The second week of Advent in 2013 began Sunday, December 8th. In the church I am serving, there were four filet crocheted wall hangings that had been made. Each one had a word crocheted on it: Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace. However, there is an alternate way of naming the candles: Hope, Faith, Joy, and Peace. And, being new to the community of faith, I had worked with the scriptures and with the light of Faith this week. However, in thinking about it, love is very much associated with faith. For it is the God who loves us in whom we have faith.
The Gospel this day was: Matthew 3:1-12
1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Today, we continue to hope as we light the candle of “Faith,” reminding us of who it is we worship. It’s amazing that the God of all the universe has stooped to earth and sent his son to live among us. We have faith in the God who comes. We have faith that we are loved and live in a community that believes in love.
Yet, the Gospel reading has John the Baptist yelling at us to repent. How rude! It says that he’s yelling at the Pharisees and Sadducees, but I never feel safe when either he or Jesus criticizes those guys. I worry that I might just be closer to that crowd than the disciples. Since the Pharisees are the religious leaders, I am always afraid I am one of them. I hope not but I think it is a possibility.
Where is the good news in this? Aren’t we all about Gospel, good new?
I love the Christmas story. I love that those poor shepherds get to greet the King of Kings before anyone important shows up. I love to imagine the sound of angel choirs. I love the best of all the celebrations we have added to it over the years: the Christmas trees, lights, garlands, the scents of mulled cider and apple pie, sleigh bells and wonderful movies.
I love O Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi” that illustrates the beauty of love where a husband and wife would sacrifice what was the most valuable to them to give a gift to each other.
I love the Jimmy Stewart movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” which shows how one man’s love for family and friends makes such a huge difference to a whole community. And he is granted the grace of seeing what the world would have been like without him.
I think O Henry’s story of sacrificial love and the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” were doing what John the Baptist was doing but in a different way. They were saying what you do is important.
We all want to run to the beautifully decorated house and eat all the wonderful Christmas goodies and open a ton of packages and sing and laugh and hug each other and have the best of Christmases. We want to feel loved. That’s what Christmas is about: love.
Today, we light the candle of faith and hear John the Baptist telling us to prepare the way of the Lord through the wilderness. And sometimes that wilderness looks a lot like our lives. He yells to us: “8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “
We want celebration and love and he’s talking about repentance and chopping us down. That sounds pretty judgmental to me. I don’t want to hear anything approaching judgment. Just give me a Christmas mug of hot chocolate with marshmallows and a roaring fire. I want cozy. And John does not want us to get too cozy, not yet. First, he wants us to examine ourselves and our actions because what we do matters.
You and I matter. What we do matters very much. It matters to those around us and it matters to God. Examine your actions. How can you show more love, more kindness, and more forgiveness?
That’s what John the Baptist is trying to tell us. What we do matters: bearing fruits of repentance matters. Those fruits are like the gifts in O Henry’s story, like all the kindnesses of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
It matters what we do. By every action we take, we change the world. The world would be a different place if we were never born. And may it be that we change the world for good with the help of the Holy Spirit.
This past Thursday, Nelson Mandela died. We have been seeing and hearing a lot about his life. Because of his faith and letting God work through him, his country was transformed. The institutionalized racism was eliminated. Reconciliation was achieved. South Africa now has a completely transformed society. His ability to forgive those who imprisoned him was a great example for all the people of the country, black and white alike. What he did mattered. The world is a better place because he lived, because he believed in a God of transformation and love. Through him, God did amazing things.
We light the candle of “Faith.” We pray that God can continue to transform us so that our actions show the love of God. Alone, you could never do what Mandela did. But with God, you can do even greater things.
Prepare for Christmas, for the light coming into the world: the Light of Hope, the Light of Faith, and more light to come.
Prepare the Way of the Lord. Lord Come.