Sermon

 

 

The Rector’s sermon for December 10, 2017                                                                                                                             

                 

Last Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, we heard about predictions of end times, kind of a strange way to begin what we see as the season of Christmas.  But of course, while Advent is the precursor of the coming of the baby Jesus, talk of end times is the precursor of the second coming of Jesus at the end of time as we know it.  And today we’re back in the area of prophecy.  This time, instead of prophecy about the second coming, John the Baptist is the introduction to Jesus as he begins his public ministry.  Since we know little of the first thirty years of Jesus’ life, we look to John for words of preparation.

                 

Ancient prophets were often individuals that would stand out in a crowd for various reasons:  the way they speak, the way they act, the way they look.  And John the Baptist fulfills all those requirements!   Scriptures describes him as a man who wore camel’s hair garments with a leather belt around his waist, who ate locusts and wild honey, and who lived in the desert.  And his other claim to fame was his message, both through him and the prophet Isaiah, hundreds of years before him:  “My messenger will go ahead of you, who will prepare your way.  He will cry out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  And John Himself said that the one who came after him would be so powerful that he—John—would be unworthy to even untie the thong of his sandal.  John was on shaky ground here, making all these statements and drawing enormous crowds away from the authorities of the day.

                 

But prophets aren’t so much people who predict the future as people who give us the hard truths about the world we live in.  They are the ones who tell us how it is and help us repent and turn back to God so we can be more open to the transformation God brings to us through the incarnation of His Son.

                 

In ancient times, prophets were common place.  But modern-day prophets aren’t easy to come by.  Too often, prophets are confused with psychics, fortune-tellers and doomsday forecasters—people considered to have a “gift” to predict things about our lives and what is to come. But in biblical times a prophet was not so much someone who predicted the future as someone who was a truth-teller. Prophets were people who looked at what was going on in their time and determined how people could move toward a different and more enlightened future.  Sure, it’s possible for a prophet to observe current events and predict trouble in the future, but they also called out the concerns of the moment.  They looked at those concerns, told the truth about what was going on and shared with the people what had to change in order to move forward:  Repent…be baptized with the Holy Spirit.

                 

In June 1995, the United Nations celebrated its 50th anniversary and heard from a modern-day prophet.   Let me give you a bit of history first:  The formation of the United Nations marked a time of hope for a new era of peace and well-being in the world.  At the time of the UN’s inception, the world had just witnessed the biggest war ever known to humankind: World War II.  It was a harsh and difficult time.  The introduction of nuclear weapons convinced people to pursue peace at all cost lest humankind be destroyed.

                 

At the 50th-anniversary celebration, people hoped that the next 50 years of the United Nations would see the dawn of a new era for future generations and the attainment of peace, progress, solidarity and well-being for our world.  The celebration was one of the largest gatherings of world leaders in history.  Guests and world-changers from across the globe attended, including people like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.  But the prophet’s voice wasn’t that of a global leader, but of the poet Maya Angelou.  Angelou had been invited to read her poem titled “A Brave and Startling Truth,” written especially for this event.  It was a call to action and a call for peacemaking.  It called out many of the injustices in the world.  It talked of hostility toward others.  It talked about bloodshed on battlefields.  It talked about death.  It talked about storming churches.  It spoke of people who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger.  Those are the brave and startling truths that our world encounters on what seems to be a daily basis.  Angelou, though, as a prophet, didn’t stop at the lists of injustices. She continued her poetry reminding us of the beauty of the world we live in and called us to action.  She named the seven wonders of the world, only to say that “these are not the only wonders of the world” but that weare the wonders of the world.

                 

We are the miraculous.  We have the power to fashion for this earth a new day—a day of peacemaking.  Those are truly words of modern-day prophecy.  She saw the need for peace in this world and truly believed that it is possible for us to bring peace into this world.  She called the people gathered there that day to action: to see the wrongs, to see the beauty of this world and to see that it is possible for change to happen.

                 

 John the Baptist was a prophet in his time.  He was a truth-teller.  Mark begins his gospel with John’s truth, and people are coming to hear him.   They come from all over, looking for something more in this world.  He speaks to whoever will listen and calls them to consider what it means to “Prepare the way of the Lord!”  John was talking about the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, the one the people had been waiting for.  But what does it mean for people of our time to prepare for the coming of the Promised One?  What must we do to prepare our hearts for the one who will bring the ultimate truth—salvation and freedom?  These were big questions then, and they’re big questions now, and the answer that John the Baptist gave was a call to repentance—a call to turn back to God, to open oneself to experience the transformation to come.

                 

For us, John’s message is a call to reflect deeply and look inside our hearts at our personal truths, those things we struggle with, the ways we have done harm, our darkness and our sin.  By turning back to God and repenting, we prepare our hearts, minds and spirits to experience change, transformation and salvation!  John the Baptist was a strange man, but God used him to reach out to us, to call out to us that we must face the personal truths deep in our hearts before we can encounter the truth of the Promised One—the Lord and Messiah, Jesus.

                 

Without the truths that John the Baptist speaks, we cannot be ready for the reality of the Incarnation, of Jesus’ coming.  The Christmas story is often told in a way that makes it seem cozy and warm, but the reality of the Incarnation is that, though powerful beyond belief, it’s messy, and it’s hard work.  Having a baby is hard work. Being human is messy.  Encountering the truths that Jesus brings is both hard and messy!  To be human means to encounter the brokenness and suffering of our world, and the Incarnation demonstrates that God is willing to be part of that brokenness and suffering in order to bring us back to himself.

                 

Jesus enters into our world ready to shake things up.  He enters a world full of injustice, brokenness, sin and despair.  But the thing is, Jesus doesn’t just encounter these hard truths; he also brings a new truth that there is something greater.  There is a wonder about the world that we have been missing.  Jesus is the one who will come and bring that wonder.  He will bring change as he names the realities that have kept us away from God—our apathy, our conformity to whatever is going on around us, our tendency toward sin, the focus on ourselves, the way we exclude and harm others and the way we treat others with disrespect.   But before we encounter Jesus who brings these truths, we must reflect on the truth of our hearts and the truths of our world.  We must repent and turn back to God and face those truths so we can prepare for Jesus who is coming to bring us back to wholeness and holiness.

                 

In this Advent season, we prepare.  We prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus, the one who is the way, the truth and the light.  We prepare by being open to the truths spoken by John the Baptist.  We prepare by encountering the truths of our world, like Maya Angelou.  We prepare for the coming of the Promised One by facing the truths deep within our hearts.  That allows us to be open to the transformation within us that comes through the birth of Jesus.

                 

In this Advent season, turn back to God.  Find hope in the transformation and wonder that comes to us through the gift of a tiny baby born in a stable on that first Christmas night—the gift of a Savior willing to take upon himself the messy, hard work of living as one of us.   Reach for a new height of repentance and be ready to welcome him when he comes.