Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
December 5, 2021
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Amarillo, Texas
The season of Advent has been called a time of preparation. As Mother Jo wrote in the latest issue of The Messenger, our church’s newsletter, “The word Advent means coming.” In Advent, the first season of our church year, we prepare for the coming of the Christ. But what does that mean? There is a magnet that has a picture of a classic-looking Jesus knocking on a door with the words, “Jesus is coming; look busy.” Preparation for Jesus in Advent can seem that way. How do we prepare?
Speaking of knocking on doors, there are some people for whom no preparation is required because we aren’t going to let them in. A lawyer friend of mine told me this week there are only three kinds of people who knock on your door in the evening without calling ahead: someone trying to sell you something you don’t want, a process server is trying to serve you with papers for a lawsuit, or a friend is popping in for a visit without having the decency to call you first. My friend concluded there is never a need to open the door to the unexpected knocker, because you don’t want to see any of those people.
I have to disagree with my friend. Not about the process server or the door-to-door salesman, but that there are four types of people, not just three. The fourth type of person who knocks on the door unannounced is the delivery person, the postman or a UPS or FedEx worker who rings the doorbell or knocks to share the news that a gift is waiting for you. The delivery person is not the gift, but the one who tells you that the gift is there. We get excited when this person comes to our door. We want to hear their news. The delivery person prepares us for the receipt of the gift.
John son of Zechariah is that delivery man. He is the one unexpectedly knocking on our door, announcing the gift that is about to be delivered. John foretells what the Christ will be like and what effect he will have.
We sometimes think ancient writings are less sophisticated than modern ones, but today’s Gospel reading from Luke is anything but that. Imagine if you would these six verses as like shots in a movie. With the reading of the name of the emperor, the scene opens with a view of the entire Roman Empire. Then as the names of their rulers are stated, the camera view narrows on Judea and neighboring kingdoms at the far eastern corner of the empire. With the names of the high priests, the camera comes even closer to the map, focusing on the Jews in Judea. Finally, the camera shows a single Jew, a man named John who travels up and down the Jordan River Valley. There is sound now not from the narrator, but the voice of this man in the wilderness. As John speaks, his words seem to change the landscape around him. If you will excuse the pun, the land is made plain as rock and dirt fill the valley depths and as the heights of the hills are leveled. (The wonderful thing about computer-generated imagery is that the camera can make John’s words come alive.) With this transformation, the camera suddenly pulls away. Rapidly, it reverses its course, pulling back from wilderness, from Judea, even from the Roman Empire, until the screen shows the entire earth. We hear John’s voice declare “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Yes, I am quitting my day job to become a movie director.
This imagery is critical to Jesus’ identity as Luke proclaims it. John heralded the coming of Jesus and, for Luke, Jesus revealed salvation not just for the righteous and not just the Jews, but for all people everywhere. Salvation is for all flesh to see. We will see this theme again and again in the Gospel of Luke this church year. Those despised or excluded by society have prominent places in the Gospel of Luke. Salvation is for women, Samaritans, tax collectors, and prostitutes. Salvation is for the poor; indeed, Jesus teaches that the wealth of the rich endangers their salvation. Jesus eats with the high and the low, with Pharisees and sinners alike. For Jesus, what defines a person is the authentic desire for a right relationship with God and a right relationship with one’s neighbors, not a person’s occupation or rank.
John prepares the way for this message. He calls on the people to repent from their sins. He preaches about sharing wealth with the poor. He instructs tax collectors to be honest in their work. He tells soldiers not to extort money or make false accusations. As John exhorts the people, he talks about the one who is to come after him, the one far greater than he.
Rather than just looking busy during Advent, how can we use this time to refocus our lives? Can we look to Jesus and John as models for preparing the way for Jesus? I don’t mean for us to scatter across the countryside to preach in the wilderness. I am asking if there are other, less literal wildernesses in which we find ourselves where we can make the good news of Christ more readily heard. Do we know people who are shamed or ashamed because of who they are or what they have done? Who have we encountered who is marginalized by our society? Who are those treated—or who treat themselves—as having little or no value? What can we do to encourage ourselves and our neighbors to create a more equitable society, a society in which those who have share more with those who have not, a society in which justice is available to all, regardless of status or power? As ones who are going before the Lord to prepare his way, what can we do?
We may not know how to fix the problems of the world. The challenges can be so daunting that we avoid some neighbors of ours altogether. But just as God does not want us to simply look busy because Jesus is coming, God does want us to do what we can to love our neighbors. We can find charities that specialize in offering the help needed. We can support those organizations financially or by volunteering.
Even within this church, we have ministries that do great work of love and justice, such as the refugee ministry, the Angel Tree Project, and the deacons’ discretionary fund. The refugee ministry is collecting goods and money all during Advent. There are opportunities to work more closely with the refugees than just gift-giving. Through this congregation’s participation in the Angel Tree Project, many children will have not only a fine Christmas present, but one that helps rebuild their relationship with their incarcerated parent. The deacons’ discretionary fund aids church members and strangers alike who contact the church needing emergency financial assistance. This fund is the primary means this church responds to these requests for help, which can include payment for repair bills, utilities, motel rooms, gasoline, or food. The demands on the fund are frequent and heavy as so many people are just one crisis away from hunger or homelessness. The deacons’ discretionary fund exists solely through donations from parishioners designated for the fund.
As we reach out beyond ourselves to prepare the way for Christ, we may surprise ourselves by growing personally. The first time you talk to someone in need can be intimidating, even scary, particularly if they are different from you. Perhaps even John the Baptist was nervous that first time he spoke up. This church provides a wonderful place to practice moving your boundary stakes. At Sunday’s breakfast, try sitting with someone who don’t know, asking their name, and sharing stories. Consider working with refugees. Invite a friend or acquaintance who is suffering during this holiday season to the Blue Christmas service next Sunday night. Volunteer as a eucharistic visitor, taking communion on Sunday afternoons to one or two people outside the church, people who are members of this church but can’t physically make it here. At a church service, greet someone who is new or alone. The recognition of a person as a person as Jesus did can be a wonderful gift that prepares the way for Christ for that person and can change a society. Much of what Jesus did was foster relationships, making friends and forming a community. Each of us can do the same.
As Christians, our real work lies outside these church buildings. What we learn and practice here is for us to use in the world the other six and a half days of the week. We strive to erase the differences between being in church and being in the world until how we are in our homes, schools, and places of work perfectly reflects our beliefs and deeds at church.
Our prayer should not just be that we answer the door when we hear the knock. Our prayer should be that we are the ones doing the knocking. We call out, “Open the door, and see the gift that is waiting for you.”