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2nd Sunday of Advent – December 4, 2016

Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
Advent 2A

Jill Duffield's lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook's email list every Monday.
Jill Duffield’s lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook’s email list every Monday.

I am just contrary enough to look forward to John the Baptist’s disruptive Advent appearance every year.

Just when the Christmas music is unavoidable and the push to buy the perfect gift that reveals our love relentless, John the Baptist shows up overflowing with righteous indignation. He cares not about niceties or social conventions or respect for those in charge. I like that about him. Not because I think I am excluded from the brood of vipers; I am a pastor, a religious leader, so I am intertwined totally in that pit. What I appreciate is that John’s wrath is indiscriminate. John’s call to repentance is universal and without exception. He feels no need to suck up to power, plead for civility in the face of injustice, or soften the message so as it might get heard. John cares not one iota about what others think of him. John is everything I am not and perhaps that’s why I am so grateful he is a regular participant in the run up to “the most wonderful time of the year.”

John refuses to capitulate to any sanguine pretense that if we just keep going about our business everything will be all right. Nope. He doesn’t succumb to platitudes or pep talks or thought and prayers. If we are to participate in the oh-so-near Kingdom of God, then we’ve got to repent. Our current trajectory is the highway to hell. (Insert the head-banging music of your choice here.) The coming Kingdom, this new thing God is doing, the earthly entrance of the Son of Man is radical and requires a commensurate radical response. Despite the twinkling lights, holiday sweaters and seasonal good deeds, without a complete turn around, we are bound to land in the fire, as useless as quickly ripped off Christmas wrapping paper the moment the gift is revealed.

Maybe that’s how we should think about John the Baptist’s admonition to repent. God’s greatest gift is just about to be revealed, so all of those outward trappings that make us feel and look good pale in comparison. All the layers of metaphoric tinsel in which we wrap ourselves – status, piety, wealth, righteousness – are barriers to meeting God face to face where we are judged, yes, but also beloved, forgiven and freed. If we are going to participate fully in the reign of Jesus Christ, then we must let go of all the posturing in order to be ready to go down an entirely new path – the Way, the Truth and the Life.

The juxtaposition of this Matthew text with those from Isaiah and Romans is interesting. In Isaiah, the beauty of the vision is breathtaking, expansive, hard to imagine. The poor will be judged with righteousness, there will be equity for the meek, the wolf will lie down with the lamb. In listening to the news of Syria, North Dakota, Chattanooga, Iraq and so many more, I want to weep at how far we are from the prophet’s promise. The Kingdom of God doesn’t seem near at all. When I hear Paul pray God’s blessing of harmony and welcome, I put that beside the call from many to keep refugees out and build walls and deport immigrants, and I wonder how those sentiments fit together. Then I hear John’s call, “Repent!” That is when I realize how crooked a path I’ve been traveling.

I hear, “Repent!” and I must, if I am even the least bit honest, hear it directed first and foremost at me. If not, then my citizenship will be forever relegated to the brood of vipers. If not, I will always be calling out specks from behind the log of my own eye. If not, I will be the Pharisee grateful not to be the tax collector, the rich man immune to the plight of Lazarus at my gate, the disciples intent on keeping the children from bothering Jesus, a member of the crowd calling for the release of Barabbas and the conviction of Christ, the impenitent thief who is so close to the Kingdom of God I could touch it, but too self-absorbed to recognize it right beside me. John the Baptist’s call must first be heard and heeded by each of us, individually. We each need to repent, in word and in deed. Only then will we have a hope of living out our baptismal identity in ways that imitate Christ. Only then can the fire burn our dross and be transformed to light for the world.

Such a somber plea doesn’t play well during the “most wonderful time of the year.” Can’t this wait for Ash Wednesday? Lent might be a better season for such a downer. But here we have it, right at the beginning of December when many have put up the tree, hung stockings with care, mailed cards and started getting to work on their gift list. And I am so relieved. Because all of the Christmas cheer feels as fake as the snow around Santa’s house in the mall if we don’t recognize our deep need of the saving love of Jesus Christ. John the Baptist offers God’s genuine hope instead of cheap grace, the possibility that we don’t have to remain as we are, the promise that with repentance comes mercy, a brand new path, an exit off the highway to hell.

Thanks be to God as John bursts on the scene, turns off “Jingle Bells” and “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas,” and tells it like it is in order that we might repent, recognize God’s Kingdom and be ready to follow the One who will be here very soon.

Advent brings us the poetry of Isaiah, the benediction of Paul and the jeremiad of John the Baptist. Each word is necessary if we are to glimpse the Kingdom vision, heed the prophet’s call and be consumed by the fire of the Holy Spirit.

This week:

  1. Read the account of John the Baptist in all of the Gospels. Notice the differences in the introduction to this story. What do you think is significant about these small differences?
  2. Is repentance such an antiquated, churchy concept that it seems irrelevant in our current context? How is confession different or the same as repentance?
  3. John’s role is to point beyond himself to Jesus. How do we do that both as individual Christians and as communities of faith?
  4. How do we recognize the present and coming Kingdom? What other word might you insert for “kingdom”?
  5. Read through the services for repentance and forgiveness in The Book of Common Worship and use the prayers in your devotions this week.
  6. Here is a prayer written in the 10th century by Simeon the New Theologian: Make me a worthy temple of your Spirit, no more a temple of sin, but a child of light. You alone are the shinning brightness of souls, and to you, God and Master, we give all glory every day of our lives.

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