Malachi 3: 1-4; Luke 3: 1-6
Good morning, and grace and peace. Second Sunday of Advent already. Pageant rehearsals happening, and it was really fun to peek in yesterday afternoon to hear some of the first run-through. Choir working on Lessons and Carols for next Sunday afternoon, Christmas Eve service leaflet in production. Shopping and holiday gatherings. Traffic jams at the mall.
Blessings and I trust a sense of mutual care as we all tumble along through these weeks. Probably everybody gets a little stressed, even when things are going well. Susy and I were delighted to welcome so many of you to our open house last Sunday, but I know as the month rolls along the calendar becomes even more complicated. Busyness and financial strain, emotional and social and relational expectations, disappointments. Memories that bring both joy and sadness.
In the twelve-step movement there’s a saying, “under stress we regress.” So it always seems strange to think about how a season all about humility and grace and deep generosity seems inevitably to devolve into news-at-eleven stories about stampedes in department stores and family gatherings that end with fistfights and gunshots.
Again, grace and peace, and with the thought that this is a season to cut each other and ourselves a little slack as best we can. Take a deep breath or two. Find a time of quiet along the way, as best we can. Humility. Echo of the Advent Collect. Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.
In the older traditions and deriving from perhaps more serious times the four weeks of Advent were intended not so much as a preparation and “countdown” for Christmas. At least not in the Church or from the pulpit. Instead, as a time of deep reflection and self-assessment, at the beginning of a New Year, in consideration of a larger timeframe, and of our place in a transitory world, and as we as Christians await the Lord's return. We have purple paraments, and the season of Advent actually evolved on the analogy of the Lent that comes before Easter. A "little Lent," anyway. For confession and repentance, for prayer and a special immersion in the reading of Holy Scripture. A time for a spiritual discipline, to take stock, to evaluate not just the present moment, but the content and the direction of our whole life.
The four Advent Sundays provided topics to preach on what were called the “Last Things.” Death and Judgment, Heaven and Hell. And this then, the Second Sunday, to be all about Judgment. Always a popular topic!
And that certainly echoes in the readings appointed for the day. The Prophet Malachi this morning, “Indeed he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.” (I’ve been listening to the Messiah this week and almost want to sing those words as I read them!) And this word in St. Luke about John the Baptist, the gospel figure who is so significant in this Advent season. The one who comes to prepare the world for the coming of Christ, and to make an inspired witness to him. Again, all about getting things in order. And the quotation from Isaiah to frame John’s message: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” This great moral and spiritual engineering project. Leveling the hills, cutting through the mountains and forests to engineer a wide highway, as the LORD himself returns to Zion, now as the Child in the Manger, to assume for himself the Royal Throne of David in our hearts and minds each one of us and for every tribe and nation and language and people a new authority. Nations will stream to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawning.
That was the True Light that was coming into the world, the Dayspring from on high, the new light of the dawn, scattering the darkness, and of course the reality is that in bright light we see sometimes more of ourselves than we really want to see. Certainly more than we would want others to see. We may say the prayer week by week. “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, from whom no secrets are hid.” To think about that, the devices and desires of our own hearts, every secret and hidden corner, thrust into the light. Enough to give us pause, even as we rush from one thing to the next. But what it takes to get ready.
An invitation, we might say, to a holy Advent. Not to go into hiding, but to offer up what is broken in our own lives, the devices and desires of our own hearts, things done and left undone. And I would just invite each one of us this morning and in this season: to leave them as our offering, and then to seek his grace and power for forgiveness, renewal, amendment of life . That we might walk from henceforth in his holy ways. To be ready for Christmas, really ready. “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make his blessing flow, far as the curse is found.” Joy to the world, and Happy Advent.