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Advent Two - Preparing for the Coming of God

Hopeful images of peace and tumultuous descriptions of disturbance, the longed for reign of God and yet our unreadiness for a life of God’s presence in our lives, all swirl around us in this second week of Advent. (Advent Two. Matthew 3:1-12; Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; and Romans 15:4-13.)

The imagery of the prophet Isaiah is so hopeful and inspiring as we are invited to visualise the reign of God in the peaceable kingdom where corruption and enmity shall be no more. And even the tree stump, all that is left of the failed Davidic line of leaders, shall shoot green again and hope literally springs forth. Those of us so exhausted by bad news of violence and corruption, war and famine, human frailty and foolishness, can feel the stir of hope and want to lean into the promise of a time and world where there will be peace, even among species, and the most vulnerable like children will be safe and able to flourish.

And then the booming voice of John the Baptiser challenges us that to prepare for such a world we need to repent, to allow our hearts to change direction and to be reorientated and renewed. It is not so much that we must morally deserve such a kingdom but that we cannot recognise it or participate, much less help establish it, with old hard hearts. Our hearts need to be made ready. We need to make room in our hearts for a new way of being.

John the Baptist effectively stands between two worlds acting as a sign post. He is said to stand between the Old and New Testaments and although simplistic there is some truth to this. He certainly stands between the prophets of old and the one who heralds in a new realisation of what it means to be of God. He literally stands between the wilderness and the edges of civilisation where those looking for someone to follow and reclaim their land came to listen and hope. And while we may find him a slightly alarming figure with his wild hair and diet, his uncompromising words unsettling any ready-made nice ideas about salvation, he does bring good news; he does prepare a way for us to be open to the spirit of the living God in our lives and in our community.

Some can change their hearts and minds by simply letting their hearts yearn for a better world and then faithfully moving in that direction. But many of us need to first be convicted of the need to change. Many of us need to acknowledge our brokenness and stuckness and sometimes that takes someone effectively telling us the ways in which we act like vipers, pointing out in no uncertain terms the ways we sabotage ourselves and our neighbours, the ways that our choices lead to the opposite of what we say we want! Many of us need help – sometimes gentle and encouraging and sometimes less gentle and more provocative – to understand the connection between the state of our hearts, or inner world, and the state of the world that we share with others.

Many of us need not only the gentle words of Jesus but also the image of his winnowing fork and the fire that burn away all that is dross, is no longer needed. While at first the language of fire can be alarming (and my community was under prolonged wild fire attack earlier this year and we had to evacuate) it is also an ordinary agricultural practice of the time to burn off chaff and that which was not useful. It can therefore be thought of as cleansing and indeed renewing in a seasonal sense.

At first this awakening, this call to repentance, can be very discouraging and lead us to immobilising shame and fear. To see not only the true nature of our failures and flaws but to see clearly the way in which we make our dreams of compassion and mercy, peace and goodwill, impossible by our daily choices of priorities and behaviour, can lead us to despair. But John the Baptist does not confront people in order to condemn them but to provoke them to repent, to change, to surrender to grace like a tired and weary traveller to cool clear water, and to emerge up out of the water refreshed and renewed, ready for life in the flow of God’s spirit. Repentance is part of how we prepare for the coming of God.

For many of us that awakening that we talked of last week leads us to this twofold awareness – the possibility of the peaceable kingdom and the true state of our current way of living. Although uncomfortable this awareness of what could be and what is helps us to truly desire to be people with open hearts and minds, to grow into the changes that lead to liberation for us personally and for this world. Over these last years many of us have felt and seen how under duress our planet is from climate change and environmental degradation, how fragile our community really is from pandemic and economic fluctuations, and how our way of living impacts very negatively on other peoples in other parts of the world. This can lead us to feeling overwhelmed and helpless. But into this state of being the words of the prophet ring as hopefully as they did for that first audience that heard them. And into the myriad images of distraction by more of the same that the social media feeds us we hear the words of the Baptiser and know it is well past time to be honest with ourselves and our God and to give our hearts over to being broken open, changed and healed so that we might become more truly bearers of God in our world. We too are to give ourselves over to being anointed in the spirit and bringing good news in our lives to others near and far. Many of us have been on the spiritual journey for a long time and we keep thinking that we have made the decision to give our heart to God but if you are like me then we often take it back when the choices get too confronting: we confuse our cultural norms with kingdom values and let ourselves off the hook; we try and confine the spirit to the spiritual parts of life and get on with the rest of life (the majority) without too many awkward questions; and keep very busy with the tasks of social responsibility and success. So let us take courage and hope this year and allow the prophets to speak into those inconvenient corners of our hearts and minds, let the winnowing fork separate what is of value and what needs to be finished with, let the fire take what is not of God’s spirit.

And yes, while opening our hearts to repentance and renewal involves personal choices we can only really do this as communities for the prophets Isaiah and John the Baptiser were not preaching simply personal salvation but the renewing of the community of God so that all might live in the peaceable kingdom. We need to gather with other like minded souls and pray and work, sing and dance, serve and be served, support one another and be challenged together, live and die generously and hopefully into that greater reality of God’s world that the prophets remind us.

Even so, come Lord Jesus the Christ, come stir us up to desire your peace in all the world and let it begin within and between us.



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