Second Sunday of Advent

Readings: Isaiah 11. 1-10; Psalm 72. 1-7; Romans 15. 4-13; Matthew 3. 1-12 (view all)

I wonder how your Christmas preparations are going so far? Have you put your tree up? (It’s wonderful to see the amazing tree decorated here at St Edeyrn’s.) And how is your Christmas shopping going? Are you pretty much sorted, or haven’t yet even begun?

Each year, for me, Christmas seems to sneak up on me. We’re coming up to the beginning of December one second, and then suddenly there are only a couple of weeks left in which to sort everything. Of course, everything seems even more of a blur this year because of our new arrival, Thea.

The season of Advent in the Church calendar invites us, not just to prepare our houses, our pantries and our gifts ready for Christmas, but to also give some thought to preparing our hearts as well for the arrival of Christ.

The task given to John the Baptist, who appears in this morning’s gospel reading for the first time this Advent, is to “Prepare the way of the Lord” amongst the people. And in today’s collect, which we’ve just prayed together, we asked for God to ‘purify our hearts and minds’ in order that ‘we might be ready to receive him [Christ], who is our Lord and our God.’

So what does it mean for us to prepare our hearts and minds this Advent? And how can we, as Christ’s Church, be ‘ready to receive him’ when he appears?

I wonder if you are familiar with the famous song, ‘What if God was one of us?’, sung originally by Joan Osborne in the nineties, and then later covered by Prince among others.

A recurring question which often occurs to people is just that — ‘if Jesus were to appear in today’s world, how would we respond?’ Would his message prove popular amongst people in today’s world? Or would people think he was insane and have him placed in a secure hospital, or locked up in prison for breaching the peace?

There is, of course, a third option which I fear might actually be most likely — that if Jesus appears and walked among us today, it is just possible that our world may not even notice him at all. That we would be far too distracted by the busy pace of our world to give him our attention. That he would be just one voice among many others, particularly in this election season, who are all promising, persuading that their plan is the right one for our future. That we would be far too distracted by everything else which is going on in our live.

Because we live in a world which is full of things which are designed to distract and subdue our attention. It was famously suggested by Karl Marx that ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’, that is, a distraction to subdue and pacify, but our world today is full of so many different shiny distractions that I’m not sure religion can even claim that central a position.

In contrast to the commercialised, secular form of Christmas which our society celebrates, Advent, on the other hand, is a call to stop and wait. To strip away our distractions and take inventory of the state of our hearts and minds, the state of our souls.

The season of Advent prompts us to ask this question — how ready are we to receive Jesus in our lives?

This is what is behind the central word in the message of John the Baptist, and later Jesus himself — the word, ‘Repent’. ‘Repent’, John tells the people, ‘for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ In other words, ‘Stop! Look! Put down your phone, your tablets and your other devices and turn your attention here! Don’t miss the incredible thing which God is doing right here, right now!’

This is a plea for attention, but it is also a plea for a deeper level of engagement. A challenge to re-assess our lives and bring our priorities in line with God’s. An encouragement to those whom the prophet, Isaiah, calls the poor and the meek, and a difficult message for the powerful and the self-righteous.

For those who, like the Pharisees and Sadducees whom John addresses, appear to be good and honourable. But their hearts, underneath the surface, are festering and malignant.

You see, Advent is another reminder that Christianity isn’t about looking good. It isn’t another badge to collect, among many other in today’s world, to assure yourself that you are a good person. There are plenty of other clubs and societies which can do that for you.

Instead, to be a Christian is to come to the realisation that you aren’t a good person, and so therefore need to repent. To open your heart to God’s grace, to be judged and receive forgiveness and freedom to start again.

And I don’t exclude myself from that challenge. Because if you apply that same principle to priesthood, you can say this: To be a Christian priest isn’t about appearing to be pure, wise, holy or spiritually superior. To be a priest is to be the first to say, ‘I am a broken and sinful person in need of forgiveness’ and to say to others, ‘will you repent with me?’

We live in a broken, sinful world, and we are broken, sinful people. But it is precisely because of this that Jesus came, and will come again — to bring an outpouring of forgiveness, grace and healing.

I wonder this morning, in midst of the busyness around us, will we take time to stop and be honest about the state of our own hearts?

As we cast our votes this Thursday, will we ask God to guide us to make a decision which is best not just for ourselves, but for everyone in our nation, particularly the poor and the meek? And will we open our hearts to those around us, particularly those we have wronged, or who have wronged us, as Paul implores us to ’welcome others, just as Christ has welcomed us’?

Friends, as we continue this season of Advent preparation, will you repent with me?

Reflecting on the miracle of Christ’s birth, the American pastor-theologian, Brian McLaren, writes this:

Politicians compete for the highest offices. Business tycoons scramble for a bigger and bigger piece of the pie. Armies march and scientists study and philosophers philosophise and preachers preach and labours sweat. But in the silent baby, lying in that humble manger, there pulses more potential power and wisdom and grace and aliveness than all the rest of us can imagine.

Brian McLaren, We make the road by walking

So as we pause this morning to gather at the Lord’s table together, in the midst of all the busyness and the brokenness in our world and in our lives, may our hearts be opened to receive God’s forgiveness, grace and healing brought to us through the babe of Bethlehem. Amen.

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