Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christ Abides

Sheepscott Community Church December 26, 2010

Isaiah 63: 7-9

Matthew 2: 13-23

Christ Abides

I question whether there is anybody in church today who hasn’t heard of Susan Boyle, the Scottish chanteuse who a little over a year ago wowed the audience and judges on the show “Britain’s Got Talent.” Middle-aged and overweight, dowdy in dress and odd in deportment, Susan Boyle’s dream was to be a professional singer in the mold of the popular UK artist Elaine Page. The audience frowned at the allusion, and the cameras picked up more than one audience member rolling her eyes and sneering. But then, Susan Boyle opened her mouth and sang for all she was worth, and that was a lot. The audience was on its feet cheering. Here was the genuine article.

Within minutes of the show, Susan Boyle’s U-tube video went viral on the internet and within a few days had broken the record for hits with over 300,000,000 viewers from around the world watching the songstress, who in her ordinariness stood in for many people who have a dream. Fittingly her selection was “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables, and she had the nerve, the guts, the chutzpah to try to make her dream a reality.

The point I want to make out of this story is that the news in today’s world travels in nanoseconds on the internet, and someone in New Dehli can know what someone in New Gloucester, Maine is up to on a Sunday morning, if New Gloucester wants to put it out there on Facebook or a blog or whatever. The internet video that made Susan Boyle an international star literally overnight can be contrasted with the star that the Wise Men, the astrologers, the Kings saw in the sky. It was no instant video that informed them of its meaning. For nearly two years they studied their astrological charts and weighed them against the prophecies of the time concerning an important King to be born, and interpreting the star to mean that there was something worth investigating. So they went on the road to track down this newborn king.

The story of the Three Wise Men is actually next Sunday’s story, when we will celebrate Epiphany, but a bit of it is necessary for background about why Herod got so upset about this birth, as noted in today’s gospel. Whatever really did happen, we can at the very least learn from the story that Jesus’s birth was significant and threatening to the powers that were at the time. No sooner had the Light come into the world than the darkness fixed on it to overcome it.

In this story the darkness took the form of King Herod, who was not so far from Kim Jong Il, the current president of North Korea, or Laurent Gbagbo, the legitimately defeated president of Ivory Coast, who refuses to concede the presidential office. Herod, Kim Jong Il, Gbagbo are and were all paranoid about threats to their power from the outside. Even within the family. Herod, had three of his sons killed because he thought they were plotting against him––which they may have been, with good reason. He also had his wife Mariamne and her mother Alexandra killed for the same reason. Among the most egregiously cruel and self-serving of Herod’s acts was at the very end of his life. He ordered that the slaughter of the most notable men of Jerusalem take place at the moment of his death, so that there would be weeping in the city when he died. He had no illusions about the way people felt––including family––about him.

So, it isn’t so hard to believe that this despot would have all the boys under two years of age in Bethlehem killed in an attempt to do away with yet another threat to his power. This was the Slaughter of the Innocents, as it was called. It’s also worth noting that we aren’t talking about hundreds of boys here, maybe 20 or 30. Bethlehem was a small town, after all, and who would primarily have been affected by those killings would simply be the children and mothers of the children. In the rest of the area, the event would have caused little more than a ripple. It wasn’t their sons, after all.

So where was God in all this? I would answer with verses Cyndi read this morning from Isaiah: “In all their distress”––and we can imagine the distress of the scene of babies and toddlers being torn from their mothers and slaughtered in front of them, but Matthew spares us the details––”In all their distress, he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” And that’s enough. God is always enough, even when death is involved. Whether we apply the “them” in those verses to the babies themselves or to the frantic parents, or even to the soldiers doing their duty whose Father, whose Mother, God no less is, “In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them.”

God with us. Emmanuel, if you recall from the gospels and the readings from Isaiah and from the hymns and messages of the last four weeks. Emmanuel, God with us. God carrying his people as in days of old.

A powerful image some of you may have seen that goes a long way toward making visible the complexity and perplexing nature of this morning’s gospel––as in How could Herod do that? How could the soldiers do that?––an image that can help illuminate some of the reality behind the text, and the reality even further behind the image itself is a painting by the late nineteenth-, early twentieth-century artist Luc Olivier Merson, entitled “Repose in Egypt.” The painter shows Mary and the infant Jesus asleep in the hollow between the body and the right paw of the Sphinx, the halo light from the Child’s head lighting the face of the Sphinx.. The enigma/ that life is/ remains /and it is well captured in the figure of the Sphinx and the cruelty of Herod, which is the cause of the Mother and Child being here at the base of the Sphinx in Egypt in the first place.

The Sphinx can represent the contradictions we know within ourselves, for our human nature sometimes seems a mixture of serpent, winged bird, lion and human. But even as the contradiction the Sphinx represents remains, the Christ Child has been born and sleeps peacefully between the lion’s paws. I repeat what I noted earlier: No sooner had the Light come into the world than evil in the person of Herod began to oppose it. But look: the child asleep between the lion paws of the Sphinx. Contradiction. We ourselves are a web of contradiction, with possibilities and propensities toward both good and evil.

But Christ abides, there between the paws of the Sphinx, as an answer to our yearning for the pardon of our sins, the promise of eternal life written across the top of our own deaths. He awaits only the venture of our faith to prove himself the answer to the mystery. And that is what I am going to leave you with this morning. The word “mystery” seems to be the easy way out of explaining the unexplainable, of not declaring what the Truth with a capital T is, after all is said and done. Nevertheless, that is what I leave you with this morning: the challenge to engage with mystery: the Spirit of the Living God as revealed in this Light born into the world on Christmas, which yes, the darkness immediately rises up to oppose, the darkness in ourselves as well as the darkness outside of ourselves.

But darkness is already defeated because the light has come into the world. The world is no longer in total darkness.

Think of one artist’s rendering of that child between the paws of the lion. We, when we come to know how Jesus is who he is––knowable in prayerful listening––can ourselves be between the paws of the lion and yet sleep with ease, knowing we are lifted up and carried by God as in days of old. Amen.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

What Does Love Do?

Sheepscott Community Church December 19, 2010

Isaiah 7: 10-17

Matthew 1: 18-25

What Does Love Do?

I’m going to talk about two things this morning in relation to the title of the message, “What Does Love Do?” First, I’ll spend a few minutes talking about Mary and Joseph and the significance and meaning of their relationship as revealed in this morning’s gospel, and then I’ll talk about the incarnation again, a kind of part II, following last week’s message in anticipation of this week’s feast of Christmas : God born into the world.

First, Mary and Joseph. The reading from Matthew tells us Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph. Betrothed is a word you may have heard before in this connection, like Alex Wajer and Greg Rice of this parish. They are betrothed. There were three distinct steps in the Jewish marriage procedure. First, the engagement. This would have been an agreement entered upon by the parents of the involved parties or a matchmaker, when the parties themselves were still children. Marriage was considered way too serious a step to be left to the dictates of the human heart.

Next came the betrothal, which was the ratification of the engagement into which the couple had previously entered. At this time, the engagement could be broken if the girl or woman was unwilling to go through with the marriage. But once the betrothal was entered into, it was absolutely binding. It lasted for one year, during which time the couple were known as man and wife, although they did not have conjugal rights, which only kicked in at the time of the wedding proper, as I said, a year after the betrothal. The only way to terminate a betrothal was with a divorce, and that is what Joseph planned to do, as we heard in this morning’s gospel, when he was confronted with Mary’s pregnancy, which could apparently only be the result of adultery.

The scripture tells us that Joseph was a just man, and the implication of the word is that he was religiously scrupulous and obedient to the will of God. In this reading this morning, the word can also mean sympathy and kindness, evident in his plan to divorce Mary rather than expose her publicly to legally justified stoning. That is what love would do, isn’t it? Do what was necessary to prevent the stoning. And that’s what he planned to do with the information available to him at the time before the dream of divine visitation with its message to take Mary as his wife, that the pregnancy had a divine source.

It’s worth noting that the word “Father” as an ascription for God had been used only infrequently in the Hebrew scriptures, and it usually implied national and not personal relationships, as in, God as the Father of the Israelite nation. But Jesus used it in intimate ways and taught us to do the same, when he taught us how to pray what is now called the Our Father or the Lord’s Prayer. That fact may be partially a tribute to Joseph’s care for his household, and it is also fair to assume that Joseph was the channel through which Jesus drew some of his incomparable wisdom. Jesus learned how to be a man from how Joseph was a man. It is also worth noting that Mary was anything but a passive player in this whole human drama. She had set the play in motion with her agreement to do whatever was necessary in order for God’s plan to be carried out. “May it be done unto me according to your word.” Mary’s fiat.

And now, on to another consideration, that of incarnation from a theological rather than sociological standpoint. Thomas Henry Huxley has said, “The highest altar man can raise is to the unknown and unknowable God.” That resonates deeply with me. The importance of allowing God to be God and not containing God in our own forms of idolatry––This is how to worship God! No, this is how to worship God, because this is who God is.––These two arguing at each other is exactly why the highest altar would be built to the unknown and unknowable God.

But such a God strikes me as ultimately cold and distant, the antithesis of the coming of Christ we are going to be celebrating five days hence, right in this sanctuary. If we think about one of the titles of that Christ, by which we just invoked him in the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” we were singing of “God with us,” which is what the name means. We are expressing a belief that a particular mortal body, a human soul––Jesus––became for a little while the habitation of the Spirit of God. And because of that Christ, we too can become habitations of that same Spirit of God. What a Christmas gift that is!

If God is personal, we would expect that One would want to make himself, herself, itself known. If that One is indeed Love, then nothing could keep her away from her children. She would find a way to be with them. Christian theology proposes that that is exactly what happened in and through the Incarnation. God with us. Emmanuel.

If God is Love and Jesus, the Emmanuel we are speaking of this morning is the embodiment of that Love, all that Jesus was and is, God was and is. Perhaps more, we don’t know, but we do know, or at least some of us believe that at least that much is true: All of what Jesus is and was, God is. Recall that Jesus is quoted as saying in John 14: 9, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

God revealed himself in the person of a human being because human nature, being spiritual as well as bodily, made it possible for God to do so. That very special human being, Jesus, spoke of God as his Father. Whoever has seen Jesus has seen God the Father. Apart from Christ, Huxley’s word is quite true: “The highest altar a man can raise is to the unknown and unknowable God.” But in Christ, God has made himself known.

From William Blake’s “The Divine Image”:

For Mercy has a human heart;

Pity, a human face;

And Love, the human form divine:

And Peace, the human dress.

God is with us and therefore known to us, for who can deny the deep longing of the human soul for connection, through love, with other human beings and with the Source of Love, whom, or which, if you prefer, we call God, revealed in the Emmanuel, Jesus, God with us, soon coming to a stage near you. Friday night at 7.

Emmanuel. God is with us to seek and to save. The fullness of salvation as forgiveness, healing, comfort, moral strength, example cannot be given from afar or in an impersonal fashion. It is the touch, the connection that makes it real and makes it healing. Which is what salvation means: health, wellness. Pain is not removed from the heart by a word of sympathy from one who knows nothing of its anguish. To be the One who brings health and wellness, i.e., salvation, God entered our lives in an utterly human and personal fashion. He faced our temptations, dealt with our sins, and carried our sorrows––the saving length his love would go to that we might have life and have it abundantly. That is what love does.

Emmanuel, God with us. “Unto us is born a Savior! For love of us he came, and for love he still abides. “For lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” Do you remember last week I noted that the world is a dark place, and it seems to be getting darker, rather than lighter, but the darkness is different because he keeps getting born into it, constantly renewing our hope.

Emmanuel, God with us. By the light of nature we see God as a God above us; by the light of the law, we see him as a God against us; but by the light of the gospel we see him as Emmanuel, God with us in our own nature, and, which is more, in our interest. That is the great gospel that is proclaimed by this title and which is exemplified in the Christ who bore it. God is not against us; he is for us and with us and on our side. Amen.

We have five days left to prepare for Christmas. Believe me when I say I know about the practical preparations that have to be made. But more importantly believe me when I say that those preparations are nothing beside the preparation of our hearts, the readying of our hearts, minds, souls to be opened, healed, laid bare to the eye of the All-Seeing God who loves. What does that Love do? It comes and saves us from our worst selves, full of indolence, indifference, meanness, and walks with us as we choose to be better, spending ourselves for others while finally coming to love ourselves, by the grace of God.

By taking some time apart––5 minutes, an hour, 5 hours––between now and Friday, we can prepare the way of the Lord. We can lift up the portals and open wide the doors and let the King of Glory come in. Amen.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Sheepscott Community Church December 12, 2010

Isaiah 35: 1-10

Matthew 11: 2-11

Who Do You Say That I Am?

If you recall, last week’s gospel was about John coming out of the desert, calling those who came out to him at the Jordan River to repent and bear fruits of repentance, that the axe was already laid to the base of the tree, and that every tree that did not bear good fruit would be cut down and thrown into the fire. His was a powerful message, delivered in a prophetic manner that probably had his listeners shaking in their boots, especially the scribes and pharisees, whom he called a brood of vipers, and they knew he was a prophet of God.

John the Baptist preached the idea of a punishing God of judgment, so you can imagine that he was perplexed when he heard about what Jesus was doing. He had recognized him when he came to him to be baptized, and in fact he said to him that he, Jesus, should be baptizing him, John, not the other way around. But Jesus asked him to acquiesce for the time being so that God’s purposes might be fulfilled.

Subsequently arrested and put in prison for having spoken against Herod’s taking his brother’s wife for his own while his brother was still living, John had plenty of time to think. When he heard what Jesus was doing––the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, and the the dead raised––he sent his disciples to Jesus with that all important question, Are you the One? That question reflected the perplexity not only of John but of the larger community of Jews who expected a messiah to come with power, political and otherwise. What was he to think of this one who didn’t fit the portrait of what he, John, expected and prophesied? We can see in this case how much John’s own thought and belief colored his expectations. We know in our own lives we often see what we want to see, what will confirm us in our beliefs and enable us to continue going forward in the same direction.

When John’s disciples returned to him, they confirmed what he had heard. Indeed Jesus himself instructed them to tell John what they heard and saw: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” His concluding comment seems directed right at John: “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me,” who finds no stumbling block in me, i.e., don’t let your own unfulfilled messianic expectations divert you from the Way of God’s Messiah. Unfortunately scripture doesn’t record any more about what John or his disciples thought of all this. We only hear about his death.

John’s doubts are possibly our doubts. Is this the Christ or not? Jesus’s answer may seem too undefinitive for some, but it was as much of an affirmative as his honoring of our freedom to choose could allow. He evoked the prophet Isaiah in his response to John, which passage you heard Alex read this morning: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.” John would have recognized this messianic reference from Isaiah and understood what Jesus was saying, but he would still have to decide whether he could accommodate a messiah who singularly did not fulfill his expectations. John had a better eye for the flames of judgment than for the quiet dawn of good will. To him God was Judge rather than Father, which he was to Jesus.

John’s is a question and burden we all face when considering this singular man of history. Are you the Christ, the one who is to come, or do we look for another who will wield temporal power and be a guarantee of what we think is important and what we want in this life, individually, as a people, as a nation? Jesus as messiah came with healing love, comes with healing love, and not with violence. He was, however, not ready at the time of this morning’s gospel to make that announcement of messiahship. Maybe existentially speaking, he was discovering it as he went along. In any event, the time was not full, and he would not force the issue. There needed to be room for the individual soul to choose freely. Otherwise, of what value would a compelled choice be?

An important new piece of information that Jesus communicated at that time, and which remains a key identifier to his life is about his preaching the good news to the poor. For the poor, the common folk whom he addressed at length in the beatitudes––Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God, and so on––Jesus’s taking their part and incorporating them into the kingdom of God was not just good news, it was the best news. They, the poor, the disenfranchised in whatever manner, mattered to someone. The prophets of old had declared that God was a God of the poor, but the lived reality looked very different, as they suffered and then they suffered some more, on all fronts.

Here was one who spoke their language, who hung out with them, whose family members they knew. He was after all a tradesman, a carpenter, not the son of a powerful and influential man. And look at what he’s doing––Can’t you imagine the excitement of these poor, these common folk?––he’s giving sight to the blind among them and restoring hearing. He’s healing the lame and the lepers. He’s among us, with us, one of us. Can this be what the Messiah looks like? No doubt there were a lot of conversations around supper tables in those days, and Jesus would have been the subject. But isn’t he the son of Joseph the carpenter and isn’t Mary his mother? And aren’t his brothers and sisters our neighbors? They didn’t know what to make of him, not just the bearer but the embodiment of the Good News, viz., he himself was the Good News. It seemed too good to be true.

Jesus acted out the prophetic dream of Isaiah. The prophet’s vision had become a reality. I’m stating that, but obviously it’s up to each of us individually to decide how we will think about what Jesus did, whether indeed he was the fulfillment of messianic prophecy or simply a good man, a very good man, who did enough good things in his lifetime to give everyone pause to consider who he might be.

After touting John’s virtues to the crowd, Jesus then notes that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he, than John. Here Jesus is speaking of the revelation of his ministry as the kingdom come, and his own disciples are those “least” in the kingdom. They are named as greater than John, not in moral character or achievements, but in their privileges. This is an important saying, which indicates that the kingdom, as being revealed in Christ, was already present.

There is a dividing line here, a great act of God, a new creation, that fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah which we heard this morning. There is a blank page which God writes on, and his instrument is Jesus as the Christ. He is the Living Word, spoken by the Spirit and written down by limited human beings. We catch something of who he was and is, but way more eludes us and we have to put on our boots and trek out on our own to find out what is true for us and what is not, guided by the wisdom of the past encoded in the scripture, by the writings and records of human beings and their civilizations, and especially guided by the Spirit of God who will lead us into all truth, with the all-important check of community, so we don’t go off the deep end..

It’s a dark way we walk toward the fullness of truth, and indeed our understanding is darkened by our own expectations, like John the Baptist. As Emily Dickinson wrote,

Tell the Truth, but tell it slant

Success in circuit lies.

Too bright for our infirm delight

The Truth’s superb surprise.

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind,

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind.

“The truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind.” We with our darkened understanding continue to walk through Advent, the light gradually increasing as we approach Christmas, as is symbolically evident with the three candles this week on the Advent wreath. We in our humanity can only take so much divine truth at a time. Our constitutions aren’t made for big doses. But that doesn’t dispense with our responsibility to seek out and satisfy the deep longing of our souls toward greater and greater truth––and light.

As Frederick Buechner has written of this journey toward Christmas, “This story that faith tells in the fairy tale language of faith is not just that God is, which God knows is a lot to swallow in itself much of the time, but that God comes. Comes here. ‘In great humility.’ There’s nothing much humbler than being born: naked, totally helpless, not much bigger than a loaf of bread, yet girt with righteousness and faithfulness. And to us came. For us came. Is it true––not just the way fairy tales are true but as the truest of all truths? Almighty God, are you true?" Are you for real?

“When you’re standing up to your neck in darkness, how do you say yes to that question? You say yes the only way faith can ever say it if it is honest with itself. You say yes with your fingers crossed. You say it with your heart in your mouth. Maybe that way we can say yes. He visited us. The world has not been quite the same since. It is still a very dark world, in some ways darker than ever before, but the darkness is different because he keeps getting born into it. The threat of holocaust. The threat of poisoning the earth, sea and air. The threat of our own deaths. The broken marriage. The child in pain. The lost chance.” Fears of financial disaster. “Anyone who has ever known him has perhaps known him better in the dark than anywhere else because it is in the dark that he seems to visit most often.”

He is walking with us up out of the dark toward the crib, waiting patiently along the way as we question ourselves and him––again. Are you the One or do we look for another? Amen.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

8 The King's Highway

Sheepscott Community Church December 5, 2010

Isaiah 11: 1-10

Matthew 3: 1-12

8 The King’s Highway

In biblical times, when a person was setting out on a journey, he was expected to tie up any loose business ends, make sure his will, with the disposition of his estate was in order, and finally to bid goodbye to his family and friends with the expectation of possibly not returning. The reason for that dire preparation was largely the condition of the roads and the thieves who lived among the rocks and crannies of the bleak desert wilderness through which those roads wended. In relation to the gospel of the Good Samaritan, we have previously considered the dangers of those roads, and the additional shine they gave to the credentials of the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help another human being who had been set upon by the storied thieves, and thus had endangered himself.

The roads themselves were nothing more than narrow animal trails, and it was the donkeys, which we meet again and again in the scripture, who could ably pick their way along those trails in more surefooted fashion than their human masters. I expect the situation can be compared to descending the Grand Canyon on horse- or mule-back, the only way to approach that precarious descent/ascent.

So, you have a picture of this inhospitable wilderness with its even less hospitable roads. By contrast, in the time of King Solomon, 10th century B.C.E., the King ordered the roads approaching Jerusalem covered with basalt, a dark, dense igneous rock from lava flow that gave a smoother surface and black appearance to the road. The King’s purpose in putting down the basalt was to demonstrate his riches and his largesse, but also to make it easier for pilgrims to reach Jerusalem, and to facilitate his own travels. All such surfaced and artificially made roads were originally built and maintained for the use of the King, and so, they were called The King’s Highway. The ancient historian Josephus included that in his history of the period.

The King’s Highway. You did know I was going somewhere with that, didn’t you? Our address here is 8 The King’s Highway, Newcastle, Maine. We have three weeks to repair the highway before the King arrives at # 8. Considering the gospel this morning, John the Baptist has given us a formula to get that highway ready for the King, to prepare the way, and repentance is the watchword. ”Prepare the way of the Lord,” John declares to his listeners. “Make straight paths for him.” Make ready the road by which the Lord is coming.

How do we do that? How do we make straight those paths? By asking before God, What do I need to repent of? How many times did I not say the kind thing, but rather the easy sarcastic remark? How many times did I make a joke at someone else’s expense? To guide us we can simply lift the series of commandments right out of the first chapter of Isaiah: “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”

John the Baptist was probably originally dedicated at the Temple by his observant parents. If you recall, his father Zachariah was a priest. This is not unlike our being baptized, christened or dedicated by our parents as infants. But it was John’s own resolve, the product of brooding and prayer, that led him to the understanding that life for him was more than acceptance of what the days might bring, of letting life happen to him. A life was given for a God-ordained task, and John disciplined himself toward this holy end. He chose a desert as his place to draw close to God. He was ascetic in his dress and in his eating habits and dwelt in solitude. Unlike ourselves, he was a stern realist in matters of right and wrong. We debate relativities; John would argue to err on the side of scruple rather than laxity. He was the embodiment of integrity in daily life, and although we might not even want to strive for the level of holiness that was his way of life, it’s good to have such a model to inspire and translate as we can into our lives in the twenty-first century.

A bit more asceticism, self-denial wouldn’t hurt any of us, and the more difficult it is, the more opportunity we have to think about the value of sacrificing a measure of our own comfort or leisure for the sake of another. Here, you have the last piece of chicken. I’ve already had enough. Something as simple as that is what Jesus did to the max, and what John practiced before him. Each of these men accepted a life lived in and for God, and for others, as God directed.

Indeed John, who was purified by his experience in the desert, came not with some opinion of his own, but with a message from God. He pointed beyond himself. He showed evil for what it was. He spoke the truth and wasn’t afraid of offending anyone. He also rebuked sin and was a signpost to God, pointing the way to those who were willing to repent, and were convicted of their own sin. He not only rebuked sin but challenged those who came out to hear him to be what they could be. He called people to higher things and did not appeal to their baser nature, the lowest common denominator of what it means to be human, characteristic of so much of the discourse we hear today.

This conversion to higher things, to higher ideas and ideals, is possible not because of the spiritual capital of the past. “We are sons of Abraham!” the Jews said to John, a claim that any Jew believed would be enough to save him or her. Abraham’s status was unique because of his goodness and his favor with God, his merits sufficing not only for himself but for all his descendants as well. And here is this prophet come in from the desert dressed in animal skins, living on locusts and honey for his food, he comes along and announces that the Jews cannot count on that historical spiritual capital, as God can raise up children for Abraham from stones on the ground. Outrageous! No one had ever talked that way.

He pointed the way to the One who came after him, whose sandals, as he says in the gospel, he was not fit to carry. John is making it clear to his listeners that he is not the bottom line, the final answer, that in fact another would come after him who would baptize not with water, as he did, but with the Spirit and with fire. It was he who would be the answer. John’s whole attitude was one of self-obliteration, not self-importance. That’s what happens when you spend years in a desert being purified, whatever form that desert might take: loneliness, ridicule, sickness, rejection, all of which can constitute a kind of desert of purification, suffering, that makes a way for the King, prepares a way, a straight road, an open door at number 8 The King’s Highway.

But what of this Spirit John talked about, this Holy Spirit who would baptize with fire? Before we can receive that Spirit, we have to produce fruits of repentance, as John said to the Pharisees and Sadducees, whom he called a brood of vipers. He wasn’t much of a sweet-talker. The fruit of our repentance is not merely a sentimental sorrow, but a real change of life. And in this area we need to go in fear of trading on the mercy of God when it comes to going halfway with repentance, as in, a little bit of this sin, a little bit of that, there’s time enough to repent when I’m older. Remember the message from last week: You know not the hour or the day when the Son of Man will come.

Do I mean to put the fear of God in you? I guess I do, and in myself. But more to the point is to instill a fear or dread of not fulfilling the call on our lives, the call on the gift our lives are. What we really need to walk in fear of is our own habits of indolence and self-indulgence that interfere with fulfilling that call on our lives, that interfere with our relationship with God, whose Spirit longs to show us the way to greater and greater life.

It isn’t so much God’s judgment on us, it’s our own judgment on ourselves which we project on God. God is all-forgiving, all-loving. Not so, us. Not so, us. We are more inclined toward judgment and vengeance. In any case, the instrument of mediation between God cast as judge, and ourselves cast as the accused is that repentance, genuine, life-changing repentance. No matter what we have done or haven’t done, no matter the depth of shame we may feel over something hidden in our past, which we’ve consigned to the deepest of our inner rooms, no matter that we have sealed that room shut, when we express to God our sincere sorrow for what we have done, whatever the full reality of the spriitual dynamics involved is, the seal on that door is immediately broken, and the light floods in on that shriveled, unloved part of ourselves that has been under wraps, hiding for so long.

The light that floods in is that shed by the King, who has arrived at number 8 The King’s Highway, our house of worship. No entourage, just himself. If God can raise up children of Abraham from stones, how much more will he raise us up as flesh and blood beings who are bent on being God’s people, whatever it takes, demonstrated by our willingness to repent?

When we repent, we make a way for the Spirit of God to enter into our life situations, that our own weakness may be clad with the power of God so we can do those acts that are the fruits of repentance without self-consciousness and with joy. And we, like John the Baptist, can live as God’s message, reflecting the image of the Creator, our own personalities fully developed in the truth of who we are.

As we contemplate our lives before God in these weeks of Advent pilgrimage not to the Jerusalem of Eastertime, but to the Bethlehem of Christmastime, let us prepare ourselves with prayer, and that right now, before the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.