"Preparing the Way" by Marjory Zoet Bankson
Malachi 3:1-4 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.
Luke 3: 1-6 …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…."
Today is the second Sunday of Advent, the season of waiting and preparation for Jesus’ birth. Last week, Trish introduced the word "anticipation" to the children and Jackie preached about some of the everyday saints in her life. Today I want to focus on John the Baptist, that strange messenger at the outer margins of society.
John’s father, Zechariah, had been a priest at the Temple in Jerusalem, so John grew up knowing the hierarchy of priestly privilege there. He would have had all the advantages of rabbinical study and secure advancement if he had followed his father’s footsteps. But John left all of that security behind to claim his prophetic call in the wilderness. People had to leave the security of the walled city if they wanted to hear what John had to say and apparently, many of them did.
Luke tells us that John preached "in the region around the Jordan," in the highlands south of Galilee, where bandits and robbers were common. John was a prophet in the traditional mold – dressed in skins like Elijah, speaking the firey words of Isaiah, and baptizing anyone who responded to his call for repentence. Unlike the elaborate rituals of sacrifice which the Temple required, John claimed his authority to offer everyone a fresh start, a new beginning. It was a sign of the radical inclusiveness that Jesus would later offer.
John didn’t mince words in his critique of Temple rule. He called the temple authorities a "brood of vipers." He preached about turning away from sin, but he didn’t define sin as breaking Temple rules. Instead, he thundered against those who misused power and he welcomed anyone who wanted a real relationship with God.
John the Baptist also preached about One who was coming, someone who was greater than he, who would be offering people a different kind of spiritual baptism. Although he didn’t know what this person would look like, or when he would arrive, John was clear about his own role as a forerunner, preparing the way for a new understanding of God’s love for the world.
For each Sunday during Advent, we are singing two verses of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." Emmanuel simply means God-with-us. We did the same thing last year, and the year before. One of the gifts of following the liturgical year is that we have another chance during Advent to examine our lives, and to let go of the things we do not need to carry into the future. Like John, WE await the coming of Christ, a living experience of God-with-us. To help us prepare the way, John stands at the edge of the wilderness, beyond the safety and security of our lives – calling us to repent, to turn away from the idols we have been worshiping with our time and money, with our heartfelt commitments and unconscious behaviors. Beyond the clutter and clatter of our daily lives, John beckons us to the sharp spare terrain of the desert where we too can be washed clean in preparation for a new calling.
In contemporary language, we might think of this as addressing our addictions. Naming the substitutes we have used to provide the illusion of security. It’s called confession. At Seekers, we practice confession in worship every Sunday — not because we expect people to grovel in guilt or shame, but because it clears a space for healing and new life. And what we do ritually in worship is done with more depth and personal accountability in mission group, through spoken sharing and written spiritual reports. The purpose for that kind of confession is to become aware of the idols that impede our lives, that ensnare us with fear.
Another way that we address our addictions each week is to show up at worship. We live in a culture that suggests your time belongs to you, that you can do what you want with your life as long as it doesn’t hurt somebody else. But the minute we breathe the clean clear air of God’s wilderness region, out beyond what we can count and control, we know that we belong to something more, something that connects all of us. It is the realm of God, that mystical body of Christ here on earth. Coming to worship is a way of saying "yes" to that connection. We come here because this is the particular body we have been given in this time and place. There have been others and there will be others, but right now, our physical presence makes visible what otherwise would be a hopeful wish-dream of belonging to something more than our individual lives.
In this frenzied season of gift-giving, I want to hold up another way that we can repent and be baptized. That is through our financial giving. The practice of conscious giving is one way to break our addiction to money and the Christmas season is a good time to practice both limits and generosity. The act of giving is a spiritual practice, a way to acknowledge that our very lives are gift. And when we let go of controlling where and how our money will be spent, we are breaking the unconscious hold that it has on our hearts.
Each week, the children place a drawing or letter which they have written to God in the offering plate (show drawings), so they can learn the joy of giving within the context of community.
When I was a beginning potter, tithing was really tough for me. I wanted to hang on to the small amount I was making and I resented what I gave to Seekers. Each month, as I tallied my income and expenses, I struggled to let some of it go. Now I realize that the discipline was part of building trust for me. Since Peter had a regular income, it was tempting to let Peter pay for both of us – and I realized how very important it was for me to do it separately. Because I had little to give, I wrestled with my desire to keep what I had every single week. But when I became a Steward, I discovered real joy in sharing the decisions about where and how we would spend our common treasure. That was an aspect of community I hadn’t expected.
This evening, when the Stewards meet after the Convivium concert, we will be deciding on two things. One will be to identify recipients of the annual Christmas offering. If you have a personal connection with someone who needs help in a specific way, please speak to a Steward after worship. We cannot promise to meet all those needs, but we want to be aware of places where a relatively small amount of money can make a difference.
Stewards have another decision to make that arises from our generosity Sunday after Sunday. Unlike most churches today, we anticipate a budget surplus at the end of this year. Our church thrives because so many people give their time and experience freely and we do not want to discourage that. Because we believe God has scattered the gifts of leadership among us, we do not pay the salary and benefits of a full-time pastor and our Servant Leadership Team gives way more time than we pay for. We typically underspend our budget because we keep expenses low and give generously.
Our current policy is to use any net income for repaying additional principle (beyond the budget) on the loans made by Seekers for the renovation of this building. But this year, our net income will be large enough so the Stewards may decide to allocate a percentage of the net income for one-time gifts to organizations where we have a special interest. If you want to suggest a recipient organization where you are directly involved, you can let me know by email. Stewards will be making those decisions in January, when we know the actual amounts. Just so you know, the year-end figures will be posted on the bulletin board.
As far as we know, John the Baptist never had to worry about giving away extra income. He lived an ascetic lifestyle in the desert. He preached repentance and readiness for One who was coming. Given John’s language and critique of the dominant system, it would be easy to assume that repentance also meant getting rid of the trappings of wealth, power and access.
However, when Jesus began his ministry, John sent his followers to ask whether Jesus was really the one they had been waiting for. I suspect some of their questioning was a reaction to the lifestyle of celebration that Jesus seemed to be living. Open table fellowship seemed to be at the heart of Jesus’ ministry and his teachings were full of banquets, parties, feasts and welcome. Some people called Jesus a "wine-bibber" and a "glutton." Instead of guilt, there was grace. Instead of hairshirts, there were healings. It made John wonder whether Jesus was really the Messiah.
"Are you the one we’ve been waiting for?" John’s followers asked.
Jesus, who pointed them to the evidence: the blind see, the lame walk, and prisoners freed. That’s the evidence where the realm of God takes root in the world. And those are the questions we need to ask about where to offer our resources of time and money and faithfulness. Are the hungry being fed? The naked clothed? Prisoners freed? The rejected empowered?
As we listen for John’s voice this morning, we too can repent and turn away from those things which bind our hearts in fear. Come to the table. There is plenty for all.