Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Father Riley's sermon from December 9, 2018

ADVENT II - C - 18                    LUKE 3. 1-6

I have always loved the season of Advent first because it is short and to the point. In addition, there are all of the sights and sounds that go with it. The liturgical color changes to a penitential one. The hymns are all anticipatory. There is greenery and additional candles. Manger scenes appear empty at first but as the weeks go by are filled with animals, then shepherds and eventually the Holy Family.

Advent is a season that is charged with anticipation but is also a season of waiting and watching. One might say that God’s people, Israel, were a people who were watching and waiting for the Day when God would send the Promised One to rescue his people from their state of oppression and restore Israel as a nation.

This Hope had been passed down for generations through the telling of Israel’s history, one that included God’s promise delivered through the mouth of his holy prophets. However, there had been no prophets for hundreds of years.

While Jesus dwelt unknown in Nazareth there appeared suddenly like a new Elijah, John Baptist. The Jews expected the reappearance of Elijah as the herald of the messiah and John sees himself in that role. St. Luke sets the time and place of John’s appearance for us as being in the 15th year of the Emperor Tiberius (A.D. 28-29).

In addition, he goes on to give us a list of who is who in terms of the political and religious leaders of the day as well. Behind the list of names and places is a story of oppression and misery. The important event of the time, however, is the coming of “the word of God” to John the Baptist, the son of the old priest, Zachariah.

The church puts John within the tradition of Israel’s prophets upon whom, like Jeremiah, “the word of the Lord came.” Moreover, Luke tells us that he preached to all the region about the Jordan following in the footsteps of the Old Testament prophets, echoing Isaiah.

His message has two main features: a call to repentance and the demand for baptism. Needless to say, his message raised eyebrows and grabbed the attention of the authorities both religious and political. John’s message was to proclaim the immediate coming of the Kingdom of God, conceived on the old lines of the prophets; to herald the Christ, and to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Therefore, he sets himself to destroy the self-satisfaction both of the people and of the religious leaders. What is wanted is righteousness of the sort demanded by the Old Testament prophets. A new Israel must be fashioned such as God can accept and use.

The call to repentance was traditional for prophets. The ceremony of admission to the new Israel John found in baptism preceded by confession. John’s baptism did not grant remission of sins once and for all, but prefigured and prepared the people for the baptism of Christ, which was to come (which would remit sin). In this John emphasized the ethical requirements as a condition of entrance into the Kingdom of God as the forerunner of Christ.

Down through ages the message proclaimed in this short season is unchanged: repent, change your ways, and make straight your paths, for the King of Glory is coming. This message urges us to be enthusiastic in our preparation and our anticipation rather than lethargic and unprepared. Remember the parable of the ten bridesmaids.

Sadly, many people today have given up on God, as I am certain that some of God’s people had given up hope that God would act on their behalf prior to John Baptist’s appearance. They were discouraged by their situation and their lethargy had carried over into their practice of religion. They lived their lives day in and day out wondering whether God cared, and if he did, why he wasn’t coming to their rescue.

It is not different for us today as Christians. It is natural for us to become discouraged when we stop and take a close look at the world around us. Endless wars, famine, natural disasters, unspeakable violence characterize our daily life. Homelessness and hunger threaten the lives of thousands in our own country who live and die on our city streets everyday.

It is a reality less recognized and made known than the countless billboards and commercials that blare out a different message, especially this time of the year. Nothing ever seems to change in that regard. We might find ourselves, then, looking at John Baptist as merely an historical oddity today, as one whose message was applicable only to Jesus’ first coming.

The “way” might appear to be so scrambled to us that there is no way in which we might conceivably make a pathway straight for God in the world in which we live today. The opposition to the very idea of God, to the displaying of manger scenes, and even to the use of the greeting of Merry Christmas seems to be growing in every corner of our society.

That in itself is a cause of discouragement and lethargy that turns many away from the joy and anticipation of our celebration of the coming of the Christ child. Let us not forget, however, God is the ultimate source of our confidence and rejoicing. For a thousand generations God has proved worthy of our trust.

The marvels recounted over and over again in scripture in those centuries before the incarnation have been outdone repeatedly in our own day. Even though we might seem to be working against much greater odds than our ancestors did, God has never failed to provide us with sources of strength and models of courage.

However, there is a warning in John’s message and must be taken to heart by all the baptized today. The Advent season is a time to prepare, to make room in our hearts and minds and in our everyday lives for the Christ child, by making straight the crookedness in our own lives.

We cannot presume that because we have shared in the great Christian mystery, the new Exodus, coming through the waters of Holy Baptism with all that means, God will automatically be pleased with us. Christian living is far more than repentance, but it is not less.

All spiritual advances begin with a turning away from what is hindering our obedience, our love, and our trust in God. Advent is a time for us to heed the prophet’s warning and forsake our sins, as today’s collect so aptly reminds us, that we may without shame or fear rejoice at His appearing. AMEN+

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