Have any of you been invited to someone’s home for a Christmas celebration? Or are any of you hosting this year, perhaps a pre-Christmas party, or a Christmas dinner?
You know what to expect, right? A home decorated with poinsettias and greens, a colorfully decorated and lighted tree, people dressed to the nines, and a delicious meal, right?
How about Christmas Eve services? You have expectations about those, too, don’t you? A beautiful sanctuary, candlelight and sacred music, a message of hope and joy? If you invite someone to join you for Christmas Eve here at Boulevard – and I hope that you all will – you will do so at least in part because you have some confidence in what to expect.
Well, here we are, preparing for Christmas, paying attention to the invitation of Scripture to be alert to the coming of Christ, and what happens? We are invited to prepare ourselves by heading into the wilderness. We are invited to prepare ourselves by changing our lives. We are invited to prepare ourselves – not for more of the same old stuff, but for something new!
Let’s listen to what the Gospel of Matthew has to tell us in 3:1-12:
3:1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 3:2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." 3:3 This 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.'" 3:4 Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 3:5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 3:6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 3:7 But 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? 3:8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 3:9 Do 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. 3:10 Even 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. 3:11 "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. 3:12 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."
John the Baptist was Jesus’s cousin, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah. One day, as a man growing into his calling, he recognized that he was the one designated to prepare his people for the imminent coming of the messiah. And so off to the wilderness he trudged, and that is where we are invited to follow.
What kind of an invitation is this? The wilderness? The Jordanian wilderness was a bleak and barren place, indeed. Wilderness in Scripture is synonymous with desert, and desert it is – dry and dusty, little in the way of plant life, hot in the daytime and cold at night. Nothing pleasant about it. Why would we go to the wilderness? What happened to the welcoming front door bearing a wreath, the beautifully decorated family room, the tree with the star on top? How did we end up in the desert wilderness?
And the clothing! You thought you were supposed to dress up, right? But John is decked out in a camel’s hair tunic. What kind of a host is this?
And if all that weren’t enough – the food! What about the food? Locusts and wild honey? Locusts? That sounds disgusting. Holiday time is supposed to mean tray after tray of sumptuous . . . well, everything, right? That’s how we celebrate the coming of the Lord!
John the Baptist seems to have different preparations in mind than the ones we’re accustomed to. He calls us into the desert, into the wilderness, to prepare for the coming of Christ. Why do you suppose that is? Could it be because the deserts of life are where Jesus is found? Could it be because the deserts of life are where we come to know who God is, and who we are?
What are your own deserts this holiday season? Where do you find yourself pulled, like it or not? To a hospital waiting room? Into a decades-long family argument? To an empty apartment? To a broken relationship? To a period of unemployment? To the challenges of the aging process, or of illness?
And what about the deserts that surround us? Have you visited a nursing home lately? A jail? A hospice room? A homeless shelter?
There was a drug-related fatal shooting in Euclid this past week. A desert place, right here. South African leader Nelson Mandela died on Thursday, reminding us all that South Africa was not so long ago a desert place in which the culture and the restrictions of apartheid reigned.
Where are the deserts in our lives? And why are we being called to those deserts?
We are called to the desert so that we might prepare the way of the Lord, and we prepare the way of the Lord by repenting. When we begin to know the God of the desert, and when we begin to know who we are in the starkness of the desert, we hear the call to repent. “Repent!” roars John the Baptist, our wilderness host.
Repent! – which means: Change! In Hebrew, that language John the Baptist would have spoken, the words for repent mean to turn – to turn in a new direction. In Greek, the language in which the Gospel of Matthew was written, the word for repent is metanoia – which means a change of heart or, perhaps originally, a change of mind. To repent does not mean merely to say that we are sorry and to seek forgiveness. To repent means to change -- by turning from the wrongheaded ways in which we have been directed and to turn toward a new and life-giving way, the way of Jesus Christ,
And if we change, what happens? If we change, our families and our neighborhoods change. If we change, our cities and our nations change. If we change, our world changes.
This past week, the world lost a towering figure and a master, a great leader of change: Nelson Mandela. This was a man who emerged from the horrors of apartheid in South Africa to lead a major resistance movement, one of the most successful movements the world has ever seen. He was already leading that movement from prison, where for twenty-seven years, held in the desert of the confines of an 8’ by 8’, prison cell, he earned the respect of a nation and was transformed into the man who, after his release, would lead that nation as it became Africa’s first genuinely multiracial democracy.
In one of the news reports I heard this past week, another leader of resistance against oppression, the Myanmar woman Aung San Suu Kyi said of Nelson Mandela, “ He made us understand that we can change the world -- we can change the world by changing attitudes, by changing perceptions.” And we start changing attitudes and perceptions, of course, by changing our own.
I want you to listen to what former President Bill Clinton said this past week in his tribute to Nelson Mandela:
"In his 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela endured physical and emotional abuse, isolation and degradation. His trials purified his spirit and clarified his vision, giving him the strength to be a free man even behind bars, and to remain free of anger and hatred when he was at last released. Mandela's enduring legacy is that, under a crushing burden of oppression he saw through differences, discrimination and destruction to embrace our common humanity. "
Isn’t this exactly the sort of experience that John the Baptist is talking about? Repent – be changed – and then bear fruit worthy of repentance. Repent – proceed into the desert and know that the chaff of your life, the extraneous burdens to which you cling, the old baggage you carry, the unnecessary and useless husks of brokenness, of resentment, and of self-centeredness that trap you in lives that do not bear fruit, those will all be be winnowed away and cast into the wind.
In the desert, that barren place of transformation, that place in which we repent, in which we embrace change, in which we turn toward new directions, we become people capable of bearing good fruit.
Fruit which the prophet Isaiah describes in terms of a world in which “[t]he wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. “ A world in which “[t]hey will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. “ Fruit in the form of a world of reconciliation, of community, of peace among all of creation.
We saw one version, one image of this kind of a world in one of the famous Edward Hicks paintings that appeared on the screen during the Isaiah reading this morning. A world in which all animals and all peoples live in peace.
We see another version of the same thing in the work of Nelson Mandela who, like John the Baptist, was a prophet of the desert.
And we heard it yet again, a description of the fruit we are called to bear, in the words of Paul to the Romans when he said, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. “
The world as we know it is not the world with which God is satisfied. The deserts of the world – its wildernesses of warfare, its pockets of poverty, its worn down neighborhoods and broken streets, its bastions of hunger and despair – these are not God’s goals for creation. But they are places to which we are called in order to be transformed and to generate transformation.
The church as we know it is not the church with which God is satisfied. John the Baptist does not call us into the wilderness in order to applaud us. John the Baptist tells us: Do not rest on your laurels. Do not say, “We are the children of Abraham and Sarah; thanks to our heritage, we are safe.” Do not say, “We go to church, we support the church; we are fine.” You are always, always, always beloved in the sight of God. But you are also called into the wilderness to change, to be transformed: to repent.
Our Advent readings are not always comfortable ones. They don’t point us right to the department store shelves of ornaments, to the gift-wrapping department, to the holiday specialties at the grocery. I got a laugh out of one of the commentators I read as I prepared this sermon, who pointed out that John the Baptist plays no role in commercial holiday celebrations. And no – we don’t get to wear sparkly dresses and new jackets to the wilderness.
But these readings are crucial to our understanding of Advent. These readings tells us what the world of big box stores leaves out: We are preparing for transformation. We are preparing to be changed, and to create change. We are called to come face-to-face with ourselves in preparation for coming face-to-face with the newborn Christ. John the Baptist extends to us the most profound, the most astonishing, the most hopeful of all invitations: Come out to the desert and repent! Co.me out to the desert and be changed! Prepare the way of the Lord!