A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

The Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest
Abilene, Texas
Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Second Sunday of Advent + Year A
First Lesson: Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Second Lesson: Romans 15:4-13
Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12

✠ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

baptistI love the season of Advent.

One of the things that I love most about this particular season is that we get to sing so many beautiful Advent hymns each week. The hymns of Advent have a lot to teach us about the importance of the season and why we spend four weeks preparing for the birth of our Savior and anticipating his return.

The popular Advent hymn, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” for example, speaks to the expectancy of the one who will come to dwell with us, the one who is “God with us.”

O come, O come, Emmanuel…
O come, thou Wisdom from on high…
…thou Lord of might…thou branch of Jesse’s tree…
…thou Key of David…thou Dayspring from on high…
O come, Desire of nations…
O come, O come, Emmanuel… 

Or, “Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,” the eighteenth-century hymn by Charles Wesley which looks beyond our present time to the second coming of Jesus at the end of the age.

Lo! he comes with clouds descending, once for our salvation slain; thousand thousand saints attending swell the triumph of his train: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Christ the Lord returns to reign.

There are so many others, hymns like “Comfort, comfort ye my people” and “There’s a voice in the wilderness crying.”

Indeed, we can learn a lot about the season of Advent and its purpose for us simply by turning to the hymnal, by listening to the marvelous hymns that our tradition has to offer, and before I continue with my sermon, let me just say that if you love the music of Advent and you want to hear even more of it, I invite you to come back to church this evening at 5:00 for Advent Lessons and Carols. It will be a wonderful service, full of lessons from Holy Scripture and music led by our Adult Choir. It’s one that you don’t want to miss.

Another one of my favorite Advent hymns is “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry,” which begins, “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry announces that the Lord is nigh; awake and hearken, for he brings glad tidings of the King of kings.”

This is one of the only hymns in our hymnal related to the life and ministry of John the Baptist. We don’t have many, and it makes me wonder why that is.

Did the editors of the hymnal not think it was important to include more hymns about the cousin of Jesus, the herald of the Messiah?

Or, does the message of John the Baptist make us a little uncomfortable?

In today’s lesson from the Gospel according to Matthew, we hear from John the Baptist, and it’s not a message that is one necessarily of comfort but one of warning. He sees the Pharisees and Sadducees, religious leaders of the day, approach the bank of the Jordan River seeking baptism, and he warns them, saying, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

These certainly aren’t the words that we would expect to hear when one comes to the Church hoping to be baptized. In our liturgy for Holy Baptism, we don’t begin by saying to the candidates, “You brood of vipers!” Rather, we welcome them with open arms into the Body of Christ. We say to them, “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” We receive the newly baptized, and we invite them to share with us in God’s mission for the Church.

So, this makes me wonder, “What does John the Baptist have to teach us on this Second Sunday of Advent?” What does he have to teach us with his message of repentance?

We know that it must be an important part of the season of Advent because it shows up every year in our lectionary. Whether we’re in Matthew, Mark, or Luke, it shows up every year on the same day. John the Baptist shows up with his message of repentance, and in each version of the story, he says basically the same thing. “I’m not the Messiah.” “I baptize you with water, but one who is coming who will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit.”

To me, this speaks volumes about the importance of repentance and what it means for us in our journeys with Christ. This says to me that, if the season of Advent is meant to prepare us for the coming of Jesus, then perhaps we have to think about repentance before we can get to the baptism that Jesus offers us, a baptism of salvation what we continue to live in to day after day.

So, let’s talk a little bit about repentance. It’s not something that we talk about often, and when we do, it’s usually during the season of Lent. It’s not something that we particularly like to talk about either, especially during this time of the year when we’re already being pulled in so many different directions and our time is spread so thin. To talk about repentance during Advent seems jarring because all around us, the culture is telling us that it’s already time for Christmas.

Repentance is often seen as a negative word, something that one should try to avoid having to do. In other words, if you’re at a point in your life when you need to repent, you must have done something really bad.

But, I want to suggest to you that repentance doesn’t have to be seen as something negative, and it doesn’t have to be seen as a punishment for doing something wrong. When we think of repentance as punishment, it’s easy for us to be overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and shame, but that isn’t what God desires for us. God’s desire is for us to love others and to know that we are loved also.

When we read about John’s message of repentance and we hear the call of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, we are given the opportunity to remember who we are and an opportunity to return to the God who loves us more than we can possibly imagine.

A few weeks ago, when your clergy and lay delegates were in Lubbock for our diocesan convention, the Bishop reminded me of something about repentance during his address. He said that we typically have two understandings of the word, “repent.” In our culture, we tend to think of repentance as “feeling bad for doing bad things,” and in the Church, we tend to think that repentance means to “turn around.” He told us that, while both of these understandings can be helpful, the actual meaning of the word, “repent,” in the original Greek means “to go beyond the mind” or “to go into the larger mind.”

The Bishop reminded us that Jesus tells parables and stories that invite us to go beyond the way that we typically think, “to go into the larger mind.”

But, how exactly do we do that? How do we “go beyond the mind?”

In his address, the Bishop suggested that we might begin by thinking about how we are all connected. He told us that, when we think about the General Confession that we say each Sunday and in particular, the line, “we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves,” or when Jesus tells us to “love our neighbor as our self,” he’s not actually telling us to love our neighbors as much as ourselves but to love our neighbors as a continuation of ourselves. In other words, Jesus’ commandment is for us to love other people as though they were actually a part of our very being. That’s what it means to “go beyond the mind,” or “to go into the larger mind.”

When we think about repentance in this way, as a means of remembering that we are all connected, I think that we open ourselves to a much more helpful understanding of what it is that we are being called to do. Suddenly, repentance becomes not something that we should feel guilty about or something that we should try to avoid but something that actually draws us into a deeper relationship with each other and with God.

So, as we continue to move through this Advent season, as we continue to journey toward Bethlehem, let us remember the true meaning of the word, “repentance,” and let us hold firmly to the message of John the Baptist and the prophets, who call us not to dwell on what we’ve done or left undone but to remember who we are and who were created to be. Amen.

Click here to hear an audio recording of the sermon.

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