December 18, 2011

Sermon for fourth Sunday in Advent

Making Straight
John 1:19-28
Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 18, 2011

At this time of year our minds turn to the preparations for Christmas. Most of us have our trees decorated, and are makings plans for guests to visit, or for our visits to family and friends, and our kitchens are filled with smells that make us wonder if we can wait till Christmas to eat the goodies. We are grateful for these things, grateful to celebrate Christmas, and, if done in the right frame of mind, the decorations, and pies, and gifts, and cookies, and visits, and cakes are good things and legitimate ways to celebrate the birth of our Saviour.

Other things also occupy our minds, things like a young couple making their way to Bethlehem, a baby in a manger, angels, and shepherds, the daily readings from Isaiah and Revelation, and the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent, which we pray daily in Morning and Evening Prayer. These are enduring traditions of Advent, which have been treasured by generations of God's people.

Today we come to another Advent tradition, the reading from the first chapter of the Gospel according to John, which tells us about John the Baptist. In this passage, the Baptizer was preaching and baptizing on the east side of the Jordan when the delegation from Jerusalem came to him. It was an era when hope of the Messiah's advent ran high, and the religious authorities wanted to know more about this man who was making such an impact on the people. It seems to me that they were ready to receive John as the Messiah and take him into Jerusalem in glory, for they gave him every chance to claim that position. Yet every time, he refused their honour. "I am not the Christ," not "the prophet," not even Elijah, he said. I am just a "voice... crying in the wilderness." He claimed no glory for himself and asked nothing for himself. He had one purpose, to point people to Christ. "Make straight the way of the Lord." Thus he said to the priests from Jerusalem, "there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; he it is whose coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose."

"Make straight" is a quote from the book of the prophet Isaiah and refers to making a road by removing rocks and trees and obstacles so people can travel to their destinations. John is saying he has come to call people to build a highway on which the Messiah can come to them. This highway is, of course, a spiritual highway, a highway of the heart. Building this kind of highway consists of removing spiritual obstacles, such as the sins of the flesh and the pride of the mind, attitudes of indifference and self-sufficiency, replacing them with Godliness of mind and dependence on God. John is really calling Israel back to her original purpose in the plan of God. He is calling Israel to love God and to walk together in unity and holiness as the people of God.

The call to make straight the way of the Lord is not for Israel only. It continuously sounds forth through the centuries, and addresses us as fully as it did the Jews. How do we make straight the way of the Lord?

We make His way straight by continuing in the faith once for all delivered to the saints. This is the faith God gave through the prophets and Apostles, and through His own Son, Jesus Christ. It consists of the doctrines and ethics recorded and preserved for us in the Holy Bible. The faith tells us God created the world in righteousness, but, we, through our own sin have turned it into the seething cauldron of strife and sin it is today. And we, through our own personal sins, have become the enemies of God, fully worthy of His righteous anger. The faith tells us that to save us from the penalty of sin, God Himself became a Man and suffered death on the cross, bearing in Himself the wrath and death our sins deserved. That sinners who call upon Him and trust His sacrifice to forgive all their sin for all time will be saved from God's wrath and reconciled to Him in peace and love forever; and that one day He will end the reign of sin and evil in this world, by coming back and putting all enemies under His feet and establishing His reign of righteousness forever. This is "the Faith."

We make His way straight through a continuous, life-long act of trusting God to forgive our sins and to welcome us into His fellowship and love through what He accomplished in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This means to confess your own sin and worthiness of punishment, and also to believe God has forgiven you. This is what it means to "have faith."

We make His way straight by living life according to His will and in His love. Scripture uses many words to describe this life. Holiness, righteousness, and faithfulness express its essence, and each of them means to turn away from sins and distractions and to return to God's original purpose and calling. This call goes out to the Church as a whole, and to the individual Christian.

Once in a while I think about what it would be like if we really got serious about loving God and walking together as His people. I can see us ordering all of life under the Lordship of Christ as we joyfully serve Him in our work, and home life, in our recreation, and, of course, in our Church life as we fellowship in Christian love and hold the faith in "unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life." I can see us acting like a community, more than that, like a family, like a body, like new creatures in Christ. I can see us working together without envy or discord. Every word we speak is a word of encouragement and edification, every action is helpful, and all is done to build up the body in love. Once in a while I can imagine that. I hope you can too. I hope you see it as the goal of this parish, and as your own personal goal, and I invite you to dedicate yourself to making it more and more of a reality, as Paul wrote, excel still more, in it in the coming days and years.

There is one more thing I have to mention today; that we make straight the way of the Lord, by announcing, or, proclaiming the faith. This invites hearers to come into the faith.

As soon as we hear the command to make straight the way of the Lord, we become aware of our own weakness and inabilities, and we may be tempted to not even attempt the task to which we are called. It would be hopeless indeed if we were not promised the help of God in every aspect of it. Truly "we are sore let and hindered" by the lingering wickedness that still abides in even the most saintly of people, and which leads us into the sins we commit. But with God's help, we can do better, and better, and better, and He is willing to help. He is working within you now to form you and renew you according to His will. He promises to help you in everything to which He calls you. This is why we pray as the Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent directs us, that God will come among us in His great power to speedily help and deliver us.

Let us pray.

"O Lord, raise up, we pray thee, thy power and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us, thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost, be honour and glory, world without end. Amen."

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