Every year we celebrate the season of Advent in ‘liturgical churches’ like the Anglican, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic. The season is of course about God’s coming first and foremost, and then in some way about our preparation for this. Traditionally, and still in the Eastern Orthodox tradition especially, this preparation during Advent is a penitential season. That is, a season that involves taking stock of our lives before God and seeking to reconcile our actions and our behaviors to draw closer to him so that we can live as faithful witnesses.
I suppose this might seem a bit strange for those of us who have grown up with a rather watered down notion of preparing for God’s coming through a call and a response to change our ways. Watered down so that ‘the way to Jesus’ we proclaim might be made more acceptable to those outside the faith who we’re hoping to invite in. Watered down so that we don’t present the ‘way to god’ as a way to a ‘god’ whom we think to be a vengeful, wrathful tyrant who does not accept us just as we are. But actually, this notion of who God is and our relationship to him really isn’t all that helpful because it doesn’t take seriously the reality of our struggles, our fears, our diseases, mental and physical, our recognition that our relationships with each other and the world in which we live aren’t ‘all good.’ We end up presenting – in this watered down version – a God who is okay with our brokenness, our mistreatment of ourselves and of one another. We end up presenting a god detached from the narrative of the Scriptures that tells us who he really is and why his coming is indeed good news for us.
But our passage from Matthew makes it clear that the sort of god both that we’ve become fearful of presenting and the god who would merely accept our brokenness is not the promised Messiah who will reconcile us to himself. To witness to such a God would be to miss out on seeing and pointing to our maker and redeemer.
Indeed in the messiness of life, it’s so easy to do. Even John the Baptist asks of Jesus: are you the one who is to come? That is, are you the one to meet our hope and expectation that, as our reading from Isaiah says, we, “shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God … Are you the one by whom the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped … Are you the one who is the highway, the Holy Way; the one through whom the unclean shall be made clean ….”
And Jesus says to John’s disciples, go tell John who I am. Through me, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” I have come to do, for all, what no one else could do. I have come to reconcile all things, all people, to God. I am the way, the highway, the holy way, the one whose way is prepared by the prophets, like, John. I am the truth and the life and I will open this life up to you who follow me. Good news, the Messiah is making all things new, your life included. So take hold by enduring in the way; that is, the way of life that involves the struggle of seeking me out day by day, year by year; a life that will make you servant of all; a life that will require you give up those things you hold dear but that form only shadows on the dawning reality of the kingdom of heaven. Good news, the kingdom of heaven is here in Jesus Christ who comes into the world here and now.
The Church proclaiming God’s word, telling the story of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, tells us: good news! Good news. What is this good news? Christ has come and you have got to change or you’ll end up something you do not want to be! WOAH -- Yikes! Do we appreciate such honesty and calling? For this is, after all, part of what our gospel reading is getting at today. Are we preparing the way to receive the coming of Jesus Christ into our own lives? Are we really ready to be “the least in the kingdom?” That is, not proclaiming Jesus’s coming by equivocating it with some agenda, or feeling, or identity we think we have; but rather by enduring with others in following him with humility, gentleness, patience, and perseverance where it is that he leads us. Into the fulfillment of a life we cannot ourselves construct. This is the only way to see Jesus’s coming, to let go of the shadow of reality onto which we hold for temporary balance, and to live now in a way that demonstrates and shares with others our sure faith and hope of full reconciliation to life with God.
I suppose one of the greatest challenges we all face at one point in our lives is the common sense of hunger to find relief, to find purpose, place, hope, and meaning. The circumstances are unique for each person; but we all struggle in various ways whether we have a mental or physical illness, so too do those who are homeless, those who live in places of great poverty, or corruption, those who struggle with addiction or loved ones who are addicted, those who struggle with loss, loneliness, anxiety, those who have been abused, those who lose their way in life for one reason or another. Yet as challenging as these things are, the events that leave us in the mucky troughs of life are not hidden from God. Jesus reaches even into these dark crevasses of our circumstances and of our minds, to draw us out of the shadows and into his light and life. He moves us, if we will but open up and turn to him.
Of course we’re opened up by some of the most joyful and positive things that go on in life as well. We have most recently welcomed little Liam into the household of God and so into our family. And we recently heard that Erika is pregnant again and she and Tyler will prepare to be parents for a third time! What miracles, what profound gifts, what possibilities … what challenges! Oh yes those. These new arrivals, in light of the lectionary reading, made me think about the stories of scripture where we hear about struggling to bring life into the world and struggling to sustain life, to find meaning and purpose for that life. In the case of new parents – just as with the lives of so many I know who struggle with various things – I wonder how these folks will grapple with the ways in which they are going to be pressed, pulled, turned inside out, torn apart, and put back together again, as they learn to listen, to love, to let go, to be a servant, to give way, to take hold, to expose, to weep, to encourage, to ask forgiveness and give it... Are you really ready for this I’d ask them? Should I say that? Imagine what honesty would entail here! But if someone were to speak such truth as this – and it is true, my friends -- it would only be because we as Christians have this underlying hope: Good news! Good news! Exult! Rejoice!.... For you will not be left, but instead, changed!
Indeed, the universality of our circumstances – whether painful and horrific, or joyful and hungered after – is in that all of these circumstances belong to God. And so through them, he will change us, transform us, if we are willing to let him. If we are willing to let go, to give ourselves up and away to receive his coming to us over the course of our lives. You see, God cares enough about us to have a hope, a desire, and a purpose for us. “I made you to be free! Not bound to your fears, or to your passions or to you hates or greeds, or to the circumstances that imprison you mentally or physically. I made you to love and to take joy in others and in their hopes and needs.” God loves us such that he refuses to just leave us where we are, with merely who we think we amount to. He loves us such that he tells us when we do not measure up, when we have strayed, when we are going off the rails, even tipping into the abyss, regardless of how we got there. Pay attention! Seek me, he says. I will not betray you. Do not get stuck in your customs and rituals and personal habits, or your fears and anxieties. Open yourself to the possibilities I have already planted in you. Seek me and I will guide you where I made you to go. AMEN.