The Sunday of John the Baptist is always the most challenging Sunday for preachers during Advent. We don’t expect to hear his harsh words at this time of year. In this Advent/ Christmas time of year we expect to hear words of hope and peace. That is part of the magic of this season. I love the lights and the Christmas movies. People are more generous. There is so much to love about this time of year. And we are filled with expectations for each other, our families and our community. Then we come to church and hear the gospel reading and instead of hope, peace, joy, love and we hear “Repent!”
But if we are being honest about this time of year it is not always easy for people. I think of the people who don’t have enough money to buy food let alone gifts. For parents, or at least this parent, it can be challenging as the excitement builds to maintain some normal routines. Advent, the season leading up to Christmas can be difficult for so many other reasons. A loved one is away from home. You or someone you care about is sick or dying. Or perhaps there’s been a death of a loved one tints the season with sadness. Or maybe there is a private burden that you can’t find the words to talk about. This season of joy can also be hard for so many.
Those Christmas movies I love, sell us short on the fullest or deepest meaning of this season. It’s not all tree lights, festive parties and family gatherings. It is about preparing the way of the Lord. It’s about what God did in Jesus and the coming of God’s kingdom. The promise of the prophet Isaiah is that “A shoot shall come out form the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. Righteousness shall be a belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb. …They will not hurt or destroy on my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” (Isaiah 11:1, 6, 9)
Isaiah shares with the people who are like that stump with no hope that God promises a future where peace will reign. God promises a day when there will be harmony among the nations. The promise of a world remade in God’s image is what drove John the Baptist out into the wilderness crying out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:3)
Prophets are hard to listen to. They tell us things that we don’t want to hear. The call us to live in new ways. When John says “Repent” he is not talk about saying I’m sorry but how to turn to something new. Repent is like an invitation do and see things in a new way.
Prophets don’t only live on the pages of the bible. There are modern day prophets – like Martin Luther King, like Mother Teresa, like Ghandi. They all called for a turn from oppression and suffering to justice, mercy, compassion and love. This week the world lost another prophet. Nelson Mandela called for, demanded, invited and led the way to the end apartheid. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote, "I have no epiphany, no singular destiny, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand unremembered moments, produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people."
What is more amazing is that after all those years in prison, when he finally had the power seek vengeance for all that had been done to him and for that system that imprisoned his people. He could have done it. Instead he called for reconciliation – a far harder path. It reminds me of Isaiah words, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” (Isaiah 11:6, 9)
Nelson Mandela started the work and it is now ours to carry on as we find ways to live into the promise of all God’s people living together in peace, with justice for all and compassion for all God’s children. That is the true gift of Christmas – a world remade in God’s image.
It is a gift that transforms the world and individual lives. Barbra Lundblad writes “There is a man on my street I've known for years. We often met in the morning at the newsstand. Then, his wife died -- forty-two years together changed to loneliness. I watched him walking, his head bowed, his shoulders drooping lower each day. His whole body seemed in mourning, cut off from everyone. I grew accustomed to saying, “Good morning” without any response. Until a week ago. I saw him coming and before I could get any words out, he tipped his hat, “Good morning, Reverend. Going for your paper?” He walked beside me, eager to talk. I could not know what brought the change that seemed so sudden. Perhaps, for him, it wasn't sudden at all, but painfully slow. Like a seedling pushing through rock toward the sunlight. There must have been an explanation, yet he appeared to me, a miracle.” (www.workingpreacher.org)
In this season of watching and waiting, let us listen to the words of the prophets who call us to live out our faith by following in the footsteps of Jesus. His earth shattering, world changing ministry changed lives and communities. Jesus reordered the world around him and transformed lives with the gifts of welcome, healing and wholeness. Do you hear the prophet calling you? Let us prepare the way of the Lord! Amen.