Prepare for Joy

Art credit: “Advent Joy” by Illustrated Ministry. Illustratedministry.com

A Sermon for Sunday, December 8, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. The Second Sunday of Advent: Joy. Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12

Last week, I read a humorous Facebook post, which some of my Presbyterian clergy friends are sharing on their profile pages, that says: “The appropriate greeting is not ‘Merry Christmas’ but ‘Penitent Advent You Miserable Sinner.’” [1]

This is a clever reference to John the Baptist, the wilderness preacher, who arrives on the scene in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel to make a grand proclamation that is compelling and prophetic:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

In biblical terms, “prophetic” is about being witnesses to truth and speaking out against injustices in a present time and context. The Old Testament prophets, whom John emulates, were not predictors of the future or doomsayers. “They were”, says seminary professor Karoline Lewis, “truth-tellers of the present. They were able to speak about what would be only insofar as the past and the present–God’s past and present—determined a certain trajectory.”[2]

It’s kind of like a parent who says, “Child, you better get it together and stop being mean or you’re going to have a hard time when you’re grown.” The prophets were messengers of God tasked with reminding God’s children that they needed to get it together.

The prophets knew that if the people kept acting in their own self-interests—ignoring both God and neighbor—they would continue to cause great harm to others and would ultimately bring about their own misery and demise within their own lifetime. The prophets of old were inspired by God to speak on God’s behalf for the purpose of naming the injustice that were a result of people refusing to keep covenant, obey the commandments and create the beloved community.

That ancient tradition of prophetic speaking and preaching has been carried into the modern era by folks like Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Desmond Tutu—all of whom were inspired by God in their particular times and context to proclaim God’s love for the marginalized, the poor and oppressed.

And the messages of prophets both then and now are not easy to hear. They were exhilarating and also challenging, even harsh, because they contain truth that we’re reluctant to acknowledge—the truth of our failure as human beings to show kindness and compassion to all of God’s creatures.

Art Credit: “St. John the Baptist” by Jen Norton, 2014. https://www.jennortonartstudio.com

John the Baptist, who wore clothing made from camel’s hair (likely covered with the stains of locusts and wild honey), didn’t hold back when the arrogant Pharisees and Sadducees, who have been dismissing the cries of the suffering, showed up at the Jordan River:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

“Penitent Advent You Miserable Sinner” the social media summation of John the Baptist’s message is sharp and disruptive, not the joyful greeting we expect during the season in which we prepare for the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day.

The social media post reminds me of that famous line from the Christmas comedy Home Alone where 8-year-old Kevin repeats the dialogue from his favorite mobster film: “Merry Christmas, you filthy animal!” But since the quip is sardonic, John’s message is actually more akin to the Christmas movie, Elf, when Buddy the Elf exposes a fake and not-so-good Santa by saying, “You sit on a throne of lies!”

Now granted, those movies are meant to entertain as opposed to imparting a serious message. And yet those humorous quotes do grab one’s attention with its shocking and disparaging verbiage in an effort to surprise the audience into laughter.

The prophets have a similar objective when they speak for God. They want to grab the attention of their audience but in a way that pushes people to change their lives for the better. John the Baptist, while vehement with his words, isn’t trying to guilt trip the crowds and violently condemn the religious leaders. He is inviting them to change.  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” is a radically open and ecstatic invitation do as such.

The Greek word for “repentance” is metanoia—from meta, “change” and noia, “mind.” A change of mind. Today, we would say “change of heart” or “change of life.” For the ancients, metanoia was known as an ongoing process of transformation. Acclaimed author and pastor, Frederick Buechner observes:[3]

Biblically speaking, to repent doesn’t mean to feel sorry about, to regret. It means to turn, to turn around 180 degrees. It means to undergo a complete change of mind, heart, direction. Turn away from madness, cruelty, shallowness, blindness. Turn toward the tolerance, compassion, sanity, hope, justice that we all have in us at our best.

John’s call to repentance—to change, to turn away from hate and turn instead toward love and joy—is the perfect message for the season. Advent is about actively waiting and preparing to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Advent is about slowing down in the midst of the busyness of finishing the year, decorating the house, shopping for presents, and hosting and attending Christmas parties. Advent is about carving out time for deep reflection on how God’s arrival as a vulnerable child changes us and the world. The Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer conveyed the meaning of Advent beautifully when he wrote:[4]

If we want to be part of these events, Advent and Christmas, we cannot just sit like a theatre audience and enjoy all the lovely pictures. Instead, we ourselves must be caught up in the action, the reversal of all things; we must become actors on this stage, for this is a play in which each spectator has a part to play, and we cannot hold back. … We cannot come to this manger in the same way that we would approach the cradle of any other child. Something will happen to each of us who decides to come to Christ’s manger.

Actively waiting and slowing down to ponder the significance of the season doesn’t mean that we become complacent and simply relax in the glow of festivity and gaiety. Advent is not a free pass on discipleship or permission to take a break from doing the kingdom work of God. That’s not an option.

If we’re going to take a breather from something, perhaps we should choose one or two less parties to attend; maybe put up a few less lights and decorations, cut down the number of cookies we bake or make a charitable donation in honor of someone instead of buying another tie or the latest gadget. Because being present with others and focusing our attention on someone in need of dignity and joy (authentic delight and happiness) takes time and space. And making the time and space requires change.

John the Baptist is inviting the people, including the religious leaders, to change. He’s inviting all of them to change by bearing fruit, doing good, being better. It may not seem that way, considering that John’s metaphor about the separation of the wheat and chaff sounds horrifying upon an initial reading. However, the prophet isn’t suggesting that Jesus is coming to earth to send sinners to a fiery eternity.

Photo Credit: Google Images. Young man in Egypt separating the wheat from the chaff.

Contemplate the metaphor for a bit. Every grain of wheat has a husk. Farmers use wind to separate the husk, referred to as the “chaff,” from the grain. The goal is to save every grain, not to separate the good grain from the bad grain. Thus, the metaphor is about preservation and purification instead of division and destruction. According to a commentary on the scripture reading: [5]

“What the wind and fire remove are the impurities: the anxieties, self-absorption, apathy, or greed that make us less generous, less just, or less respectful of others. …What each of us requires is restoration, liberation from whatever ‘husks’ are holding us back.”

John is inviting humanity to prepare for the joy that is Christ coming into our lives to bring restoration and liberation. John is inviting all to turn toward God’s vision for the peaceable kingdom as proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah:

Art credit: “Calvin and Hobbes” Christmas Day, 1985. Emory Pres intern C.J. read this C&H comic to the children during the service to teach about Isaiah 11:1-10

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them… They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.

The Rev. Dr. Shively Smith, a renowned preacher in the American Methodist Episcopal Church, says that what makes John the Baptist’s unforgettable and forceful is that the prophet’s words and actions “model something for modern Christian readers of the gospel.” She writes:[6]

The intersection between present and future is a tense and frustrating space to live within. Yet, that space makes a demand on us. Faithful moral identity that is not wedded to moral social action misses the Gospel’s kingdom vision. In Matthew, the politics and policies of God’s kingdom has a particular focus. It is attentive to the life struggles, circumstances, and traumas of “the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3), the persecuted righteous (Matt. 5:10), those of childlike innocence (Matt. 17:4), and sufferers of violence (Matt. 11:12). … The modern-day voices of John the Baptist contend with acts of erasure, maltreatment, and silence by “crying out” from the wasteland until people pay attention, go out, and do something to change their world.

During Advent, we are called to change, and the more we choose to approach this manger, we will be changed. We will “turn toward the tolerance, compassion, sanity, hope, justice that we all have in us at our best.” We will turn toward our calling to be harbingers of joy in the lives of those who have it stripped away far too often.

Our Advent Devotionals booklets for this year comes from our friends at Mercy Community Church, a congregation that seeks to build community with and show hospitality to those living on the streets of Atlanta. One of their pastors, Holly Reimer, wrote the following for today’s devotion:

The kingdom of heaven is coming! I read this text and think of all the beautiful things Jesus spoke about, demonstrated, and demanded. The kingdom of God is in the ways I express love. It’s not enough for me to just say I care for someone. Change requires an action. It requires doing something that I have not been doing before. It requires me stepping back from the sink in the kitchen, walking around the counter and seeing a dejected look on one of my brother’s faces, and asking him what is going on. It is caring enough about each person in the present moment rather than focusing on the ‘doings’ of the day.

As I contemplated Holly’s writing, the melody and words of a favorite hymn floated into my mind:[7]

For everyone born, a place at the table,

to live without fear, and simply to be,

to work, to speak out, to witness and worship,

for everyone born, the right to be free,

                and God will delight when we are creators

                of justice and joy, compassion and peace:

                yes, God will delight when we are creators

                of justice, justice and joy!

Amen.


[1] Facebook post originally created on November 30, 2019 by Richard Liantonio, a PhD candidate in Hebrew Bible at the University of Manchester.

[2] Dear Working Preacher, “In the Wilderness” by Karoline Lewis. November 28, 2016. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4764

[3] Secrets in the Dark: A Lifetime of Sermons by Frederick Buechner, Harper Collins, 2006

[4] Christmas with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Augsburg Fortress Press, 2005

[5] The Salt Project Blog: https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/12/3/change-your-mind-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-advent-week-two

[6] Patheos, “Voices in the Wilderness” by Rev. Dr. Shively Smith and Odyssey Networks, November 28, 2016.  https://www.patheos.com/blogs/onscripture/2016/11/2802/

[7] “For Everyone Born” Hymn #769, Glory to God, The Presbyterian Hymnal

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