Sunday, December 4, 2016

Prepare the Way for the Lord

December 4, 2016 –– 2nd Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10 / Psalm 72:1-2,7-8,12-13,17 / Romans 15:4-9 / Matthew 3:1-12
Prepare the Way for the Lord

The promise of Isaiah is fulfilled in the Gospel: In those days John the Baptizer came, preaching....“A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

Some people were excited. God was visibly at work. Some other people were not so excited––and many of them were religious leaders. John preached repentance. John confronted people with their sins. Many people who knew they were sinners welcomed this invitation to repent and find God’s mercy. Other people, though––mostly the religious elite––did not see themselves as sinners. For them, “evil” was expressed only through the “big, bad sins,” and since they did not commit any of them (at least outwardly), a call to repent was an affront. But the heart of the matter was this: they did not want God messing up their convenient little world. Through John, God was offering the next step to bring his peace into the world, but the people in control did not want it if it meant giving up their place of control.

Down to today, many people are willing to be “religious” as long they can choose what it means. Some make great claims of spirituality, but will not give Jesus Christ his exclusive place. Then there are people who claim to be Christians, but they reserve the “right” to have a “personal choice” on social issues on which the Church has spoken with clarity and conviction: abortion, sexual purity outside of marriage, homosexual practice, etc. Others claim to be Christian but fervently support political agendas that protect extravagant living at the expense of much of the world. Many more claim to be Christian and yet live in relational discord, even with unforgiveness and disdain, with other Christians.

You know, any of us can look around and find other people to judge. If we’re honest, we know we too often do just that. What God was saying through John, and continues to say, goes beyond that: all of us have sins, and repentance should be a regular part of our spiritual lives. The call to repent of our sins and believe the good news was the message of both Isaiah and John the Baptizer, and it is the ongoing message of the Church. As we go into this Advent season of preparing for the true meaning of Christmas, it is right for all of us to repent of our sins and affirm our belief that the only way to salvation is through the forgiveness God gives in Jesus Christ.

We never grow beyond the practice of repentance. I believe a big obstacle to Christian unity is the failure to repent. St Paul calls the Christian community to a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus (Rom 15:5). Hardly anything gives greater testimony to the Spirit of Jesus in a person than saying, “I am sorry; I was wrong. Will you forgive me?” That is repentance, and the Christian community needs to model more of it to a watching world.

It is human nature to balk at this. It is human nature to say, “you don’t know what he did to me!” Yet Paul reminds the Christian community: Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you…. (Rom 15:7). Christmas is the celebration of the birth of our Savior, the one who has become a servant (v8) so that we may glorify God for his mercy (v9). The only claim we have to salvation is God’s mercy, and the only way to allow mercy to do its work in us is through repentance.

This is the Gospel…. and because the Gospel is real and true, there is an effect. John the Baptizer proclaimed a fire (Mtt 3:11b,12) that is unleashed to destroy evil. In a Christian’s life, that fire is a burning love. God’s love is so intense that it consumes sin. We are invited to enter into the love of God with such abandon that all our sin is burned up. That actually happens in the process of repentance and forgiveness. 

But for those who will not repent––who persist in sin––then both Isaiah’s and John’s words give the grim reality: with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked (Isa 11:4), and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering the wheat into his barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Mtt 3:12). When God’s burning love is rejected, it turns to fiery judgment. The readings today tell us that true and full peace will only come when God’s burning love destroys all that is evil. Only then will all of creation be at peace so that even among the animals they will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain (Isa 11:9).

As Christians, we long for that, but at the same time we must face a real problem. It’s easy to worry about animals and world peace and yet not be willing let peace start in us with our own families or neighbors or co-workers. As the old spiritual says, Not my brother or my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. Advent is a time for us to face our own sins. The message of John the Baptizer comes down to us today: Prepare the way for the Lord.... Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Let’s Prepare the way for the Lord in our own hearts.

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