Sunday, December 08, 2013

Icons of Preparation

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
December 8, 2013

Year A: The Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

Icons of Preparation
            Last Sunday, I preached about how different the season of Advent is from what’s going on outside in the world.
            As we all know only too well, at this time of year the world drives itself nuts getting ready for what it calls Christmas – and we sure saw a whole lot of craziness during the so-called “Black Friday” this year didn’t we? Violence broke out in box stores as people shoved and fought each other so they could save a couple of bucks.
            Meanwhile, in here it’s not Christmas yet. It’s Advent. It’s Advent - a gift from the Church. It’s a gift that calls us, invites us, to slow down and be quiet. It’s Advent.
            But, the truth is, in the most basic sense what’s going on out in the world and what’s going on in here does have something in common.
            Out in the world, all of us are preparing for the Christmas holiday. We may love it, we may be indifferent to it, or we may downright hate it. But, we are preparing.
            We’re preparing by trying to come up with the right presents to give to those we love.
            We’re preparing by decorating our homes – sometimes very simply, maybe with just a little Charlie Brown tree – or sometimes very elaborately with blinking lights, elves, wreaths, snowmen, reindeer and all the rest all over the place.
            We’re preparing by making plans to be with family and friends – or just looking forward to some time off from work.
            And a similar kind of preparation is going on here in church. Yes, it’s Advent, but of course we’re thinking about our Christmas services: planning the decorations, the music and all the rest. And, yes, I’m thinking ahead to the three sermons I’ll need to preach over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day!
            So, both out in the world and here in church, we are preparing.
            Here we’re preparing for the birth of the Son of God in an out of the way place to a couple of nobodies.
            And we’re preparing for the Last Day when Christ will return in glory – the Last Day when God’s kingdom will be complete.
            And, sure enough, the two main characters of Advent are all about preparation. The two main characters of Advent are all about preparation for Christ and preparation for God’s kingdom.
            The Virgin Mary prepares for Christ and God’s kingdom in the most intimate way imaginable – by saying yes to God and bearing the Son of God within her body. We’ll have more to say about her, and her fiancée Joseph, in two weeks.
            And then… there’s the other main Advent character – the wild and powerful prophet who dresses like the Prophet Elijah, who proves his total dependence on God by eating bugs and wild honey. There’s the other main Advent character - the charismatic and demanding prophet we meet once again today: John the Baptist.
            Both the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist teach us, show us, how to prepare for Christ and for God’s kingdom.
            The Virgin Mary and John the Baptist are living symbols of preparation.
            The Virgin Mary and John the Baptist are icons of preparation.
            Today’s gospel lesson comes from the Gospel of Matthew. And, unlike Luke, Matthew either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the background of John the Baptist.
            In fact, Matthew isn’t even all that interested in the fact that John is baptizing all of these people down at the River Jordan.
            No, Matthew is interested mostly in John’s preaching – he focuses on John’s message.
            John the Baptist is presented as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s long ago prophecy: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
            John the Baptist’s message is “prepare for the Holy One who is coming – prepare for God’s kingdom.”
            And, John the Baptist’s message of preparation is for everyone – preparation for all the people from Jerusalem and all the region along the Jordan – preparation for the really religious people like the Pharisees and Sadducees – preparation for all of us whether we haven’t been in church in, ahem, a while, or we’re here all the time.
            John’s message is preparation.
            John the Baptist is an icon of preparation.
            OK. Preparation. So, according to John, how do we prepare for Christ and for God’s kingdom?
            John’s message is simple but oh so hard.
            We prepare by repenting. We prepare by repenting.
            Repentance isn’t just saying sorry for the wrong things we’ve done, though that’s part of it – and hard enough.
            Repentance is a complete turnaround of our lives.
            For some of us repentance might mean that, with God’s help, we stop being so self-centered and instead consider the needs of those around us – our family and friends; the people beside us in the pew; our neighbors; the people panhandling on Bergen Avenue; the people we dislike or disrespect or maybe even hate; the people around the world who make so much of the stuff that ends up wrapped under our Christmas trees.
            Repentance is a complete turnaround of our lives. 
            For some of us repentance might mean that, with God’s help, we start being a little kinder to ourselves; that we respect our own dignity as a beloved child of God; that we stop letting people use us as a doormat; and that we take care of ourselves: body, mind and spirit.
            The details of repentance are different for each of us. But, for all of us, repentance is a complete turnaround of our lives. Our old self is drowned in the water of baptism and we are reborn – we are turned around into a new life, better prepared for Christ and for God’s kingdom.
            John’s message is preparation – preparation through repentance.
            John the Baptist is an icon of preparation.
            But, of course, John and the Virgin Mary aren’t the only living symbols of preparation. They aren’t the only icons of preparation.
            In fact, when Nelson Mandela died on Thursday, the world lost another powerful icon of preparation.
            Mandela’s death wasn’t unexpected but so many of us were still saddened by his passing. It was moving to see the various news reports and also all the posts on social media, on facebook and twitter.
            Lots of people posted great and inspiring Mandela quotes.
            But, here’s the one I like the most:
            "If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness."
            “Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.”
            When I read that I thought Goodness and Forgiveness aren’t just two roads to a beautiful South Africa. Goodness and Forgiveness are roads to the Kingdom of God – the kingdom we’re preparing for right now.
            During his long twenty-seven year imprisonment, Mandela could have become bitter, angry, self-centered, or even just broken. But, instead, he became a living symbol of preparation.
            And because he had prepared, when the time of his release came he was ready – ready to lead South Africa not down roads of hatred and revenge but instead down roads named Goodness and Forgiveness.
            During those long years on Robben Island, Mandela became an icon of preparation.
            So, here we are. Today is the Second Sunday of Advent.
            We’re all about preparation. Out in the world we’re preparing for Christmas by shopping, decorating, planning and all the rest.
            Here in church, we’re preparing for Christ and God’s kingdom by slowing down and quieting ourselves. We’re preparing by remembering Mary, John, and now, Nelson: icons of preparation.
            May we prepare.
            May we repent.
            And, this Advent, as our lives are turned around, may we journey together down the roads of goodness and forgiveness – roads to the kingdom of God.