Sunday, December 07, 2008

"Prepare" - A Sermon for Advent 2

Mark 1:1-8

In 1914 during World War I, British and German troops stationed in Belgium begin decorating their trenches on Christmas Eve. They begin singing Christmas carols, first among their own ranks, but eventually along with soldiers on the opposing side. Eventually, the two sides call a truce for the night. They exchange small presents, they drink together, they each allow the other side to collect their dead and hold joint funerals. They play soccer. After hearing about these truces, military higher-ups on both sides take steps to ensure they don’t happen again: they order bombings on Christmas Eve the next year, and they rotate troops often so that neither side becomes too familiar or friendly with the other.

What are we preparing for?

In December of 2000 on a college campus, a group of students loudly sing Christmas carols outside a Jewish student’s window. The student asks them to stop, and the Christian group responds by singing more loudly – willfully oblivious to how their behavior amounts to harassment. As word gets around about this incident on campus, the carolers complain about perceived “persecution” and how they’re being “banned from celebrating Christmas.”

What are we preparing for?

The day after Thanksgiving of this year in Long Island, New York, Christmas shoppers standing outside a Wal-Mart at 5:00 a.m. bust the doors off their hinges and trample an employee to death. Other workers are injured when they try to help as well. When told that the store would be closing due to this man’s death, people become angry: complain about how long they’ve been standing in line or they just keep shopping.

What are we preparing for?

What ARE we preparing for? In these weeks leading up to Christmas, there may be any number of answers. They’re answers that do have to do with Christmas, or more appropriately, people’s individual ideas of Christmas.

For some, it certainly isn’t a time to begin making truces with enemies. Meanwhile our candle of peace has been lit this morning as we celebrate the Prince of Peace. Are we preparing for a day that doesn’t or shouldn’t really affect our views of other human beings at all?

For others, Christmas may be a time to proudly, boldly, unashamedly protect Christ from disappearing from the holidays. “Keep Christ in Christmas,” we hear some shout, as if Christ needed saving or protecting. And this is usually at the expense of those who believe otherwise. Are we preparing for a day where one religion has the best seat at the public table; a day to get in the faces of people who believe differently?

For still others, the perfect Christmas means the best gifts at marked-down prices. Are we preparing for a day to celebrate consumerism; where material gifts mean more than other people?

These may not be the types of things that people are consciously preparing for, but behavior may prove otherwise. And these various ideas about Christmas come alongside so many others. We may say that it’s about family traditions, about a less extreme form of commercialism than what happened in New York, about sentimentality, about feel-good movies and carols. Some of these can be life-giving, others much less so.

What are we meant to prepare for?

Again, we have John the Baptist show up during Advent. As always, he’s fixing to tell the truth about Christmas and its meaning. That’s why we keep him around this time of year: he tells us what we’re preparing for and how to prepare.

The Gospels call him the voice in the wilderness, the one preparing the way for Jesus. More than one Gospel writer uses the Isaiah passage we’ve heard this morning to refer to him. John is the one crying out, helping to level the way. He’s making the paths straight and flat for arriving royalty; he’s preparing people for the one who is to come.

Of course, in Mark, there is no baby Jesus. We jump right to John’s preparations and proclamations. And he’s not proclaiming a birth, either. We’re long past the manger when he comes to deliver his message.

Nevertheless, we hear him during Advent every year. It’s for good reason, too: In this season where so many different explanations of what’s most important, so much calling for our attention, so much that we’re told is the most important thing, whether it’s the perfect present or the most presents, the perfect meal, not forgetting who our enemies are, the keeping of tradition, or “winning” the “war on Christmas.”

John has a different answer altogether. It’s an answer that has little to do with any of these things. It’s an answer that sees the nativity scene in a much deeper way. It’s an answer about the one about to be born and the real reason why he’s born.

John is out baptizing for repentance and the forgiveness of sins; offering a symbolic act of cleansing. He’s calling people to turn their lives around and refocus them on God. He’s also proclaiming that someone else is coming

Someone who by this point has long been born and has grown up.

Someone who will soon make himself known and begin teaching about the kingdom of God: About its breaking into the world; about its being greater than any earthly kingdom. About how the marks of this kingdom have to do with peace, justice, mercy, humility, community without traditional boundaries. He’ll also calling to people to repent, to refocus their lives in light of this kingdom.

And John is proclaiming that this one who is arriving will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Christ will come and change lives: He’ll come and show a new path and bid others to follow. He’ll come and upset people; make them uncomfortable, invite them into a new way of life. He’ll die on a cross. He’ll be raised from the dead.

What are we preparing for?

According to John, we’re meant to prepare for a life-changing event; for the arrival of someone who’ll show us the way of peace, of loving one’s neighbor, of storing up treasures in heaven rather than on earth. We’re meant to prepare for the arrival of someone who offers much more than a good feeling.

We’re meant to prepare for the arrival of someone who’ll turn our entire lives upside-down for the better.

Are we prepared for that?