Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent December 06, 2015 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
We’ve all been there. Driving somewhere, and you think you’re going to save a little time, or take a shortcut, or dodge a toll, and wham! Taillights all the way to the horizon and wham! curses to match. This happened to me yesterday. A state trooper had shut down two lanes of traffic to keep anyone from slashing their tires on the wreckage that littered the highway. Of course this created a traffic jam, which was inconvenient, but not as inconvenient as tire damage on a busy highway. And that’s what would have happened, since the debris would have been hard to see until it was too late. Up to that point, we would have thought we were making a smart move.
This isn’t a sermon about obeying authority figures, but rather a metaphor for prophecy and repentance. In fact, I want to point out that human beings can’t even make ourselves perfect, so God is our only hope for creating a better world. But more on that later, I’m not done griping about traffic.
Traffic was steadily streaming to John the Baptist. Get it? ’Cause the Jordan River is more like a stream, and… I’m sorry, now that David Prentice isn’t here anymore, someone has to take over making terrible puns. Anyway, like the strobe lights on an emergency vehicle, John the Baptist was alerting people that they needed to make a change, they couldn’t just keep on doing what they were doing. But rather than curse him, people sought him out. Something about his message was so appealing that it could overcome the natural human tendency to ignore, resist, or fight anything that challenges our notions of how we, and the how the world, should be. And though Luke makes the connection by juxtaposition, rather than by explanation, John was saying that the effort that individual people made toward improving their own spiritual lives would somehow usher in a completely new world.
It’s hard to imagine many modern people going for this message. All our lives, we’ve been inundated with marketing that tells us, on the one hand, that we’re perfect just the way we are, and on the other, that complete happiness and fulfillment are just one purchase away. And remember that repentance, one of John the Baptist’s core messages, doesn’t just mean regretting our mistakes, or admitting them, or feeling remorse, but rather, a complete change in ourselves, a spiritual transformation that causes a permanent change in how we behave. Part of the appeal may have lain in the promise of release from one’s sins. John wasn’t promising to change the past for his disciples, but he was offering Godly assurance that the past no longer held them hostage.
John was also saying some bold things about the future. He insisted that the violent, decadent, exploitative, uncaring world that his disciples were desperate to escape was not beyond hope, or change. And they weren’t responsible for changing it, just for doing their part to make the conditions more favorable. Just moving a bit, in order to ensure their own preservation and a space for the repair crew to do its job.
Lately the news has been especially grim. Appalling bouts of violence at home, and an entrenched horror in Syria and Iraq that, combined with many western countries’ refusal to take them in, has created the greatest refugee crisis in our generation. We may wonder what kind of world we are baptizing our children into, but of course, we do not baptize anyone into the world. John’s baptism was a reaction to the brokenness of the world, not a concession to it. And John’s baptism was merely a preparation for the arrival of Jesus, the Son of God, who is God’s reaction to the brokenness of the world.
Lately it has become fashionable in some venues to reject prayer as a response to atrocities. When prayer is used disingenuously, as a substitute for action, it is appropriate to call people out on their disingenuousness. But a wholesale rejection of prayer betrays a misunderstanding of what prayer is. Prayer is communication with God, an invocation of the God who became part of the world to save it, and will return in glory to set all things right with grace, peace, and mercy, and who works through us to begin this work of redemption. So prayer is by nature the first step toward meeting the needs, binding the wounds, of the world. Prayer is like drawing up the plans for a public works project that will benefit everyone. Prayer also reminds us that we are not alone, but part of a vast but hidden reality, the communion of saints, all the whole people of God, which in turn implies that we must master our pride and move our own will aside in order to participate fully in the greater life and mission of this communion.
By the same token, Christian baptism bestows grace, but it does not magically alter our personality. While John’s baptism was an expression of human repentance, individuals’ intent to live a better life, Christian baptism confers the grace of God, who forgives all our sin and grants us new life in Christ through his resurrection. Baptism makes us full members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and true adopted children of God. For every baptized Christian, the Church is no longer foreign territory, but a home to which they always can return and be welcomed. [This is what Charles, Margaret, and Charles are about to receive, and we join with the whole of heaven in rejoicing in their inclusion and regeneration. They, and] all the baptized join Christ as followers on his Way, and we join him in the church’s mission, planning and building improvements to the world, and taking care to help others, protecting them from the hazards that may be found here.
The worship of the church is called liturgy, which comes from a Greek word which is often mistranslated as “work of the people.” The correct translation is “work for the people,” that is, work for the public good. That’s why I insist on using the old-fashioned tradition of naming intentions before moving on to the celebration of the Eucharist, to remind and reveal that we celebrate not for ourselves, but for the benefit of others, “all God’s people in heaven and on Earth.” The Church is like a big public works department, as our purpose is not our own satisfaction, but making the world better for everyone. So when I see a traffic jam forming at the bottleneck between the nave and the rail, I offer no curse, but rather a silent prayer of thanks and praise to the God who is always drawing the whole world to the way of the Cross, the way of Christ, the way of health, salvation, and peace, the highway for our God that joins Earth to heaven.