12/09/18 – Are You Ready For Christmas?

ARE YOU READY FOR CHRISTMAS?

December 9, 2018
2nd Sunday of Advent
Mal.3:1-4, Lk.1:68-79; Phil.1:3-11; Lk. 3:1- 6
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

The question often asked at this time of year is: “Are you ready for Christmas?” We first think of gifts purchased and wrapped, Christmas cards sent, our house decorated, and social obligations put on the calendar. The odd season of Advent the Church observes calls us to a totally different, counter-cultural kind of preparation. The scriptures read at this time are filled with prophets warning us to prepare to meet God at our end-times. Not exactly a cheery thought. Yet we also read beautiful passages like the Song of Zachariah that promise us we are going to meet God in Jesus Christ who will be our judge. Christ, who sacrificed his life that we might become blameless before him. Today we have heard a tale of two prophets who speak to us about being prepared for the coming of the Lord.

Malachi was a prophet in the time after the exiled Jews of Israel returned to their former homeland. When the exiles first returned, they had high hopes. They were home. The temple had been rebuilt and their faith rejuvenated. Life was going to be great. But they were still occupied by a foreign power with all the political and economic restraints the situation placed on them which hindered their prosperity. So, once again, the children of God began to stray. The only authority left to them were the priests and they too had strayed from God’s path. The book of Malachi saves its worst criticism for the priests. When given power and privilege we humans tend to relativize justice and righteousness to accommodate our own desires.

This was also a period of societal division. Jews who had lived for generations in foreign lands returned to a land inhabited by Jews who had not been taken away because they were not wealthy or powerful enough to be deemed a threat to their conquerors. In each of these groups were Jews that had married Gentiles. The question of who were insiders and who were outsiders was answered differently depending on who you asked. Through Malachi, God proclaimed that the expectations for this Chosen people had not changed. To be righteous, one had to align one’s own will to God’s.  Who were the unrighteous? Malachi gives a hauntingly inclusive list:

First, he named sorcerers – these are people who pretend they can do the impossible. I interpret that to mean that most politicians are sorcerers, for how can one lower taxes and pay for all the things they promise?

Next on the list are adulterers. I suspect that is a large group today. And, Jesus said we aren’t off completely off the hook if we don’t do it but want to if we had the opportunity. Considering the magnitude of Internet porn, I’d say a lot of people are thinking about it. I’ve heard employers say that employees using work computers to access Internet porn undermines productivity more than anything else.

Malachi adds to the list, people who swear falsely. Jesus says that anyone who says they believe one thing but contradict themselves by their actions are “swearing falsely” and are hypocrites. As Malachi asked rhetorically: “Who could stand?”

Malachi closes out the list with two more categories of sinners to whom God stands in opposition: “those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien.” I don’t think that needs any clarification.

And finally Malachi ends the roll call of sinners with “those that do not fear me,” which means people who hold themselves and their abilities in such high esteem that they don’t think they need to thank God for the blessings they have received, or even don’t believe they need God; or those who pay more attention to worldly gods than the one true God.

Did Malachi leave anyone out? “Who could stand,” indeed?

Somewhere around 200 -300 years later, Luke’s gospel was written to tell the world about Jesus. By this time the Jewish rebellion against the Romans had been quashed and the last temple in Jerusalem destroyed. Like Malachi, John the Baptist was called both as a prophet and a messenger of God. God’s chosen people were still living under the rule of a foreign empire and still not living up to God’s expectations of a just and compassionate community of the faithful.

John the Baptist’s description is similar and at times word for word, to the description of the Old Testament prophet Elijah, a prophet who also spent time in the wilderness. Like Malachi and other prophets, John talked about sin and judgment. He is a biblical figure that could easily be misused as a model for those who divert attention from their own failure to follow Christ by judging others. But, that’s the work of a false prophet which John the Baptist most certainly was not.

John the Baptist didn’t go around pointing his finger at individuals who committed this sin or that sin, keeping score to determine who was in and who was outside God’s grace. John the Baptist spoke to his own people about their failure to live into their calling to act as God’s chosen people. Chosen, not for privilege, but to be a light to guide all peoples into God’s kingdom. John reminded his audience that God’s desire was to bring salvation to all, which didn’t sit well with the self-righteous who thought they had a free pass when it came to judgment because they were descendants of Abraham. If we go on to read the verses after verse 6, John refers to these as a “brood of vipers.”

From the beginning of this passage, Luke sets up the dichotomy between worldly powers and God’s omnipotence by placing John in a particular context of place and time. Luke lists the political power figures of the day — emperor, governor, regional king, and the religious leaders, the high priests. God did not send his/her message to those the world deemed powerful, God sent an Essene, a member of a Jewish sect who chose to forsake worldly wealth and pleasures to live a simple, faithful life in the wilderness.

John calls for repentance. This means far more than feeling sorry for your sins.  The Greek word for repentance, “metanoia” cannot be adequately translated into English. It is an awareness of one’s sin with a corresponding transformation of the inner being to turn back to God. The transformation is not just a transformation of perception but a realigning of one’s whole being to live as a changed person.

Our two prophets, Malachi and John the Baptizer, accepted God’s call to be messengers of peace. These messengers called for their people to prepare for peace with repentance, to trust in God’s promises, and to live according to God’s righteousness. And so, we are being called this Advent to prepare for the way of peace in our world, in our communities, in our families and within ourselves. John the Baptist received his call before he could even understand it. But his parents prepared him for his divine mission. Here are the words from our first reading from Luke today. As Zachariah holds his newborn son, the answer to his own prayers, he proclaims:

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 1:79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” – Luke 1:78-79

Some Biblical scholars believe that Luke put together two early Christian hymns to create this text we know as the Song of Zachariah. It is one of the most beautiful texts in the Bible.

Most of us have received this same call at our baptisms. Christ told his disciples that God’s kingdom will come in God’s own time as God chooses to bring it, and not a moment before. A disciple’s job – our job – is simply to prepare for it. And one of the most important ways we prepare is to pray for it. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

As you and I pray for God’s kingdom to come, God responds. God gives us grace that causes us not only to want to align our lives to the kingdom’s standards, but even more. God gives us grace that increasingly enables us to do so. When we are faithful, as individuals, as a congregation and as the Church, God’s grace enables us to risk setting aside all other cultural and political values in the world to give ourselves over in obedience to Jesus’ words. Then the kingdom is present. This is when we demonstrate that we have submitted to the baptism of repentance John the Baptizer proclaimed. Every demonstration of faithfulness, every act of kindness and justice, every moment of peace is a way to prepare the way of the Lord. May God help us all to be ready for Christmas. Amen.

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church
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