PREPARING THE WAY FOR OUR LORD
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
The Second Sunday of Advent
Lections: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72; Rom 15: 4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
I remember, as a child, the magical feelings associated with the Christmas season. My mother would bring the Advent calendar over to me while I was still in bed, and I was delighted to begin the days by finding the window marked with the day’s matching number and then pushing through from the back of the calendar to open its flap and discover the picture inside. Most years we had snow, frost on the bedroom windows, and Christmas cookies in the school lunchbox. There was always a crèche to adore and a 4 o’clock church pageant to act out the week before Christmas. At bedtime, we sang carols: “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was my favorite, and I was always exercised to get the Lords and Ladies, the Doves and the Hens in the correct order. Then, on Christmas Eve, the live tree was decorated, with ornaments and candy canes. I could barely sleep with the excitement of knowing Santa Claus on a sled pulled by reindeer was coming all the way from the North Pole to drop off presents elves had made for me.
Well, as you might guess, I was well past childhood before I began to discover the full range of marvelous thought and feelings associated with the church calendar. Nothing engages me more than moving through the liturgical year, meditating on its cycle of festivals, experiencing its glorious imagery, and celebrating the mysterious life story it reveals. During Advent, especially, the grand synthesis of childhood innocence and the wisdom of our elders is on display. How else can one explain – in our approach to Christmas – why we hear so much mention of John the Baptist? Or why last Sunday we reflected on the end times: the Second Coming of the Son of Man, who at his first coming is born on Christmas night, in a manager, in the big window marked with the number 24 on the Advent calendar.
We first meet John the Baptist in the mystery of the Visitation, when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, arrives at the house of her cousin, Elizabeth, who is also pregnant, and we feel Elizabeth’s unborn child John leap with joy in his mother’s womb. John and Jesus meet again as adults, at the Baptism in the River Jordon; this time, John is pictured as a wild man, who dresses in animal hides and survives in the wilderness by eating locusts and wild honey. John, who is the last and greatest of the prophets, consents to baptize Jesus. John’s water baptism is a baptism of change, and when he baptizes Jesus, who is without sin, “all righteousness is fulfilled.”[i] Jesus immediately leaves John and retreats into the wilderness, where he keeps to himself for forty days, while Creation waits patiently. Not until his earthly ministry has been completed, some years later, will the new baptism, a baptism of the Kingdom, replace John’s. Pentecost is the first time when those assembled as the church are grafted into the body of the Risen Christ with water and the fire that represents the Spirit of Our Lord.[ii]
Jesus had the highest respect for John, who he would sometimes be mistaken for, after John was killed by Herod the tetrarch. The Baptist became known as The Forerunner, because he announced the coming of the Kingdom; he preached repentance, “for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,”[iii] using the same words Jesus later would preach.[iv]
There is good reason, then, for the church to focus so much on John the Baptist during Advent, for the Forerunner prepared the people of God for the arrival of Jesus the Messiah. First, his water baptism prepared us for the church’s baptism of water and the Spirit. Second, his call for repentance and announcement that the Kingdom of Heaven is near prepared us to hear the preaching of Jesus and forsake our old life for the new. And third, his arrest and beheading prepared us for the arrest and crucifixion of Our Lord.
What does John’s preparation mean for us, in terms of how we are to live our lives? I cannot speak for you, but everyday God offers me the grace to be with him and share his presence in all areas of my life, and every day there are times and places where I reject his grace. One’s encounter with Jesus always involve preparation: prayer, worship, service. We need to examine our actions every day to see where our preparedness falls short and redirect ourselves in those areas where we can to be more available to God’s presence. Of course, it is always a joy to be in the presence of God, but it is also a necessity, if we are to hear his words and respond to his will. Jesus wants us in his kingdom, so much so that he has set much in motion to make this possible, but the follow through is up to us.
For us the Son of God has built his church, and sent his spirit to dwell within the temple of our souls. The church is a tabernacle, a representation outside of ourselves of the temple each of us carries within our heart. Jesus is always with us, everywhere we are and in all we do; he is present especially in our relationships with each other, where we represent him in the world. We too are preparing the way of the Lord, for when he comes again.
The judgment the Baptist foretold is an incentive for repentance; when we heed the preaching of Jesus and forsake our old life for the new, an image of the kingdom of Heaven emerges from the trauma of judgment. The baptism of water and the Spirit is more than a baptism of change; it is also a baptism into eternal life, an unceasing banquet of delight. When we reject the worldly powers of death and destruction, and take refuge in the kingdom of heaven, we are handed the church’s treasury of blessings as a guide along the paths of righteousness. We remember the story of an unborn child who leapt for joy in his mother’s womb the first time he felt himself in the presence of Jesus, and we recall the older wilderness figure’s prophecy of end times that the same presence will bring about. Both the Forerunner and the Son of Man were put to death for what they preached; yet both were filled with love for God and shared the hope and patience of love, in all the circumstances of this life. This we too can do, with God’s grace. Amen.
[i] Matthew 3:13-17
[ii] Matthew 3:11
[iii] Matthew 3:2
[iv] Matthew 4:17