The stardust of Christmas is truly present all over our city. Santa arrived last week in his annual parade, the festive drinks at our coffee shops are out, the decorations are up in our malls, our own Christmas fair has come and gone, our trees are going up, and memories being made once again. In the midst of all this excitement, we hear strange stories of the end times and people like John the Baptist, using words like repent!, prepare! you brood of vipers! repentance! and unquenchable fire! Not exactly a festive greeting and if I opened a Christmas card with these sentiments in it, I’d be very worried for the long term success of Hallmark. This however, is our greeting in Advent which carries with it meaning much deeper than first glance would suggest. This greeting, these words, present a closer step in our deepening relationship with God this Advent.
The herald of this bizarre relationship in Advent is John the Baptist, this weird person who would most likely cause us to run away rather than listen. Screaming at us to repent and prepare, wearing hair shirts and eating bizarre foods while living in the middle of nowhere would more likely cause a mental health intervention than serious attention today. However, we run the risk of losing the point if we just stick to John in Advent, because John is not the point of Advent. It is passages like ours today that have often led to us feeling like Advent is a mini Lent, a time of penance. While Lent and Advent share the same base, which is preparation, in Advent we prepare and anticipate the coming of Christ at his second coming- when God's kingdom breaks in around us. So this message of preparation is joyful, yet still weird. This is the reason why we often try and sanitize the messages of Advent and allow Christmas to creep in even more, because Christmas is easier to explain than Advent. Yet without Advent, Christmas makes no sense. So here we are church, preparing for the most profound relationship we will ever have, a relationship with God, but I can't help wondering why it's so urgent- its not like this change is imminent, or is it?
It's worth remembering that even in Matthew's time, the faithful were questioning the truth of these claims of Christ’s second coming, because it had not shown up in their lifetimes, something the imminence of the promise suggests. The landscape of faith had shifted from the time of the apostles to the second and third generation Christians, and the Advent of Christ’s second coming seemed like it was never going to come. So to hear John make these statements, and tell us that the Kingdom has indeed come near strikes hollow, because how would we know that? Our world is still at war, people are still degraded, divisions between people still exist- the promises of Isaiah that we heard this morning- that the world will live in harmonious relationship with itself- is so far away from us it seems crazy to read such hope into the darkness that surrounds us. Despite all of that, however, as Christians and people of Hope, we do dare to speak hope into the midst of our darkness because we believe there has to be more! There is, and John's call to repentance is just that.
Repentance** is more than just self abasement and denial to prove us worthy of love, it's about a decision to live differently because of what we’ve experienced. Advent is about a decision to live differently because of what we’ve experienced in God, a relationship of promise, presence, trust, and hope, in the midst of our challenges. In our bulletins we all have a sheet entitled “Advent Hope” and there are some pens in the pews- I invite you to find them now. On the sheets, are three questions I’d like us to explore for ourselves over the next few minutes. Do not worry, there is no test at the end, no mark on your homework, this is for you.
Thinking now about the weeks in front of us what jobs need to be done? Over the next two minutes, I invite you to write as detailed a list as you can about what you need to get done for Christmas to happen. Maybe its shopping, gifts, wrapping, visiting, writing cards, work, parties, whatever it is, write it down and be as detailed as possible, it’ll help.
Okay, so now that we have a grasp on the list of work we need to do, let's turn to our next question. Over the next two minutes I invite you to list the characteristics of the kind of relationships you want to be a part of this Christmas? Maybe it's relationships which are peaceful, or hopeful, or reliable, or helping, or transformational. What is your Hope for relationships this Christmas? Whatever it is, write it down.
Okay, so now that we have thought through the work and the kind of hope we have for our relationships this Christmas, over the next two minutes I invite you to circle all of the “jobs” we have to do, that directly contribute to the hope we have for relationships this Christmas. Focus on the things which bring you into the promise of life and hope, maybe it's families and friends, maybe it's prayer and community, maybe it’s music, rather than suck the promise of hope and life out of you. Where is God for you this Advent?
You see, this exercise we just did is the whole point of what John is calling us to pay attention to in Advent- the re-orientation of our lives into the hope, peace, and presence of God’s all encompassing relationship with us made real at the manger in the baby Christ. This reorientation of our lives, into the life of God's kingdom, answered the call of Isaiah's prophecy of a world in right relationship with itself, rather than continuing to tear itself apart as we are doing today. This is what it means to bear fruit worthy of repentance this Advent, live a life which re-orients not only you by your choices, but the world in which we live back to right relationship with God, as we prepare for God’s movement into our neighbourhood in the baby of the manger.
So church, how will you choose to bear fruit and re-orientate yourself this Advent, as we prepare to welcome God’s presence, once again, into our homes, lives, and heart this Christmas?
**Advent Hope exercise was adapted from one written by David Lose, Senior Pastor of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church Minneapolis, Minn. Originally published on December 2, 2013 on https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2901