You Are the Reason for the Season
Second Sunday of Advent, 2007
Can’t you just feel it? Can’t you just feel the excitement building? Can’t you just smell it in the air, taste it on your tongue? Christmas is coming! The lights, the ornaments, the tasty treats, the songs, the presents…and most of all the birth of Christ! Can’t you just feel it all building up as we race through Advent to the stockings hung by the fire with care, the gifts under the glowing Christmas tree, the manger of the baby Jesus?
When I was a kid I did what everybody else my age did…I waited up for Santa Claus. Of course I had to go to bed before he got there or there wouldn’t be any presents the next morning, but I loved to wait for him anyway. I loved the anticipation, and I’ll bet you did too. But as I grew up I also knew that Christmas was about far more than Santa and his eight tiny reindeer. It was about Jesus. You’ve seen it on posters and billboards, cards and ads in the newspaper: Jesus is the Reason for the Season. And so I began to enjoy another kind of waiting. A more contemplative waiting for the day we celebrate the birth of our Savior. Like many of you I sometimes follow an Advent devotional and try to focus on the “Real Meaning of Christmas.” Usually this starts off wonderfully, but ends up on the day before Christmas Eve at a mall somewhere, frantically looking for presents for people I don’t really know.
But in all this anticipation, whether the materialist type or the more spiritual, there’s something missing. If you’re waiting for Santa, you just might finish that plate of cookies before he gets there. But even if you’re waiting for Jesus, you might be missing something.
How can that be, you say? Isn’t Christmas all about Jesus? Aren’t we waiting in Advent for his coming, reminding ourselves that he might come back at any moment? Isn’t that what this season is all about?
Well…not entirely. In all the hubbub of the Advent season it can be all too easy to miss one very important person…you!
To be more precise, I guess I should say “y’all,” because Advent and Christmas is not just about Jesus, but about all of us, gathered here in this and thousands of other churches around the world. To put it a bit more provocatively: You are the Reason for the Season!
In the Old Testament reading for today we heard about a shoot that sprouted from the Stump of Jesse and about a vision of the Kingdom of God where the wolf would lie down with the lamb. Now, the first image is often used during Advent to remind us that Jesus, our Messiah, is like a green shoot that sprouts from the roots of Israel. He is a symbol of hope and new life for God’s people, both Jews and Christians. He is God’s promise that his people will never be destroyed, despite all that this world throws at them. And we read the second image, the one about the wolf and the lamb, during Advent to remind ourselves that the Messiah’s job is to establish a Kingdom where all people, even the worst of enemies, would be at peace and would worship God together. But if we stop there and only allow this prophecy to make us feel “warm fuzzies” about how great Jesus is and how great heaven will be, we miss the point entirely. For you see… the prophet was talking about you, even if he didn’t know it yet.
You are the reason for the season.
The reason Jesus was born was not simply so he could die on the cross, as important as that was. No, Jesus was born to create a community called Church! Jesus was born so that you might be born-again in his image! Jesus was born so that you might be transformed into something more than human, something called the Body of Christ.
A famous theologian of the fourth century said it like this: God became human so that humans could become divine. Another famous theologian in the 18th century called this process “Sanctifying Grace.” Of course, I’m talking about the original Dubbya –J.W.– John Wesley, a man who also told us, “There is no such thing as a solitary Christian.” What these men were trying to say is that God’s objective in sending Jesus was not just to save us as individuals, but to create a community of people who would embody the qualities of the Messiah, a people who would live out, in their daily lives, the qualities that made Jesus famous.
What are these qualities? Well, let’s look at Isaiah again. Usually when we read this passage we’re too busy moving ahead to the conclusion that he’s talking about Jesus…but what if he’s also talking about us? If we are the Body of Jesus, what Isaiah says of the Messiah ought to be true of us. So let’s look at this passage and change a few words around. Where it says “he” and “him” let’s say “we” and “us.” I’ll read it in the Message translation because I think it captures the sense of this passage better than any other version:
A green Shoot will sprout from Jesse’s stump,
from his roots a budding Branch.
The life-giving Spirit of GOD will hover over us,
the Spirit that brings wisdom and understanding,
The Spirit that gives direction and builds strength,
the Spirit that instills knowledge and Fear-of-GOD.
Fear-of-GOD will be all our joy and delight.
We won’t judge by appearances,
won’t decide on the basis of hearsay.
We’ll judge the needy by what is right,
render decisions on earth’s poor with justice.
Our words will bring everyone to awed attention.
A mere breath from our lips will topple the wicked.
Each morning we’ll pull on sturdy work clothes and boots,
and build righteousness and faithfulness in the land.
(Is 11:1-5 MESSAGE)
This isn’t just a pious dream or a to-do list of how to be a better Christian. No, this is a description of who we really are because of what Jesus has done. This is not just a hymn about how great the Messiah is; it’s about what it means to be the Messiah’s people. As children of God we are a “New Creation” a fresh, green budding branch that bears fruit. It is for this reason that Jesus came to us on Christmas, died for us on Good Friday and rose for us on Easter! Jesus has made us into a kingdom of saints.
Now I know that we are also a bunch of miserable sinners, but what if we took our baptism seriously? What if we took holiness seriously? What if we began to see ourselves as God sees us? What would our communities look like if we realized that we are the reason for the season?
Well, to return to our passage, let me make a few suggestions. First of all, Isaiah says that the life-giving Spirit of God will hover over us giving us wisdom and understanding, giving us direction and building our strength. He says that the Spirit will give us knowledge of and reverence for God. He also says that reverence for God will be “all our joy and delight.”
OK, what does that mean? When I was about twelve or thirteen I attended a Pentecostal revival summer camp where we experienced the “gifts of the Spirit.” People spoke in tongues, fell to the floor weeping, performed exorcisms, you know the usual stuff. But Isaiah isn’t talking about that when he speaks of the Spirit. No, he’s talking about the presence of God in our lives, the powerful and life giving presence that helps us understand the times and gives us strength for living in them. The presence that helps us obey and honor God. The presence that makes Christian living possible, and not only possible but joyful. The hovering of the Spirit takes place, not primarily at special moments like campmeetings, but every day of our lives, in every moment that we allow ourselves to be open to God. That’s where we begin. We can’t go on to embody the characteristics of the Messiah unless we are open to God’s Spirit filling us and empowering us. So, church, this Advent season let’s open our hearts to the movement of the Spirit, and Isaiah has some pretty concrete ideas about where that Spirit will take us.
He tells us that as a people empowered by God’s spirit of Wisdom we won’t judge by appearances, or decide on the basis of hearsay, but instead we’ll “judge the needy by what is right,” and “render decisions on earth’s poor with justice.” Again, what does that mean? Well, have you ever heard this saying: “God helps those who help themselves”? You know that’s not in the Bible, right? Or how about this one: “He’s just a lazy drunk, that’s why he’s poor”? Or maybe you’ve said this: “I don’t want to give him money, he’ll just spend it on drugs.” Well, folks, that’s the exact opposite of what Isaiah is saying this morning. The community that is filled with God’s Spirit won’t make judgments based on stereotype, gossip or mere appearances. We are called to be a community that treats the poor with respect and gives everybody, even the drunk on the street a fair chance. We’re called to be a community that recognizes that poverty is a complex problem and won’t be solved by name-calling and stinginess. When the corporations and governments of this world abuse, exploit and crush the poor for their own selfish gain, the Church is called to stand up for the weak, called to look past prejudice and see every single human being as God sees them. Beloved children of the Father.
But, hold on, ‘cause Isaiah’s not finished. The next thing he tells us is that our “words will bring everyone to awed attention,” and “a mere breath from our lips will topple the wicked.” What words are these? In a culture saturated with words, texts, sound bites, information…what can our words possibly do? What can we possibly have to say to this world that would cause people sit up and pay attention, much less topple the wicked? Church, the words we are called to speak are the words of the Messiah, the words of Jesus, the ultimate Word of God. When we speak his words the powers and principalities of this world, the powers may try to silence us, complacency may try to get us to settle down, bitterness may try to tell us our words can’t make a difference, but they are wrong. When the church speaks, no matter what the power of evil may do, the Lord’s words have the power to change the world. I encourage you this Advent to speak words of life to those around you. Encourage each other; tell people you love them. Believe me, I know how hard it is to speak positively, but if we do we’ll see amazing results. Speak God’s love and truth to each other, and watch the power of evil crumble.
Finally, Isaiah tells us, “each morning we’ll pull on sturdy work clothes and boots,
and build righteousness and faithfulness in the land.” I like this image of a builder in work clothes, because it suggests that, like Jesus, the church is in the building business. Folks, we’re not called to sit around and complain, letting the world get darker. No! We’re called to get to work with Jesus. We’re called to do the hard work of witnessing to his Kingdom. I’m convinced that if we start doing what God asks of us, we’ll find that God is working with us, building a community of love, justice, and hope. I’ve seen God work here at this church, whenever we put ourselves on the line and do the work he’s called us to. I don’t need to remind you of all the opportunities to get involved. Let your imagination run wild, and ask yourselves, what kind of work is God calling us to this season?
Now I know that this can all sound a bit optimistic, a bit too naïve. Many of us sitting here find it very difficult to believe in idealistic biblical prophecies. Maybe this stuff will all come true in heaven, but right now, in the real world, it just doesn’t work. Let’s be realistic. Our lives are complicated and difficult: we’re depressed, can’t find a job, going through a divorce, an illness, the loss of a loved one. And then, beyond the personal problems, fears and failures, there are the larger social problems that seem almost inhumanly big, too big to do anything about. Our lives, our world, is just a sad and desperate place, and no amount of religious dreaming is ever going to change that. So, off we go to the mall or the spa, the bar or the car dealership to forget about it. And, sometimes, God forbid, we go to church to forget. We want our religion manageable. We want to feel good for an hour or two, to recreate a sense of nostalgia, peace, comfort and warmth so that when we go back to the “real world” we have a scrap of good feeling to help us make it through the day.
But according to the Scriptures, according to Jesus, the world described in today’s reading is the real world. It’s the world we’ve grown accustomed to that is the unreal world. The world that Isaiah describes may be hard to se, but it is the real world. More real than war and starvation, more real than depression and suicide, more real than racism, more real than death, more real than anything. It may be hard to see, but it exists in a place called “Church.” It may not ever be finished this side of heaven, but it’s being built, right now in this and every other gathered community of believers throughout the world. This place called Church, this real world of peace, forgiveness, love, justice, and hope, is not made up of countries and kingdoms, but of people, people like you and me. And it was to create this people that Jesus was born.
So in conclusion, I ask you, what would happen if took Isaiah’s prophecy seriously this Advent? What would happen if we really believed that Jesus came to make a Peaceable Kingdom out of all of us, sinners though we are? What if we really asked God to help us live up to our high calling as citizens of this Kingdom? A community like that just might be a beacon, a light to the nations. A community like that just might begin to fulfill Christ’s purpose in coming to this Earth on Christmas Day.
Remember, You are the Reason for the Season. This community is the reason Jesus came. This Advent, pray that God would help us to truly be the Body of Jesus Christ.