John the Baptist by Matthias Grünewald
A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2011. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, and Mark 1:1-8.
The Collect of the Day (the prayer we prayed at the very beginning of our worship ) names two major themes for this Second Sunday of Advent: repentance and preparation. But if we think about it within the context of how things really work in life, one of those themes actually includes the other. Preparation usually includes and involves repentance.
Repentance, we know, is not just about saying “I’m sorry.” It’s not just apologizing or feeling regretful about something. It’s about change. Repentance is about turning from one thing to another. It’s about movement, reversal, and return. Repentance is often about cleaning up and throwing out.
And so, repentance is a part of preparation. When a person prepares to sell a house, the person cleans it up and sometimes makes some changes. It might be painted. Repairs might be made. Furniture may be removed as a part of the preparation.
Someone expecting a child prepares. Space is made ready. A room might be taken over. Some things might be gotten rid of, changes are made—all a part of the preparation.
In our first scripture reading, Isaiah speaks of preparation. God will send a prophet, Isaiah says, who will sing a song of comfort and mercy. Prepare a place for God, he says. The mountains and valleys will be cleared, the rough places smoothed out. Things are going to get cleaned up and thrown out. It may not always be pretty. But in the end, fear itself will be banished, making room for God and the Word of God. Isaiah’s word begins and ends with “Comfort. Comfort, my people.”
That prophet “who is to come” that Isaiah talks about does come in today’s Gospel. He comes in the form of John the Baptist. This strange looking and sounding John comes as a voice (a little bit like Isaiah’s voice) crying in the wilderness: repent, get ready, something good is coming. He is preaching repentance, but notice that he’s asking, pleading, hoping for people to repent not for the sake of holiness, but in order to prepare. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he says. “Clear way,” “make room,” do what you need to do, but prepare.” Though I love all the great hymns of Advent, I think an appropriate song for the day would come from Tony’s song in West Side Story:
Something's coming, something good, If I can wait!Maybe this morning or this afternoon. So get ready.
Something's coming, I don't know what it is, But it is gonna be great! ….
It's only just out of reach, Down the block, on a beach, Maybe tonight . . .
John understands his job as making the announcement, getting people ready, warming up the crowd. But notice how clear his is about his job. He prepares, but he’s very clear that another will come, Jesus, who will accomplish the work of God. This is a crucial piece to Christian discipleship, I think—understanding what we’re called to do, and what we’re NOT called to do.
The task for us, as Christian disciples, is to follow in the work of John, to prepare the way for God’s coming, but to also understand the scope of our calling. While we do our part, it’s God’s job to finish things. The work is ours, but the results belong to God. The outcome belongs to God.
As people who try to live and function in what we call the “real world,” this is hard because we like results. We like to achieve, to prove, to finish. We set goals and we like to realize them. But the spiritual world moves in a different way. God is in charge of the way things turn out. We work. We pray. We hope. We do our part, but then we come to a point of having to let go, of waiting in faith and watching as God continues to work, and God’s will unfolds.
We can prepare our children for the world, but we can’t control the way they turn out.
We can prepare our bodies for aging and for stress, but there’s a point where we have to trust in doctors and science, and pray for God’s healing.
Especially in this season, we can look and learn from our own busy lives. For example, I can cook a turkey and all the other food, set a perfect table, have everything just right—but that doesn’t insure that people will get along, that the conversation goes well, or that people will enjoy the time they spend together. I can do my part, but then have to let go.
I can give someone the perfect gift, but that doesn’t insure that they will respond the way I imagine.
On and on the list might go as we enter this season of almost unlimited expectations, with each one—if we’re truthful, we’ll admit that we reach a point where it’s just not up to us. People we know and people in this room are preparing for all kinds of things—visiting relatives, trips away, changes in work, retirement, uncertainty, marriage, the birth of a child, a medical procedure…. And people are doing their part—they’re getting things in order, cleaning up, covering the details, checking off the list. But the good-though-sometimes-difficult-news is that the outcome is up to God.
John the Baptist proclaims, “One who is more powerful (than me) is coming …. And he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” We have that Holy Spirit. At our baptism we receive the Holy Spirit who protects us from any harm. Who strengthens us for whatever lies ahead. Our baptism, the ongoing presence of the Spirit, and the power of Christ in community, empower us to turn again and again to God.
As we click off the days of December, may God be with us in our preparations, and in our letting go.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.