Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year A – Second Sunday of Advent
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – December 8, 2019
As we think about John the Baptizer, I want to share a story about another John – John the Bricklayer, my Grandpa. He was a construction worker, tradesman, and, later, a building inspector. Retired, he and Grandma had moved to Maryland to be closer to the kids and grandkids. Because there was no way of getting to the house, he decided to undertake a project. So, in his 60s, with knee problems, he decided to make a driveway. Now, his three daughters used to gripe and complain about him being out in the hot sun every day doing this and thought he was crazy because this was no small undertaking. The driveway, which headed to the garage, which he also built, he paved with cement and lined with railway ties and dogwoods, his favorite tree. Each of us in the family had a dogwood tree labeled with our name and birth date. Now, to get to the front and back doors, he planned a big driveway loop. With a spade he cut out all the sod so it was down to bare dirt. Then he spread rock dust and tamped it down by hand so it was level, putting down an outside edge using cinder block pavers. Next, he hand laid leftover red half bricks he had gotten for free from a brick company and filled in the gaps with more rock dust. In one section he wrote in white bricks “My 95.” The thousands of unused white bricks sat at the bottom of the hill, providing a nice stopping point for us when sledding and bike riding!
This was not only a great way of being able to get to the garage, front, and back doors easily, but it provided hours of entertainment for my brothers, cousins, and I. We would ride bikes, race around, and before Fitbit was cool, Grandma would walk 4 miles every day listening to her cassettes. With all his hard work, Grandpa prepared the way for fun, joy, laughter, ease of transportation, and so many memories.
But not all the memories are completely happy. That driveway was the place my brother and I had a head on collision on our bikes. It was the place I walked alone at night when I saw Grandpa decline due to congestive heart failure. On that road, I looked at the stars and fervently prayed that he would be ok. In some ways that road ended up building me.
Isaiah foretold that someone would come ahead of God’s promised Messiah. Someone who would be a voice in the wilderness crying out to people to “prepare the way of the Lord!” The one who would get people ready so they could hear what God’s promised and anointed one, the Messiah, had to say. So when John the Baptizer, whose dad was a Temple priest, appears in the wilderness, dressed like the prophet Elijah of old, the one who was supposed to come before the Messiah, people paid attention. He called to those who gathered to listen, “‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!’” It’s here and it can’t wait! And the way or road that he pointed to was the path of both repentance and peace.
As a preschooler told me this week when we spoke about the birth of Jesus, “God is a very special visitor!” So it’s only right that we would prepare to meet this special visitor! But how do we prepare the way of the Lord? We open our hearts in repentance to receive the One to come and his good news.
This word “repent” has a tendency to trip us up because we think it means to feel sorry for what we’ve done or haven’t done. But it’s more than that. It’s confessing, turning to God, trying to do better, and doing things differently. The Hebrew means to go in a different direction, and the Greek word, metanoia, means to change one’s mind. You are doing something dissimilar to what you have previously done.
All of this implies that we acknowledge the direction we had been going or the mindset we had before. Because you can’t do something different until you come to terms with where you presently are. This means acknowledging our brokenness and sinfulness honestly. It means spending time reflecting on where we are as individuals and in relationship to others. But there’s a crucial flipside to this. It also means learning to live into our belovedness. Perhaps metanoia, changing our minds, is really living into our true selves – who we were made to be. It’s taking time to understand our weaknesses and growing edges, but also to remember that God has called us “very good.”
John the Baptizer has lots of exciting references to fire here, but, remember, fire is purifying, refining. It gets rid of what is impure, what is unnecessary. It burns away the dross, all the junky bits, and leaves the good stuff behind. It’s a scary prospect, but we are transformed for the better. So how would coming to this honest understanding, this repentance, bring about peace in ourselves, our relationships, and our world? Why would we want to wait any longer for that kind of peace?
When John speaks about Jesus, it’s all about Jesus and what he’s going to do. “‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His 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.’” None of this is about John. He’s just helping people get ready. He knows that. He understands that this is all about what God is doing.
So how do we prepare our hearts for the work that God is up to? Do we pray for an openness and willingness to receive the God who comes to us? Do we spend more time in scripture, prayer, and service, focusing on what God has said is good and right? How do we point others to God so they can prepare themselves to experience what God is up to?
Archbishop Desmond Tutu understood that this work of preparation and repentance comes before true peace can take root. After Apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established so that there could be honesty about crimes in South Africa before moving to a united country. In Rwanda, the local Gacaca Courts offered spaces for communal truth telling among neighbors who had committed and been victims of horrible atrocities. Both these processes acknowledge that you have to clean out the wounds before you can reach a place where healing can occur. This is difficult, painful, and not pretty, but it’s necessary. It requires thoughtful consideration, reflection, and truth telling to own what has happened and where you are before a shift can occur. Before a new mind and deep peace can come about.
That’s what Isaiah envisions. Not a Messiah who will act like a traditional king, killing wild beasts in a show of power, strength, and domination. But a Messiah who will mysteriously recreate and redeem the world so that “predator” and “prey” are no longer categories that exist. Wolves and lambs will live together, leopards and baby goats shall lie together, and a little child will lead a calf and a lion without fear. God’s shalom will pour forth from God’s holy mountain. It will come from people who have had hearts and minds changed, who are unafraid of those who are different, who don’t feel like they have to compete, but are working together for God’s kingdom.
We have an opportunity today to participate in an activity that can help lead us to a new mind and understanding of who we are as Community Lutheran Church. Each of you should have received four Post-it notes as you came in. I invite you to think about our church and community and, using the bulletin insert instructions, be honest about where you think the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats are. It is through this prayerful and open wrestling and turning again toward where we understand God calling us that we will find ourselves on the path to the future. It is through intentional questions, confusion, waiting, new activities, joys, and even our anxiety that we will find our feet on the path to peace – God’s wholeness, restoration, and completeness. It’s hard, but satisfying work, like building a driveway brick by brick, and day by day, we will see it come together. We will find ourselves on a new way of proclaiming with John the good news that the “kingdom of heaven has come near!” Thanks be to God! Amen.