Preparing for what we have not known or seen

GOSPEL: Matthew 3:1-12

1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.’ ” (Read the whole passage)

Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!

Invariably, every year ahead of the second Sunday in Advent, someone on social media, usually one my pastor friends will post a meme of John the Baptist. A hairy wild hermit prophet looking man who looks like he is shouting at something, with a caption that reads:

Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!

John the Baptist is a striking image during this time of year., if not an out of place one. You don’t find him in any manger scenes or on Christmas cards. He just doesn’t fit with what we normally associate with the Christmas season, and yet he is a central figure of Advent. Two of the four weeks of the season are always devoted to him and to his preaching out in the wilderness.

After we began Advent last week by talking about the end, about the end of time and God’s ends and purposes for us… which seemed like an unusual place to begin the new church year, we find ourselves in an equally unusual place for this second Sunday of Advent, heading out to the river Jordon along with the rest of crowds, going to hear if this wild prophet John the Baptist, Zachariah the temple priest’s son, has anything for us to hold on to.

The banks of the Jordan river provide an odd scene. While John himself dressed in itchy camel hair and eating wild insects off the land would have been a sight, the crowds who went out to hear him were just as interesting.

The people of 1st century Israel were people living in a world on the edge. They were a nation under occupation, the Roman Empire had the world under its thumb, including this backwater province of Israel, full of people who refused to worship in the Roman way. This world was slowly but surely crushing most people. It took everything to provide the basics of life, food, clothing and shelter. Taxes were steep and paid to the temple, the Jewish rulers, the Roman overlords, to the the crooked tax collectors and corrupt soldiers. People were restless and anxious for change, even as they clung to what little they had. And even the Empire itself was facing its own end, even if it would take centuries to crumble.

The people coming to the Jordan river were people under pressure, people being squeezed by a world that was broken and crooked. They were people looking for something to hold on to, for a return to to day when things were easier, to ethereal memories of milk and honey, to a time when they were on top.

And they were going out to John because they hoped that he would be the one to make things right, to Make Judea Great Again. But it wasn’t just the masses hungry for change that went to hear John, it was those who had power too. Those who had exploited the crisis of occupation to gain a little power and influence, to gather a few more table crumbs than their neighbours. Everyone was going to see John hoping that he was the one with the answers.

Even still they knew what he was preaching, it wasn’t as if it was a secret. He was brash and harsh, he called people names and offered scary warnings… and he wasn’t above shaming and scorning his audience. Yet they all went out anyways… they were people desperate for a fix for this world that slowly crushing the life out of them.

And so there the crowds were standing out on the banks of the Jordan, listening to wild prophet say things that no one else was saying, yet that spoke to their world in the ways that no one else was speaking.

Kind of sounds familiar doesn’t it. We have seen something like this story, only two thousand years newer… crowds frustrated with the world flocking to a charismatic speaker, thinking he has the answers.

In 2019, we understand first century Israel in ways that we couldn’t 5 or 10 or 25 years ago. We understand a world under pressure in ways that people haven’t really known for a while. We too are living in a world on the edge, a world being squeezed by broken systems of government, by the choices of foreign emperors or presidents, a world that is getting harder and harder to get by in, harder and harder to make a life in, harder and hard to have faith in.

If John the Baptist were preaching down on the banks of the Red River, we might find ourselves there too, along with the crowds.

And his words would feel like they resonate with us.

Prepare the way of the Lord – yes, we are ready for someone who is going to fix our problems.

Make his paths straight! – yes, this world is crooked and corrupt!

Wrath and repentance, axes and tree stumps, fires and chaff – yes, finally someone who is going to fix our mess.

But John hasn’t come to restore our former glory, to give us a little more of the things we are desperately holding on to, to take us back to when things were better.

You see, the thing about John and about Advent. They both point something, to someone we do not know and have not seen yet.

Of all the seasons of the the church year, Advent is one most focused on hope. On hope rooted in the actions and deeds of God still to come. In the fulfillment of God’s promises that we have yet to experience.

And John is not promising that he is the saviour, nor that he is the one who is coming to set the world right. In fact, he is clear that he is not. John is simply a herald and John is pointing to God’s promise of a new world. John’s announcing the fulfillment of God’s promise of reconciliation, God’s promise of mercy, God’s promise that the world as it is, is not what it will be. John is pointing to the light of Messiah illuminating the dark places and revealing the new thing that God is doing.

But John is also proclaiming that what is coming is something new and not yet seen, that Messiah is on the way to change the world in ways we cannot imagine.

That even as God has made the covenant with Abraham,

even as God as rescued God’s people from slavery in Egypt, even as

God sent the judges to protect and lead the people,

even as that God has given the Israelites King David and the Kingdom, even as God has sent the prophets in times of trouble,

even as God has returned them home from exile…

Even with all that God has already done, John proclaims that what God is now doing in the promised Messiah will transform all creation.

There is no going back, there is return to former glory, no holding onto to what little they have in this broken world.

This is not the path to salvation.

Messiah is coming to make the crooked and broken world straight and right. Messiah coming to cut down and away the old. Messiah is coming to burn away the chaff and gather up his wheat. Messiah is coming to baptize God’s poeple with the Holy Spirit joining them once again to the one who created them and all things.

This is what John is announcing down in the river banks to all the people of Judea and to us.

Messiah is coming to fulfill the promises of God in ways that we have not seen and do not know.

And even though it is not what the people of Judea expected to hear, nor fixing the crooked and broken thing of this world that we so desperately cling to…

The promise of Messiah is the promise we need.

It the promise proclaimed in the waters of baptism that join us once again to the Father who made us.

It is the promise given in bread and wine that transform us into the body of Christ.

It is the promise announced in the good news word spoken in our midst.

The promise of Messiah’s coming is the central promise of Advent, the promise that lays the foundation of this story of Jesus that have begun to to tell again. The promise that John the Baptist preached to those desperate crowds gathered on the river banks.

The promise that John preaches to us today.

That the crooked and broken paths and ways of this world will be made straight because the promised Messiah is on the way.

Advent begins with the ending

Matthew 24:36-44

[Jesus said to the disciples,] 36“About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

It is time to begin again. Advent is here. The wreath is set out, the colour blue adorns the sanctuary, we are dusting off the advent portion of the hymnbook and we are settling in for 4 weeks of waiting and watching, of “keeping awake” as Jesus would say, for the coming of Messiah. But Advent is not an annoying countdown for Christmas invented by pastors to keep people from singing Christmas Carols in December (although we might be tired of Joy to the World and Silent Night by Christmas Eve if we did).

Today, we are resetting the church’s cycle of telling the story of Jesus. A cycle that has been continuing in some form or another for nearly 2000 years. And Advent always begins in a peculiar way. It begins by talking about the end. About the end of time, about God’s end for us and for all of creation.

Now last week on Christ the King Sunday, we talked about ending and beginnings. We heard that what we usually see and know to be endings, God has a habit of transforming into beginnings. The cross should have been the end of the story, yet God transformed the ending of death into new life. And today, on the first Sunday of the New Year, on this beginning Sunday, we start by going to end of these story, the promise of God to make all things right and new. And there is a reason for revealing the end of the story at the beginning and it isn’t about telling the the story out of order. Rather it is the lens through which to see the Jesus story. This grand story that the church is now beginning to tell over again, from Advent to Christmas, to Epiphany, to Lent, to Holy Week, to Easter, to Pentecost… it is all rooted and founded on this promise of God to make all creation right and new in the end. The promise is made from the beginning of time and kept at the end. God’s promised ending colours every other moment of the story.

And yet, keeping the ending in mind is difficult.

As Jesus implores his disciples to keep awake, he is doing so because he reminding of them of what promised end of the story will be. He is reminding them in the days after he rode into Jerusalem hailed as a king and before his arrest, trial and execution. They are in the middle of the Holy Week chaos, the city sitting on a knife’s edge of tension. Remember the promised ending in the middle of the chaos doesn’t come naturally.

And of course we get it. Here on December 1st, two days after Black Friday and 25 shopping days, 25 baking days, 25 cleaning, Christmas concert going, Christmas party having days until Christmas… we get it. Keeping awake to the end of the story is hard in the middle of the chaos even when you know how much time you have.

Keeping awake to the end of the story when you have no idea when the end is coming… well that is just not how we human beings operate. We cannot help but fall asleep, we cannot help but be unready.

To underscored his point of wakefulness, Jesus gives some examples. Examples that sound like they are about people failing to live up to the boy scout motto – always be prepared. Noah and his family who build an ark while everyone else is swept away in the flood. One worker in the field is taken, one worker in the mill. And the rich man’s house is robbed while he sleeps. And yet, these aren’t examples and counter examples, one way to be ready and one way to not be ready.

The people of Noah’s day had no idea what was coming. The two working in the field were oblivious, otherwise they probably wouldn’t have been working in the fields. The same for the women grinding meal. The owner of the house is robbed because he wasn’t awake.

Jesus simply says keep awake.

Or in other words, remember that it isn’t all about the chaos, it ins’t all about the present moment, all about whatever is right in front of you. Maybe as we are about to begin Advent with trips to the mall for gift buying, putting up lights and baking Christmas cookies, filling our calendars with Christmas parties and concerts, getting ready for Messiah by getting ready for the holidays… maybe Jesus is talking about something different.

Keeping awake.

Keeping awake to the world around us. About seeing a world that needs to be reminded of the end of the story, to hear the promise of God to make all things right. And this means letting our eyes adjust to dark places, to the people and circumstances around us who really need light and hope and salvation. Because keeping awake might mean paying attention to the hard stuff, to the suffering of our neighbours. Keeping awake might be opening our eyes to a community feeling unsafe in stores and public places, to those speaking out against abuse and racism hidden from the public for too long, to the suffering of the planet as we consume more and more, to protests and violence happening all over the world as nations and municipalities deal with citizens feeling unheard and exploited.

Keeping awake is hard and painful. We would much rather watch Christmas movies and drink egg nog. It is much easier to be distracted and on auto-pilot with Christmas preparations than it is to sit, rest and be awake in Advent.

Still as Jesus implores us to be awake, the examples he uses are ones where people are still sleeping. The people around Noah did not see the flood coming. The ones working in the field, the ones grinding meal did not know the time was coming. The owner of the house wasn’t expecting to be robbed. They were not awake. They were sleeping at the wheel.

And each time, the Son of Man came anyways.

For you see, Jesus might tells us to keep awake with the disciples and to watch for the coming of Messiah into our world, but Messiah’s coming doesn’t depend on our wakefulness.

In fact, Jesus knows that we will almost certainly be asleep when Messiah comes.

Yet,

Messiah comes because the world needs Messiah.

Messiah comes because we are waiting for salvation.

Messiah comes because we need hope.

Keeping awake isn’t about making Messiah come, but about seeing where Messiah already is.

Keeping awake isn’t just about seeing the bad stuff, but seeing the light.

Keeping awake is letting our eyes adjust to the dark, so that we begin to see that there is light.

Messiah’s light is appearing as communities rally together to support those affected by fear violence.

Messiah’s light grows as people all over the world begin standing in solidarity with each other and against corruption and abuse.

Messiah’s light multiplies as friends and neighbours stand up and speak out against racism, sexism, violence and hate.

Messiah’s light shows up in friends and neighbours supporting and caring for each other, even when they disagree or do things differently.

And Messiah’s light is born here among us, as we gather to tell the story of Jesus, to pray and sing, to share a meal and to fellowship. As we strive for justice and peace in our communities and the world around us.

The end is coming, the son of man arrives at an unexpected day and hour.

And Jesus says, Keep Awake.

Keep awake for Advent.

Keep awake in a dark world.

Keep awake even though it is hard.

And still when we fall asleep,

when we can’t be help but focus on the chaos,

when we can’t help be consumed with the present moment.

Messiah still comes. In our dark world,

Messiah’s light is born.

Messiah’s light grows.

Messiah’s light brings us Advent.

Messiah is the story of Advent, the story that we are beginning over again today. Messiah is the one who is that small light in a dark world, the light that is hard to see until our eyes adjust, but that is there, pushing back the darkness, allowing us to see a glimpse of the Kingdom of God., allowing us to see the big picture behind it all.

Messiah is God’s promise ending of the story.

So Keep Awake, Jesus says,

because you do not know on what day your Lord is coming,

but you do know that Messiah in on the way.