“Preparing a Way”
Romans 15:4-13 and Matthew 3:1-12
4 December 2016
The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, Pastor
West Walworth: Zion and East Rochester United Methodist Churches
The scripture for this second Sunday of Advent
Has led me to think deeply this past week,
To ponder this question:
With Christ’s promised return
What needs to be done to prepare a way forward?
In other words,
What do I need to do as an individual,
And what do we need to do collectively as a Church,
To prepare a way forward
In our life
And in our world?
How do we prepare the way for the Lord?
John the Baptist had a vision for a way forward.
How do you draw a crowd in the middle of nowhere?
If you’re looking for hunters, put out a deer lick.
If you’re looking for protesters, put in a pipe line.
If you’re looking for people to build God’s kingdom,
Call the world to confession and repentance.
Then warn them of the judgment that is to come.
Confession, repentance, and judgment.
Yeah, good times.
That might preach in the Bible belt,
But not so much in suburban Rochester.
Who doesn’t want to confess our personal failures, faults, and sins?
For those who don’t want to see or listen,
Who want to go through life with their head in the sand,
Confession may be equated with
Scrapping an open wound with a rusty razor blade.
But for the rest of us,
Take a look around.
The world is on fire
And many take delight in its incineration.
See what we’ve done to the land and to our neighbors.
Listen to cries of those wrongly persecuted,
Or simply, those unable to defend or care for themselves.
Is this a world we’re happy with?
I’m not happy with myself when I
Make generalized assumptions for the many
Based on the sinful behavior of a few.
I’m not happy with myself standing idly by,
Watching land being stolen or misused for profit or gain.
I’m tired of seeing justice swayed by those who can afford it,
Not by those who deserve it.
Doesn’t the world have too many people fleeing war
While we relax at home binging on Netflix?
Hasn’t our individual and collective sin,
Both intentional and unintentional,
Caused enough pain and suffering?
It may not be easy or simple,
It may not be painless or without effort,
But the only path forward,
To prepare the way for the Lord’s coming,
Is the pathway that leads us through the valley of confession.
Repentance clears the path
Of all the rubble and destruction blocking our forward progress.
Repentance brings low the mighty
And lifts up the lowly.
Repentance crosses previously unpassable ravines,
Broken relationships, and festering wounds.
Repentance paves a highway for our God.
John the Baptist plunged the newly confessed
Under Jordan’s icy waters,
With a baptism of repentance,
Lifting them up,
Sending forth each newly baptized individual in a new direction,
Giving each a new vision
For preparing the way
And building God’s kingdom.
Confession identifies the way forward.
Repentance clears the way forward.
But what keeps us making forward progress?
A quick read of our Gospel
Might lead us to belief that fear of judgment is the answer.
If you and I fear the Lord’s judgment enough,
Then that fear will keep us from straying, erring, and sinning.
To which I ask:
How’s that working for you?
Fear is a terrible motivator.
It hasn’t worked for the Church.
Fear doesn’t work for nations or states.
And we should be on our guard
To never wield the threat of fear
On behalf of the moral high ground,
Or in the name of God.
The complete read of the Gospel
Identifies the nature and purpose of fear.
Pharisees and Sadducees had come from Jerusalem
To be baptized by John.
They were undercover spies for the religious establishment;
The Temple leaders.
Their role and purpose was to protect organized Judaism at all costs.
Their role was not serving the Lord or His people.
Their role was serving themselves.
If organized religion has become poison, pathological,
And is engaged in pacifying the populous
Wielding the bully club of fear,
It is time for those responsible to be separated from the wheat
And burned in unquenchable fire.
Yes. You heard me right.
Christ is coming to bring judgment
Upon those who use fear as a motivator for self-preservation,
For building up personal wealth,
For enlarging their kingdom of power.
That judgment is devastating
And it is permanent.
Work for Christ.
Live for Christ.
That’s how to avoid fear of the threshing floor.
The Gospel of Matthew
And the actions of John the Baptist
Point us in the direction of a way forward.
But what does it actually mean
To make progress
In preparing the world
For Christ to come?
The Apostle Paul provides some amazing insight
In the fifteenth chapter of his letter to the Church in Rome.
Paul’s landscape of faith was as divided in his day
As the American political landscape
And the Church is divided in our world today.
Paul was facing an uphill battle against those
Who had been Jews
But were now converted, baptized disciples of Jesus.
They claimed an exclusive inside track to Christian perfection
Simply because they were children of Abraham,
Chosen by God.
Yet, God had called Paul to fish other seas,
To cast his net of discipleship to the Gentiles of the world,
Especially to those who had no Jewish background.
It was, and is, God’s desire to be inclusive of all people,
To welcome everyone to Jesus’ feet
And everyone to feast at His table.
Preparing the way for the Lord to come
Means that every disciple of Christ has an obligation
To live a life of radical, inclusive, authentic hospitality.
Welcome the stranger, even if they are immigrating from a foreign land.
Extend steadfastness to the sojourner who is just passing through.
Give abundant encouragement,
A hand out and a hand up,
To those who are following behind in their journey of faith,
Just as others had done for us.
Welcome all for the glory of God.
Welcoming everyone is harder than it sounds.
We naturally like to surround ourselves with those
Who think like us, act like us, and share the same values as we do.
Welcoming all requires us to expand our world view,
To expand our cultural boundaries,
To learn and listen to the needs of others.
Just as the Apostle Paul set out across the known world
So too should we.
Welcoming can begin right here at home.
One does not need to travel far to be a welcoming friend.
Intentionally force yourself to grow beyond your comfort zone,
To serve a meal at the soup kitchen,
To attend a Christmas party
At a local day program or supervised apartment complex,
To deliver meals on wheels
Or ring a bell.
Include everyone God sends your way
Into your circle of friends
With the warmth of God’s love.
Welcoming often leads one further afield,
To cast off from the lakeshore,
To search other seas.
Like the Apostle Paul,
Welcoming one in the name of Jesus Christ
Prepares the way for Christ to return,
Not only here in West Walworth / East Rochester,
But also in Tecpan, Guatemala
And Telica, Nicaragua.
Traveling to Israel next month
Is not only a pilgrimage to the land of our faith,
But also an opportunity to extend welcome and friendship
With everyone we meet,
With everyone God sends our way.
Authentic, welcoming hospitality,
Making friends in the name of Jesus,
Leads to harmony.
If ever our divided world needed harmony,
It is today.
Our God of steadfastness and encouragement
Wants us to live in harmony with one another,
“in accordance with Christ Jesus,
so that together
you may with one voice
glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
- Romans 15:5-6
Harmony is the means to a Divine purpose …
To glorify God.
Regardless of your depth of faith or mine,
Living in harmony, glorifying God,
Is a whole lot better than
Living as adversaries,
Divided and at each other’s throats.
In an environment of hospitality and harmony,
Hope is possible.
Hope is probable.
Hope is certain to take root and grow
Until Christmas morning
When the hope of the world blossoms and blooms;
One of us,
God in Christ
Born a child
Given to us as a gift
To save you and me
And to save our world.
Prepare the way,
O people of Israel!
Prepare the way,
Disciples of Christ.
Make your confessions.
Turn back from your former sinful ways.
Welcome with Christian love the stranger, the sojourner, the visitor.
Extend radical hospitality to acquaintances
And welcome them as friends.
This is how hope is created.
This is how harmony leads to peace
And how justice spreads across the land.
This is how the preparation of Advent
Leads to the return of Christ,
All for the glory of God.
Prepare the way!
Prepare the way for the Lord!