Ready, Set, Go!
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, November 29, 2020
Reading: Matthew 3:1-11
Mercy, we have some frightened and some greedy people in our world right now. This was apparent last weekend here in Toronto, when many people, having heard that there was going to be another shutdown, went to the stores in great numbers. I drove by one store and there was a lineup literally around the block. People seemed anxious and frightened, and they were hoarding supplies once again. Behind all of this, of course, was a desire to get the things that they wanted before Christmas. Wile I'm sympathetic and I understand why people want to make Christmas special this year – maybe especially this year – and while I understand that it’s important to have toys for the children, and have dog or cat food in stock, most of the things that we really need, we can get. This was kind of greedy, really, preparing for things that we may or may not get to celebrate as we think. The more I thought about that, the more I realised how important getting ready for Christmas is. What are the things that we really need to do, and the attitude of heart that we need to have as we get ready for the coming of Christ?
I liken it to the beginning of a race, where you get ready, get set, and go. This is a time when we are getting ready, getting set, and we’re ready to go for Christmas. This period in the Church is known as a time of getting ready, called Advent, which literally means coming. Advent actually doesn’t have any particular roots in the Bible per se, but it does have roots in the Gelasiun Sacramentary, which dates back to the sixth century. It was a time when one of the earliest liturgies - maybe the second-earliest liturgy of all – was created to help Christians celebrate their walk with Christ. The idea behind it was that it would be a time of preparation, and adventus, a time of the coming of the Lord. That is why we wear purple, to celebrate the royal nature of the coming of the King. That is also why we repent in this time.
Ironically, the date that was set way back in that time, was for it to begin the first Sunday after the celebration of St. Andrew (by the way, if you want to celebrate St. Andrew, feel free to give me any gift that you would like) but I don’t think that’s really on the Gelasian calendar! The idea is that Advent begins after the celebration of St. Andrew, so here we are, in Advent, in this time of preparation, getting ready for something or someone to come.
It’s not just the celebration of the birth of Jesus. It is also a celebration of the ministry of Jesus, and that is why the character that we were introduced to in today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist, becomes a central part of Advent. He is the one who has come to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Not his birth, but the beginning of his ministry, and that’s why this is the first Sunday of the Church annual calendar.
John the Baptist then, is getting us ready. He was a character of immense importance. He’s in all the gospels, and while he wasn’t a disciple of Jesus, or one of the followers, and while he had his own disciples who followed him even after his untimely death, John the Baptist nevertheless was the one who paved the way for the coming of Jesus of Nazareth. He’s the one who set the tone, the one who got things ready.
Now, Matthew, in his gospel, gives us some rather interesting details. He tells us, for example, about what he’s wearing, and he says that he is wearing camelhair, and he’s got a leather belt around him. He even tells us what he eats, which is locusts. Now, you don’t find anywhere else that I can think of in the New Testament, certainly not the disciples, about what they were wearing. Mary Magdalene wasn’t described as someone who was wearing nice chiffon with raglan sleeves and Jimmy Choo shoes. You don’t find Peter being talked about in a Polo blazer, or maybe a sou’wester and some boots. You don’t hear anything about any of the other characters. But John, oh yeah, we’re told what John wore, and there’s a reason for that. He is the successor to the great Elijah. In 2 Kings 18, it says of Elijah that he wore a coat of hair and had a leather buckle around his waist, and ate locusts and honey, which were ordinary foods of ordinary people, who lived out in the wilderness. Even today, those things are still eaten by some.
So, what Matthew is telling us about John, is that he was like Elijah – not Elijah revivus, not Elijah coming back again, as Doctor Robert Webb has pointed out – that is not the case. Rather, it is an Elijah-like figure preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah. You see, there was this belief that Elijah would reappear before the coming of the Messiah, that Elijah would come back and prepare the way. John the Baptist is like an Elijah, coming back, preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah. So, this is a powerful statement about the nature of Jesus’ ministry, and a powerful statement about John the Baptist, who was the one who preparing the way.
What did John actually say? What words did he have? Well, he says, “Make a straight highway for our God.” This is a powerful phrase that those who know the Old Testament, particularly the book of Isaiah, Chapter 40, would understand. This was about making the road smooth. You've seen people around the city recently, filling in potholes before the bad weather comes. Well, there were potholed streets and roads in biblical times as well, and the idea was that when the monarch came, the roads at least would be smooth. So, John is saying, “Prepare a straight highway, a straight road, a smooth road for the coming of the Lord.”
What did that mean? It meant that people had to sort out all the bumps in the roads of their own lives. He takes on the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and he uses some rough language, he calls them “a brood of vipers” because he knows that they are putting obstacles in people’s way from following God, from being receptive to the coming of the Messiah. John points a finger at them for their hypocrisy and for the fact that they are not preparing a smooth road for the coming of the Lord.
In our own lives, are there not rough places that need to be smoothed, things that get in our way from really, truly following our Lord? Many people might feel that during this Advent, there are some potholes around. One of them is that we can't go and meet in person for the very worship that we need, and the things that we like to do with our friends, that are all ways we normally prepare for the coming of the Messiah.
Having a family gathering, a few drinks, coming to a Christmas concert, getting ready for the pageant, those things are not available to us anymore. The things that we need to smooth out are really our priorities. The Pharisees and the Sadducees had their priorities all wrong. They were focusing more on their religious traditions and less on the very works of God Himself and weren't ready for the coming of the Messiah.
This is time for us to smooth out some things. Maybe of all Christmases, this COVID-19 Christmas is a time for focus on the things that really matter, the things that really make Christmas.
John also told them to repent. This was tough language. John was very much in the prophetic tradition of those who wandered in the wilderness. He was a roving prophet, and roving prophets often did that. Even when he baptised people, it was, as we’re told in the text, for a confession of their sins. He realised that people needed to change.
In many ways, repentance – teshuvah in the Hebrew – is to turn around. I like how one African-American preacher put it: “We only really need to turn 180 degrees, because God then meets us and takes us the other 180. But we still have to turn around.” And we do; we have to turn around from our self-obsessions, we have to turn around from our sins, from the things that bind our lives, the things that we think are more important than God, more important than others.
We might have said to those people who were lining up to buy things that they didn’t need last weekend, “Repent, turn around, because these are not the things that are going to make Christmas great for you. The things that are going to make Christmas great for you are not only your own safety, and the safety of those in our society, but also the nourishment and the love of God Himself. That’s what’s important.”
We do need to repent, and repentance isn't a one-time deal. The great British philosopher, John Locke, once wrote this in his book, The Reasonableness of Christianity:
“Repentance is a heavy sorrow for our past misdeeds, and a sincere resolution and endeavour to the utmost of our power, to conform all our actions to the Lord God. It does not consist in one single act of sorrow, but in doing works meek for repentance in the sincere obedience to the law of Christ for the remainder of our days.”
Turning around is not just a one-time deal, turning around is committing our lives to God and living in the light of that. John had a profound word for us, and that is that in the Advent period, take stock of the things we need to turn around, and go in the direction that is set by the Lord.
Are you ready now? Are you set? Because the foundation, the thing that makes us solid, is the presence of Christ. John pointed to Christ that he is so great that I'm not even worthy of holding his sandals. I'm going around baptising people, but he is the one who is going to baptise with something greater. John knew that his ministry was a ministry of preparation. The coming of Christ the Messiah is the important thing.
At times we make our faith overly light, and by that, I mean, shallow. When it’s shallow, the things that we don’t get to do, become more important, because they are the important things, rather than the coming of Christ Himself. John is saying things twice; not only repent, but also prepare for something that is greater than ourselves.
Often, we do make our faith lightweight, don’t we? And it really is a problem. I read something on the web that was beautiful. It was sent to me by a friend and I know that it’s precious. It says:
“Noah’s message from the steps going up to the ark, was not, ‘something good is going to happen to you today’. Amos was not confronted by the high priest of Israel for proclaiming, ‘confession is possession’. Jeremiah was not put in the pit for preaching, ‘I'm okay, you're okay’. Daniel was not put into the lions’ den for telling people, ‘positive thinking will move mountains.’ John the Baptist was not forced to preach in the wilderness and eventually beheaded, because he preached, ‘Smile, God loves you’.”
The faith isn't something light and fuzzy and silly or just positive thinking, but sometimes we make it into that, and we want to make everyone feel good. No, John says, “When Jesus comes, he will baptise in a different way, he will baptise with two things: he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.”
Of course, only God could do that, so that’s a statement about Jesus and his relationship with the Father and the Spirit, but he will baptise in the power of the Holy Spirit. And what does the Holy Spirit do? Well, another word for the Spirit in the Hebrew is “ruach”, which means, “wind”. Any of you who have heard sermons from here or elsewhere, will know that wind was there at the very beginning in the creation of the world. Jesus has come that the wind may blow. What does the wind do? It blows away impurities and it replaces it with the very power and the Spirit of God.
I’ll let you in on a secret. I am cooking Christmas dinner this year, and it is terrifying. Well, terrifying for everyone who’s going to eat it. I am frightened because I know that there is a great danger – and I'm just giving the heads-up to the two people who’ll be dining with me – I may burn what I am cooking. If you burn something when cooking, what is the first thing you do? You open the windows and let fresh air in to replace the devastation of your cooking. That may or may not happen on Christmas day. The point is that the wind comes along, and blows away the unpleasantness, the impurities, the failures, the things you don’t want. Jesus baptises with the Holy Spirit, and he comes to blow us away and to blow away the things that prevent us from following him and being open to his power.
He also comes as fire, and fire is a purifier. Fire burns things up like wheat and chaff, but it also cleanses. When farmers, both in biblical times and now, want to regenerate their fields, at different times of the year, they burn the rubble and that which is on the ground, then regrow from the ashes.
That’s exactly what the fire of the baptism of Jesus does. It cleanses and prepares new ground for God to do something wonderful in our lives. Lord knows, we need that right now, a little bit of fire will be very good, along with some wind to cleanse our world.
Christmas is not just about celebration and joy and the beautiful trees, which we have here. It’s about getting ourselves ready for the Advent of our God, the coming of our God. Oftentimes, I feel that we have made light of this, and Christmas is turned into something else. That something else reminds me of a piece that I read in the New York Times many years ago about farmers in the Midwest in the United States, who during difficult economic times, decided that they would have to change – or perhaps we’d use the word pivot today – and that they would not have farmland per se, but would move into agri-entertainment, or agri-tourism. They turned their farms into tourist places.
Children could come along and pet the lambs, they could roll around in a bale of hay for five dollars, or whatever, and they made a lot of money doing this. The only problem is, when the economy picked up, they weren't ready to farm as they needed. They’d replaced it with something that wasn’t the real thing.
At times, I believe, we’ve turned Christmas maybe not quite into the real thing. This Advent is a time for us to really focus on the coming of Christ, the real thing, and John the Baptist has paved the way. So, get ready, get set, go. We’re on our way to Christmas. Amen.