The Gospel readings for Advent seem rather disjointed in relationship to our present culture. We are sitting here this morning twenty-one days before Christmas. Some of us have not even begun to decorate for the season, or shop for gifts. Others have had the halls decked out for Christmas from the moment the turkey was cleared from the Thanksgiving table. Many are already booked solid for the weeks to come with one Christmas party to the next. The truth is Advent has become insignificant in our lives, unless you are a member of the altar guild or choir. Advent, why bother!
The lectionary observes Advent with the same zeal for the season it has observed since the sixth century. But we do not really want to hear the readings of Advent, they can bring us down and we do not want to be down when Christmas Carols are playing 24/7. For example, it seems a little odd and kind of a “Debbie Downer” thing, that we come together this morning to hear Matthew’s gospel exclaim the arrival of John the Baptist. What does this gospel have to do with Advent? What does it have to do with Christmas in light of where we are in time and space? Is this gospel even relevant for those of us living in the mainstream of Lafayette, LA in 2016?
John’s story is of course important to Christian tradition. The Jewish scriptures predicted the coming of the next King of Israel and were clear that there would be another coming to prepare the way of this great Messiah. This precursor was to warn the people that the time was coming; so, for traditions sake, we remember the story of John the Baptist. But other than tradition, does the story hold any real significance for us today?
How do we glean anything meaningful from this gospel passage, or from any of the readings we share today? You see; if scriptures have become simply a way to remember the events, and those events have lost their relevance; then you and I do not really need to be here. We do not need to continue to gather here, or spend money to keep this place open, or do any of the things we do here or out in the world, as a result, of being here. We can just stay home, go play a round of golf, take a yoga class, sleep-in, any number of other things that might enrich our lives in a meaningful way. If scriptures are irrelevant to us today, then we need to stop reading them, listening to them, or trying to understand them. After all, Christmas in 2016 does not have anything to do with the scriptures. Christmas is no longer about the coming of Christ as much as it is about the coming of Santa or a time to be jolly and make merry.
But what if the gospel today is still relevant? What if there are lessons in the readings to which we still need to pay attention? Perhaps heeding these stories with new hearing, with a new interpretation, with new attentiveness will bring us to a place of greater understanding. Maybe if we examine these scriptures with a new focus they will become relevant again!
Let us look at John’s story in a few contexts that may add meaning to the story for us this morning. First, consider the context of John’s job description. John is a prophet. Now for those of the first century that did not equate to a fortune-teller. A prophet was someone who interpreted the past in relationship to the present. or in other words, they studied the history of the people to whom they were sent, and given past behaviors and present conditions gave warnings of what might be happening at that moment. John was not like Nostradamus, we like to think of prophets as people who can predict the future or psychics. John was a good old-fashioned prophet who could see the present situation and determine outcome. There were some unique characteristics, about John, that are important for sure.
Let us consider the context of location, next. Location is important in John’s story. John is preaching, teaching, and baptizing out in the wilderness. He is not in town. He is not in the city, or a village, or even in the farming community. John is in the wilderness. That means those going out to hear him are taking time out of their lives to travel some distance just to see and hear what he is saying. They are leaving their homes, jobs, families, and their communities to go into an area described as wilderness. Because John is doing something so significant that the word is spreading throughout the region about him, people are making significant effort to go out to see him.
John does not look like the typical religious teacher either. He is unshaven, ragged, wild looking. He is not the refined rabbi people were used to hearing. However, there is something about him that draws people out of their ordinary routines and persuades them to go out to the wilderness to hear him; and on top of that what he says to them is so compelling that they leave the wilderness soaking wet after being Baptized in the river. Hundreds of people profoundly affected by what they hear and are persuaded to be baptized by John. What he says changes their lives at that very moment, a result of a single encounter. Even the leaders of the Pharisees feel compelled by John’s message of repentance. They too want to be baptized in the Jordan.
John’s message is another context we need to examine. It was not any easy message to hear. Repentance was not simply an experience of feeling sorry or bad about something you did. Repentance was an actual change in the direction of one’s life and focus. Repenting was not just a matter of feeling bad about some action or behavior. Repenting was making the choice to alter the life style, the whole way of living. Repenting was turning one’s life in the direction God wanted them to go, literally. John reminds us that repentance is involved in preparing ourselves for the Christ.
How does that work for us today? The way we celebrate the holidays now, we may need to repent! Now there is a scary thought! Talk about a party pooper! John is certainly not the life of the party. Most of us would not dare invite him to our home, let alone a Christmas party. John and messengers like him are the type of holiday guests that make us wonder either “what in the world is wrong with him?” or “what in the world is wrong with us?” Most of often we wonder what is wrong with him because we do not care to consider what may be wrong with us.
Seriously though, what if we are the people who have become cold and hardened in our faith because we have allowed the secular concept of the holidays to suffocate genuine piety and deep reflection on the meaning of Christ’s arrival into our world? What if we are the ones who pay more attention to decorating the trees in our living rooms rather than cultivating the living trees of faith that are supposed to produce true fruits of repentance, of which John speaks? During our Advent, do garland and shiny ornaments overshadow the Fruit of the Spirit? Are we more interested in the lovely gilded angel on top of our Christmas tree rather than living angels or prophets who may be calling us to repentance?
The purpose of repentance is to remind us that change is necessary not for the sake of change but because we’ve become aware that our actions are out of step with God’s deep desire for harmony, balance, and equity for all of God’s people and for the whole of God’s creation. Repentance, in short, is realizing that God is pointing us one way, but we’ve been traveling another way. Repentance allows us to change the course. Now that is a message that is still relevant, isn’t it?
Repentance can seem daunting. I mean, there are so many things I could repent of, we as a community and nation could repent of many things, even we as a species could and should repent for multiple injustices. Pollution and climate change. Poverty and food scarcity. Racial injustice. The lack of clean water. Overflowing prisons. The number of children living below the poverty level. Crime and violence, and the list goes on. No wonder we would rather give up on the whole repentance thing, hunker down with our current and comfortable friends and biases, and get back to watching our favorite television series on Netflix or HBO.
So do we dare to consider what our lives and community would look like if we truthfully considered repentance this Advent season? How do we do that so that it is meaningful and specific, so that our repentance actually leads us to move in a new direction rather than giving up.?
Let me ask you for just a moment to shut your eyes. Go ahead, just relax. Now with your eyes closed imagine what vision God has for you. Take a little daydream about what and where God wants for you, what God wants for the community of St. Barnabas. What are the things God would have us do and where would God have us go? What would our lives together look like if we were to walk into this new vision? God invites us to dream something beyond what we can presently see. In some ways, that is exactly what the Isaiah passage chosen for this Sunday is – God’s dream about a different world where there are no predators or prey, no fear or hatred. It is not a goal to be achieved, but a dream by which to set our course.
Now, with eyes closed; choose one, just one element in your life that you would like to repent – that is, change the direction – and name this Advent as a time to do that. Is there an unhealthy relationship you want to repair? Can you imagine using your time differently, for a better means? Is there some practice or habit you might take up that would produce a more abundant life for you or those around you?
And lastly, can you identify one element of our communal lives that needs repentance? Picture it in your mind. Can you think about how you can contribute to that. Can you spend time volunteering or assisting in a ministry here at St. Barnabas? Can you make an additional donation? Can you get to know someone who is different from you ethnically, politically, or generationally and try to build a more vibrant community this way? Can you identify one communal issue and begin praying for it daily, open yourself to how God might direct your time and actions to changing that issue?
The point of Advent is to make room for Christ’s arrival, to be surprised again that God was willing to enter into our lives and history and take on our vulnerability in order to give us hope. Most think God is sitting up in heaven either smiling or frowning down at us depending on our behavior. But the God we know does not do that. The God we know comes down from heaven to take on our humanity and our life and give us hope by being with us and being one of us. Jesus did not come down screaming repentance but inviting us to eternal life and helping us to see our neighbors, not as competitors for scarce resources, but as brothers and sisters in Christ. If Advent is a time to slow down, it is so we can have that time to prepare for Christ among us.
Which means the holidays can be a time, should be a time in which we are encouraged to take action and step toward God’s dream for our lives and our communities. If we do this now, Advent itself might become a more meaningful season for us all.