Tag Archives: Advent

Turn Around – Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12 Advent 2A

December 4, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here

What do you think of first when you hear the word “repentance”? What do you think it means to repent?

In today’s gospel lesson, you will hear about repenting three times. John the Baptist calls us to repent, to prepare for the coming of God’s Kingdom. We usually think about repentance in terms of what we need to repent from – turning away from our sins. But turning away from sin begs the question: What does God call us to repent toward? As you listen to John the Baptist’s words, I invite you to focus your attention on what it is you need to turn toward when you repent. Continue reading

Preparing the Way of the Lord – Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12 – Advent 2, 2013

December 8, 2013 – Hanging of the Greens

 When Bruce and I moved to New Ulm, one of the first things we did was subscribe to the New Ulm Journal.  We are big believers in print news, and we knew we would learn things about this town through the local paper that might take us years to learn by other means.  We were delighted, then, to find that most of our favorite comic strips run in the Journal.  We’ve always loved “Shoe” and “Frank & Earnest,” because we love bad puns.  “Dilbert” and “For Better or For Worse” have just the right touch of real life to help us laugh at ourselves.  But we were especially glad to see that the New Ulm Journal carries “Sally Forth.”  (If you love bad puns, you have to love a comic strip with a name like “Sally Forth,” right?)

Sally is preparing for Christmas this week, and she has had to come to terms with the fact that Hilary, her daughter, has reached an age when decorating the house as a family is not nearly as important as spending time with her boyfriend.  Sally has been reminiscing about years past, when Hilary participated in the traditions of Christmas decorating with a little more enthusiasm.  Just as in real life, Sally’s cartoon memories of happier times might have suffered from too much sentimentality.  Like her memory of the year, when Hilary was five, and Sally tried to explain to her how an Advent calendar worked.  Sally remembers this as a moment of togetherness, but in reality, Hilary has pushed aside the goal of finding a piece of chocolate behind a little door every day.  What she wants to know is this: “Are any of those doors direct portals to Christmas Day?”  Hilary would skip all the decorating, all the chocolate even, if she could somehow jump directly from the Thanksgiving table into the joy of Christmas morning.

The Hanging of the Greens we have just experienced this morning might be the trigger for some of us to wish, along with Hilary Forth, that one of those little doors in the Advent calendar might be a direct portal to Christmas morning.  I mean, it looks like Christmas in here, doesn’t it?  What are we waiting for?

But we aren’t there yet.  We’d like to skip over the hard work of Advent if we could, and get right to the presents and eggnog, but here’s the reality: getting prepared for Christ to come into our lives takes more than garlands and wreaths.  Advent is, after all, the season of waiting.  We might think that seventeen more days is a long time to wait for Christmas to come, but the people of Israel had been waiting for hundreds of years, in expectation of the Messiah.  Prophets had been promising for centuries that God would send a Redeemer.  That kind of longing, that patient expectation, puts our impatience for Christmas to get here in a little different perspective, I think.

As John the Baptist began his ministry, some hoped that perhaps he was the promised Messiah.  He certainly spoke with prophetic authority.  But … he was a bit strange.  He lived out in the wilderness, for one thing, and ate whatever he could find.  His message was relentless, and he didn’t seem to care whom he offended with his preaching.  Matthew introduces John early in his gospel, knowing that the story of Jesus had to begin with a prophet preparing the way for the One who was to come.  John knew, even if the people who heard him preach did not, that he was not the Promised One.  He was eagerly waiting for the prophetic word he preached to be fulfilled.  John knew his job was to prepare the way for the Savior, and that the time was very near.  Hear the Word of the Lord, as we find it recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter three, verses 1 through 12.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ ” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Hmm, that’s not really an encouraging message, is it?  I don’t know about you, but being called a brood of vipers doesn’t really make me want to curl up by the Christmas Tree with a cup of hot cocoa.  No wonder John had enemies.  No wonder his ministry was a short one.  He certainly doesn’t sugar-coat anything. “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near!” he shouts.  “Get ready!  The Messiah is coming, and you don’t want to mess with him!  This Messiah you’ve been waiting for is going to judge the whole world, so you’d better confess your sins and repent of them, before it’s too late!And yet, even though John’s message is harsh, people flocked out to hear him preach.  Instead of going to the center of town to stand on his soapbox where more people could hear him, John lives out in the wilderness, in the wild country, where no one wants to go.  Yet people from Jerusalem, even all of Judea, come out to hear him, and to be baptized by this prophet of God.

John’s baptism is a curious thing.  Like his camel-hair clothing and his diet of bugs and honey, John’s baptism just doesn’t fit into any idea of “normal.”  You must understand that baptism had been around for a long time.  It was a ritual cleansing practice for gentiles who wished to convert to Judaism.  Converts were baptized to signify that they had been purified, and could now enter the temple to worship.  Jews who were born Jews needed no such purification ritual; normal washing and following Kosher laws were enough.  But a gentile coming into the faith was completely immersed, to show that sin had been removed, and the new convert was now acceptable in the temple.

So why were all these Jews going out to the wild lands by the Jordan river – not the cleanest river in the area, by all accounts – to be baptized by this strange man?  They were already practicing Jews.  In fact, Matthew tells us that even the Sadducees and Pharisees, the most influential and faithful groups of Jewish leaders, were coming out to hear John and be baptized.

But John’s baptism wasn’t a standard ritual.  John’s baptism was a symbol of repentance, of turning away from sin.  The people who came to John to be baptized wanted to be ready when the Messiah came.  Like their ancestors, they had fallen into complacency; taking for granted their status as the chosen people of God, going through the motions of ritual worship, without experiencing the presence of God in their lives.  John’s preaching had awakened in them a memory of what it meant to be God’s people, holy and set apart.  John’s preaching also awakened in them a hope for the future, and the expectation that the future was nearer than they’d thought.

The Sadducees and Pharisees, as the most religious Jewish leaders, thought their very Jewishness would be enough to save them.  John says, “Not so – you need to repent, too.”  What’s more, John tells us, we need to bear fruit that is worthy of repentance.  Our lives need to show evidence that we have turned away from sin, and have turned toward God.

So what does that look like?  How do we prepare the way of the Lord?

According to theologian Alyce McKenzie, “The way not to prepare is to rely on our spiritual credentials.” “We have Abraham as our ancestor” the Sadducees and Pharisees proudly argued.[1]  But John tells them that isn’t enough.  McKenzie continues, “Presumably, relying on any other assurance or past accomplishment than God is not the way to prepare.  Inaction is not the way to prepare.  Making excuses is not the way to prepare.  Being distracted from Jesus’ coming kingdom by possessions, prestige, and power is not the way to prepare.  Not then and not now.”  You can read her entire essay here.

Preparing our hearts for Jesus looks a little different than preparing the Sanctuary, as we have just done.  The season of Advent is a time for us to prepare, not by putting up more greenery or strings of lights, beautiful as they may be.  Decorations can help us remember the deep truths they represent, but they can also sometimes be the way we cover up the messiness of our lives, the dark places in our hearts.

The season of Advent is a time to reflect, to ponder, preparing ourselves for Christ to enter into us, and transform our lives into something new, something holy.  This season is an opportunity for each of us to allow God to work in us.  Just as we prepare the sanctuary for Christmas with garlands and wreaths, we prepare our hearts for Christ through repentance.  Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near!  Repent and believe the Good News: In Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven.

Prepare the way of the Lord.  It doesn’t take much, really.  Just a turning away from our own desires, as we turn toward God’s deep desire for us.  That’s what repentance is, after all. Turning away from our sinful selves, as we turn toward God’s love for us.  It doesn’t take much space to turn around, but we have to do the turning.

Last year, Mary Luti wrote an Advent hymn that might give us a clue to preparing the way of the Lord, in the world, and in our own hearts.  You can find it here.

Our lives need to show evidence that we have turned away from sin, and have turned toward God. But we can’t manufacture that evidence. It just shows. As you find the “little room” God needs in your heart this Advent season, don’t worry too much about making sure your “fruit worthy of repentance” is showing.  Trust that it will.  Trust that God can change you, if you just give him a little room.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 3:9

Ready for Christmas?

Once a month, I contribute to the Worship Connect blog on the Covenant Church website. Here’s the link to today’s post – and a promise to write more regularly in the New Year. until then, Merry Christmas!

There are no words

Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei

Unspeakable sorrow.

Unimaginable pain.

Loss. Tragedy.

None of these words has enough depth of meaning when I think of the suffering more than two dozen families are experiencing as I write this. My petty little sorry-I’ve-been-too-busy-to write-anything planned bit of cheerfulness just got swept away in the horror of death. Children, gone. Like that – just, gone.

Where is the invitation to wait for the coming of our Lord in glory, amid all this senselessness? It is here, amid this senselessness. Precisely amid this senselessness, we wait. We hope. We struggle to comprehend. We sorrow for the brokenness that could allow such a terrible thing to happen. We remember that Herod slaughtered little boys when Jesus was born, just as tragically, just as senselessly. And Rachel wept, as we weep now.

Loss. Tragedy.

Unimaginable pain.

Unspeakable sorrow.

Behind the Storm

Weather fronts fascinate me. I love to watch a good thunderstorm roll in, a wall of black cloud against the sky, the atmosphere full of wind and lightning. The line between calm and storm can sometimes be so well-defined that it looks like God took out a ruler to draw it in the sky. The stark change of temperature that comes with a new front can give me goosebumps. There is nothing like weather to make me keenly aware of God’s power.

If you’ve been following the weather news over the past few days, you know that we had a huge snowstorm swirling over the Twin Cities all day yesterday. The front that came through here dumped half as much snow on us in 24 hours as we had all last winter. The snow on our back deck is about 13 inches deep right now. Yes! This is why we love living in Minnesota: winter is really winter here. Once the plows come through to scrape up the last bits of packed snow, we can settle down to Winter As It Was Meant To Be, and a white Christmas is pretty much a sure bet.

Our first winter here in Minnesota, I noticed that people were a little jumpy, easily offended, and even grumpy when we didn’t have snow by Thanksgiving. Something just wasn’t quite right. Then the first snow fell, and everyone relaxed, let out a sigh of relief, and got back to work. Once the weather front had moved through, everyone knew what to expect. Everyone knew it was finally winter, and winter is a known commodity here. We can deal with it.

What follows the snow, though? What happens when the clouds have exhausted their moisture, the barometer goes back to normal, and the sky is blue again? When, exactly, does that happen, anyway? Why is the coming storm so much easier to detect than its aftermath? Why is the approaching front so much more impressive than the trailing vapor of calm that sneaks in behind the blizzard?behind the storm

You might be wondering what all this nonsense about the weather has to do with Advent, with Waiting, with God coming near to us as one of us in the Person of Jesus. I’m not going to insult you by giving you an answer. Just think about it for a bit. Wait in the expectancy of an approaching front. Wait as the clouds vaporize into nothing. Keep waiting …

Where do you find God? Is he most evident in the power of an approaching wall of cloud? Does God make himself known to you mostly during the storm? Do you find God in the calm stillness that follows the wind and weather? 

Whose War?

Maybe it was because I avoided Black Friday and Cyber Monday, but somehow, I managed to forget about this whole “War on Christmas” thing that seems to be raising people’s blood pressure. Today, I read three blog posts on the topic. Sean Palmer started it all. Then my good friend, Matt Nightingale, added his perspective to the Worship Connect blog on the Evangelical Covenant Church website. Finally, someone referenced a blog written by Jason Sanders, which – though it was written back in October – does a great job of summing up what Christians ought to be doing instead of griping about clerks saying “Happy Holidays” as they hand over the credit card receipt.

I don’t think Jesus ever gave two hoots about being politically correct. Jesus cared about the poor, the sick, the hungry, the oppressed, the outcast, the orphans, and the widows. Jesus cared about giving hope to those whose hope had run out. If I really want to follow Jesus, as I say I do, shouldn’t I be caring about them, too? This is the real war, as Sean Palmer notes: the one that rages inside me every time I ignore someone I should be loving in Jesus’ Name.

The first week of Advent is almost over. We are nearly one quarter of the way into the waiting. Take a few minutes – you have time for this, so don’t give me any excuses – and go read those other three blogs. Comment on them if you want to.

Then come back here and tell me how your Advent is coming along. Let me know how your waiting is going. What ugly truths and joyous realizations are coming to your attention during this expectant season? How are you dealing with your own War on Christmas?

I really want to know.

What Waiting Is Not

Waiting may look like a passive activity, but I have news for you: waiting takes every fiber of my being. Waiting is not sitting around, lazily doing nothing. Waiting is the hard work of self-restraint. I may look serene to the casual observer who sees me motionless, apparently fixed in space and time, but I am no such thing. I am waiting on hyper-alert, expecting who-knows-what. That low-frequency hum you hear is me, waiting.

Waiting is not giving up control – how can I explain this? – it is not the abdication of responsibility that I always find so annoying in a “let go and let God” approach to life. Waiting is a conscious decision to trust God to keep his promises, even when there is no evidence to support that belief.

Waiting is faith.

Waiting is deciding to stop doing and start being.

Start being more aware.

Start being more compassionate.

Start being more humble.

Start being less anxious.

Start being less self-absorbed.

Start being less indifferent.

Waiting is knowing with certainty that what I offer to God will not come back empty.

Waiting is trusting God to let me know when it’s time to get out of the chair.

How do you wait for God? What keeps you from trusting him to do what he promises?