Sermon Dec 9 2012
Rev Felicity O’Brien
Advent. It’s such a complex time of year. There are all the preparations for end-of-year do’s – bring a plate everywhere you go. There are requests for donations to Childrens’ charities – bring a wrapped present with the age of the recipient. There are food bank appeals – bring a tin of something. There are invitations to drinks – bring a bottle.
It gets very busy as with end of year functions as well as preparing for Christmas festivities. One phase of life is ending as the school year finishes, but there is no time to acknowledge and give thanks for all that has gone, and to pray for the next journey, because there is no stillness to reflect amid all the busyness. Or so it can seem.
There is special food to prepare, presents to buy, complicated arrangements to be made about who goes where and to which set of in-laws for Christmas day.
And yet, amid all the muddle and activity of this time of year in secular society, there is an oasis, a calm space in the centre.
John the Baptist knew where to find it. He knew that in order to really hear from God as we prepare our hearts, as we contemplate what it means for us that God chose to be born on earth as a helpless baby, we have to turn away from the distractions of day-to-day life, and find the wilderness place. To find the space where we can think and pray, and listen to God. That’s the gift that Advent is to us. A space, a quiet place, in the middle of the storm, where we are encouraged to take time and think.
What was John’s message in the wilderness? Was it ‘get really busy and spend all your money and next year’s money on gifts no one needs’? Or was it, ‘get your hearts ready’. “He cried out, prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.”
When a dignitary was expected to visit in the ancient world, the call would go out to make the paths straight – to fix the roads so he, and it was usually he, could get where he was going. We can see the same thing today, where streets are cleared and fixed ahead of important state visits. But what does John the Baptist mean for us, to make God’s paths straight?
As part of preparing our hearts for God, we are straightening the path for the message of the gospel to go into our hearts. It’s not a complicated message – it doesn’t go through tortuous turns and twists of philosophy. It’s simple, and we can accept it as simple, yet a huge and profound truth. God loves us so much that he is prepared to put aside his heavenly power and glory, and become the most vulnerable person imaginable- a newborn baby, born to a teenage mother in an occupied land, where tensions of every kind have been present for centuries, and will be present for centuries to come. God was prepared to be with human beings in the most difficult circumstances, to really walk the journey with us.
It’s a simple message, yet so important. Are our paths straight to accept it?
Be ready to accept that you need God – make a clear path for him into your heart.
So many people these days don’t know that they need God. They think they are doing fine thank you, and there’s no need for anything outside themselves.
We used to have a boarder living with us, a man from Russia, who had been raised as an atheist. As we shared our Christian faith with him, he told us that he thought Christians were weak.
Without knowing it, he had hit the nail on the head. We are weak, yes, but we know we’re weak, that we can’t do this thing called Life on our own. And there’s such freedom in not having to be strong all the time! We can relax into our Father’s loving arms, trusting that God is always with us to uphold us.
Preparing the way of the Lord means to humble ourselves, to acknowledge our need for God. To see ourselves as part of God’s picture, but not at the pinnacle of everything. Human beings are very good at considering themselves the top of the food chain, and expecting everything else to fall into line below them. We can see this in ideas that we can change the climate – larger forces than humans have been driving the earth’s climate for billions of years – forces such as cosmic radiation, gravity, solar system wobbles, the earth’s axis, tectonic plate activity, underwater volcanoes – the list goes on. And yet people seem to have forgotten that they are not God, they didn’t make it, they can’t change it except at the most superficial and localized level.
John’s message was one of repentance, for forgiveness of sins. This is not a popular concept these days – you try telling the average person that they are a sinner and they need to repent, and they will be very confused, and probably offended. We try and justify our behaviours, even when we know they are sinful. We all want to appear to be good and civilized, but underneath, in the space that only God can reach, there’s always stuff lurking that needs to be brought to God and repented of.
The wilderness time of Advent can give us that time to offer all our habits, our thought-life, our tongues, everything we do, every Facebook comment we would like to write and didn’t – or did – up to the refining fire of God’s purity. We can’t do this alone, and we don’t have to. Even in the wilderness, where we may feel completely isolated, God is there.
Our reading from Malachi talks about the refining fire, that God will purify like gold and silver. This sounds painful – gold and silver are melted in a crucible, and the impurities are burnt away. God’s Holy Spirit can do this for us, if we open our hearts and let it. God shows us what we need to repent of as we await the birth of Jesus.
Maybe the decorations on our Christmas trees can be a reminder – next time you are near a Christmas tree – and it’s rather hard to not be at the moment – have a look at the decorations.
At first glance they can seem to have no relevance to Christmas at all, no reference to Jesus or the nativity. You might get an occasional angel if you are lucky. I was in a local department store’s Christmas shop last week, and there was nothing that showed Christmas was a religious festival at all – the trees were decorated with – admittedly charming – circus characters and sock moneys.
But most trees will have silver and gold baubles on them, silver and gold tinsel, or those icicles things that are so messy when they fall off. Let these be a reminder of the refining fire, purifying us like silver and gold, burning away all the dross.
Malachi goes on that then the Levites will “present offerings to the LORD in righteousness” – as we give presents this year, may they be in righteousness. May they not be out of guilt, or outdoing each other. May they be reflecting the great gift that Jesus is to us.
John talks abut a great re-modelling – Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
Is this a pattern for us? When all these things have happened, will we see the salvation of God? This could be a challenge to us, to work with God in our society.
Filling the valleys – could that mean meeting the needs of those who cannot meet their own needs.
Mountains and hills being made low – problems solved, difficulties eased.
The crooked straight – finding clarity and simplicity in life.
The rough places smooth – another image for improving our world.
Maybe this is a challenge for all Christians, as we aim to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our families and communities.
This is my role as a deacon – I don’t consecrate for Holy Communion, I am not running a parish, – but deacons are called to be the community-facing ministry of ordained clergy. Part of that role is to encourage and accompany all Christians to go into their Monday to Saturday lives and live out the Sunday message, so it becomes a way of life. We need to have this image of an imperfect world before us during Advent – as we prepare for the coming of Jesus as a baby, we are also reminded that Jesus is coming again, that there is hope, there is resurrection, that while there will be pain on earth, it’s not the end of the story. We are not called to go to heaven early and avoid the earth, rather to grow God’s kingdom here where we are planted.
Have you ever noticed that a traditional Advent wreath, with holly and ivy, looks a lot like a crown of thorns? It is a symbol for us, that even while it shows candles and light, for the light of the world coming to us, it has sharp spiky bits. And they are both an unbroken circle, symbolizing God’s unchanging love for us. The wreath we use at Advent connects us up with the other part of the Christmas story, the why of Christmas. Why Jesus had to come into the world. And that was to atone for us, to die for our sins and be raised again at Easter. As we think about this, we are reminded of John the Baptist’s call to repent, to ask God to forgive our sins, to turn away from them, and to accept the wonderful gift God gave to us, and still gives to us.