Pastor Tony's Sermon December 17, 2017

John 1; 6-8, 19-27 (28-29)     12-17-17     ACCUCC     Rev. Tony Clark

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There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord” ’, as the prophet Isaiah said.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ (This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!)

“Prepare! Prepare the way of the Lord,” cries the prophet.

Wait, what are we preparing for?

This is my question this time of year. In Advent we wait, we hope and dream, and we prepare. What are we preparing for?

We are preparing for Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, and look toward the re-birth of Christ.

Yet, if we are preparing for a birth, we don’t act like it. There is no preparation of a nursery, no purchasing of diapers, no buying or borrowing car seats or cribs or baby carriages. Instead we put trees in our living rooms and string lights and ornaments on them.

If it is a birthday celebration we are preparing for, why don’t we buy gifts for the birthday boy? No other birthday celebration do we buy gifts for each other and get nothing for the one celebrating their birth. And there aren’t very many people for whom we celebrate birthdays after they’ve died, particularly after many centuries of death. Instead of buying gifts for Jesus or even Mary and Joseph, we buy gifts for each other.

We celebrate with presents and lights and gathering around for a big meal. The meal takes as much preparation as the decorating or gift buying and wrapping. Preparations for a feast came early in my family—“What are we going to have for Christmas dinner?” was the first question my Mom would ask. It went along with, “Where are we going to have Christmas this year?” because whoever hosted also got to choose what the main course would be. Preparing the meal became part of the preparation for the holiday, and even if you didn’t cook the main course, you cooked some part of the meal—the Jell-O® salad, the green bean casserole, the bread rolls, or the pecan pie.

The preparation that goes into Christmas Day--the meal, the gift giving, the decorating—is supposed to remind us of what we are preparing for—the re-birth of Christ, the return of God into our lives, the light that the darkness of night cannot put out. God’s return is to be good news to the poor, release for captives, freedom for the imprisoned, so why aren’t we preparing for a river of poor that have newly granted purchasing power, or a flotilla of captives to land on our shores, or a flood of prisoners who are returning to society? Now that would be preparing for the birth of Christ!

Some Christians fear that Christmas is being taken away from us, and I agree with that. I disagree with them on why. Some  say that Christmas is being lost because store employees say, “Happy Holidays.” Saying, “Happy Holidays” is polite when we are in a multi-cultural multi-faith society; it recognizes that there are many celebrations near the winter solstice, and not all of them are Christmas. The meaning of Christmas has not been stripped away by other religions, or atheists, or even liberals or progressive Christians.

The meaning of Christmas has been stripped away over time because we’ve lost focus on what we are preparing for—the arrival of God, who doesn’t arrive with boxes and ribbons, trees and lights, and a meal of epic proportions. The stores simply support our mistaken notion of how to prepare for the return of Christ. Decorating, buying and giving gifts, and making a feast keeps us busy, distracted, from facing the depth and importance of God re-entering our lives. The return of Christ is so big an event that we have no idea how exactly to prepare for it.

We know pretty well how to prepare for a baby—diapers, a nursery, car seats. We know pretty well how to prepare for a birthday party—hats and streamers, maybe a piñata, birthday cake, and gifts. We know how to prepare for a family feast—turkey or ham, dungeness crab, Jell-O® salad, green bean casserole, or maybe tamales. We have recipes and decorator magazines and even retail stores to show us how to prepare these things.

Yet we don’t really know how to prepare for the arrival of God. The Bible isn’t much help—From Isaiah: make straight the highways, fill every valley and level every hill; or from Mark: repent! and be baptized; or From Luke: go visit your cousin Elizabeth, and go to Bethlehem to register for the census; or from Matthew: dream of angels. These are not very practical ways to prepare for the birth of God today.

So how could we prepare for God’s re-entrance into our lives?

First, I’d say, we must pray.

Second, I’d say, we must pray. Pray for strength and patience and compassion, because God’s return will be an upheaval.

Third, I’d say, train doctors and nurses, because there will be a wave of poor who finally receive health care; and I’d say prepare housing and jobs for the imprisoned who will be released. Graduate psychologists for the captives who have PTSD, and social workers for helping to get through the bureaucracy of life. Get churches and synagogues and mosques and temples ready for the influx of people struggling with their faith in the upheaval of all of society.   

Fourth, in the words of a famous Christmas Carol, I’d say, “let every heart prepare him room.” With the river of refugees, and the flood of prisoners, and the flotilla of captives, we will probably be frustrated. Language barriers, new holidays and food, not to mention cultural differences around how we drive, how we wait in line, how we celebrate life’s ups and downs, all of these may become points of frustration, and we will need room in our hearts for all of it. We will need to practice compassion.

Oh, and don’t forget the decorations, the gifts, and the feast. We will need lights to celebrate way into the night, and for the late comers to see their way in. We will need gifts to pass out, and extras for those who were released from captivity after the stores closed. We will need food to sustain us through the festivities and all that comes next. Prepare for a day of celebration--not merely a day off, not merely a day with family and friends and football, not merely a day for giving and receiving gifts, not even a day filled with traditions. Prepare for a day of Justice and Joy. Prepare for a season of health. Prepare for a period of affordable housing and an era where no one goes hungry, or lives in a tent under a bridge, or is addicted to opioids or alcohol or anything else to escape the misery and suffering of life. And prepare for people whose lives are suddenly changed, improved, filled with peace, and hope, and joy.

Prepare! Prepare the way of the Lord!!! For all people shall see the salvation of our God.

And that will be messy.

God, in this season of preparation, may we not forget the real reason for the season. May we prepare for your arrival and all that comes with it. May we prepare our hearts with room for you, with compassion for the prisoners that will be released, and the immigrants who will enter our communities, and the homeless who are already here. Amen.