Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday December 16, 2018
Scripture: Luke 3:7-18
In this month and season of traditions that are followed from year to year and from generation to generation, one tradition that many people still keep is that of sending Christmas cards.
Several years ago, one of my friends wondered through, since we usually send these cards in the month of December, we are actually sending them in the season of Advent, so wouldn’t it be better to send Advent cards instead. And so I made an Advent card to send to her, based on today’s Advent gospel reading from Luke. I found an ikon of John the Baptist, and captioned it, “You Brood of Vipers! Bear fruits worthy of repentance!” This is maybe why we don’t send Advent cards!
(The Advent Card I sent to my friend!)
It is a harsh message that John is proclaiming to the people who have followed him out into the wilderness. We have the image of an axe lying at the base of a tree, ready to cut it down if it doesn’t bear good fruit, and throw it into the brush fire. We hear a teaching that we must not have any more than is absolutely necessary for life. We have the image of a winnowing fork separating the wheat from the chaff, and throwing the chaff into the fire.
And this is the reading that the lectionary gives us on the third Sunday of Advent when we light the candle for joy. On first read, this seems like a reading chosen to inspire fear rather than joy.
When I tried to look at this reading through the lens of joy, at first I came up short. But then I realized that the joy depends on what perspective that you are reading it from. I am reading it from a middle-class perspective where I do have more than one coat, and if you were to look in my fridge or my pantry I have more than enough food for today. So when I read this passage, I am being told that I have too much and I need to give it away. But if I were to read this passage from the perspective of someone who doesn’t have a coat in these cold December days and nights, or from someone who doesn’t have food in the fridge or cupboard to eat today, then this is a very joyful passage indeed. For those without clothing or food or money are to be given what they need by those of us who have them.
Both John and Jesus preach a message of repentance. It’s a funny word, repentance, and one that often isn’t well understood. Repentance is different than remorse. It means more than feeling very, very sorry for something. The Greek word that we translate at “repentance” is metanoia and it means something more like changing our hearts and changing our actions; turning back to God; aligning our ways to God’s ways. It’s more than just being sorry – it’s about repairing any relationships that have been broken, and changing how we live so that whatever went wrong doesn’t happen again. Repentance is an action rather than a feeling.
Last week, I talked about canoeing in northern Ontario. Part of canoe trips are portages – carrying your canoe and gear around waterfalls or other hazards that can’t be navigated by water. I remember one canoe trip that my friend and I did where we had to portage around a series of rapids that were too big for us to run. So we pulled up to the shore at the place marked with trail tape and unloaded our canoe and set off into the woods. We went a ways along, but then slowly came to the realization that we had left the path at some point, and we were no longer on the marked portage trail.
The decision at that point was pretty easy. As soon as we realized that we were going the wrong way, we turned ourselves around to make our way to the main path. If we’d stubbornly kept going forward the way we were going, we would have become more and more lost in the northern forest. We turned ourselves around, and soon found the main path, and made our way safely back to the water on the other side of the rapids.
Repentance works the same way as this literal turning back. When we realize that we are doing something wrong, rather than feeling sorry for it and carrying on in the same way, we are called to turn around, to change our ways, to make our way back to God’s ways. When we have failed to love God with our whole hearts and have failed to love our neighbours as ourselves, God calls us to return to love and return to relationship. When we have more than what we need while others go without, God calls us to share. And the good news is that we can never go so far as to be beyond God’s call of love. We are always able to return, no matter how far we have strayed.
Two weeks ago, we talked about the Advent practice of waiting. Last week, our reading pointed us to the wilderness and the lessons that we can learn in the wilderness times of our lives. This week, I see our reading pointing us towards the Advent theme of preparing.
In this season when we are preparing our houses for Christmas by decorating them, when we are preparing for the Christmas gift giving by buying and wrapping presents, when we are preparing our Christmas dinner by baking and cooking up a storm, John calls us to prepare our inner lives for Christmas by examining our hearts to see where they align with God and where we are out of alignment. And once we have examined our hearts, John calls us to repent – to re-align our hearts with God. And by doing so, we will be prepared for the Christmas joy.
Please pray with me:
God of our Advent waiting
and God of our Christmas joy,
move through our hearts by your Holy Spirit
so that we can repent
and re-align our hearts with you.
Fill us with the joy that comes
from knowing that you are with us
and that we journey with you.
We pray this in the name of Jesus,
the one for whom we wait.