December 5, 2021……….Rev. Patrick Mecham………2nd Sunday of Advent
Malachi 3: 1-4; Philippians 1: 3-11; Luke 3: 1-6
I would like you to imagine that you have something wonderful to give to someone you love. This is a something that is almost too delightful for words, something that will enrich their lives beyond measure. There is only one problem: their hands are full already, so they are not able to receive your gift! You say, “Empty your hands. I have something wonderful for you.” And they say, “I can’t let go of what is in my hands—just give it to me!” What do you do? You might say, “Come on—hold out your hands!” And they might manage to put down one thing and hold out just one hand, so you say, “This is not a one-handed gift. It’s too big for that. I need BOTH of your hands! Get ready for something incredible!”
I know this sounds like an impossible scenario—but it is exactly the situation that God faces while trying to give you and me the precious gift of Christmas. Our “hands” are full of other stuff, demanding stuff. Our attention is fixed on many other things, so God has a BIG job in getting us ready for The Gift. Think about what some of those distractions might be for you:
- Planning a big celebration with lots of friends and family—and getting everything ready for it;
- Figuring out how to buy gifts for loved-ones when finances are already strained;
- Grieving the estrangement of family members, or wishing that everyone could celebrate together in peace without any bickering or grudges;
- Getting the house all fixed up and repairing things that bother you;
- Focusing so hard on what you want to get for Christmas that you miss out on the joy of the Season.
I’m sure you can add to that list of distractions!
Our Scripture readings for today show us that it has always been this way. In Malachi, God declares that he is sending his messenger to prepare the way before him. And, in Luke, we get to meet this messenger—the one sent by God to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah—the one who would help people get ready to receive God’s greatest gift.
The Messenger’s name is John, son of Zechariah, and he will eventually be known as John The Baptizer. And just how can he help us to get ready for Christmas? Let’s take a look.
One Crying Out in the Wilderness
Before we get to the miraculous birth of Jesus, let’s revisit another amazing birth story. The mother is Elizabeth, an older woman believed to be unable to bear a child. The father is Zechariah, who was told by the angel Gabriel that his wife would bear a son, and they must name him John. The angel also said, “He will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
In the sixth month of her pregnancy, Elizabeth’s cousin came to visit—Mary, (who had just been told by that same angel, Gabriel, that she would bear God’s Son!) As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice, her unborn baby (little John the Baptizer) leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and blessed Mary and the child she was carrying.
Elizabeth’s own child was born to his own amazing life purpose. His father had been filled with the Spirit and had prophesied that John was called to be a prophet of the Most High, and that he would go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him.
And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel. (Our reading today from Luke 3 puts that moment precisely in world history!) Now, keep in mind that, when we read of “the desert” in Scripture, it is often a metaphor for a place one goes to in order to listen for God’s word. It symbolizes an emptying of oneself in order to receive what God wants to give.
After dwelling in “the desert,” John appeared on the scene, ready to give God’s message to Israel. The text tells us that he was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” as a way to prepare the way of the Lord. Repentance (as it turns out) is one way to empty ourselves so that we are ready to be filled with God’s gift!
Receiving God’s Gift
Christmas has been described as A Season of Giving. I like the way that idea takes the focus off us ourselves and puts it on the joy of giving to others. There’s nothing wrong with giving and receiving presents—but I wonder: Are Christmas distractions filling our hands so full that we cannot receive the Gift that God wants to give us?
Friends, we can use this Advent Season as a time of getting ready. For example: When you want to plant a garden, you prepare the soil for planting, right? You don’t just toss the seeds on top of hard ground—you have to break up the soil and add nutrients and amendments before you ever plant! In the same way, you and I need to be “tilled up” and prepared to receive “God’s seeds.”
- We could, like John, spend time “in the desert” in quiet reflection away from the noise and haste;
- We could examine ourselves in God’s light in order to gain perspective and balance;
- We could follow the advice from James, “Submit yourselves to God. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”
Forgiveness—Letting Go of Resentment
Here’s another great idea, expressed by Sharon Hanby-Robie. She says, “Unless we learn to forgive, we’ll spend every Christmas celebrating with a tension that prevents us from enjoying the season. It’s only when we’ve made peace with others that we can celebrate the true Christmas gift—the Christ.”
And here’s a story that illustrates what she means: Colette Warner expected to inherit the beautiful nativity scene that her mother had made when Colette was just a child. But her sister took it home, and wasn’t interested in sharing it with her. This cause a HUGE rift in their relationship. (Isn’t it ironic that something that represents Christmas—which is God’s design for reconciliation—ironic that something that represents Christmas could be the source of resentment and division?!)
Well, anyway, the sisters finally talked things through and forgave each other—they let go of the resentment that was weighing down their hands—and then they received the gift of the JOY of Christmas!
I’ll finish up by taking us back to John the Baptizer and his insistence on repentance as the way to prepare for the coming of the Savior. Malachi had told the people that the messenger preparing the way of the Lord would be like “the Refiner’s fire” and would purify them like gold and silver. It makes me think of that passage from Romans where Paul writes, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” And there’s that vision of a burning coal in Isaiah, a coal that was touched to his lips—thereby purifying him in the presence of the Lord.
Burning Fire, on our heads or on our lips, is vivid imagery for the fire of purification that God desires for us. It’s NOT the fire of punishment from an angry God, NO—it’s the purifying fire that makes us clean, free from the impurities that make it difficult to receive the True Gift of Christmas. Friends, if we get to Christmas morning, and our hands are full of too many things, we won’t be ready to receive the True Gift of Christmas. What do you need to let go of in order to receive God’s gifts? Is it letting go of your pride, and picking up the phone and starting the process of reconciliation with someone from whom you have been estranged? Is it spending time alone with God, giving the Holy Spirit a chance to speak to you about something that needs to be addressed in your life? Is it a re-ordering of your priorities and dreaming a new dream—God’s dream for you? Maybe it’s a combination of things. Friends, whatever it is, let’s get ready for Christmas!