“Good Enough for God”

November 29, 2015

 

Malachi 3:1-4

Luke 3:1-6

 

I took much of last week off, although I planned to do some final work on this sermon on Friday afternoon. But first, I told myself, just a few minutes of the beginning of the Iowa-Nebraska game. Then after a few minutes, I came to my senses and announced, “Hey, nobody else at Congregational UCC is working on a sermon right now! I might as well do what they’re doing. So I settled in for the rest of the game.

It was the right decision, I think. But then, we’ll see how these coming minutes turn out.

Friday afternoon I asked: “What’s everybody else doing?”

That’s one of the big questions this time of year.

A recent essay wondered aloud: “Should you drape the banisters with balsam fir, or is boxwood more current? Which breed of artificial bird is trending to clamp among the boughs? And will you be able to hold your head up if you have not personally raised from poulthood the turkey that graces the holiday table (as Martha Stewart suggests) or hand-pressed the apple cider with which you braised the brisket?”[i]

We live in an age when every mistake shows up on Facebook. Every flaw is Instagrammed. Every opinion is met with countless angry responses in the “Comments” section.

We want to get it right. We want to be measure up.

So let me be very clear about one thing right from the start.

Drinking coffee from this cup is OK.

Drinking coffee from this cup is also quite acceptable.

Some people jumped the gun in this year’s concern about the war on Christmas. In spite of what they were saying early this month, it just doesn’t matter what your coffee cup looks like. What is on these cups—or what is missing from them—has nothing to do with the Christ whose coming we celebrate and anticipate in these days.

Or, I don’t know—maybe both cups speak to us about this Christ.

One cup is a blank slate, waiting, we are told, for us to tell our story on it. Through it we are reminded of the unknown, unwritten future that awaits our actions.

The other cup cries out “Joy”—speaking a word of hope more than telling about our grim and troubled present reality: the hope that joy will come—with light, with peace, with justice.

Both cups remind us that it is up to us—the good news of God’s love is not preprinted. We are called to discern what that news is for out time and to announce it. The joy we hope for only comes as we nurture it and let it come into the world in and through us.

That is, it is up to us to prepare the way.

We call these days Advent, which means, simply “arrival” or “coming.” And yes, in our early history we Congregationalists had nothing to do with it. Over the last eighty years or so, however, we have come to see the value of the ancient wisdom. So we take four Sundays—and the weekdays in between—to slow ourselves down, to think about things that we might not usually consider in the pre-holiday crunch.

Over time, however, Christians have developed a wisdom that speaks a different word to us in these days. Slow down. Take some time. Instead of rushing toward Christmas, let Christmas come to you in a measured way, when the time is right, when the days are full. Instead of rushing to sing “Joy to the world, the Lord has come,” take the time to let your song be the prayer “O come, O come Emmanuel” in the hope that we might truly rejoice.

Do you remember the cartoon in which Lucy van Pelt is talking to her brother, Linus. She tells him that she’s really in the Christmas spirit this year. Linus gently asks her why it is that she’s so certain of this. And in typical Lucy style, she yells at him: “Because I said so, that’s why!!!”

The “Christmas spirit” seems to involve peace on earth, goodwill to men and women, a generous, warm heart.

For some it comes easily.

Many others struggle with this.

But we don’t get into the “Christmas spirit” by trying harder or by yelling that we’re in it “Because I said so!!!”

This morning we hear a voice crying in the wilderness of our hearts, in the wilderness of our world. It cries out so that we might hear it over everything else that demands our attention.

“Prepare.”

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” John says.

So often that sounds harsh, foreboding. That’s because preparation is so often confused with a move toward perfection—the perfect Christmas, the perfect life. We want to be good enough for God. And yet the words of Malachi haunt us: “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”

Listen again. These days are not simply about getting ready for Christmas. They are about the Christ who comes.

John Polkinghorne, the Anglican priest and physicist, gives us a clearer picture of just who this Christ is when he says: “In Advent we think about the coming of Christ, particularly that first coming in Bethlehem and that final coming at the end of the age to judge the world. But the truth of the matter is that Christ comes to us every day, anonymously, in the people in need who cross our path. … We need to pray for grace to perceive the need of those we encounter, for, although that need will sometimes be obvious, quite often it will be veiled…. We also need to pray for the wisdom and generosity that will enable us to play our part in the meeting of that need.”[ii]

Again, we need to prepare the way.

What if we took those words as good news?

What if we received this call as an invitation to shift our focus, as an invitation to center ourselves on the Christ who comes among us even now?

Our preparation begins with repentance. That’s one of those wonderful religious words that we don’t use very much anymore. Our world has so avoided this word that we have forgotten the true spirit of repentance.

The Greeks called it metanoia, that is, a change of mind, stopping and then turning in a new direction. If you’re running toward a cliff, the best thing you can do is stop—and turn around. And the voice that cries, “Look out!” may be just what you need to hear.

True repentance begins with the good news that we are loved by God—right now in our hectic, noisy, crowded lives. We are children of God. Courageously and painstakingly we reorient our priorities, learn new patterns, and turn our faces toward the dawning of the light of God.

It has been said that preparing means accepting the forgiveness that is offered: The valleys which John wants us to fill up are valleys of fear which, when it is excessive, leads to discouragement when we see our lives as they really are. Fill up the valleys, that is, fill your heart with confidence and hope because the transforming love of God is closer than you think.

I'm just wondering. . .

What would our lives be like if we lived with the recognition that each of us is a human being with our own unique and wonderful set of flaws and failings and strengths and gifts?

What would our lives be like if we let up on the demand for perfection from ourselves and others at least long enough to see how fun and beautiful imperfect people can be?

“Prepare the way,” John says. Admit that you need to be forgiven as much as the person next to you. And once you've done that, open your eyes and see that the forgiveness you've hoped for is right there, freely offered.

“Prepare the way,” John says. “Every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight.”

We are to take an active part in the advent, the coming of God into the world.

This is the real reason behind many of the beloved Advent and Christmas traditions of this congregation: giving to special mission programs such as the Heifer Project, contributing to the Shelter House, and our other giving at this time of year—at the end of a year that has been marked by great disaster and great courage, at the end of a year that calls us to be open and welcoming and generous. All this is done to enable the world to be more like God’s plan for it. We give to provide healing, clothing, food, and shelter. We give to announce the comfort of God.

When we give, when we act out of love, we learn to let go of at least some of what we have so that we can let God work though us in the world. When we give, we wait and hasten, we prepare the way of God.

If we are fortunate, as we prepare we begin to recognize the ways in which our lifestyles contribute to hunger, to poverty, to violence—to the affliction of the world. And we repent—that is, we turn in the opposite direction.

This is the active waiting of Advent.

These days are a time for us to give special attention to the way of life we are to live all year long—bringing tidings of comfort to those who dwell in the shadow places of our city and our world. This is active preparation—not to make ourselves better, but to ready the world for the coming of God.

Listen.

Even now, we hear God’s call to prepare a new road in a world of affliction.

This Advent, look around at all the people traveling rough roads—which, one way or another, is just about everybody. Christ comes to us, even now. Christ comes to us in our neighbor. Prepare the way.

We're only human—and that's all we have to be. After all, the message of Christmas is that being human was good enough for God.