with, and even the ones we’ve come to know as adults, that they become a part of the way we celebrate the holidays.

But as much as I love them, there’s a catch…and that’s that I don’t think all of our favorite Christmas stories are really Christmas stories at all.

I’ll come back to that. But first, we have this story from Scripture about another character: John the Baptist. It’s traditional that on the second Sunday of Advent churches read about John, and about how he lived out in the wilderness where he ate locusts and wild honey, and wore camel’s hair, and shouted at people to “prepare the way of the Lord”.

So, you know, really Christmasy. He doesn’t sound like he was a lot of fun to be around. Actually, he sounds a little more like the Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge. And yet, this is in many ways exactly the text we need to read this time of the year.

Because Advent is about preparation. It is about, as John puts it, preparing the way of the Lord and making the Lord’s paths straight. And John doesn’t mean literal paths by that. He doesn’t want us to build sidewalks or pave roads. He wants us to do something much harder.

John is telling us to clear the way for God to come into our hearts and into our lives. “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make the path straight.” In other words, get ready. Make some room for God.

That can be hard to imagine during the midst of the busy run-up to Christmas. We all have things to do this time of year. Presents to buy, cookies to bake, decorations to put up, cards to send. We may be busier than ever. And now John, this guy with his camel hair, wants us to add one more thing to the list. And that’s pretty easy for him to say. His shopping list consists of only two things: locusts and honey.

But, what if he’s right? What if you and I are being asked to prepare the way of the Lord? And what if it’s not just something to do on top of everything else we do to get ready for Christmas? What if it’s the point of this whole season and nothing else really matters?

Part of how we prepare the way of the Lord in this Advent season is by reflecting on the four traditional themes of the season. Last week was “hope”. And today is “peace”. But this story about John the Baptist, this guy who is sort of out there raving in the wilderness, at first glance might not sound like it has much to do with peace at all, so you might be wondering, “why do churches read about him this week”?

I think the answer to that has to do with how we understand what “peace” means. So, how would you define peace? It is the absence of war? In one sense, yes. And I would love for us to learn how to live without war. This world has too many wars, including ones being fought right now. This year, as I’m thinking about what peace means, I’m also thinking about a friend of mine who is deployed to Afghanistan right now. And as he spends this Christmas away from his family, I’m thinking about a world in which he would never have had to go.

I believe that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, wants that kind of peace for the world. But I don’t believe peace stops there. Because peace means more than not just firing a weapon, or raising a fist. And Jesus himself showed that.

Because the child we wait for this season, the one who would be called the Prince of Peace, is also the guy who grew up to angrily flip over tables in the Temple. He didn’t believe in the kind of false peace that comes only in the absence of armed conflict. And that’s because he wanted more from us than peace without justice.

And so when Jesus walked into the Temple and saw a system of money changing and usury that manipulated the faith of people and exploited the poor, he literally turned the tables on it. And in doing so, he taught us all that real peace cannot come when some are being oppressed. Real peace only comes when every child of God is treated justly.

So, already peace is a tall order: the absence of violence, and the absence of injustice. But, what if there’s even more to it?

There is a song you may have heard: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” There’s also that prayer from St. Francis that we recited at the beginning of our service: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

What if we got absolutely serious about that? What if we decided that we ourselves were going to be the place where peace starts. And, even harder, what if we committed to creating peace within our own selves?

There’s a word that I’ve come to associate with inner peace: serenity. Reinhold Niebuhr, the well-known UCC minister and theologian, even wrote a prayer about it that you probably know: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Serenity does not mean that everything is perfect. It does not mean that things are even good or comfortable. It simply means that in the midst of everything, we have a sense of peace. And for those of us who are Christians, that means a sense of connection with our God, and with Christ, the Prince of Peace.

In that way, reading about John the Baptist on this Sunday of peace is maybe not so strange after all. Because what John is asking us to do is to get ready for God. John is saying prepare your heart, and mind for Christ’s coming. Unclutter the path that God will take, remove the obstacles you have placed there, and open yourself up to the peace that only Christ can bring.

Prepare the way of the Lord, because that’s how you find peace in yourself. And if you don’t have that peace, how can you ever except to bring it to others?

And that’s important because so much of what John the Baptist was doing out there in the wilderness was witnessing to the one who was to come. John knew he was not Christ. He knew something bigger than him was coming. Just like you and I are not Christ, but we witness to what we believe by the way we live our lives. And in Advent we prepare ourselves for the work of witnessing to God’s hope, and peace, and joy, and love, that we are asked to do all year. We prepare the way of the Lord inside of us, that we may prepare the way of the Lord in a world that so desperately needs all of those things that only Christ can bring.

And so, here’s where I want to go back to those Christmas movies and specials I talked about at the beginning. Remember how I said they weren’t really Christmas stories? I say that not because they are not Christmas-themed, but because most of them are really Advent stories. And that’s because most of them are about someone who learns to prepare the way of the Lord in their heart by making a change.

Even when everything is coming down around George Bailey, he learns to see the world through grateful eyes. Ebenezer Scrooge sees the truth about himself, becomes a compassionate and kind soul, and changes his miserly ways. Charlie Brown hears Linus recite the Christmas story, and he learns what Christmas is all about. And even the Grinch hears the Whos down in Whoville singing despite the fact he stole Christmas, and his heart grows three sizes that day.

Those are their Advent stories. Each has an Advent that prepares them for Christmas. And each arrives at Christmas day different than they were when the season of Advent started. They are, in some way, transformed. And transformation is what Advent is all about.

So what is your Advent story? How are you going to be transformed this year? How are you going to prepare and make straight the way of the Lord?

You don’t have to be visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. You don’t have to have to go to Whoville. You don’t even have to have Charlie Brown’s sad little Christmas tree. All you have to do is this: open your heart, and make a little space for the Prince of Peace. Prepare the way of the Lord, and the Lord will show you the rest. Amen.

Why We Repent: Sermon for Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mark 1:9-15
1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

1:10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.

1:11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

1:12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

1:13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

1:14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,

1:15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

When I was in about first grade, my teacher made up this chart for my class. It has each of our names along the side, and all the days along the top. And at the end of each day, depending on whether or not we had followed the rules that day, she would give us either a happy face, or a sad face.

I lived for those happy faces. I knew exactly what I had to do, and not do, to get one. And when at the end of each grading period I got to go home with an unblemished row of happy faces, I was in heaven.

When I was six, if you had asked me about sin, I probably would have told you about the happy faces. If you do all the right things, follow all the rules, you get a happy face. If you don’t, it’s a sad face. It was all very cut and dried, and easy to understand.

I was thinking about that as I was thinking about this text, and repentance, and what it means to acknowledge that you’re not living the way you should. Jesus goes to John the Baptist and is baptized. He then goes out into the wilderness for forty days, like our forty days of Lent. And then, after being tested, he comes back and begins his proclamation: “The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

We don’t talk about repentance much. It’s always in the back of our minds, but we don’t actually say much about what it means. We like to focus on hope, and grace, and faith. We say the prayer of confession every week, but it’s over in a minute, and then we sing the Gloria together and move on.

But then we get to Lent. And we have this more solemn season of the church year, where we start to slow down, and look at who we are, and how we act. And we have days like Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, that remind us that human beings are flawed, and fallible, and sometimes prone to do the wrong things.

Repentance is a hallmark of Lent. But what does it mean? I find it helpful to look at what the two languages of the Bible, Hebrew and Greek, say it means. To repent, in Hebrew, means “to return”. And in Greek, to repent is metanoia, or to change one’s thinking. In other words, change the way you think about things and return to God.

When Jesus is calling us to repent, he’s calling us away from sin. He’s calling us to turn from sin and towards spiritual life. But sin is sometimes hard for us to talk about. We’re not the kind of church that stands on street corners and tells people to repent. We’re not a church of judgement where we tell people what they are doing wrong in their lives. We’re not the kind of place that has tearful confessions at the altar, or solemn ones behind the doors of the confessional. We, like most other mainline Protestant churches, acknowledge that we all sin, but without much fanfare. But in the back of our minds, we wonder. “Am I doing well enough?”

When I was about six, I think I thought God had a big version of my first grade teachers chart. I probably envisioned God making that crucial judgement between the happy face and unhappy face at the end of each day for each of us. And like those rules on the classroom wall, I wanted to do just enough to know I was safe. If I could only have a list of God’s minimum happy face requirements, I’d be all set.

As we grow older, of course, it takes more than a chart to help us make the right choices. There are more variables, more responsibilities, more nuance. What is age appropriate at six, is not so reliable when we are even a few years old. And by the time we get to adulthood, the chart feels like a cute memory of a simpler time. Life in the real world requires more than charts.

Which is why curious that sometimes our spiritual thinking stays on the same level. Most of us appreciate that life is a nuanced thing, with each of us called to a different path in life, and different challenges. And yet sometimes we think tend to judge our choices in life based on a sort of easy criteria. Do I get a happy face? Or a sad face?

If God had a chart, most of us, on most days, would probably see ourselves getting smiley faces. We don’t hurt other people. We don’t steal. We aren’t blatantly unkind. We try to be good. Most days, we rest assured that we are good enough people. That we have done enough to stay in the positive. And by contrast, we probably think we know who gets the sad faces. And we know the minimum we need to do to not end up like them. That gives us conscience. That eases our mind at night when we sleep. We can go to bed saying, “I’m not a bad person.”

And you’re not. But what we sometimes don’t understand is that that old way of looking at things, that childhood worldview where we do just enough good things or too many bad things, doesn’t work after a certain point. Just like our grade school teachers put them away after we grew old enough, old spiritual life demands something more than them as well. At the end of the day, God doesn’t stand in front of a chart with all our names, deciding who gets sad faces. Which is not to say that God just gives us easy grace, and happy faces either.

But it is to say this. At the end of the day, God throws the chart away and calls us to something better. At the end of the day, God calls us to do the same thing Jesus called us to do in Galilee. God calls us to turn away from what distracts us, and repent. But more than that, God calls us to something more.

God wants more than the bare minimum. God wants us to strive for more than just a minor mark of approval, or meeting the letter of the law. God wants us to be honest, and God wants to actually have a relationship with us, to know us.

That’s what Lent is about. It’s about turning away from sin, repenting, and deciding to be in relationship with God. It’s not about getting our ticket punched by doing what we have to do. It’s not about following a long list of rules because we have to. It’s not about God as the big grader in the sky who tells us whether we pass or fail. It’s about God who loves us so much, that God doesn’t want us to be separate anymore.

That’s what sin is, after all. It’s our separation from God. We sin not so much when we break one in a long list of rules, but instead we sin when our will begins to differ from God’s, and we wander off on our own paths. Repentance is about turning around, and going back to God’s path and trying not to stray from it again. It’s not something we can do by reciting some words on Sunday and hoping for the best. It’s something we do by deciding our faith will not be peripheral to the rest of our life. Instead, it will be the lens through which we view the rest of our life.

Now that’s not always easy. Because relationships never are. The first Scripture passage that we read this morning, the one from Genesis about covenant, talks about the same thing. It’s about God wanting us to be in relationship. It’s not about anger or judgement or condemnation, but it’s about honest relationship and covenant. And being in relationship to someone else is always hard, but it can also be rewarding.

You probably know what it’s like to be in a covenant, because you know what it’s like to be in relationship with another, whether friend or partner or family member. You know what it’s like to care enough about someone to know that your choices affect them. To know that the relationship doesn’t work if it stays peripheral. It only works when it stays honest, and centered.

It’s the same way with God. God never chooses to leave us, but we sometimes do the things that make us drift away from God. And at the end of the day, we find ourselves off alone on a path of our own creation, instead of with the God who loves us more than we know.

That’s when we can repent. That’s when we can look at what feels disjointed or disconnected in our lives. That’s when we can say to God, I’m tired of walking alone. I want to come back and walk with you.

And that’s what Lent is about. Forty days of choosing to walk with God, instead of choosing to walk away. It’s forty days of believing that there is a better life, and a greater joy, waiting for us. It’s forty days of being honest with ourselves, and being honest about the fact that our lives would be better if we just let God into every part of them.

God already knows who you are. God knows who you are on your best days and your worst. When you stand on Sunday mornings, and pray the prayer of confession, and then keep silence as you reflect upon your own life, you’re not telling God anything God doesn’t already know. And the good news is this. God still loves you, and God still wants to be in relationship with you.

Lent is about repenting, turning around and coming back to God. And that means Lent is about coming home. Coming home not to the same old house with closed off rooms full of secrets, or doors that hide the truths about ourselves we fear the most. Lent is about coming home to God’s house, where the doors are always open, where we are know at our deepest level, and where we are known, and understood, and loved.

This Lent, will you come home? Will you come back to a home in which you are not judged on charts or with happy or sad faces? Will you come home to a place where all of you is welcome? Will you come home to a relationship with someone who loves you at your worst, yet calls you to be your best? If so, then take the first step out into the wilderness of Lent, and repent. Be honest, and be prepared for what happens next. God will lead you back home, and back into life. Amen.