Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Preached again

I preached in chapel at the seminary yesterday. The sermon was on the gospel text for the second Sunday of Advent. During our weekly chapel services we use the lectionary texts for the coming Sunday.

Click here for podcast. Scroll down to November 30.

The text: Matthew 3:1-12

Advent comes to us this morning on the jarring, jangly words of a wilderness wanderer, a character who, in our minds, seems a more likely candidate for a mental hospital or a Far Side cartoon than as herald of the coming Christ.

“Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near!”

Admit it, he lost you at “Repent!,” didn’t he? The very word reminds us of the kind of preacher who turns us off…the one whose approach shames us and leaves us feeling worthless. We tune him out before he really gets started, guarded and protected from the words of someone we’re sure doesn’t really understand our situation. The word repent for many of us is so closely tied to the privileged, fiery preacher who never for a moment considers how his position colors his demands that we can’t really hear it without shutting down. He appears on the scene and with his first word “Repent!” we hit the channel up button on the remote and move on to something else. The only surprising thing in this story, then, is that the man, John the Baptist, actually had a significant following in his day.

What happens, though, if we position the preacher squarely in the midst of the oppressed, facing the religious, political, and economic powers of the day, calling them to repentance? Are we a little more willing to listen to what he has to say? Does the call to repentance make more sense? Some of us may be ready to jump in with a hearty “Amen!” We might even be willing to make excuses for him. You know, something like, “Fighting oppression is exhausting, crazy-making work. Of course, he’s a little odd!”

There’s no doubt his message was meant for those in power. Matthew brings that into clear focus when he calls our attention to the Pharisees and Sadducees who sought John’s baptism. “You brood of vipers!,” he calls them. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Then his message gets more direct. “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.” In other words, “You don’t really understand what you’re asking for. In the kingdom that has drawn near, your privilege will not allow you to be content with the exclusion of others. Citizenship will be made available to everyone, and so those who would receive the call to repentance will be those who are ready to open their hearts to those without power, to those on the margins, the outcasts, the weak and vulnerable."

I’ve seen a lot of conversation on the internet about a perceived need to move more quickly to the message of Christmas this year. Those who are advocating for less Advent and more Christmas are noting a weariness in their congregations…a weariness from the problems of the economy and the ways it affects them, weariness with all things politics, weariness with war. I get that and it’s something that we need to pay attention to, that need for relief that folks are obviously feeling, but I believe it’s the longing for relief that makes us need Advent all the more. My concern, I guess, is that too quick a movement toward relief in the story of Christmas causes us to run the risk that John saw present with the Pharisees and the Sadducees. We might fail to see the Christ when he comes. Advent calls us to prepare, to make sure we’re truly ready to see the Christ.

Nancy Pittman helped call our attention to the importance of this aspect of Advent’s message a couple of weeks ago. To those of us content with life the way it is right now, we need to take heed lest we rush to the joy of Christmas without naming the very real despair of others who suffer. Advent slows us down and asks us to pay attention, to hear the cries of those in pain, to consider the possibility that in our contentment we may be too quick to assume our present experience is all that matters.

John's message of repentance is an invitation to preparation. It calls attention to our easy commitments to a God made in our own image. Advent helps us guard against the temptation to run to the stable and “ooo” and “ahhh” at the sight of a sleeping child who holds so much hope and promise only to depart quickly when the child awakes and screams in hunger or for need of comfort.

John’s call to repentance asks us to let go of our hope that lies in the things of power in this world. It invites us to consider that the kingdom of heaven is more like the woman who makes space in her peaceful, happy life for the neighbor children, whom she admits are difficult to handle, to give them a safe place to play and to learn that their lives don’t have to follow the same pattern of abuse, addiction, and trouble that they see in their parents’ lives. It opens our eyes to see the Christ with the young man who walks through villages and in the dark parts of the cities of the Philippines, pushing a cart full of books, offering education to children who would not get it any other way, in hope that it will provide a future otherwise unavailable. It lets us witness him dwelling among a community that hears the cries of help from Haiti and asks, “How can we be with them?” It urges us to let go of the easy comfort of privilege.

Repent, my friends, for the kingdom of heaven has indeed come near. Are you ready to be a part of it?

1 comment:

jo(e) said...

I love that I got to hear it in your voice.