In the Name of the living and life-giving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Saturday mornings, when I was a kid, my mom would frequently take a much needed leave of us boys and my dad and the house and find some time away for herself. That left us, the boys, with - what we saw at the time as - some much needed leave of our Mom. No rules. No stifling injunctions to keep the place clean. No limits on the sugary cereals and candies and their amounts. Just out and out rowdiness. Domestic anarchy.
For a morning, anyway.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and these Saturday mornings were never long enough. “Tell me about it,” I can hear Momma saying. We would enter our man-time in the knowledge that a dawn would come, that the curtain would drop, that we better have the place looking nice when she walked back through the door. So formed the crucial dilemma: how much time to flit away, and how much to save for the necessary acts of tidying up the house? It wasn’t uncommon for us to repeatedly rationalize “just a few minutes more” even until the moment of the engine’s announcing that the car had returned in the driveway.
Madness in that moment. Chaos. Heathen prayers for a neighbor’s neighborly intervention. Some tomatoes dropped off, perhaps, from a backyard garden. Something. Anything. Just a few seconds more. Futility. Futile, because some things simply take the time they take and can’t be made up for with twenty second’s effort. Footsteps up the walk. A hand on the knob. Turning.
Judgment and the second coming.
I suspect this is actually how most of us think about the second coming of Jesus. That is, we don’t mind that we don’t believe Jesus will return anytime soon (if ever), because - if/when he does - his coming will be an unwanted interruption of the lives we were more than content to live without God.
Case in point, an evangelical friend of mine was engaged and one week away from his wedding date. Another good friend decided to have some fun and spook my almost married friend. So one day he poked his head outside the apartment window and cried, “Christian, Christian, the moon is turned to blood! I think this is the end!” My friend’s face went white. “But I’ve never had sex!” he exclaimed. “Why can’t the Almighty give me just a couple more days!” Just a couple days more.
That’s the working image: God Almighty, party pooper.
If you imagine Christ’s coming again as a parent returning to bust up your party, then you will naturally imagine preparing for the coming of Christ as a desperate mad scramble to clean up the house. Put if off for as long as you will, but one day, at least, you’ll need to get right. And, if you can’t get it right, at least look like you’re trying. Thus the great Advent t-shirt which reads, “Jesus is coming, look busy.”
The world is full of Christians attempting to stave off the judgment of God by their busyness. “What beef can God possibly have against me?” we wonder. “Look at all the good we’re doing.” At the heart of this busyness is the conviction that the Kingdom is our assignment to produce for God before the dreaded deadline - a divinely commissioned term paper due at the end of the semester.
What else can it mean to prepare the way of the Lord?
“Be prepared,” the Baptist cries. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And his warning seems to reinforce our fears that God is in the driveway. John tells the Pharisees and Sadducees who came seeking baptism that the axe is at the root; Christ will come with fire.
And maybe it’s as straightforward as that; get your act together or feel the burn. Generations before us came to faith with some version of that message. Of course, it’s significant - and uncomfortable - that Jesus doesn’t threaten fire to the ones who haven’t perfected, or cleaned up, their acts, but exactly to the ones who have, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the righteous, religious leaders. And the fruit he demands of them is not the fruit of a finished, polished, mostly accomplished kingdom, but the fruit of repentance. The fruit of “I’m sorry.” The admission that the Pharisees and Sadducees had gotten the story wrong.
That’s absurd. Holy people don’t get things wrong, says the preacher. It’s the riffraff God came to burn. Is Jesus really suggesting that the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ various attempts to produce the kingdom as an independent study project apart from relationship with God are really things of which to repent? But if God doesn’t want us to be doing the work by ourselves, what exactly does God expect us to do? What should we be expecting God to do?
Christ will come with fire. And fire, throughout the scriptures is a sign of the presence of God. Light in the darkness. Back at the very beginning, when God first appeared to a young Abram, and Abram expressed disbelief at the promise God had given him, God appeared as a fire pot and a flaming torch and passed between the pieces of the sacrifice to seal God’s covenant with the one who would leave everything in pursuit of God’s promise. And God is still calling Abraham’s children to leave what is known for the unknown and surprising promises of God. Fire is the bush that burned but wasn’t consumed; God telling Moses that God’s desire was to set his people free. God’s desire is still to set his people free. Fire is the pillar that led the Hebrews out of Egypt through the darkness of the night, into the land of promise. God is still about the work of bringing people through the darkness, into promise. Fire is how the early church depicted Jesus born to Mary; Mary who, like the bush, held the presence of God, and was not consumed. God’s desire is still to be borne by his people, that all who believe in him may not perish, but have everlasting life. Fire is how God poured out his Spirit on his people at Pentecost and gave them the power to give their lives in the proclamation of the Gospel, so that the presence of God might reach, heal, and transform to the ends of the earth. God’s heart is still to reach, heal, and transform through the Body of Christ, for the good of all people and each, last cherished person, to the ends of the earth.
Fire is the presence of God for the people of God, the desire of God to be in relationship with us. The fact of God to be in relationship with us. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” And the Holy Spirit is the Advocate, Friend, the Comforter, the One who intercedes for God’s people with sighs to deep for words. The presence of God is the help of God that burns with mercy; “the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high…to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” “…A signal to the peoples…” “God is our refuge and strength,” sings the psalmist, “a very present help in trouble.”
At the Advent workshop this past Wednesday, Pres House and SFH together, we talked about God’s promise to help. I told the group about a friend of mine who intentionally sets one goal every week that won’t work without God’s help. We talked about how my friend’s goal made most of us uncomfortable; it felt irresponsible; it felt strangely conceited - why would God care?; it felt frightening - to ask for God’s help would be to surrender the vision and direction of my life as I presently imagined it. But then we wondered: we who have been planted in Christ and his story, didn’t we answer every promise of our baptism with, “I will, with God’s help”?
What should we be expecting God to do? We should expect God to show up, to be present; to be God for God’s people. What exactly does God expect us to do? God expects us to expect God to be present for us - with eyes to see and ears to hear - and to be passionately present to God’s presence among us; to adopt a posture of expectation for the salvation that we need.
Prepare the way. Not perfection achieved apart from God so much as forgiveness, sought and received, at the hand of God. Not the distorted art of not needing God, but in choosing to end the hiding from God. Hiding was the first fruit of sin, of Adam and Eve. Shame at their nakedness. The sin we never quite got over, belief that God, in the end, would not love us as God found us.
Easier to act like God won’t find us. But here’s the Good News we’ve feared all along: God has found us. To free us. To save us. To send us. To love us. Praise God. We’ve been found.
In the Name of the living and life-giving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Sermon preached at SFH, 12.8.13.