Second Sunday of Advent
John the Baptist would have been the worst caroler. “We wish you a merry Christmas!” “You brood of vipers!” John the Baptist is no sweet-sounding nativity character. He doesn’t even show up in the lineup in pictures or on your tables back home. Though it could be interesting to turn one of the shepherds into a John the Baptist-type. His language of preparation certainly fits in here – into this season of Advent where we wait and prepare for Christ to come. But his tone and his context do not. He wasn’t out preparing the way of the Lord until his adult years, long after Jesus’ birth (did you remember that they are only 6 months apart? and cousins at that). Though in paintings of him, especially from the Renaissance period, he is always pointing at Jesus. It’s a good depiction, since that was his job, to point to the Christ, to prepare his way.
He comes across quite aggressive and pushy. It’s easy to imagine that he made people feel uncomfortable back then, as he still does to us today. It’s another Sunday where we’d rather move back to Isaiah where there’s a beautiful image of the peaceful kingdom instead of with this man who yells at people about repentance. And yet, this is the message of Advent – to prepare, not just by hanging lights and buying gifts, but changing our hearts and minds, changing our lives to match our claim that we are part of God’s kingdom, or some of Jesus’ followers. To be those things means to pursue the values of God as Creator, Son, and Spirit. We tend to be more comfortable with the articulation of that if it sounds more like Isaiah – the wolf shall lie with the lamb, and a little child shall lead them… But we forget our part in God’s peace. We forget that it means change for us. Repent. Change your hearts and minds. Turn and live in a new way. Leave things behind that hinder you from living fully into God’s work in this world, and take on those things that give life and peace and hope. That’s not overnight work. It’s a lifetime’s worth.
John’s image of “unquenchable fire” is hard to escape. It comes up at the end, in that part about the wheat and the chaff. When you harvest wheat, you have to separate the wheat (the head of grain) from the chaff (the husk that surrounds the seed). The winnowing fork is used to throw the wheat into the air, where the heavier wheat seed then falls to the ground, but the lighter chaff rises to the top or blows away in the wind.
John the Baptist uses this agricultural image as an analogy for what Jesus is coming to do. Typically most people read this and imagine that he is talking about two different kinds of people – some people are wheat (good), and some are chaff (bad). But that isn’t a true representation of the image. Even the wheat plant is all one plant that needs to be separated – some is kept and some is burned. So it is with us. Each of us has some parts that are good and some that are bad. We all have parts of our lives that need change. John the Baptist might say that they need the fire of the Holy Spirit in order for us to repent and turn, to pursue and live in a new way.
Fire itself is an intense image. We could have a whole session on fire ecology here, about how fire is sometimes vital to growth and survival in nature, but that it can also be completely destructive. Someone this week talked about the fire on Rattlesnake last year that will now produce quick green growth come spring. Life out of death. In some ways, fire ecology describes our theology. Even when things seem all dead and gone, growth appears.
Fire is painful, but it makes a way for new things. I’ve heard many of you talk about your physical therapy, or should we say “physical torture.” It is miserable in the moment, but it is what will help you heal the fastest. Liberating pain. I think this is the fire to which John the Baptist refers. Not the fires of hell, but fires of healing. Fires that purify and make way for new things. Fires that burn up what is dead and dying and prepare the earth for growth. Fires that feed hope.
Hope is our theme word for today. Some people get all hyped up about which word their Advent candle represents. There is no formula or prescription for this. This year we happen to be using Peace, Hope, Joy, and Love. Those ones are common. Some others might be Prepare or Gloria. Maybe we should add new ones that help inspire us to live into our faith during this season in new ways. Today our word is hope. You can hear it outright in the Romans reading today. And Isaiah is full of hopeful images, signs that our world will not always be this way, with wars, shootings at schools, military bases, and other places, public or not. Someday our weapons for destruction and death will be turned into tools for the betterment of community – this is out of the image last Sunday in Isaiah, where swords will be turned into plows, and spears into pruning tools. Hope.
I saw a sign of hope in our world at the tree lot yesterday. My family did a shift in the morning, and during that shift, some local parents stopped by, not to buy a tree, but to make a donation so that the next person who wanted a tree wouldn’t have to pay for it. Paying it forward. (And it still goes on today!) They were doing this in honor of their daughter who died suddenly a while back. They are a sign of hope, that even when it feels like death has gotten the last word, it hasn’t, because life is still springing forth. Hope is still steady, even in the midst of pain and grief and loss, even when we can’t see it at work.
Last week I invited you to contrast the sound of this season in the culture (jingle bells) with the sound of it in scripture (the sound of the anvil – of metal being pounded and shaped into something life-giving). Today I invite you to a visual contrast for this season (wish I had a screen to do this with!). In the culture, one image is the Christmas Tree. But in the scripture of Advent, we have the stump of Jesse. Jesse was King David’s father, which means that this is David’s lineage that Isaiah writes about, and it will eventually be Jesus’ lineage. “A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch out of his roots.” The stump is only a sign of what once was; a life that has been cut down; a symbol of death even. And yet the shoot and the branch say otherwise. There is hope. Life grows even in what once was dead.
Today we get John the Baptist, a character not too keen on our sentimental Advent and Christmas, calling us to true repentance – that our lives would bear witness to who and whose we are. That our lives would bear fruit that reflects our identity as children of God. He invites us to embrace the separation in our lives of wheat and chaff, even if by fire. That we should be purified and refined, even if by liberating pain. Fire can make way for old things to be burned up and new things to spring forth. Fire and pain are not something any of us want to go through, but it’s often through the most painful and difficult moments of our lives that we find out who we are; and we realize God has made us strong and that has the power to give us hope. That death and pain are not the end. There is always new life making its way to the surface, a sign of hope, and an opportunity for being made new and starting again.
As Paul says to the Romans in our reading today: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.