Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
December 8, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
To judge by the decorations in all the stores, and by the lights that have been strung on many of our houses, we are now in the Christmas season. We certainly are in the Christmas shopping season. You can hardly turn on the radio these days without hearing (in addition to all of the commercials trying to convince us men that we donít really love our wife or sweetheart unless we spend a fortune on diamonds for Christmas) a report on how much money we Americans are spending on Christmas, always cast as to suggest that somehow the entire fate of the American economy hinges on whether or not we spend more on Christmas presents than we did last year. There can even be a touch of panic in the announcerís voice as he or she tells us that retailers worried because Americans may spend "only" two or three percent more than we did in 2001, as if our ability to spend substantially more year after year were, or at least should be, unlimited.
Well, secular society may be in the midst of its annual Christmas madness, but here in the church it isnít Christmas yet. Christmas is coming, but we still have seventeen days to wait. In the church, the Christmas season begins on December 25, even if to the world it ends on that date and the after-Christmas sales and exchanges begin. For the church, Christmas begins on December 25, although we donít err too badly by treating it as beginning on the evening of December 24. (And weíll probably even cheat a little bit and do some Christmas stuff on December 22, the last Sunday of Advent). Right now itís Advent, not Christmas. Advent is the season of the church year devoted to preparing for Christmas (and that doesnít mean shopping and putting lights on the house). Advent lasts for over four weeks. It consists of four Sundays devoted to preparing, anticipating, watching, waiting, and hoping. It is a time to prepare ourselves to receive once again Godís most miraculous gift, Emmanuel, God with us, Christ the Lord, whose coming into the world we reenact and celebrate anew each Christmas. The world may not make much of Advent, but the church does.
And it is entirely right and proper that we do so. Although Scripture does not specifically prescribe the four Sundays of Advent, it does make it very clear that the coming of Christ into the world is something that requires preparation. We see that idea expressed in the two Scripture passages we heard this morning. Neither of them is really a Christmas passage, yet they both make the point that the coming of God, of Christ, is something that requires preparation. The passage from Isaiah, although we know it as the opening verses of the fortieth chapter of the book, is actually be opening passage of a writing that we should know as Second Isaiah. Chapters 40 through 55 of Isaiah were written by a different author in entirely different circumstances than were the first thirty-nine chapters (or the last eleven for that matter, which were written by a third Isaiah). The writer known as Second Isaiah is probably the greatest anonymous author of all time. His sixteen chapters of the Book of Isaiah contain the first expression of true monotheism in all of human history. He wrote during the Babylonian Exile of the Jewish people in the sixth century BCE. He is talking in his opening verses about the coming return of the Jews to Jerusalem. The Christian tradition has long seen these verses as predicting the coming of Christ. Those of you who have been coming to our adult education sessions know that that isnít really what the Prophets were doing. Still, there is no harm in seeing the opening of Second Isaiah as talking about what is required when we expect the coming of God, or of some profound act of God, into history. Second Isaiah quotes an unidentified voice crying out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God." And again: "Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion..., lift up your voice with strength...Say to the cities of Judah, ĎHere is your God!í" In other words: Get ready! God is coming! That isnít something that just happens without preparation. We have to prepare. We have to be ready to receive God when God comes. Godís coming has to be announced, proclaimed, celebrated. It doesnít just happen without our preparation.
The opening verses of Mark may not sound like an Advent story either. They donít say anything about Jesus being born. Yet they really are an Advent story. Mark doesnít have a story of Jesusí birth. In Mark, as in John, Jesus first appears as an adult, and nothing much is said about how, when, or where he was born. So Markís account of John the Baptist functions as an Advent story because it serves as the introduction, the build up, to the coming of Jesus. The story has a lot in common with the Isaiah passage. It is the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark, just as Isaiah 40 is the very beginning of Second Isaiah. Mark refers expressly to the Isaiah passage. He makes John the Baptist the one crying out in the wilderness "prepare the way of the Lord." Just as Second Isaiah did five hundred years earlier, Markís John the Baptist is telling people: Get ready! Christ is coming! You have to prepare! You canít just sit there and expect it to happen!
So why do Isaiah and Mark make so much of our getting ready for the coming of God, of Christ, into the world and into our lives? It seems to me that there are two primary reasons. The first is that the coming of God, of Christ, into the world and into our lives is such a momentous, life changing, world altering event. In Isaiahís time, as Isaiah saw it, God had intervened in history to save the Jewish people from their captivity in Babylon. God did it actually in the person of Cyrus, King of the Persians. Isaiah saw Cyrus as Godís "anointed," in Hebrew Godís "Messiah," because he was about to conquer the Babylonians and allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. God was breaking into history to restore Godís Chosen People to the Promised Land. That event was so momentous, and it would make such demands on the people, uprooting them from the homes they had established in Babylon and trekking a thousand miles across the desert from Mesopotamia to Palestine, that it had to be prepared for. It wouldnít just happen. It couldnít just happen. The people had to make ready for everything to change.
We see the same thing in John the Baptistís message in our passage from Mark. Jesus was coming, the one whose sandals we are not even worthy to untie, the one who would baptize us with the holy Spirit, something that only the Son of God could do. The one was coming who would restore us to right relationship with God, who would end our exile of separation from our Creator and lead us back home to God. Godís anointed, Godís Messiah was coming. His coming would make profound demands on us, demands that in response to Godís grace we change the way we live. With Jesus coming, the people had once again to get ready for everything to change.
The other reason Scripture puts such emphasis on our preparing for those times when God comes to us in profound and life-changing, world-changing ways is that if we donít pay attention, if we donít prepare ourselves, open ourselves to what is about to happen, we may well miss it. Oh, it would be pretty hard to miss Cyrus and the Persian armies conquering Babylon. If you were there, youíd know it was happening. Yet even in that instance, I think, there was a lot to miss if you werenít prepared, if you werenít paying attention. You couldnít miss the event, but you sure could miss its significance. Second Isaiah saw that significance because he was prepared, he was ready. He saw the hand of the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob at work in the imperial power politics of the day. He discerned what was not obvious, that even in the brutal conquest of empires God could be at work, drawing out meaning and even liberation from what to most appeared only as calamity. And because he saw that even Cyrus the Persian could be an instrument of Yahwehís will, he saw that there is in fact only one God. He was ready. He was prepared. He paid attention. And the world has never been the same since.
It would have been a whole lot easier to miss the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. It began with the birth of an infant-a blessed event always, but in the larger scope of things a mundane and ordinary one. We are told about a magical star and choirs of angels heralding the event, but those things donít seem to have caught the attention of more than small handful of people. To most eyes, the birth of Jesus was an utterly unremarkable event. Yet we know that that event changed everything. But to know it, to really take it into our lives, we have always to be ready. We have to prepare ourselves to be surprised by unexpected appearances of God in our midst, just as God appeared so unexpectedly two thousand years ago in the form of a Jewish baby of no noble family, a baby of whom no one took much notice at all. We have to be on watch, on the lookout, for the quiet, unassuming, utterly surprising appearances of God, of Jesus Christ, in our lives.
Those appearances are so easy to miss. Do we really see the love of God in a motherís embrace? Do we see Christ in the stranger who asks for our help? How often do we really take time to listen for the still, small voice of God in moments of quiet contemplation? Do we take the time to prepare ourselves for worship, to get ready to meet God here in this little church every Sunday morning? It can happen, but it wonít happen if we arenít ready. Just as God didnít come to us as a mighty king at the head of conquering armies but as a poor, insignificant baby, so God wonít bowl us over to get our attention here or anywhere else in our lives. If we are going truly to live once again into the meaning of Christmas we have to get ready. We have consciously and intentionally to put on a mood of anticipation, of longing, of excitement. We know whatís coming, but we need to act as if we didnít. We have be on watch, on guard, alert, straining our senses so we donít miss it. Thatís what Advent is about. Christmas is coming, but itís not here yet. This is our time to get ready to receive Jesus Christ into our lives, into our world once again. Letís not forget all that that means. And for heavenís sake, letís not miss it.