This morning we celebrate the second Sunday in the season of Advent.
We know the days are getting shorter and the nights longer!
We also know the season of merriment has yet to reach its peak!
It’s even possible that your pre-Christmas to do lists might very well still be growing.
Or, if you’re like me, you keep a changing list of to do’s in your head.
It feels worth stating that as we gather for worship this day, some of us might be feeling distracted by all that we have yet to prepare for the festive season this year.
There can be so many overlapping aspects of both our social and our faith lives at this time of the year.
Its no small chore then is it to manage our inclination to want to get things done.
Here, though, as we gather for the purposes of witness and worship, we can put away our to-do lists.
We can take that much needed momentary pause, that deep breath, and we can be intentional about putting to the side whatever distracts us.
Here, in worship, we can rest in the sure knowledge that we are held in God’s living, loving, redemptive, and hope-filled care even as the countdown to Christmas continues.
Advent is one of the more reflective seasons in the church calendar year.
It’s a time when we can deliberately make space in our everyday lives, to be together in a time of sacred pause, to savour the beauty of this space and its décor, and, to quote the Rev. Mark Malek, to live into the ‘already, but not yet time’.
This morning we have two jarring stories from our scripture canon to distract us from all the busy-ness of the season.
First comes a story from the voice of the minor prophet, Malachi and then from the voice of John, the Baptist.
Both prophets’ messages are like a double – edged sword: On the one side there is promise of something wonderful and new that will change our lives completely.
On the other side, there is warning that this change will bring with it much chaos and conflict.
Both voices are clear that about our need to prepare for the One who is coming; the One whose birth, life, teachings, death, and re-birth will usher in God’s vision of Shalom, God’s peaceable realm where all shall feel welcome, safe, and included.
Preparation for the birth of that special One will be costly and demanding.
To quote Malachi, such preparation will require refining and purifying.
Both texts take us a long way away from the warm fuzziness and dreamy romanticism pervading the festive season.
And that is just as it should be.
Here, at church, you see, we come expecting something quite different from anywhere else we might gather.
Come, then, let’s take a closer look at our text from the gospel according to Luke this morning.
Here in the first few verses of Chapter 3 of Luke’s gospel, we find ourselves immersed in the who’s who list of the political and religious leadership in power at the time of late first century Roman occupied Palestine.
The point is not whether or not these names or locations add to our understanding or whether we can create a geographic map of the extent of the leadership’s authority.
The names are there, rather, to make the point that the established order is about to change and change radically.
From the start of the passage, we learn that God has intentionally passed by these leaders and has chosen instead to give voice to one marginalized from those with political, religious, or geographic authority.
Here we come face to face with John, the Baptist, one of our decidedly larger than life biblical characters, only son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and cousin to Jesus.
And, it would appear that this one out in the desert wilderness is attracting a lot of attention!
Proclaiming the gift of God’s forgiveness of sin in exchange for a baptism of repentance, John also quotes another one of the ancient prophet’s voices, the prophet Isaiah.
To paraphrase Isaiah, there will be much de-construction and re-construction needed -mountains and hills brought low, valleys filled, crooked path made straight and rough ways made smooth. (Harper Collins Study Bible, Luke 3, verses 4 and 5, p. 1961)
Here in Luke’s gospel, John’s prophetic voice also reminds us to be intentionally on the lookout for where, when, and how God will show up, not just for our own sakes, but for the sake of all of humanity.
Or to paraphrase John, the Baptist, we are told: “All flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Ibid, verse 6, p. 1961)
As I was grappling with my own discomfort as to the shades of meaning John’s words carry for our own lives, I was reminded of the stereotyped loading of words like repentance, forgiveness, and salvation.
In that grappling, I took heart from a recent book I purchased called Preaching the Big Questions, Doctrine Isn’t Dusty.
In this seminal work, Catherine Faith MacLean and John H. Young talk about the doctrines of grace and salvation as emphasizing the opposite of privilege, entitlement, and deservedness, if you will.
You see, we, in Canadian culture, who have worked hard all our lives, we often see ourselves as blessed by God with many rewards for our efforts.
We are also inclined to view those not able or who chose not to work hard as not so deserving of God’s blessing.
Possibly the hardest thing, I think, is for us to accept that it is the culture that rewards our efforts, not God.
As well, we, as Canadians in our rapidly changing cultural context, we find it challenging to understand that all of us are deserving of God’s gracious love.
We even worry that there might not be enough for any of us, never mind all of us.
Coming back to the topic of salvation, I also like what Fred Buechner has to say about it in his book, Wishful Thinking, A Seeker’s abc, (page 102-103).
Fred describes it this way: “Salvation is an experience first and a doctrine second. …salvation is a gift, not an achievement….salvation is a process…not an event.”
And so it is, we, as faithful followers in the Way of Jesus have our work cut out for us.
Alone and together, we called to accept and to embrace the good news found in Luke’s gospel and an understanding of the God of John the Baptist, and of Jesus, as One so much more magnanimous, so much more abundantly gracious than we might ever really be able to understand or imagine.
We are also called to trust in God’s presence right in the middle of being so easily distracted by the needs and demands of the festive season.
A few weeks ago, I spoke about growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, a time of great change and upheaval in both political and religious circles.
It was also a time when music and social activism often worked in tandem.
That is, it seemed that each one informed the shape of the other.
If you are like me and having a hard time accepting that God’s saving grace is not something we earn or receive in response to working hard, then maybe these words attributed to Curtis Mayfield, an African American story teller and song Writer might help you connect with what John, the Baptist says about repentance, forgiveness of sins, and salvation.
First released in 1971, its entitled: ‘People Get Ready’
People, get ready, there’s a train a comin’
You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board.
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin;
You don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.”
As we continue to anticipate our annual celebration of the incarnational God who comes to us in the birth of a tiny, vulnerable baby at Christmas, may we find new ways to make space to hear those voices crying in the wilderness. May we find new ways to lean into what has come to be viewed as stereotyped understanding of biblical language. Last but never least, may we find new ways to practice abiding in an abundantly gracious, magnanimous, and ever-present God, especially in this time of waiting and watching at Advent.
May it be so, amen.
Rev. Elizabeth Bowyer reserves all rights © 2018.
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