Sunday, December 9, 2007

JESUS is the reason for the season!

HOPE... that no matter how much preparation we make, no matter how high our expectations for the "perfect" holiday can be dashed in a split second when the family members enter into the equation, no matter how much we spend, etc. JESUS is the reason for the season and upon Him, we can always count!

Are you preparing for the perfect holiday? Or dreading it?

Images of laughter filling the house…aroma of delicious foods drifting through the house…yes, I held unusually high expectations for holiday gatherings. So preparations used to begin literally months in advance. Finding the perfect stuffing…that perfect little chotzke for my mother-in-law…the best wine…the perfect assortment of desserts… even redecorating a few times! Yet, when the day would finally arrive, all the preparation in the world can't decrease my disappointment in the event itself. For in all the hustle and bustle of making the perfect arrangements, I have forgotten what is truly important about the gathering itself.

The relationships with people (and animals) for whom I care deeply.

We are in the thick of Advent season now…only two weeks until the big day...until Christmas. And somehow, all the money and energies that we expend on the preparations, the parties, the gifts, the meals --- well, they distort the true importance of the season.

Remember? Our relationship with Jesus is what this is all about.

John the Baptist doesn't distort the truth of his message. His description certainly paints a colorful image! Like Elijah, John lived on the edge of the desert and found camel's hair and a leather belt suitable attire for a prophet. He fed on locusts and wild honey. Multitudes came out into the wilderness to hear his words and for a baptism of repentance. He taught the fulfillment of prophecy of Isaiah: "Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God".

Yet, much like comedian Steven Colbert, John is able to offend everyone. In today's lesson, he strikes out at the Pharisees and Sadducees who represent the religious establishment. John scolds their ethnic pride and lack of good works. He pushes all who visit to not just rest on their lineage from Abraham but to produce good fruit for others now. Through his rantings, John's excitement focused on the important event – that is, the coming of Christ. John displayed enthusiasm simultaneously with impatience for those who just didn't get the whole baptism thing. Like Isaiah, John had his patience tested, yet remained faithful to the vision and hope for a future of peace.

I find it intriguing that such a rough man draws the people. John has no agent, the people receive only a dunking in the river Jordan, there is probably no food and yet, they travel out from Jerusalem most likely for a half days' journey each way. These people admire one whose needs are minimal, who is the master of his own appetites, who has a deep internal freedom. John the Baptist, with minimal clothes and minimal food, was a magnet. People trusted him because clearly he could not be bought. As Churchill said of Lawrence of Arabia, “Because he despised the world’s prizes, the world held him in awe. He was enfranchised by his indifference to its pleasures.”

His preaching reminds us that during this season there are more important things we should be doing - besides dashing to parties and hastily wrapping gifts. John's message "Prepare the way of the Lord" is not about getting the best tree or hosting the party to end all parties, it's about preparing our hearts to welcome God through the birth of God's only son… by sharing in relationship with others and by self-examination and repentance. When we anticipate the goodness of God's gift to us, then and only then can we find God's peace. And it is when we have the peace of God inside that we are capable to love others fully and work toward peace with all of God's creation.

We are invited to produce the fruits of God's peace in our lives and relationships. Today, many of you either produced the fruits known as "cookies" or purchased these fruits of the bakers' labor.

[hold up cookie tray]

Like our cookie walk today, we all bring our own different colors, shapes, aromas and flavors to the gathering. Consider for a moment how many have labored to bring the finished product to Holy Trinity today. The spectacular bakers among you, and also the cow and her milk, the birds who scatter the seeds, horses who may still pull the plow, the planter, harvester, packager and grocer. And, then the finished product is produced by the labor of the loving hands and hearts here.

[Hold up cookie]

This cookie is not merely limited to the labor of humans for animals, too, have made their contribution to these delectable creations. With the peace of God in our hearts, sown by the Holy Spirit through the witnesses of many others, what other "fruits" might we be able to produce?

The root of Jesse connects the words of John the Baptist and Isaiah - indeed, there is a captivating dynamic here. Isaiah invites us into the presence of the Messiah who "shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear: but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth." This is the peace and hope we await during this season of Advent. God's gracious love and discernment…The images of the lion laying with the lamb in Isaiah make clear that God's righteousness is demonstrated in peace. This kind of peace one might find this week at the Thailand Zoo where a mother sow nurses tiger cubs and the mother tiger similarly provides love and nourishment to the little piglets. True, in captivity, these animals are being controlled by humans, but remember the words of Isaiah….a little child shall lead them. The wolf living with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the kid, the calf and the lion together. Isn't this the world that Christ was born to save? Isn't this the way God asks us to be with others unlike us?

Today we heard Isaiah’s words – what meaning do they hold for us? Do we develop healthy relationships and respond fairly and compassionately in times of injustice? This may seem simple …yet this is how we can prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ. Isaiah's commitment to the vision of peace and justice models an attitude that we can cultivate when living and dealing with those who have differing priorities and expectations.

Last week, Jeffrey Drake from Metro Chicago Synod spoke to us about the Central Diocese of the Southern Africa Synod. He said that one of the things that most touched him personally was Bishop Phaswana's peaceful, forgiving attitude toward the very government who had imprisoned and tortured him. As the Bishop explained, forgiveness is necessary when the priority is to stay alive and keep the people alive. He had prepared his heart for the advent of Christ and was able to forgive others even in the most inhumane circumstances…Just as Isaiah and John were clearly focused on the future hope that the Messiah would bring, Bishop Phaswana's vision was focused on the hope that Christ can offer for peace.

Today John calls us into Jesus' be present with Christ is to be planted and watered so that our fruits may flourish. We come to Christ through the waters of baptism...there we have been welcomed in grace and received the Holy Spirit so our lives produce "fruit worthy of repentance". We have the spiritual confidence to empower us to work for peace in this world…God's creation. As we have already been welcomed into Christ's church, so we too will one day be gathered together into God's granary.

We are asked to prepare... to make the road straight for the promised Messiah who will lead us into God's promised peace. Yet John's words also ring out as a call for us to bear the fruits of peace. We can only produce such fruit if we are planted in the soil of God's word and blessed with the waters of God's grace.

God of hope and peace, you have given us identity as your children to prepare us to do your work, your mission. You have asked us to prepare ourselves…to bring peace to ourselves…to those broken relationships…to those different from us…to prepare missions that are intended to bring peace to the world…to your creation.

In the name of your son, Jesus Christ our Saviour and Lord,