Advent Day 8: From Pulpit Supply…to permanent position

So, I need to let you know, I have a permanent position. I have been asked to become the permanent pulpit supply for St. Paul’s UCC church in Eureka. We have to negotiate all of the details like job description and salary and such, but we made an agreement today that they officially asked and I officially accepted. Apparently they had a meeting last week when I wasn’t there, and decided what course they wanted to take, and so this is it. I don’t think that it has officially sunk in yet, but I am pretty excited. Now I have to actually get to work and find some classes to get me started on learning something for real. Oh yes, below is the sermon that I shared with them on this second Sunday in Advent.

The scripture lessons were: Matthew 3: 1-12 (main focus), Isaiah 11: 1-10 (used in Advent lighting) and Psalm 72: 1-7 & 18-19 (used in parts for call to worship. The sermon title was Preparation and the sermon is as follows.

Let’s see, it is December 8, so that means 17 or is it only 16 more shopping days until Christmas. I get really confused about which days you count. We used to do some last minute shopping on the 24th with my mother, but I am not sure how that works anymore. I remember hearing a complaint on the news earlier this November that with this year’s calendar putting Thanksgiving so late there were less days to shop. It took me a few minutes to process that. I kept thinking you always have the same number, but I finally realized they were also counting the days in November after Thanksgiving. Therefore this year there were less than 30 days which ever way you count it, but I am not sure that I even want to shop.

I am starting to feel really old and duddy; I just don’t want to have to do the whole crazy Christmas shopping thing. More and more, I want to open up the China hutch, the curio and other areas where I have been storing some family treasures, and wrap those up as gifts. My mother-in-law did that one year, and put numbers on the gifts, and we got whatever we drew. I suppose those aren’t really the things that young people AKA my children want as Christmas gifts, but I am getting to the point where I would like to see my children enjoy some of the family treasures. Of course if they don’t want them, I might not want to see that, but I am guessing my Christmas giving will be a mixture of old and new this year.

On the other hand, part of my lack of enthusiasm for shopping might be that we have already partly finished Christmas in our family. The Haaks (James’ side) held an extended family Thanksgiving, Christmas and surprise 50th birthday party for his youngest sister and a 45th wedding anniversary for one of his oldest sisters all on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I hadn’t even thought of the shopping issue, and we were already finished with that gathering. Of course when his family gets together it is like some people’s major family reunions so it makes sense to combine a few things. James comes from a family of 10 and none of them were childless and most of them have grandchildren. We haven’t been able to gather at anyone’s home since the late 1980s if that gives you any idea of the number of people present.

So here we are on the eighth day of Advent. We have already lit two Advent candles. Our shopping, decorating, maybe throw in some baking and coming to church and watching candles being lit is all part of our Preparation for the day we celebrate Christmas. In two Sundays, we will come and light all four candles and also finally the Christ candle. That will be the day for which we are preparing. The day we as a church celebrate Christmas. It is the day we remember that Jesus came to us as a human baby. He came as a humble baby, and in fact the only really innocent human baby.

I have had people argue with me that, no wait let me put this correctly, try to argue with me that Dec. 25 is not the day that Jesus was born. I take that as a distraction argument. Arguing about the date is really a pointless issue. Telling me that the season is set in the wrong time is comparable to my sister-in-law stopping her surprise birthday party to tell us that her birthday wasn’t on the day we were gathered, and that we should all take back our gifts. Considering the silly gag gifts that she was given, maybe it wouldn’t have been a bad idea. But the point is not about the date or the day. The point is the celebration. Jesus birth as a humble little human is the event that this whole season is about. I have a pin that says, Jesus is the reason for the season, and through all of our shopping and decorating and gathering, that is what we need to remember.

John the Baptist was a preparer. He was sent by God to prepare the way to Jesus. He was a pointer and preparer. Spell checker doesn’t like how I wrote this, but I am using the style of my nephew when he first started playing baseball. Peren was about four years old and liked to play baseball, though he hadn’t learned all the terms for it. One day when he was playing with some of the older neighbor children, he kept wanting to bat, and as he was giving directions about where the others should play, he told the older boy that he looked up to, to be the “behinder.”

I thought of that story as I was thinking about John the Baptist. We would never ever call John the behinder, instead we should call him the in fronter. John who was a relative of Jesus through his mother, went to the wilderness and baptized and preached and called people to repentance. His mission was to prepare people for the day when Jesus would begin his ministry. He was a voice crying out in the wilderness, saying make way for the Lord. He knew that was his calling in life. He didn’t hesitate, he didn’t wonder or fret, and he didn’t ask why, he just did.

John also knew that he wasn’t the ONE. He didn’t take on more than was his to do. He didn’t try to be the expert. He was only the pointer, the preparer. It is easy to look at John the Baptist and put him beside Jesus as the contrast. John simply points while Jesus is the prize or the result. But what if we compared John to the other spiritual leaders mentioned in this passage? What a different light we might see him in Matthew’s words, we see John addressing the Sadducees and the Pharisees as a group of vipers when they came to him for baptism.

He knew that they weren’t coming with good intentions. They weren’t looking for salvation. They were not there to repent of all the wrong that they had ever done. John addresses them by saying that they cannot get by just by saying they are descended from Abraham. He reminds those leaders, and us that God is the creator and as such God has the power to eradicate the entire human order and start over again.

The next verse in Matthew, when John says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Here is where Matthew ties this story back to the scripture in Isaiah where it says, “a shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse.” Jesus is that shoot and the stump of Jesse is the people of Israel. John is telling the people of what is to come. God will save the repentant believers, but toss the unbelievers into eternal exile. John is trying to explain to the religious leaders that their doom is coming, but again, they are not listening.

In the first place, these two groups of Jewish leaders were not really known to be what the young people would call BFF’s. They are normally at odds. However, if you ever want to get two warring factions to work together, all you have to do is find them a common enemy, a threat to their beliefs. Well, Jesus and John the Baptist were about the best threats they were going to find. If they didn’t do something about those two, they were both going to lose their power, and that just wasn’t anything they were interested in thinking about. John recognized that about them. John understood that they weren’t coming to listen to him for any pure or good reasons, and he stood right up and called them on it.

In the end of this passage, John gives us a view not just of the time when Jesus is walking the earth teaching and preaching and healing. John skips all the way to the end of time and tells us why Jesus came to earth. Even though this is what we celebrate during Advent, he didn’t just come to be the baby in the stable. He came to be the man/incarnate who died and rose again so that he would have the power to bring all believers to himself. Jesus is the one who will divide the wheat from the chaff.

I enjoyed that wheat and chaff metaphor. When I was growing up, I remember one or two summers when I father had this big fit about his chaff saver. I don’t know why he bought it, but for a time it was missing. He had unhooked it from the combine and I think left it at some place where we were renting land. Anyway, he eventually found it and put it back on the combine and was so excited about using it and saving that chaff, which they ended up feeding to some of the cattle that winter. The only other thing I remember about that chaff is a few of the animals developed lumps from the chaff, and so the whole thing ended up doing more harm than good. So if my recollection and story is of any value, it is to let me know that the chaff is not something you want to save or use for any good purpose.

John in his metaphor about chaff was saying that very thing to the Pharisees and the Sadducees to try to point out to them the error of their thoughts. They kept teaching that the only way to attain God’s kingdom is through birthright and following of God’s laws as given to Moses. Here is where the contrast between John and those leaders becomes really apparent. John is a humble follower of the words of Jesus even before Jesus begins his ministry on earth. John says of himself that he isn’t able to carry the shoes that Jesus wears. The Pharisees and the Sadducees on the other hand believe that they are above any teachings other than what they follow themselves. They not only don’t listen to the words about Jesus coming, but they are working hard to prevent his chance to begin his ministry.

So how does all of this work for us? How do we take any personal meaning from this? I would like to remind us that in our last 16 or 17 days left before Christmas that not only do we NOT just count the shopping days, but that in our anticipation and preparation, we should remember that Jesus is what our spiritual belief is all about. But, the season is not just Christmas, and the preparation is not just during Advent. Our preparation needs to be each day, each week, … continual. We, too, need to be like John, a voice crying in the wilderness.

Perhaps that is the hardest thing we have to do, speaking out about Jesus sharing our belief, our assurance that Jesus is. Because that is the point, Jesus IS not that Jesus was. So many churches talk of evangelizing or doing foreign and local mission work which is good, but… Perhaps for us it needs to be each day, each week as we offer a hand, a kind word a listening ear, a shoulder to “cry on,” we do it in the same way that John pointed to the coming of Jesus. As we dive into the rest of this Advent and Christmas season, and we think about being more like what Jesus wants us to be, let’s think also about being more like John the Baptist, or maybe we should find a new term, John the Preparer, John the Pointer, John the in fronter. Let us be the people who are pointing to the fact of Jesus existance, so that we can really remember that Jesus is the reason for the season. Amen.

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