Friday, December 4, 2009

Sermon: Advent 2

(As delivered to Mrs. D-P's Anglican congregation.)


Malachi 3.1-4
Phil 1.3-11
Luke 3.1-6

He's a Lutheran he is.

Really? So, that’s what a Lutheran looks like. I’ve often wondered.

I suspect most of you have little experience of Lutherans, but you may have come across the American Author Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone stories set in deepest Minnesota, the home State of many Scandinavian immigrants to the United States. Wobegone derives from a Native American word which, depending on the inflection of the voice means either “We’ve arrived” or “We waited here all day in the rain but you never came.” Keillor’s Lutherans were a morose lot who flourished in a cold climate, believing that adversity and suffering were given as moral instruction. Their religion was part Christianity, and part the ancient Nordic precept that the gods were waiting to smack you one if you were having too good a time: better to anticipate disaster. So they believed in the inevitability of suffering: if life was not miserable now it would be eventually, so you might as well get a start on the weeping and gnashing of teeth here and now.

Their big theological debate was over the issue “Will we recognise each other in Heaven or will our spiritual forms not have our earthly features?” One Lutheran might say: “My sainted Grandmother is waiting for me beyond the pearly gates, free from suffering and care, and if you are saying I won’t know her, you are ignorant of scripture and you’re going to Hell you infidel!” Another Lutheran might reply: “It’s not important to me one way or the other but if you think your face is something God will allow in a place of perfect bliss, maybe you ought to take another look.”

They were also divided on the best way to make coleslaw.

Pastor Inqvist was the Lutheran Pastor of Lake Wobgone. His congregation hoped for a sermon with a storming start and a storming finish…and as short a space as possible between the two. So here we go:

Here we are in the second year of the Premiership of Gordon Brown, in the fifty sixth year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the Second, in the first term of President Barak Obama. And in each of those years, as in all years, the message has been the same as one man, Malachi, has prophesied the appearance of a messenger who would herald the arrival of God’s chosen one. In each of those years that messenger, John the Baptiser, is waiting in the wilderness, asking that we change, and that in turn we change the world, and in each of those years another man, Paul, is instructing his flock in love so that the Kingdom of God will be realised.

The world moves on but the message of these three remains constant.

I’m coming to appreciate the Old Testament more these days and I am starting to understand some of its characters better: the Prophet Malachi was probably an uncomfortable person to be around: fantastic to look back on from the safety of our age but if someone like him were to walk in here this morning, it would be a nightmare. He was uncompromising and openly critical of the religious practices and moral standards of his day and he didn’t much care that he upset the rulers and the priests. Malachi was lamenting the fact that God’s people had fallen away.

Now my approach to the lectionary readings is always to see if there is a modern application, otherwise they remain just readings, some interesting, some less so but merely stories. What can we take and apply from Malachi’s words or from his context? He was lamenting that God’s people had fallen away. Sound familiar? Is that in any way true of our society or of us as individuals? If Malachi was here today I wonder how many of us would feel very uncomfortable about the lives we lead and the wider values we collude with.

And yet at the same time he was energised and exited about what was to come, even with the strong note of warning: for all to be well things are going to need to change. When Malachi talks about the need for purification and talks about the refiner’s fire the listener knows that this is going to be a painful experience. We’re talking about the smelting process and heat powerful enough to burn impurities from metal. This is very apocryphal stuff: “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears.” That coming means judgement.

Then we have John's preaching which harmonizes with Malachi’s prophecy. John is, of course, generally taken to be the messenger Malachi was predicting. He came on the scene wearing camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist quoting Isaiah, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight."

What do Malachi and John the Baptist have in common? They both preached reform. The implication of these passages in this Advent season is clear: Christ is coming again and all is not yet in order. We need reforming and cleansing before Christ appears. And maybe we ought to start with ourselves before we worry about other people.

Yeah. Us. Today. Here. We may not be the original audience or even the implied audience of these texts but I tend to think this is one of those scriptural cases of “If the cap fits, wear it.”

We know the story of John the Baptist. We’ve heard it a hundred times: every Advent we hear the story of the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptiser, but have we truly understood it? It is always a ministry in the real world of his time: a ministry in which he called all people to recognise the sinfulness of their own lives then, and the Baptism of God's forgiveness then. And that call went out to the rulers, the priesthood, the teachers, and everyone else, that they should examine themselves and their lives and acknowledge their sins, their failures, their self-righteousness towards God and be baptized to receive His forgiveness. Not John's forgiveness but God's forgiveness meditated through John and mediated through the act of being baptized, the action of cleansing.

And the application?

Well, every Advent we are called to the same recognition of our sinfulness, our failures, our self - righteousness; not in the abstract but in the concrete daily acts of our lives now. Only when we know the reality of our need for forgiveness, for the action and the grace of God in our own lives, can we be in any way prepared to understand the reality of Jesus’ coming into the real world, into flesh exactly like ours. When John uses the words of Isaiah, he challenges us that every valley shall be filled and every mountain brought low. How poetic.

What’s that all about then? Words. Mystical words. Symolism.

I don’t like to generalise but I suppose we could say that those valleys or low places in our lives might stand for worry or grief or doubt: but they can be filled with an awareness of the very presence of the living Christ. The mountains we must deal with in our hearts might include pride, prejudice, fear, and selfishness. When these are brought low, we can see a greater horizon; we can see the way of the Lord John talked of.

And we are told to make the rough ways smooth. In our lives, this may mean we need to forgive those who have hurt us, to refuse to allow what has happened to us in the past to control our lives now. And we need to make sure there is enough time for those that we care about.

The Gospel also calls for us to make the crooked places straight. We are challenged to confront those temptations in our lives that will lure us away, to push back the trivia that fills our minds. We are being challenged to take the steps in our lives to deal with the major issues that we must deal with.

Otherwise John’s story is just a nice story.

Paul picks up on that story in his letter to the Philippians. Paul is referring to Christ coming again when he asks for those in the church to have an overflowing love that will help them determine what is best.

Does that characterise us?

If they do this they will be pure and blameless in the day of Christ, for they will have produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus.

And what does that mean? Religious platitudes: what does it mean for you and I today? What does it mean for God to call us to produce a harvest of righteousness? Of course we produce a harvest simply by living from day to day, by meeting people, by dealing with people in bus queues, or in the shops, in the office, conversations with neighbours and so on. The question for us is what kind of a harvest do we produce? Is it one we show to God as a sign of our love for Him and our neighbours? Or is it a harvest that we wouldn’t want Him to see or know about? Is it a harvest which is shaped and informed by "knowledge and full insight" as Paul would say, or is it a harvest shaped and informed by our personal needs or by the values we see around us?

Every time we act we are showing the harvest of our lives and what kind of a harvest we reap is determined by how we act in relation to others. As Christ himself said, "Inasmuch as you have done to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me."

Christ will come again, this year as in all of our liturgical years. Christ is coming soon. There is work to do and in Paul exhorts us to that work.

Malachi, John and Paul: the world moves on but the message of these three men remains constant. Whose is the voice calling you to prepare? Who is your Malachi lamenting that God’s people have fallen away? Who is your John, crying for repentance in the wilderness? Who is your Paul exhorting you to overflowing love? The great irony of what has inexorably become our secular celebration is that we are less likely to hear those voices in the run up to Christ’s nativity.

Who could they be: those who bring us up short and make us stop and think? Amongst the Christmas lights, the Christmas musak, the Christmas shopping and cooking, card writing and present wrapping; amongst the Christmas stress and anxiety, the Christmas expectations and disappointments and certainly amongst the Christmas hype: is the voice crying in the wilderness the city-centre beggar or Big Issue salesman? Is it the face on the T.V. news – the latest casualty of war, famine or natural disaster? Is it your Muslim neighbour or Sikh colleague? The chance overheard conversation on the bus? A newspaper headline? A Christmas card greeting? Even that dreaded annual round-robin letter?

We all know that welcoming an important guest takes preparation. It’s hard in the clamour of preparation to focus on anything but the preparation itself sometimes. Forewarned by Malachi, John and Paul let’s be sure we make the right sort of preparation.

Just a quick thought to end with. Do we really need to be told to prepare the way of the Lord? Us, here? Probably not, but we may well need to be reminded and that’s what Advent is supposed to do: it is the time of reflection and self examination that we all need to prepare for the Nativity. Malachi, John and Paul should remind us to make that time.

So we’re off the hook then? Not entirely: I wonder how many of us have considered that because we know how the story unfolds we may need to be the voices of Malachi, John and Paul to those who don’t.