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. 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.