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You Have to Start Somewhere

Isaiah 11: 1-10
Matthew 3: 1-12

Advent 2

Delivered by Rev. Ron Coughlin
                                                                                                                                                               
Prayer:

Holy God, help us to give voice to the wonderful news:

that you are coming to dwell among us,

that your kingdom is coming into our midst,

that the birth of the child brings hope, peace, joy and love.

May we find you present among us today in our reflections on the Word.

Amen.

Have you ever asked for directions from someone and got instructions which gave you a lot more information than you really wanted to know.  In the Eastern Townships of Quebec, where I served in ministry for twelve years, there were numerous stories of the giving of directions that might have gone like this:  “Continue down this road a few miles and at the corner where the Foster barn burned down – now that was a great fire, the Fosters lost a lot of cattle in that fire and the insurance didn’t cover their losses adequately, so they had to sell the farm – the barn’s not there any more, but turn left at that corner and continue for a few more miles, and at the old homestead turn right – that was the home of the first settlers in our district, they had a hard time making a go of it, but when they started up a trap line catching beavers and minks, they got enough money to build a bigger house – you can still see the chimney standing through the trees.  The second driveway will be the home you want.  Have a good day!”

Now if you asked anyone in the New Testament how to get to Bethlehem, they would have said: “Go out to the desert, keep going till you get to the River Jordan.  You can’t miss it.  You’ll find a man out there, standing knee deep in the water, baptizing people.  That’s John the Baptist.  You ask him.  If you want to go to Bethlehem, you’ve got to start there.  There is no other way to get there.”

All four gospels say the same thing.  Whether you are reading Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, they all say that if you want to go to Bethlehem, you have got to start with John the Baptist.  You have to begin somewhere, and our beginning lies with John.

I just thought I would point this out to you:  If instead of relying on the shopping malls and the television specials to tell you what Christmas is about, if you turn to the Bible, you will run into John the Baptist.  John is there in every story, out in the desert, standing in the Jordan River, telling us how to get to Bethlehem.  This is where the journey begins.

Most of us have heard this story so many times, we know what John is going to say.  In fact, he says only one thing, like a broken record.  He only has one sermon up his sleeve.  You know what his sermon title is, don’t you?  It’s “Repent!”  He doesn’t soften it with jokes or humourous anecdotes.  You can hear his roar long before you can see him.  You can hear the word “repent” echoing off the barren landscape.  But who wants to hear that?

When I was settled in my first congregation, I was very excited – excited about going to a new church, a new ministry, an new adventure.  After I was there for a few months, I had some physical symptoms that led me to go see my doctor.  I had gotten to know this doctor, and I liked the way he was with his patients, so I thought he would be gentle, merciful, and kind.  He put me through a battery of tests and then sat me down in his office and said. “There is nothing physically wrong with you.  Your problem is that you are anxious.  Now”, he said, “we have two options.  I can give you some pills, or you can practice what you preach.”

Of course, I didn’t want to hear that!  That was a challenge to me, my faith and my beliefs.

John the Baptist is the same way.  He has one question and we know what it is.  He is going to say “Have you started practicing what you believe?”  We don’t want to hear that, especially at this time of the year.

You see, John is a prophet.  Some people think that the biblical prophets were people who could foretell the future.  Those words are easy to take.   But what prophets really did was point to the present.  What is hard to take is what the prophets say about the here and now.  And what they say about the present is “Repent” – which means to practice what you preach.

Prophets rarely say anything new; they rarely disclose any new information.  They tell us what we already know and don’t want to be reminded of.  They tell us to start living what we believe.

And one more thing about prophets, they are never worried about saying the “right thing”.  Prophets are always going to the right people and saying the wrong thing, the thing that they don’t want to hear.  All the biblical prophets did that, including John the Baptist.  And all of them suffered for it.

Later in the Gospel we hear about John going to King Herod.  King Herod had committed murder, incest and adultery, and God knows what else.  John the Baptist went to King Herod and said, “Shape up.  You are doing wrong.  Your lifestyle is going to harm this whole nation.”  He was saying in effect “You know what you have done wrong.  Even if you are a King, practice what you preach.”  And of course, that got him into trouble.  Herod won that fight.  John the Baptist lost his head over it, literally!

Yes, all four gospels say the same thing.  They say, if you want to go to Bethlehem, to see for yourself, if you really want to find out who Jesus really is, then first go see John the Baptist.

So we might was well do it.  We might as well get it over with.  And John says just what you would expect.  He says it right away.  “Repent!  Practice what you preach!  Live up to the standards that you believe in.”

That’s what repentance means.  Repentance doesn’t mean going through life with your head down, feeling remorseful, or beating your chest saying “mea culpa, mea culpa”.  It means turning around, and making sure that our actions fit with what we say we believe; what we say is important to us.  It means doing those things in a new way – a way that gives life both to ourselves and to others.

On the way to Christmas – which is exactly twenty days away – we want to experience the joy this season has to offer.  We want to make it a time of carols, good cheer, parties and good food.

But every Advent we bump into John the Baptist who says “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”  He says, “What happens out there in Bethlehem is nothing less than the transforming power of God’s love coming into this world.  It is the kingdom of God at work in our world.  And if you want to be a part of that kingdom of love, then come out here and see me and I’ll tell you what you must do to really celebrate the meaning of Christmas.”

You see, John is there every Advent, just in case this is the year that you really want to go to Bethlehem.  Repenting means practice what you preach.  It means acting on what you believe.  You already believe it, you already know it, so now is the time to live it.

Living out our faith in this way is what it means to take seriously the call to be followers of Jesus – trying to live as he lived.  Here are some suggestions to consider:

  • Ø speaking a word of encouragement and support to a family member, a neighbour, a colleague at work, even a stranger.
  • Ø inviting someone who is alone and lonely to dinner.
  • Ø reading the scriptures and praying for the church and the world.
  • Ø letting go of some activity so that there is more time for family and friends.
  • Ø taking some action which will promote justice and peace in our world.

 

There is a Chinese proverb which says that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  The first step in OUR journey to Bethlehem begins with our encounter with John the Baptist.

There is a modern parable which you might have heard before.  It goes like this: A sparrow asked a dove “Tell me the weight of a snowflake”. The dove replied, “nothing more than nothing”. Then the sparrow said, “in that case, let me tell you a marvelous story.  I sat on the branch of a fir tree close to its trunk, when it began to snow – not heavily, not a raging blizzard – but just like in a dream, snow falling without a sound, and without any violence.  Since I did not have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch.  Their number was exactly 3,741,952.  When the 3,741, 953rd snowflake dropped onto the branch, nothing more than nothing, as you say, the branch broke off.” Having said that the sparrow flew away.

The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for a while and finally said to herself, “Perhaps only one person’s voice is lacking for justice and peace to come to the world.”[1]

So John is waiting – pointing the way to the real meaning of Christmas.  Ready to give directions.  Letting us know that what happened 2000 years ago makes a difference in what happens now.

Are you ready for the journey?  Let us remember to take it one step at a time.  Let us continue our journey to Bethlehem, and let us be ready to meet John the Baptist along the way.

Amen.


[1] from Illustrations Unlimited, ed by James S. Hewett  (Tyndale House, 1988)

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