Posted on Mon, Dec 19, 2011
Rev. Dr. Merritt's Sermon for Advent 2 2011
Making Our Way Ready
Rev. Dr. Jim Merritt
December 4, 2011
Before we delve into today’s texts, let me say how focused I have been this week on World AIDS Day which was observed on Thursday. I hope you took time to read my article in this week’s Trinity E-talk, where I shared with you my own initiation into the world of HIV/AIDS and my response to it. I shared with you memories of just a few of the people I’ve been blessed to know during their own journeys with AIDS. I know every single one of us here shares memories like mine, so I ask you now to observe a minute of silence with me in memory of all those who have passed on from this life as a result of HIV-related illnesses, in honor of those who continue to live vitally among us in spite of HIV, and as always for better treatment including both a cure and a vaccine for HIV/AIDS. Let us observe a moment of silence.
Dear God, we thank you for loving us even when the world said we were unlovely. We thank you for carrying us through the most difficult times in our lives. We remember our sisters and brothers who have lived and died with HIV. We thank you for the thousands who continue to live. We ask you for both a cure and for a vaccine, that all might live in the light of your love. Grant us peace this day, we pray. AMEN.
Hear again the words of scripture. “Prepare a way for our God.” I love that beautiful music from Handel’s Messiah that proclaims, “Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain!” All of that comes to us from the prophet Isaiah and then is matched in the words of the Gospel writer who proclaims that same message from Isaiah again, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” Isn’t it just wonderful when the New Testament writers demonstrate their familiarity with the prophets in the Hebrew bible? This shows us again the consistency of God from the beginning of time all the way through this moment in time. Our God IS faithful, our God IS true and our God is peaceful.
Rev. BK Hipshire, one of MCC’s finest and current doctoral candidate at Episcopal Divinity School points out the unique way the Gospel of Mark begins, not with the nativity story, but by quoting Isaiah. Although the passage from Isaiah was portending the return of the people from exile back to their homeland, their culture and their traditions, we see it here used to portend or prophesy the arrival of the one who would return people from the bondage of sin and alienation and restore them and us to what Dr. Carter Heyward would call “right relation” with God.
Notice some things about John. First of all, it seems that he would have been well-qualified for the title, “Bear” in our culture. He appears to have been a masculine man, furry and somewhat rugged. He lived well in the wilderness and seems to have had his own share of insulation, if you know what I mean (he was full-figured). The most significant aspect of John’s life, it seems, is that he was always pointing beyond himself to the power of God. We can all but hear him say, “Don’t follow me; rather, follow the one who sent me,” and even more profound, “Follow the one who is coming after me.” Follow him and make ready for his coming.
Remember, John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. I acknowledge that it is both uncomfortable and absolutely necessary for us to spend some time during the season of advent thinking about our own practice of sin. Hold on now; don’t check out on me, I promise we’ll come to good closure on this.
What is sin, one might ask. I believe sin comes in two forms. First, sin is any behavior that separates us from God. You’ve been there. We do something wrong, either intentionally or accidentally and immediately we know it. That behavior weighs on us for days, it comes forward in our minds when we try to pray, when we come to church, when it feels like the pastor has stopped preaching and gone to meddling. It messes with us when we come to communion and is never far from our spiritual minds. That is one form of sin.
The other form of sin is when we fail to do something we know we should have done. We see a hungry woman or man and are just too busy to go through the drive-thru and get them a veggie burger and some fries. We get impatient with a service person that is obviously having a bad day and we refuse to cut them a little slack and decide to punish them by cutting their tip or being rude back to them. We have an opportunity to participate in an offering or a food drive or a toy drive and we clearly hear God telling us to do something and yet we still refuse, saying, “I can’t” or “I won’t”. The first are what my ancestors called sins of commission, and the second are sins of omission.
I will never shame you, my sisters and brothers, and I will, as your pastor, continue to call all of us together to a baptism that insists on repentance of sins. Repentance; confessing our behavior and then turning it around simply are part of the Christian life if we want to be real followers of Jesus. And, repentance is one of the best ways to bring peace to our own lives and to our world. When we repent of our sins we become intimately familiar with the Prince of Peace, with the Peace that passes understanding that rules in our hearts and our minds and in our very being. A baptism of repentance and of the forgiveness of sins is precisely what John calls for. It is also exactly what Isaiah had in mind when we wrote EVERY valley shall be exalted. EVERY mountain and hill made low, the Crooked straightened out and every rough place smoothed over. That is the baptism to which we are called this morning and every day of our lives as friends of and followers of Jesus. This is the way we make ourselves ready for the blessings of Christmas.
The late Marcella Althaus-Reid’s commentary on Mark in The Queer Commentary concentrates on the crucifixion of Jesus as the murder of a “queer” figure who turned the world upside down. This is the kind of revolutionary thinking that John is referring to in his prediction that the one to come would “baptize… in the Holy Spirit (and in the Prince of Peace).
Prepare ye the way of our God. Make yourselves ready for what God is about to do. Repent, turn around and receive forgiveness. Be baptized into the LIFE of Christ. This is God’s message for us today.
God bless you. AMEN.
©James Edward Merritt 2011
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”