For Sunday December 6, 2009 Second Sunday in Advent
This is the second Sunday of Advent. In advent generally we focus on two events; we enter the time of preparation for Christ’s first coming while at the same time live in expectation for his return to finally make all things right. I apologize to you in advance that instead of giving you comforting message that prepares your hearts for Christmas, such as I know the economy is bad but you will still get your Christmas gift, I am inviting you to hear the words of some ancient prophets. Now that the apology is offered let us look at the texts before us and listen to the prophetic voices. In our Old Testament text, prophet Malachi tells of a figure who was coming to prepare the way for the Lord who is soon to come.
Malachi speaks of a messenger who will purify people’s hearts. “God is sending a messenger,” writes Malachi, “who comes intending to cleanse”. Malachi’s message is a message of reform aimed at the religious system, particularly the temple. He uses the imagery of a refiner’s fire and a soap to cleanse the religious system until it offers sacrifice in righteousness. Due to the intensity of this cleansing activity, Malachi asks, “who can endure the day of his coming? Malachi is saying that before God arrives, we need a bath in order to be ready for him. To use a Christmas language, as we make our way to Bethlehem and the manger in a few weeks, the prophet Malachi is simply reminding us that, “We need to wash up before we may hold the baby.”
God’s special message to the world he created came not from Caesar’s seat in Rome or from Caiaphas in the temple but rather from a wild and rugged man who lived in the depth of the desert, on the fringes of society. His message like the Messiah’s was to come in direct conflict with Caesar and the temple establishment which end up in cross. The message came not from the corridors of power or from the epicenter but from the periphery. The divine messenger and his message originated in an unlikely place and from an improbable source. John would have been easy to ignore if you expected or wanted something normal, safe, or traditional. But neither John nor his message was normal by any stretch of the imagination.
We need to repent, said John, because in Jesus “the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2). This is the identical message that Jesus preached when he began his own public ministry: “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’ The kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were king and the rulers of this world were not. The ancient Hebrews had a marvelous word for this, shalom, or human well-being. But entrance into this kingdom likewise requires a counter-cultural choice.
John’s terrible indictment to repent is a tender invitation to be our best selves. Repentance doesn’t mean to feel bad, but to think differently. To repent doesn’t mean to grovel in self-hatred, morbid introspection, or pious sorrow. It consists of both outward acts and an inward disposition. When you repent you turn around, change directions, choose a different path, and make a radical turn in lifestyle and attitude. Repentance signals an abrupt end to life as usual. In fact during this advent season repentance is appropriate. For some of us it applies to our attitude of consumerism at Christmas and the need to accumulate stuff.
John urged his listeners to prove their spiritual intentions by concrete deeds rather than by claims of religious or political affiliation. Some people took him at his word, but many in the political elite and religious establishment did not. These political and religious leaders who rejected John got one thing right — they understood that his message was not only deceptively simple; it was deeply subversive.
In this Second Advent, John urges us to spurn anything and everything that hinders ultimate allegiance to Jesus. He invites us to make our crooked ways straight, to flatten all hilly terrain, and to prepare space for the birth of the Messiah into our own lives. Let us take time this morning to examine our hearts and heed the prophet’s call to repent before we come to the communion table.