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Dec 11, 2016



Passage: Isaiah 53:4-6

Speaker: Rev. Bruce Van Blair

Series: Sermons

Category: advent; repent; judgment

Keywords: advent; repent; judgment


December 11, 2016

Third Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 53:4-6; John 3:13-21


         We come now to the part of Advent that seems least understood in our culture. We cannot be absolutely certain, because we only see the outside. Unlike God, we cannot look upon the heart. If you could interview all the people with beautiful Christmas decorations on their houses this year, would they assure you that this is the best way to “prepare the way of the Lord”? Do you ever wonder if they spend as much money to support and build up their churches as they do to celebrate the outer Christmas? Or is that only me? Some of them do both, I know.

         Preparing the way of the Lord comes dramatically in Isaiah (40:3) and was the main theme of John the Baptist. But as far as we know, he was not talking about lights or trees or presents. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” John the Baptist was saying it before Jesus did. He meant that we should straighten out our lives. We should turn in a new direction. We should get serious about keeping the Covenant and pleasing God, and at the core of that was obeying God’s precepts and commandments. Indeed our world would be transformed and beautiful if the vast majority of us did that.

         Getting “the roads ready” is what Advent is mostly about. Advent before Event. All worship has this dimension to it. Only, the Incarnation – the coming of the Great King – heightens the necessity. If Christmas is real – if our Messiah is really coming – then we need to make preparations. “Messiah” means the Anointed One – the true and rightful King, chosen and sent by God.

         Saturday night baths and dressing up to come to church were a way of life when I was a boy. Jesus had taught us that cleaning the inside was more important than cleaning the outside, but few people back then thought this was a good reason to neglect the outside. It used to be that boys and girls were taught to connect what they expected (or at least hoped) to receive at Christmas with their behavior during the year. Had they been obedient to their parents, helpful and cooperative around the house, reasonably good to brothers and sisters? Were they studying diligently, doing okay in school, not getting into trouble? I can clearly remember, as a boy, analyzing my behavior as Christmas approached, hoping maybe exceptional behavior in the last six or eight weeks would offset earlier offenses and carelessness. There was no doubt in my mind that the presents waiting for me under the tree were connected with my behavior. Of course, there was no doubt in my father’s mind either. It was not a figment of my imagination.

         Did that make Christmas less exciting? I think the reverse. Did that make me feel less loved when I got good presents? I think the reverse. Did that make Christmas seem more connected or less connected with real life in my young mind? You have three guesses.

         Is there any parent alive today who would withhold Christmas presents from an undeserving child? No, we want Christmas to represent the free gift of God’s outpouring grace and unconditional love. Do you really think young children understand ethereal theories that have no connection with anything they do or care about? Once each year we dump all this stuff on them, whether they have been incredibly wonderful or whether we can barely stand the way they behave. From that they are supposed to deduce the love of God and the meaning of Life? Well, why not? If we can deduce the meaning of the Cross from a reindeer with a red nose, then why not? I am so dense that I thought Rudolf was a justification for acting like a lush at Christmas time. And some of us think Christmas should last all year.

         Every year at Christmas time, I hear endless remarks pretending offense or even scorn at the commercialism of Christmas. I do not take it too seriously, since it seems to have little effect on the cash registers or our credit cards. But I keep wondering: As Americans, even as American Christians, do we have something against commerce? I love buying presents. I wish I could buy a lot more of them. I do not have anything against commerce. Like most of you, if you gave me unlimited resources, I would love to buy some really wonderful presents for every single person on earth who tried to make life better for others this past year. I think we should stop complaining about commercialism, and complain instead about meaningless commercialism or immoral commerce. And everybody who makes toys that do not do what they are advertised to do ought to have to spend January in jail. And everybody who gives presents to people they do not like or children who do not behave ought to have to spend February in jail.

         To be sure, for adults, it gets deeper. It does not jump track – unless we start thinking about Easter – but it gets a lot deeper and heads for mystery beyond our knowing. There are deeper preparations. How do we get the inner roads ready? There are preparations we need to make that we are not quite sure how to make. There are things that need cleaning up, and we are not sure if they ever can be cleaned up.

         They came to John the Baptist to be washed in the Jordan River. You can feel the hunger, the longing, the desire for a better, truer Life. How do any of us get clean after we have lived in this world for a few years? And how do we prepare for the coming of the Holy One?

         There are two great realities to Christmas that we hate. Not surprisingly, they are connected. One is that we can never get sufficiently ready to receive the true Messiah. We are not and never can become worthy to receive our true and rightful King. It dawns on us eventually that He comes precisely because this is true: precisely because we cannot get worthy; precisely because we need Him so desperately if we are to go on with LIFE. But that awareness comes later. Initially, most of us try to get ready – we try to be worthy. Sometimes we even pretend we are just fine whether He comes or not.

         This sets us up for the second reality that we hate. His character and being are a light that reveals our flaws. He does not do it to be mean. We learn that later too. It just happens. Light casts shadows. When He is around, we can never be very comfortable with what we look like or what we are really like. All our mirrors are in rooms with ten-watt bulbs – until He comes. We thought we looked okay; we thought we were getting away with it. It turns out that He sees beneath the surface – to identity and destiny and value we never dreamed lurk within us. But we do not know that at first. We think He judges us like we judge ourselves and each other. And when His light illumines our lives, at first we cannot stand the reflection. We end up rejecting Him. We will do almost anything to get away from Him at first – or to get Him away from us. He understands why even better than we do – even when it takes Him to the Cross.

         One of the things His light reveals is our disobedience. We have never loved or obeyed God without equivocation. Oh, we have done a few things; we have tried in our way to be good and religious and responsible and moral and all. At least at times. It suddenly looks pretty pathetic, anemic, and half-hearted, in the LIGHT that comes from His life – in the light that comes from the way He obeys God.

         All my life I have been playing Chopsticks. I even thought it sounded pretty good. Then He comes along playing the Hungarian Rhapsody, Mozart, and Beethoven with full orchestra. How was I to know that such things were even possible? But at first I do not notice the smile or His beckoning. I only know that I have worked really hard at my Chopsticks and now He has made it sound silly. It is a really hard decision for us humans: Shall we follow Him until we can play Beethoven, or kill Him so we can go back to pretending that Chopsticks is really beautiful or that Chopsticks is as good as it gets?

         The disobedience was here long before the Incarnation. It has been ruining life here, and we have been choking on it, since Adam and Eve first discovered free will and turned it in the wrong direction – to do their own will instead of his. But disobedience never looked so clear and ugly until He came. So He gets blamed for it. That is always the other side of Christmas. It is reflected in the stories: in the gift of myrrh; in the actions of Herod; in the flight to Egypt; in the manger itself, and no room in the inn. And we all have our own stories to add in. Sadly, they match.

         Many have tried to take this dimension out of Christmas, not only for the children but for everyone. Insofar as they succeed, Santa looks and behaves more and more like Satan, complete with red suit, hearty laugh, instant gratification – all reeking with temptations that promise everything and deliver illusions that soon leave us “another day older and deeper in debt.”

         The reality is that there is judgment on the earth for as long as we are disobedient to God. It operates everywhere. It is not some special kind of punishment. Creation runs according to the Creator’s design and purpose. Nothing can or does go right here for very long if it operates against the Creator’s design and purpose. That is the meaning of The Fall; that is the meaning of The Flood; that is the meaning of The Plagues of Egypt. Christmas does not create these problems. Jesus does not bring trouble to a world all loving and peaceful before He came. Nothing can or does go right here for very long until the judgment is lifted – until obedience is restored. We usually prefer to call it reconciliation, restoration of trust, conversion – reestablishment of relationship between us and God. But these are exceedingly high gifts, and rare upon the earth.

         Meanwhile, the loving God goes on loving – offering salvation and redemption, as always – but the judgment still stands. Meanwhile, the world has killed the Son, and for the most part it has not acknowledged the deed or repented or even bothered to say “I’m sorry.” The judgment is not just God being a poor sport or a sore loser or seeking vengeance. If that were the case, we would not even be here. There would not be any “here” to be in! Clearly God has not given up on us, but the judgment still stands. Where could it go? Take it away and there would be no rhyme, reason, or hope anywhere.

         So the Son was rejected, and judgment for it still stands over the world. We can each change that, but only in our own hearts and lives. Is that not how Christmas still comes? The real one? YOU can get ready. I can get ready. We can wait and watch. We can receive Him and turn back to obedience and reconciliation with God. But you can only do it in your own life. You cannot do it for your children. You cannot do it for your friends or your spouse or your enemies. And please know for an absolute fact: Most of the world around you is not doing this; it does not even want to. It is not turning toward obedience to God or love for God. If you are obedient in a disobedient world, you are at terrible risk. This does not turn us away; He is worth every second of it. But we do need to know and remember the risk. That also is part of the Christmas story.

         What follows is pure myth of my making. It has no basis in historical fact, but it is my way of trying to tell the truth.

         I sometimes try to imagine what would have happened if the world had recognized Jesus’ true identity and welcomed Him as the rightful King. You understand: King Herod saying, when they finally met: “Oh Jesus, I cannot tell you how ashamed and sorry I am. I have been a bad Jew and a rotten King, and nothing is going like it should. Please, I’ll do anything you say. Show me how to be the King I am supposed to be.” Can you imagine such a thing? Well, I cannot either, but sometimes I like to pretend.

         Why was it so impossible for Herod and all the others to receive Jesus in this manner? Jesus is the true and rightful King; there is no other appropriate response. But I only have to think of my own response to Jesus to understand. The judgment on our rejection of our King still stands. The world cannot have the peace and love of the Kingdom – until it is willing to obey the King. The blood, sweat, and tears keep mounting up to more injustice, sorrow, pain, and death. No one here escapes, because the world itself has turned away from God. No punishment is appropriate or required. To reject this King is its own inherent punishment. If we reject this King, the Kingdom cannot come – at least not for us. And there is no way to embellish or exaggerate such a loss.

         We are living today in the time of the “third chance.” The second chance was lost on a Good Friday long ago. We suspect God knew all along that it would come to this. Jesus seemed to have known too, by the time He was halfway through His ministry. But my myth picks up at the zero hour, when Jesus realized that it was hopeless – that human institutions were unable to reverse their response or cope with truth from beyond their own domain. Jesus had to make some emergency decisions. (In my mythical imagination.)

         First, Jesus gave the thief next to Him a one-way ticket to Paradise. Second, He sent an urgent message to His Father: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Decoded, that meant: “Hold your fire! Cancel wrath. There is more to this than meets the eye.”

         A little later, somewhat recovered from His ordeal, Jesus entered God’s presence for a summit conference. “To get right to the point,” He began, “despite your perfect knowledge and wisdom, you have no idea what it feels like to be down there! The dimensions are unbearably cramped. People are wonderful, just like you created them. Only, they themselves do not know this. They do not see very much of it in each other either. Abba, you cannot imagine how limiting it is to be caged up in one of those bodies. They cannot see the angels. They cannot even hear the music! They don’t know hardly anything about glory. Their language has no words for even the most commonplace blessings of this realm. They look at the sky, and all that comes is a bittersweet loneliness – an overwhelming sense of incompleteness. And you cannot fathom how uptight they feel about survival. Such a monstrous fear is hardly conceivable here. It is painful to be a soul locked up in flesh, with no memory of HOME. My last message was literally true. Despite all our preparation, they had no understanding of what they were doing. They actually thought life would be better without me! Like I was the one causing their problems. Even the most secure among them cannot really trust love – there is so little experience of it there.” Jesus paused with a shudder, waiting to regain control.

         “I brought a friend with me, a man they were killing beside me. They had quit on him. Can you believe that? I want you to meet him and see how much soul he has – how much goodness and beauty and potential he has. They didn’t have the slightest inkling of it, or any idea how to bring it forth. It’s the same everywhere. There is nothing wrong with the design. Only, the blindness and the fear and the loneliness are so great. It needs more time. It cannot be completed there. We have to find a way to give their souls more space and more chances to grow. They do not need more threats or more pain; they need mercy and grace and forgiveness.”

         God was smiling. “Yes, my Son. You have learned all I had hoped – maybe even more. Now you will never make the mistake your brother Lucifer made. He thinks everything can be solved if you just apply more pressure – use more force and punishment and pain. How is he, by the way?”

         “About the same, Sir. I don’t think he is catching on yet at all. He actually thought I would come over to his side when I saw how things really were down there.”

         When the summit conference had ended, it had been decided that earth would never be able to receive her King en masse, or by political, cultural, economic, or even religious establishments. It had to be the slowest, hardest way: personally, and one at a time. It must be by individual recognition and choice. This makes it doubly difficult, since many of the benefits are impossible to realize until the vast majority can see them and claim them together. The blessings and the power of the Kingdom are cut way back if only ten percent or so are being honest or caring or obedient at any one time. But still, it is a lot better than nothing, and it is full of more blessings than most are willing to receive.

         So the judgment remained and the New Kingdom became possible – and both are true, at the same time. Which brings us back to today – that is, back to where we are, regardless of how it has been presented. The truth is that the world rejects its rightful King and, for its lack of obedience, does not enjoy the peace or joy or prosperity of the New Kingdom. And yet, by the mercies of Christ, the WAY is still open – to each one of us, one at a time. We can enter the Kingdom at any moment – any time we are willing to give our own personal allegiance to the King. There is nothing this world can do to prevent that. It is the only thing Lucifer cannot stop. Never try to get Christ into Christmas; that is not the issue and never has been. Trying to get ourselves into the true Christmas – that is the issue. And without the Savior’s help, how are we going to do that?


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