This Advent, we have been in a series of sermons of picturing the advent of Christ. We have joined the wisdom of generations before and those walk with us now. We study their artwork and their preparation to see how God might be revealed. Last week, we began with the painting by local artist, Horace Pippin who painted an image of the Peaceable Kingdom informed by his own experience of combat in World War 1.
This week, we shift to an artist by the name of Jan Richardson. She is an ordained United Methodist elder out of the Florida conference. She paints and writes about inviting people into the journey with God. The artwork for this week is entitled prepare. Her layers of oils and acrylics remind us that preparation is not simple. She associates this artwork with the work of John the Baptist. The work of calling out and calling to repentance. The work of proclaiming the kingdom of God was at hand, even though it was not yet here. John said it was a baptism of repentance that we needed for the forgiveness of sins. He was baptizing people in the river Jordan and then would walk back onto the dry land.
He used the words from the scroll of the prophet, Isaiah. They were probably familiar to him from study: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'” John, the messenger sent before the Messiah. John, the one who brings good news of the coming of the Messiah, but it doesn’t always feel like good news right away.
We want good news to be celebratory and have no additional work for us. The prophet Malachi illuminates the truth for us. The prophet says, “3:2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.” Malachi calls us to good news and renewal testing and cleansing. “It is the refining fire that brings precious metal to light, and it is the washing with strong detergent. The Hebrew term for “soap” (borît) sounds quite similar to the word for “covenant” (berît). Ironically, it is the soap that restores to covenant faithfulness, as the covenant is in some measure a metric of obedience. The purpose of divine judgment is not to punish, but to prepare the way of the Lord. It is to bring restoration and renewed life.” The work of refining is removing contamination and imperfections.
The prophet in Malachi and in Isaiah, though John call us to may not be exactly what we are thinking about in this season of preparing for Christmas. We often imagine the cherubs who sing to the baby and pleasant looks of the faces of all the Nativity characters. There is no doubt that good news is that Jesus brings serenity, peace on earth, goodwill to all. And while we can affirm that the coming of Jesus Christ, the prince of peace, is good news of great joy for all people, this does not mean that Christ’s presence demands nothing of us or leaves us unchanged. Like a refiner’s fire and cleansing soap, the arrival of Christ in our midst calls us to reverent obedience and faithful praise. The good news is indeed that we will not be left unchanged, but will be reformed and refined to become like Christ.1
In this season of preparation, we are not just unpacking the decorations that we hung up last year and placing them in the same place. The prophets call us to look anew at where God is moving. It was almost eighteen months ago that a buzz began in our community. The numbers had come out for the point in time had been released alongside the number of children without permanent homes as recorded by the school districts. Both counts seek to paint a picture of who in our community is without housing. The numbers were staggering 494 students in the four local school districts without permanent homes, and this was not including their siblings, not in school, or parents.
Neighborhood Services and Kennett Area Community Services gathered community members to scratch their heads and move towards sustainable solutions that might offer peace in the lives of those in our community. As the national program Family Promise began to get some traction, congregations and organizations began to get involved and become invested. About 18 months later, we find ourselves preparing for our first guests this evening. Already in the almost five weeks, one guest family has found sustainable housing and another guest family has found sustainable employment with sustainable housing not far behind. Four churches have hosted and countless people have been a part of changing the lives of others for the better.
As vision comes into focus, we have listened to the needs of our community and sought to come alongside them in leading them in ways of sustainability and peace. The messengers of God have shown us ways of God, here on earth. When will our job be done? How long will this program last? Will we try it once or twice and then the problem be solved, someone else be inspired to do it, the need no longer exist? We wonder together in this time of waiting and preparing.
We have always imagined that the messengers would look a certain way or sound a certain way. We imagine that they will fit our images of having it all achieved or prepared. In the days of John the Baptist, I am not sure how they imagined the messenger to come, but I doubt that John was who they were looking for and I doubt they were listening for his message. I doubt that the images of Malachi comforted the good people of Jerusalem. Advent is about the coming of Christ, not the comforting of the comfortable. “Advent is the waiting church, anxiously standing on her tiptoes to see over and around the noise and confusion of the world to catch a glimpse of the amazing thing that God is about to do in the world. Come Lord Jesus.”
This Advent is not about achieving preparation or achieving the moment that we have waited long enough. Disciples have asked for generation upon generation, when will the Messiah come? When will the one for whom we have been waiting for appear? When will we have prepared enough? When will we have prepared the right thing? When will the waiting be over and the Messiah appear? Come Lord, Jesus Come. Marnatha. As we host those without homes against the cold and challenging world, we remember a family who travelled far looking for a place to lay their heads against the cold and challenging world. We remember Mary and Joseph, who expected Jesus, in the most unusual of circumstances.
We wait and we prepare.
Come Lord Jesus, Come.
This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, thanks be to God, Amen.
Old Testament Lesson: Malachi 3:1-4
The Coming Messenger
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me,
and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.
The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight
—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.
But who can endure the day of his coming,
and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap;
he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver,
and he will purify the descendants of Levi
and refine them like gold and silver,
until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.
Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord
as in the days of old and as in former years.
Gospel Lesson: Luke 3:1-6
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius,
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip
ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and
Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,
the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
For Your Week
Sunday, December 6 ~ Saturday, December 12
SUNDAY: Scripture: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap;” Malachi 3:2
Devotion: The coming of God in all of God’s glory is like a refiner’s fire. We are perfected and sculpted. We are made uncomfortable and re-formed in the image of God. There is nothing comfortable about it at all. And yet, this is exactly what God has called us to prepare for as we picture the coming of God. We need to be reshaped and reformed. It is God’s love that drives God’s commitment to us.
Prayer: Refining God, we tremble at the idea of you as one who reshapes us and yet, this is exactly how you shape us and the world into your kingdom. We pray for your kingdom to come as it is in heaven. Amen.
MONDAY: Scripture: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts” Malachi 3:1
Devotion: Preparing the way of the Lord is back-breaking work. The anonymous road-builders in the painting are doing physically exhausting work removing stones and preparing the way for a new road to go through. The work we do to prepare the way of the Lord might also at times be exhausting. Caring well for those who are hard to care for. Loving the hard to love. However, this is the work of preparing for the kingdom of God. Let us put our whole selves to it!
Prayer: God, you have called us to the work of preparing the world for your kingdom. There are so many ways in which the world is not ready. Give us resolve and energy to continue to do the work to which you have called us. Amen.
TUESDAY: Scripture: “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” Malachi 3:4
Devotion: The care that a refiner puts into the work of perfecting metals is inspiring. Even more, God who desires us to be made most beautifully in God’s image seeks our best. God walks beside us through the challenges, comforts us when we fail, urges us on when we are discouraged, and prefects us in love.
Prayer: We pray with love, O God, that we might be made more in your image. Refine and purify us, in your name, we pray, Amen.
WEDNESDAY: Scripture: “During the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” Luke 3:2-3
Devotion: John came before Jesus, calling people to prepare for Jesus. He called the people to repent and believe. Repentance is turning away from that which you have done wrong. When we say sorry and continue to repeat our actions, we do not repent. True repentance requires our change. As we prepare for the coming of Christ, we must repent and believe.
Prayer: Holy God, we have fallen short of who you have called us to be. Forgive us we pray. Help us to change our actions and our ways. Let us repent and believe.
THURSDAY: Scripture: “As it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;” Luke 3:4-5
Devotion: John preached from the scroll of Isaiah about the ways the people would know that God has come. John called the people to live a new life that reflected theses ways. God calls us, even today to do our part to work for God’s ways in our world.
Prayer: God of the straight paths and the filled valleys, God of the low mountains and straightened crooked place, God of the rough made smooth, we pray that your way might be known to us. Amen.
FRIDAY: Scripture: “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” John 3:6
Devotion: The Word of God is never preached or shared for a select few. There are no private audiences when it comes to the invitation of the Gospel. All are invited to prepare to know and be known by God. All are invited to prepare to love and be loved by God. Sheets’ mural seeks to illustrate the diversity of the people who shall hear and know the word of God.
Prayer: Saving God, you offer to each and every one of us your incredible gift of saving grace. You offer to each of us your love and your wisdom. Let us open our hearts and receive you as we prepare more fully for the coming of Christ, In the name of Jesus, we pray, Amen.
SATURDAY: Scripture: “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” Philippians 1:9-11
Devotion: Preparing for the coming of Christ takes insight from knowledge and wisdom. This provocative series shows three out of focus images of the Rose Window from the National Cathedral in Washington. The photographer seeks to illustrate the various ways your eyes (or lens) might be out of focus. During this time of preparation, seek to focus on Christ and all that is edifying.
Prayer: Gracious God, we pray for focus on you and a mind like Christ’s. May we reflect more of you . May our lives align more and more with who you call us to be. In the name of Jesus, we pray, Amen.