We inadvertently ended up with the theme of “waiting” in worship this morning. I realize that’s the whole point of the Advent season, but on Wednesday my Music Director and I were trying to come up with a quick and easy anthem for the choir to sing this week (they’re pretty deep in Cantata rehearsals right now) and we found an anthem that was about waiting. Not going to lie – what sold me on it was, “Advent-themed + two-parts.” I didn’t connect at the time that I had just outlined a sermon that basically was talking about the exact same thing. I love it when that happens!
It did, however, make me think of this amazing graphic that one of my clergy sister’s posted to a Facebook forum:
Many many thanks to my dad’s advanced chorus for recording their rendition of Season’s Reasons so I could use it as an illustration and everyone got the full effect!
Rehoboth Congregational Church
December 4, 2016
Waiting For Christ
My dad has a choral arrangement he pulls out every couple of years called, Three Carols. The first carol, called Seasons Reasons, is an absolutely hilarious reflection on the dichotomy of the Christmas spirit. It starts off calm and mellow, describing the pure joy and miraculous wonder of Christmas—and then launches into a frantic mess of Christmas shopping, money woes, babies screaming and fights in every aisle.
You know, the true reason for the season.
For some reason, as I was reflecting on the proclamation of John the Baptist this week, particularly those words from Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” I could not get this song out of my head. I texted my dad about it earlier in the week and when he replied, he told me his chorus was actually scheduled to sing it at their concert in a couple of weeks and offered to record them rehearsing so you could get the full effect.
So, welcome to my brain. The proclamation of John the Baptist: Interpreted by me, sung by the New Milford High School Advanced Chorus.
After all, it would not be Christmas without stress, aggravation and a giant meltdown, right?
When I was in seminary, I used to get so annoyed that finals would fall during Advent. The liturgical snob in me thought Advent should just be about waiting for the birth of Jesus and not any kind of stress. I could not wait to graduate so I could be done with school and spend four weeks in December centering myself on the Advent season and not stressing about anything else.
Bless my heart.
Then I entered what is known as the “real world” – where presents need to be bought, traffic is horrendous, stores are crowded, people are cranky, work is usually filled with stressful year-end tasks and cars always seem to break right before you need to travel.
We all know that the stress of the Christmas season – the quest for the perfect gifts, the Pinterest-worthy centerpieces and the gorgeous decorations – is not really what this season is supposed to be about.
But, man, if it is not hard to remember that when you are scrolling through Facebook and it seems like you are the only person in the entire world who has not put up your Christmas decorations yet.
Here is where the scripture comes into play. Because, in fairness (and I have actually used this argument in the past as a way to justify my obsessive decorating), this is kind of what John the Baptist is telling us to do. When he appears in the wilderness of Judea, he quotes the prophet Isaiah, who said, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”
Prepare: I mean, what is he talking about here if not elaborate decorations, perfectly posed Christmas cards, and gifts for every single person in your life?
Spoiler alert: That is not what John the Baptist is talking about here.
First of all, the context of this wilderness sermon is not part of the story of Jesus’ birth; it actually happens after, nearly 30 years later. In the Gospel of Matthew, this narrative immediately precedes the narrative of Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his adult ministry. When John the Baptist quotes the prophet that we are to, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he is not implying that Israel needs to throw Mary a baby shower and fix up the roads from Nazareth to Bethlehem. In fact, John’s call is much deeper – and much more personal.
We read in this scripture that people are traveling from Jerusalem and Judea to be baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. He baptizes them, inviting them also to confess their sins, just as we do in worship today.
But when the Pharisees and the Sadducees, two political groups who oppose John the Baptist and perceive him as a threat, come to him for baptism, his reaction is quite hostile. He calls them a “brood of vipers,” demanding that they “bear fruit worthy of repentance” and telling them something greater that what is he doing is about to happen.
There are so many great sermons that can be preached on the Pharisees and the Sadducees and while I do not want to ignore them, today I want to focus on John the Baptist and what he is saying. Because I think his reaction here speaks to us, in our lives, as we try to find a way to balance the crazy demands of this Christmas seasons.
Water is not enough, John proclaims. He is baptizing people with water, but he knows that it is not enough; that something – someone – else needs to intercede and will intercede.
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.
John the Baptist knows that the true power of what he is doing through baptism will not come from him; it will come from Christ, it is coming from Christ. John says Jesus is so powerful that even he, John, is not worthy enough to carry his sandals; that what John is doing does not compare to what Jesus will do.
We spend a lot of time in Advent preparing: Preparing our homes, preparing our gifts and preparing our tables. But even though we can point to this scripture, this prophecy from Isaiah to “Prepare the way of the Lord,” Advent is not really about preparing; it is about waiting.
Christ is coming, whether we are prepared for him or not, and right now what we need to do is wait; that is what this season is all about.
Advent is about waiting for the birth of Christ, waiting for God to break forth into our world, waiting for the reassurance that hope is alive, that peace will prevail, that joy will be found and that love will always win.
This will happen regardless of whether or not we send out cards, put up multiple Christmas trees, bake 20 dozen cookies or buy everyone the perfect present. We cannot obsess over details and allow ourselves get lost in the stress of Christmas; instead we should wait and let ourselves to be found in the real magic of it.
This crazy Christmas season that happens all around us, year after year, is not enough. Because the true power of what we do this Advent season will not come from us; it is coming from Christ.
I say this in the most Adventful spirit of hope, peace, joy and love – this is not about you. This – this Advent season, this Christmas cheer – is not about any of us. This is about Christ; this is about the birth of Jesus in a manger 2,000 years ago and the ways in which, time and time again, God breaks through the imperfections of our own humanity and comes into our world in the moments when we need it most.
This is not something we prepare for; this is something we wait for.
This sermon that John the Baptist preaches in the wilderness reminds us that, just as he points to something that is beyond himself and what he is doing, so should we. As cheesy as this sounds, we should hold onto the true meaning of Christmas and point to something beyond ourselves as we try to find some balance over the next few weeks.
So give yourself some grace this season. It has been a hard year for a lot of people – do not make it harder on yourself by trying to create perfection this season. Instead, allow yourself to wait; to feel the thrill of hope and rejoice with a weary world as we all await the arrival of Emmanuel.
Because one that is more powerful than all of us – and more powerful than the craziness of the Christmas season – is coming.
Thanks be to God!