Sermon: December 17, 2017 – “A New Look at Advent – Part 3”

 

A New Look at Advent – Part 3

Text: Matthew 3: 1-3, Isaiah 40: 3-4

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This 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.’”

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.

Today we continue our conversation around the concept of looking at this Advent season with new eyes. For the past two weeks we have been looking at new symbols of meaning for the Advent candles. Normally, as you probably already know, the Advent candles are symbolic of things like Joy, Hope, Peace and Love. These ideals are perfect for the Christmas season and to have these symbols as part of our Advent celebration makes total sense.

But this year I have asked you to look at the symbolism of the Advent candles in a new way. To think of them as a progression, or stepping stones and allow one concept to build upon the other as we progress through this season. Two weeks ago I introduced this idea to you and identified the four candles of Advent as being symbolic of Annunciation, Preparation, Confirmation and Transformation. Last week we explored the power of the spoken word and the power of our own self-talk as we took a look at the symbol of annunciation. This week I want to move on to the symbol of preparation.

The text I read a few minutes ago from the Gospel of Matthew is about John the Baptist. John the Baptist is considered to be the one who prepared the way for Jesus. He was, of course, the one who baptized Jesus, and was preaching repentance and so on prior to the arrival of Jesus on the scene. The Gospel of Matthew has John quoting the prophet Isaiah, and the second text I read from the 40th chapter of Isaiah is where this quote comes from. I have to say that this text from Isaiah has taken on new and greater meaning for me recently.

I don’t know if you have noticed or not, but there is a pretty good sized hole in the ground out at the end of the church property where our driveway intersects with Broadview. Not only is there a hole in the ground, but there is also an impressive pile of dirt next to the hole. In case you are not aware of what is happening there, that hole in the ground is the beginnings of our new house. As you might remember, a few years ago the church decided to sell the two residential lots that are there along Broadview, which we did to help finance some of the revitalization efforts. One house is nearly complete, and Heidi and I purchased the other lot. Now we have started the building process. I plan on doing most of the work myself, so it will be long project.

I’m telling you all this because one of the first things that happens when you begin to build a house is you have to think about the foundation. A foundation for a house has to be on solid ground and it has to be level. The lot as it was had a bit of a slope in it, so the slope needed to be made level to accommodate the foundation. It has taken a little while, but I think I finally have the ground prepared to actually begin to work on the foundation.

With that in mind, look again at this text from Isaiah.

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.

That is exactly what I have been doing to prepare for my house project. I have been lowering the high points and trying to level the ground; all this to prepare for the coming of the house project.

I can’t stress the importance of this preparation enough. It is absolutely critical that the foundation be on undisturbed soil and the foundation be perfectly flat. We have tools that help us keep things level and concrete and steel bars that help keep a foundation solid. All this is in preparation for the building of the house. When you are going to prepare for a project of this type, solid level footings and foundation are a must.

A few week ago I mentioned that in 2009 Heidi and I had the opportunity to travel to Italy where we visited the city of Assisi. This is of course the hometown of St. Francis of Assisi. One of the other places we visited on that same trip was the city of Pisa. Does anybody remember what the city of Pisa is famous for?

That’s right. The leaning tower of Pisa is in the city of Pisa in Italy. Now I want you to really look at this structure. It is now basically worthless for anything other than a tourist attraction. This is what happens when you don’t prepare properly. There are a couple of things about this particular project that caused the tower to lean the way it is. One of those things is that it didn’t start out perfectly level, and the other is that the soil under it was not solid either. So the preparation for this project fell way short. When you don’t prepare properly, you end up with a leaning tower of Pisa.

I have to tell you that when you climb the stairs in this tower to get to the top it is a weird experience. Even though you are going up toward the top of the tower, you spend about half your time going down. The same thing happens as you descend from the top, you spend a lot of energy going up some steps, even though you are on your way down.

I want you to think about that experience for a minute. Some people describe a struggle as one step forward and two steps back. Or if you are making a little bit of progress, it can be two steps forward and one step back. In the case of the leaning tower when you are trying to get to the top, it is one or two steps up, and then a few steps back down, then a few more steps up, and then another set down. Eventually, you do get to the top of the tower, but it takes a while and it is not very efficient. All this points to the importance of preparation and laying a strong and solid foundation.

As we evaluate a new look at Advent and the symbolism of the candles, I can’t over emphasize the importance of the step of preparation. I have asked you to think about this symbolism as a progression, or stepping stones. As you consider your own place in life, if there is anything you would change, anything that you would like to be a little different, then these are the steps you must follow. The first is to announce what you intend to happen; the second step is to prepare. This is mandatory. We must prepare. I hope I have convinced you that preparation is important.

Now try to forget everything I just said.

Does anyone know what an oxymoron is? According to the dictionary an oxymoron is two words that appear to be contradictory with each other that appear in conjunction with one another. We have all heard many of these before. Jumbo shrimp is a favorite of mine. There are many others.  A fine mess, a silent scream, alone together, pretty ugly, the list goes on and on.

I bring this up because it occurs to me that to prepare for Jesus is a little oxymoronic.  When we want to transform our own lives, I think preparation plays a role in that. But when we talk about Jesus, I don’t think we can prepare, nor do we have to prepare for the coming of Jesus. To prepare for Jesus I think is an oxymoron. Let me explain.

When I began to think about building our house, I had to plan and prepare what would need to happen to the building lot. We talked about getting things level and flat. Everything has to be in order and perfectly prepared for us to move to the next step.

When we talk about Jesus, we will never be fully prepared for Jesus. Our lives will never be perfectly prepared for Jesus. As a matter of fact, the bigger the mess you happen to be in, the more apt you are to need a “come to Jesus” type moment. Think about this.

When the prodigal son finally “came to himself” and started to think about going home, that was the moment when Jesus was present. There wasn’t any preparation; there wasn’t any planning. Everything wasn’t neat and tidy and perfectly level. Quite the opposite; things were a mess.

When the scribes and Pharisees brought the woman caught in adultery before Jesus and said that the law demanded this woman to be stoned to death there wasn’t any preparation. Jesus commented that the one who was without sin may cast the first stone and slowly, one by one, the accusers all went away. At that moment, Jesus was present with that woman; present in that precise moment as the accusers began to back away. There wasn’t any planning, there wasn’t any preparation, there wasn’t any indication beforehand to this woman that Jesus was about to intervene. He just sort of showed up; unannounced, unplanned and unscripted, Jesus just shows up.

When Jesus had a conversation with a woman at the well, the pattern was the same. The woman at the well didn’t get up that morning thinking I’d better prepare for my meeting with Jesus. Jesus just showed up.

That’s what Jesus does. He just shows up. Sometimes unannounced, unscripted and unplanned, Jesus just shows up. In a way the more unprepared we are for Jesus, the more prepared we are to receive the message of Jesus. The more unprepared we are, the more our lives are in chaos, the more in crisis we seem to be, the more prepared we are for the message of Christmas.

Unconditional love requires no preparation. If the love of God required preparation, it wouldn’t be unconditional then would it?

So preparation is a “both and” type of proposition. When we apply this symbolism and process to our own lives in one sense, we can see the need for preparation. When we talk about the actual coming of Jesus into our lives, especially in times of crisis, not only is preparation not required, it may be impossible.

Preparing for Jesus is a little oxymoronic.

So is food for thought, now that I think about it, so I’ll just say “go in peace” instead.

Amen.

 

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