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Sunday, December 8, 2019 | 8:00 a.m.

Prepare the Way

Matt Helms
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 72:1–7, 18–19
Isaiah 11:1–10
Matthew 3:1–12

Behold, you come. And your coming is neither past nor future but the present, which has only to reach its fulfillment. Now it is still the one single hour of your Advent, at the end of which we too shall have found out that you have really come.

Karl Rahner, The Divine Dawning

Friends, as we’ve already noted a few times throughout this service, we find ourselves today in the Second Sunday of Advent—a time when we are beginning to settle into the rhythms and routines of this season after an initial rush of excitement in seeing the familiar symbols of the Advent wreath and greenery decorating the Sanctuary pop up last weekend. But while the First Sunday of Advent is characterized by a level of excitement and hope, this second Sunday is one that often feels caught in a sort of liminal and transitional space.

It’s a Sunday that liturgically doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. We see that ambiguity pop up in various traditions about the theme ascribed to the second candle in the Advent wreath: while many traditions hold that the second candle is the “candle of peace,” there are plenty of other traditions that list this candle as the “candle of love,” the “candle of faith,” or the “candle of preparation.” And that ambiguity of theme extends to our lectionary passages from scripture that we read this morning as well.

At first blush, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these passages have nothing to do with one another. In our First Lesson from Isaiah 11, the prophet speaks beautifully of a coming leader who will usher in a new era of peace and harmony: “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might. . . . He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor; and decide with equity for the meek of earth. . . . The wolf shall live with the lamb, the calf and the lion shall lie down together, and a little child shall lead them.”

It’s a passage that is brimming with Advent hope and expectation. And while our second scripture lesson from Matthew also speaks of a coming leader, that’s about where the similarities stop. There is not a lot of peace to be found in John the Baptist’s words! “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” he says to the crowds before laying into the Pharisees and Sadducees: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? One who is more powerful than I will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire, . . . and the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Raise your hand if you came to the Sanctuary this morning looking for a sermon about the “wrath to come” and “unquenchable fire.” Don’t worry, I’m not exactly feeling like Jonathan Edwards this morning—and yet every single year John the Baptist breaks into the comfort of our Advent routine on this second Sunday with a message that seems so at odds with the hope and peace and joy on which we tend to focus. So why is that? What is the relationship between repentance and hope? Or peace? Or joy? What is it about John’s voice crying in the wilderness that helps to prepare the way of the Lord in this season?

I should begin by noting that although John’s message of repentance feels discordant in this season, the way that he is depicted in the text puts him solidly within Israelite prophetic tradition. His clothing—a camel hair coat and a leather belt around his waist—and location in the Judean wilderness are a direct callback to the prophet Elijah, and his words are a direct echo of the prophet Isaiah, albeit from a later part of Isaiah’s canon. As New Testament scholar William Herzog puts it, “John has one foot in the old age that is coming to a close and the other foot in the new age that is being born. John is a bridge between eras in Israel’s history.” And that last point that Herzog makes is key: this is a new era in Israel’s history—and a new chapter in the relationship between God and God’s people.

This isn’t the first time that the people have stood on the cusp of a great change during time in the wilderness. From Moses receiving the Torah from God after years spent wandering the wilderness, to the Israelites returning from the self-described wilderness of Babylonian exile, wilderness as location and metaphor had often been the place of new creation and rebirth throughout Israel’s history, and John the Baptist is picking up on that.

But this new creation and rebirth won’t be without cost—and that’s where we see John focus his sights on the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious powerbrokers of that time. Matthew is a frequent critic of the Pharisees and Sadducees throughout his Gospel, so in some respects this lambasting of the Pharisees and Sadducees isn’t surprising. But when you look at the content of what John is saying underneath the more eye-catching phrases like “brood of vipers” and “unquenchable fire,” there is a clear theme that begins to emerge, one that provides our first hint to the connection between the repentance that John is proclaiming and the hope, peace, and joy that is to come.

John tells these religious leaders multiple times to “bear good fruit”—imagery that Jesus also uses six separate times throughout the Gospel of Matthew. Good fruit is a metaphor for good works or good deeds used throughout the Gospels, and it also connects to the famous “fruits of the Spirit” that Paul writes of in his letter to the Galatians. But when connected with repentance, and a proclamation that Jesus is coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, there is a distinct vision being painted of a need to radically change our behavior and priorities in order to prepare the way for Jesus’ coming—for something new is being created.

This is echoed in John’s takedown of the Pharisees’ presumed rebuttal that they are “children of Abraham.” John notes that God is able to change who those “children of Abraham” are and, through Jesus, God will. To prepare ourselves for Jesus’ coming, then, is to open ourselves to transformation and to repent of any place we are not bearing good fruit.

It’s tempting, of course, to read John’s words as solely directed at the Pharisees and Sadducees. That reading allows us to stay safe in the warm glow of the Advent season. But John isn’t just speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees; this message of repentance and turning to good works was directed to all who came from Jerusalem and across Judea—and it’s directed at us today as well.

There is an urgency to John’s message that is unmistakable, one that truly stands out when you notice the active, imperative tense used in all of the verbs throughout John’s prophesying: Repent. Prepare the way. Make his paths straight. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. And unlike the future tense of Isaiah’s hopes of a new era of peace and righteousness, every single one of these commands is being delivered in the present tense.

We are not meant to be just waiting around for Jesus to come, whether waiting for a celebration of his past birth or looking ahead to the future kingdom. We are meant—then, now, and in the years ahead—to be preparing the way for hope, peace, and joy, not in our homes or trees, but in our hearts and our world.

The connection between repentance and Advent, then, is one in which our waiting takes an active form. We will never be the ones to usher hope, peace, and joy into our world fully. That responsibility remains with Christ alone. But all of us still bear responsibility for being bearers of those things in our daily lives. John’s call to repent is not as harsh and negative as we typically receive it. It is a challenge to be shaped by this Advent and Christmas season and to be bearers of the light that Jesus came to bring into the world—to allow that hope, peace, joy, and love to transform our lives and perhaps transform that of others.

The urgency with which John preached his message may feel at odds with the season. For some it might already feel as if we’re biding our time until the celebrations of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day! But as scholars and theologians have noted throughout the years, we should never fall into the trap of viewing Jesus’ birth solely through the lens of the past or looking only ahead to the future.

Advent is not a season of the past or the future. It is a season of the present—an invitation for our lives to be transformed not on some future day but now. “Behold, you come,” wrote the theologian Karl Rahner in an address to Jesus, “and your coming is neither past nor future, but the present, which has only to reach its fulfillment. Now it is still the one single hour of your Advent, at the end of which we too shall have found out that you have really come.”

If this is our single hour, our opportunity to bear good fruit, where would we begin? I find myself thinking about Jesus’ words from Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me. Truly I tell you, just as you did to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

I find myself thinking about kids out there who may not have toys under their tree at Christmas or families who may not have enough food on their table. I find myself thinking of all those who are feeling lonely or isolated—people in our buildings or neighborhoods that we may pass by and just never take the time to connect with. I find myself thinking about all those who don’t know where they’ll sleep night to night. I find myself thinking of all those battling illnesses or awaiting surgeries in this season, scared for the future, or those who are mourning the loss of loved one.

And in those moments, when I allow myself to take in just some of the many needs of this world, I finally understand the urgency behind John’s words, as he is begging us to help prepare the way. We may be one person and cannot change the world by ourselves, but we are one person, and what we do can change the world more than we imagine. And that change starts through repenting of all that is holding us back from living lives that bear good fruit, because to repent is to open ourselves up to be transformed by this Advent and Christmas season. True hope, true peace, true joy rests upon that transformation—first within ourselves and then, eventually through Christ, within our world. So, friends, may we open ourselves up to be transformed this Advent—and may our lives bear good fruit. Amen.