Sermon 12/5/2021

Date: Dec. 5, 2021 Second Sunday of Advent
Scripture Lessons: Malachi 3:1-4 and Luke 3:1-6
Sermon: Receive the Gift: Repent!
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

It is said that God up in heaven holds each one of us by a string. When we sin, we are in essence cutting the string; the connection between ourselves and God, ourselves and what we know, ourselves and others. When we cut the string and realize what we have done, we ask for God’s help or forgiveness, and she ties the string again, making a knot — and thereby bringing us closer. Again and again we cut the string — and again and again our Creator reties it. With each knot our strings become shorter and shorter, and we are drawn closer and closer to God and to each other. [Anthony de Mello, adapted, in Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World, edited by Elisa Davy Pearmain, p. 75.]

This morning we heard the prophetic announcement of John the Baptizer repent. Prepare the way. John is admonishing people to prepare for the coming of God. To get ready for God. To welcome God. To have God come close. However we in our time may think of God, as spirit, as a human construct, as mother, as love, as a force in the universe, as mystery, as loving old white father somewhere, whatever our concepts and images of God, Advent is a time to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, God with-us. In that event, we commemorate that God is present with humanity and within humanity. Christmas is about the word made flesh. In Jesus and in us. It is about the connection between humanity and divinity, between creation and and the sacred. It is a time to prepare to receive the gifts that Divine Love bestows in our lives and in the world.

John encourages us to prepare. To ready ourselves for the coming of God. There is the well-known imagery of excavation: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth. . .” In our time of eco consciousness, this sounds like a huge development project, defacing and destroying the land and animal habitat. It conjures images of mountain top removal mining. And the huge Chinese projects leveling mountains and valleys to create random cities in the middle of wilderness. It is not necessarily a positive image for us today. But what John is intending to convey is making a smooth path, making it easier for God to come to us, making God welcome by preparing easy access like making a ramp for wheelchair conveyance instead of having to bump a wheelchair up a stair case backwards one tread at a time.

With our current environmental sensibilities, we may find more connection with the images offered in the verses from Malachi. Malachi references the refining of metal to extract the precious content – silver and gold – though that is also a mining image. Malachi also talks about fuller’s soap that cleans and purifies. The fuller’s job was to cleanse cloth to pure white so that it was ready to be be dyed other colors. Fuller’s soap removes grime and grease and discoloration. This leads me to think of the restoration of a beautiful painting. Years of dust and particles and gases and grease and odors in the air create layers of film over the original painting. The main images are still visible, but everything is diminished, colors are subdued. The vibrancy is clouded. And then those amazing technicians of art restoration work patiently and meticulously to restore the original glory of the painting and the colors and images are intense and vivid once again. The true beauty is uncovered, exposed, revealed. One more recent example is the restoration of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper in Milan, Italy.

So, this is a way to think about the repentance proclaimed by John. John is inviting people to repent, to clear away that which obscures the presence and glory of God. John wants us to prepare to welcome the presence of God and to live into the holy vision of God for creation.

The process of repentance is not intended as punishment or retribution, but as a way of living into a closer relationship with God, however we might conceive of God. John is inviting us to be transformed into our better selves, he is calling forth our highest good. What a gift!

Advent used to be called “the Little Lent” because of the theme of repentance in the Advent season. The liturgical color for Advent was purple like Lent. For royalty, yes, but also for penitence. The use of blue in Advent symbolizes hope and is associated with Mary and with the color of the sky at night when Jesus was born. For our church, we like the association with Hanukkah. But Advent has always had a somber side reminding us of the preparation needed to welcome God fully into our lives and our world.

One commentator characterizes Advent in this way: “There is a terrible, hopeful newness about life: terrible because it promises to overthrow all our old, comfortable, sinful ways; and hopeful for the very same reason.” [Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year C, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, J. Clinton McCann, James D. Newsome, p. 10.] I find that very insightful. We usually just want to jump to the hope and joy but John reminds us that it is difficult to get there without going through the repentance which prepares the way.

In our postmodern time, we live in an era that is characterized by the “demise of cultural optimism.” [Gregory Baum, in Resources for Preaching and Worship Year C, compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, p. 9.] I think this is so especially here in America where we used to have such a bright view of things on the whole and certainly a bright view of the future. But this is no longer our common cultural foundation. There is a lack of hope or expectation of a better future in our culture. As Christians, this cultural phenomenon can, understandably, undermine our hope, expectation, and trust in God’s vision for creation. It is harder to stay invested in God’s hopes and dreams for the world when the world around you is becoming more cynical and less optimistic. But as people of faith, we are to be in the world but not of the world. We are to live in God’s reality first and foremost. And our faith promises that we are meant to live in right relationship with God, with ourselves, with each other, and with creation. And we cultivate that right relationship through repentance. By addressing our failures snd shortcomings, our sins, and the ways we have harmed ourselves, others, and creation, we cultivate the honesty and vulnerability that makes space for reconciliation. We open up the way for Divine Love to come into our lives and our world. We create a path for love and peace and right relationship based on honesty and truth.

Can we learn to be honest in a context that is created by images and memes and stories that may or may not be true? While we have advanced in terms of science, we see in the world around us greater diversity in the understanding of the reality in which we are living. It has come to a head around the covid vaccine and the covid virus. People in the same physical location are living in different realities. Our faith encourages us, challenges us even, to examine our reality and to deal with it honestly.

In doing the examining that is part of the process of repentance, sometimes we find we are far more prone to see the wrongs that have been done to us rather than the wrongs we have done. Spurred by righteous indignation, we may pursue revenge or hold a grudge. This becomes part of the mountain or the valley separating us from God. Another layer of dust obscuring the original work of art.

There are also times when we obsess over the wrongs we have done and we nurse them, revisit them, let them define us, and obscure the goodness in us. Again, the grime discolors the painting.

And while we may not be dogged by our bad deeds – we haven’t killed anyone, or cheated on our spouse, or embezzled from our company — we may pat ourselves on the back and ignore how we are enmeshed in a culture of oppression and greed. We are part of a system of racism and sexism diminishing lives in our midst, including our own lives. Our material consumption creates abuse of workers and ravages the earth. These things separate us from our highest good, from our spiritual center, from our closeness to the sacred. There is cleaning to be done.

And then, as the classic prayer reminds us, there is the good left undone. Consumed by our minutia, we ignore the needs of others and the world around us, too busy to be bothered. Too consumed with distractions and maybe dissipation as we discussed last week. Again, there is the work of repentance to be pursued.

Advent encourages us to address ourselves to these things not so that we can grovel in misery, but so that we can clean off the grime, and make the path smooth for the coming of God. It is an invitation to prepare for the gifts of hope, peace, joy, and love in our lives. It is an invitation to a journey of abundant life and right relationship in the commonwealth of God. Remember the promise in the gospel of Luke. Every valley. Every mountain. And ALL flesh. Our faith is a story about the redemption and restoration of Eden for all of creation. It is a vision so glorious it takes angels to sing of it and stars to reveal it.

And that vision becomes more clear, more vibrant, more intense, more compelling, as we clear away the layers of sin and complicity and settling and cynicism that are separating us from the glorious reality of God.

In the beautiful Pulitzer prize-winning novel, Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner tells of a retired history professor writing a biography of his grandmother. Much of the novel is set in the west in the late 1800’s and the grandmother is an artist/illustrator who leaves the elite salon society of the east to pursue married life in the west. In the course of the story, the grandmother, Susan, is faced with the death of her 5 year old daughter who has drowned while under her watch near an irrigation canal. This occurs in a context already fraught with failure, grief, and alienation. Following the horrific death, Susan takes her older son and daughter back east. The son is to attend prep school and the mother and daughter will settle in New York close to the publishing industry eager for Susan’s illustrations and close to Susan’s most beloved friends, Augusta and Thomas. The son is dropped off at boarding school, and there is a visit to Susan’s family in Milton, Connecticut. Then they are to go on to New York. Stegner tells us:

She intended to go into New York and take rooms and go to work at her writing and drawing; this much is clear from some of her later letters. But she never did. She started. She took poor forlorn little Betsy [her other daughter] away from the Milton farm and steered her toward that new, meager life; but something happened in her head and in her feelings. She winced aside, she refused the jump. With Augusta and Thomas waiting for her in there, with the whole life that she had given up to marry Oliver Ward open again to her ambition, and she not old — at her very top, actually, in imagination and skill — she could not do it. She got on a train, but is was not a train headed downriver to New York. It was another transcontinental train headed West. [Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose, pp. 517-518.]

I think Susan realized that repentance was the only way to healing. She must deal with the circumstances that have beset her. That is the only way for her to recover herself. To make a way forward. She cannot just leave the devastation behind. She must deal with it learn from it, repent, seek reconciliation with her family and herself. This is the invitation of Advent, of John, to deal with our circumstances, our past, our present, so that we can live into the God-with-us reality that we see in the life of our beloved Jesus. Excavating, clearing, unearthing, cleaning, examining, with relentless honesty, is the path to the life we so hope for and desire. God seeking us. To be with us. To fill us and our world with love. To heal and restore and redeem. Let us help to make the way; create the path through repentance.

The founder of an independent church in Africa shares this dream which I believe conveys our Advent hopes:

I saw the world. A giant snake, enormously powerful, was coiling itself around the globe. The globe seemed too weak to withstand the pressure. I could see the first crack in it. Then I saw a light at the center of the world. Enter into this light, I was told, but I resisted. I wanted to remain outside watching the drama. I was afraid, too, thinking the light would burn me to ashes. But the light was irresistible. I went toward it and, as I did so, I saw many others moving towards it, too. And the snake’s grip gradually began to loosen. [From “an unpublished private source,” in Resources for Preaching and Worship Year C, compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, p. 3.]

I feel like Christianity has so many gifts to offer especially in terms of dealing with the past and the things we’ve done wrong as individuals and as a society and culture, and, yes, as the church. Christianity has this beautiful teaching about repentance and forgiveness creating an on-ramp not only back into society and the healing of relationships but into a much more beautiful reality. This is the process John is talking about. This is what we celebrate in the birth of Jesus. The gospels tell us that Jesus’ first word in his public ministry was, “Repent!”

This season we’ll think about the gifts under the tree. Just the right thing for those we love. But let us remember the gifts that are being given to us — just what we need to make heaven and nature sing! Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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