Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Third Sunday of Advent [Year C] - December 13, 2009 (Luke 3:7-18 and Philippians 4:4-7)

Getting ready for Christmas makes a house feel like a home. That’s what I’ve learned over these first weeks of Advent. Pull out a stocking or two, string up some garland, and—presto-change-o!—the place is yours.

As many of you may know, my family moved to our new house in Glen Allen just before Halloween. Once the trucks dropped off our stuff, we began frantically moving and arranging furniture and unpacking boxes and storing away household items so that we could be ready to host our families at Thanksgiving. Things had been coming together nicely, but it really didn’t start to feel like “home” until we took out those boxes labeled “Christmas decorations” that we had packed away in Pittsburgh last year and began strewing their contents all over our house. And it was funny: almost instantly, we felt more settled. When, in the midst of it all, we decided the house needed still a little more Christmas—“right that very minute”—we simply made a quick trip out to Target or Home Depot for more lights or an extra extension cord…I mean, a green extension cord…I mean, a longer green extension cord…a longer green extension cord for outside use.

Decorating. Many would say it is an indispensable part of this Advent season. We don’t just decorate our homes, but our churches, our places of work, our classrooms, even our cars. I had a friend in high school who used to wire a living wreath to the grill of her car. Whatever it is, it seems we can’t properly experience the holiday without it. That is the essence of John the Baptist’s preaching this morning, but it’s not decorating he’s talking about. His message is repentance, and it appears we can’t properly experience Jesus’ arrival without it. It is indispensable.

Repentance is, simply put, a change of direction. Derived from the two Greek words for “change” and “mind,” repentance implies a turning around, a shifting in mindset. John’s appearance in the wilderness is not simply another sign that Jesus is right around the corner, like a another figure we add to the nativity scene as the big day approaches. Rather, John comes preaching a specific message that teaches us how to receive the Lord. When Jesus comes, it appears that things will shake up a bit. Jesus’ kingdom will kind of turn things as we know them upside down, make the world look somewhat different, and John’s message of repentance, if heeded, will involve changing some things about ourselves so we are aligned with that new world.

In order to make his point, John goes a little overboard on the imagery, if you ask me. He’s got an ax and some trees, stones, a winnowing fork, water, fire—a big hodge-podge of rather intimidating farm tools, all employed with John’s trademark fire-and-brimstone gusto. A winnowing fork was this broom-shaped tool that a thresher used in order to separate the grain of wheat from the chaff, those bits and pieces of the plant that could not be eaten. The winnowing fork would toss the wheat into the air, and the grain would fall to the ground, while the chaff would get caught by the wind and blow away. If collected, chaff made great tinder.

Whether it’s that image or the ax at the root of the tree that works better for you, John’s point is still the same: Jesus’ arrival and his reign among us herald a change. We stand to be prepared for this change, not in a way that suggests Jesus will only love us if we repent, but in such a way that our lives comes to reflect the magnificent turnaround Jesus is going to bring. In other words, it’s time to get out the decorations and make this place look like his home.

And what for decorations? What is this garland and stockings with which we deck the halls once we’ve heard the good news that he is on his way? The crowds actually ask John this, point-blank. His response is, “Take your extra coats, clothes, food, and give them to those who have none.” At least try to even things out a bit. Let loose of greed and gluttony. And there’s even better news for those who, up until now, thought they were all but excluded from the kingdom: tax-collectors and soldiers, corrupt and prone to collude and cohabitate with the occupying military power. As it turns out, Jesus’ arms will be open for them, too. This is a gracious kingdom, where even sinners will have a place.

So, instead of unpacking our Christmas boxes and stringing lights around our homes, a more appropriate way to embody repentance would involve handing over our extra boxes to those in need. Getting ready for the gift of Christ and stoking the holiday spirit might not, after all, entail a quick trip to Target for more tinsel, but rather making an extra stop in the Target parking lot to drop some more change in the bell-ringer’s red bowl.

In light of that, consider the amount of “decorating” that has gone on at Epiphany over the last couple of weeks. Cots are set up for our CARITAS guests in the fellowship hall where they will receive shelter for a week. The sign-up sheets for the duties have filled up rather quickly. Shopping lists have also been made—checked twice—for the giving tree in the Commons, which will dispense gifts to those in our area in need. Over the past few weeks, the women’s circles of the congregation have collected household items for St. Joseph’s Villa. And one of our members has asked for pairs of old shoes to send to a young man down in the South side named Juma Semakula.

Juma has a dream to fill up an entire cargo container of old shoes to send to his native Uganda where millions of poverty-stricken children and adults go shoeless. He got the idea after coming to live in America and occasionally seeing old shoes tossed out in peoples’ trash cans. Thinking that any shoes are better than no shoes for those with bare feet, Juma decided to send as many as he can back to his homeland. He estimates it will take 30,000 shoes to fill up one. Our congregation alone donated just around 200 to his cause. That’s as if everyone at this service gave one pair of shoes to folks half a world away. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John says, and I suppose he would have considered a cargo container full of shoes to be one of those fruits. Maybe he would have considered all of our Advent decorating for what it is: outwards signs of an internal mind-shift that takes place in us, a realization that when Jesus comes to reside here, a holy change takes place. The lame walk, the blind see, and all sinners come to have a place at the table.

But it’s very important to realize that we show forth these signs of repentance chiefly not out of a sense of fear, although John’s frightening farm implements might arouse that emotion in us. The winnowing fork and the ax at the tree may serve their purpose, but I take to heart the words of Paul and the prophet Zephaniah this morning, too. Ultimately, you see, we begin embodying this change of the kingdom, we undertake the words and actions that prepare this place for Jesus out of a sense of joy.

We are joyful for the hope he brings. We are joyful because he comes and makes room in his kingdom for even for us. God is not obligated to do so, but he chooses to have us there. That is the point about these stones in John’s sermon. If God wanted, God could make his kingdom out of the stones on the ground, raising them up, instead of us, to be his children. Rocks could take our place! It could be a rock standing here wearing the fancy Egyptian Advent stole! Yet God, in spite of our hard-headedness, in spite of our stubbornness against bearing fruit, still opens the kingdom to us, still hands us his body and blood, still dies on the cross to release us from sin. And this, my friends, is a joyful thing.

I remember a conversation I had with a close friend a few years ago about his conversion to Christianity. He was a fellow worker with me in a refugee relief program, and I had come to know him as a very thoughtful and committed person of faith, but apparently he had not always been so. He had grown up in a home that did not adhere to a particular faith. He would probably have categorized his religion as “agnostic,” but, he said, his family had never really given much thought to church or religious matters, especially after the tragic death of his father when he was young. One day I finally got the courage to ask him what it was—or what combination of things it was—that caused him to accept the Lord Christ. Why he had changed his own mind about what he believed? Had someone sat him down and explained the story of Jesus? Had he been intellectually convinced of the truth-claims of our faith? Had he, like Paul, “seen the light” in some dramatic, life-changing fashion? His answer was none of those. He said that during his years at the university, he had come to know a group of Christians who met together to worship and pray on campus. As he observed them, he came to realize they had joy in their lives. He said to me, quite plainly, “I wanted that. I wanted that joy in my life, and I eventually came to the conclusion that Jesus was ground in which their joy was rooted.”

Yes, Jesus is near. In fact, he is making the rounds here this morning…at the table, in the words of Scripture, in the forgiveness proclaimed embodied. So, spread the joy. Haul out the holly, especially in Juma’s fashion, 30,000-shoes-strong. Haul out the holly…in CARITAS-style. Instead of exchanging fruitcakes, how about exchanging fruits of repentance? And, as you decorate in the manner of John the Baptist, hear the words “Given for you,” and—Lord have mercy—be ready for a turnaround. Presto-changeo, the place will be his!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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