Sunday, December 9, 2012

Prepare (Luke 3:1-6)

In the fifteenth year of the rule of Emperor Tiberius--when Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee, his brother Philip was ruler over Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas--God’s word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.  This is just as it was written in the scroll of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
A voice crying out in the wilderness:
"Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.
Every valley will be filled,
and every mountain and hill be will leveled.
The crooked will be made straight
and the rough places made smooth.
All humanity will see God’s salvation.”

In our house, we have prepared a room for our overnight guests.  If you are staying with us overnight, we want you to feel comfortable and warmly welcomed, completely at ease.  It’s our hope that our overnight guests forget that they are visitors and instead feel so graciously received that our home will feel like home to them.  We take our hospitality seriously.
Why hospitality?
Followers of Jesus always take their hospitality seriously.  Making others feel welcome, preparing room for other people, rearranging our priorities to care for others ahead our ourselves, being selfless instead of selfish - all of that is what it means to practice hospitality.  Showing hospitality to all people is one of the most important and basic virtues of our faith; it is inherent to being a Christian.  Why?  Because all people are created in the image of God, and when we genuinely and warmly welcome all people, we genuinely and warmly welcome the God whose image they bear.  One of the carols we will sing, when these days of Advent are behind us and it is finally Christmas, says, “Let every heart prepare him room.”  Practicing hospitality, making room for others and their needs, is a concrete way to prepare room in our hearts for God.
The Bible is filled, cover-to-cover, with teaching about the importance of hospitality.  In the Old Testament, the people are instructed to show particular care for strangers, foreigners, those in need, the poor, the disabled, and all the people who would be looked down on and considered outcasts from society (Leviticus 19:34; 2 Kings 4:8-17; Genesis 19:1-38; Isaiah 58:7; Job 31:32; Leviticus 19:10; Exodus 23:9; Genesis 4:31; to name just a few!).  In the New Testament, Hebrews 13:2 tells us not to neglect showing hospitality to strangers, for some have unknowingly entertained angels in doing this, and 1 Peter 4:9 adds to do it without grumbling - just imagine how much more hospitable the church would instantly become if those who are prone to grumbling stopped thinking about themselves all the time and started thinking more about others or, I dunno, even Jesus – why, I bet they’d have very little left to grumble about!
Jesus says that whatever we do to strangers or people in need or the least of society, we do to him (Matthew 25:34-46).  If we are kind and generous and hospitable to them, then we are kind and generous and hospitable to Jesus.  If we are mean and selfish and unwelcoming to them, then we are mean and selfish and unwelcoming to Jesus.  As you think about the ways you treat other people, know that you’re treating Jesus the same way.  Is the way of the Lord, the way of Jesus, prepared in your heart, or is there a roadblock still there that is keeping Jesus from getting in and changing you?
The word for nobodies
The Scripture for today is specifically for two kinds of people – those who aren’t as close to God as they want to be, and those who are standing in the way of other people drawing close to God.  Today is the Second Sunday of Advent, traditionally referred to as “John the Baptist Sunday.”  Sure enough, there he is in our Scripture reading from Luke 3 - Out there in wilderness, Wild John - the son of the poor, country priest Zechariah; Wild John - the traveling preacher with weird clothes and a strange diet, Wild John - you couldn’t get much lower in society.
In contrast, the first two verses of today’s reading are a roll call of the powerful and influential people of the day - the Emperor, governor, king, ruler, and priest.  In these first two verses, Luke is name-dropping a who’s who list of the rich and powerful.  If God were to work according to the rules of the world, surely these would be the people first in line to hear a message from God.
But God doesn’t work that way.  Instead, the Scriptures tell us that “God’s word came to John, son of Zechariah” (Luke 3:2).  God’s word didn’t come to the rich and powerful.  It didn’t come to people who thought they were important.  It came instead, to Wild John, the peasant preacher, the guy eating bugs and wearing a camel hair coat long before that was fashionable.
John the Baptist is such an influential and well-known hero of the Christian faith, it’s easy for us to forget that in his own day, he was a nobody living nowhere.  And yet, to this nobody in the middle of nowhere, the word of God came.
So it is with God, and God’s not done yet.  God continues to work through unlikely characters today; God is still speaking, and the good news today is that if you feel like a nobody, you are perhaps perfectly positioned to hear a word from God.
The opposite side of that coin is also true: the more important you think you are, the less likely it is that you’ll hear a word from God.  Oh, it’s not that God’s not speaking.  It’s just that with all the self-important noise you’re making, there’s no way that whatever it is that God is saying to you is actually getting through.
John’s message: Repent
The word of God has a chance of getting through, however, if you’ll do the thing that John was preaching in the wilderness: “Repent.”  There’s a lot of baggage and bad teaching that’s gotten attached to this word.  Most people today seem to associate the word “repentance” with emotions such as “feeling sorry,” or as Millard Fuller used to say, “feeling sorry for getting caught.”

That’s not what repentance is about, however.  The Greek word that used here, metanoia, means something more like “turning around and heading in a different direction.”  We’ve talked about this before, but it’s a point that bears repeating: when you hear “repent” in the Scriptures, just think, “turn around.  Change course.  Go a different direction.”  Repenting has nothing to do with our emotions, and everything to do with a change in our actions.
Repentance allows us to confront the roadblock that often stands in the way of us hearing the word of God, the barrier that prevents us from experiencing the fullness of life in Jesus Christ we were designed for.  Do you know the barrier I’m talking about?  The biggest barrier that stands between us and God has a name: “Self.”   We are invited to confront our tendency to make ourselves the center of the universe; when we repent, we walk away from this tendency and put God there instead.
One hundred years ago, Dr. Roland Walker, a faculty member at Ohio Wesleyan University, wrote these words: “To the Governing General of the Universe, Dear Sir: I hereby resign my self-appointed position as directing superintendent in my own life and the world.  I cannot level all the mountains of injustice, nor fill all the valleys of selfishness.  There is too much of it in me.  I hereby turn over to you for your disposition and use, my life, my money, my time, and my talent to be at your disposal.”
That’s true repentance – to swallow your pride, open your heart to be changed,and say, “Lord, from now on, you’re calling the shots.”
On this second Sunday of Advent, John son of Zechariah is inviting us to repent.  Scratch that, he’s crying out for us to repent.  To change our actions.  Not because John is bossy and gets his jollies from telling people what to do.  He tells us to repent so that when the word of God does come to us, it will not fall upon deaf ears.
The word has come to you today, and you have a choice
The word of God has come to each of us today, and we have a choice to make based on what we’ve heard.   Are you willing to be changed by what you hear?  Have you prepared any room in your heart for Jesus to come in and change you?  Have you experienced the genuine change of heart that only comes from knowing Jesus, or are you still pretty much the same selfish person you’ve always been?  I’m amazed at people who claim to be followers of Jesus, but who still have a mean, nasty, ugly spirit within them.  Honestly, some of them are even worse now – not only are they still mean and nasty, now they’re self-righteous on top of it!  The life of faith requires our repentance, something within us must change.  When Jesus is within us, something always changes.
If your life is on a trajectory that isn’t filling you with the peace that only comes from knowing God, today is a great day to change that.   Let the words of John echo into the wilderness of your life, take his words to heart, and repent.  Turn around.  Go a different way. Stop living a life that is self-centered and start living one that is Christ-centered.  To turn away from the ways of the world and go forward in the way of the Lord – the way of hope, and peace, and joy, and love of the kingdom of God, the kingdom that is coming to us in Jesus and for which we prepare in this season of Advent.
There is a story of a church who was holding its annual children’s Christmas pageant.  There was a boy with developmental disabilities who desperately wanted to be part of the production.  The adult leaders thought long and hard, and finally gave him the part of the innkeeper.  The night of the pageant came, and kids in bathrobes acted out the Christmas story.  Joseph and Mary made their way to the front and asked the innkeeper if he had any room, and he said, “No room in the inn.”  Joseph and Mary turned, dejected, and began to sulk back down the main aisle toward the back of the church.  But then, the kid playing the innkeeper went off script and ran after them, saying, “Wait! Wait!  You can have my room!”
It was a lesson in the virtue of Christian hospitality no one would forget.
Friends, it is the second Sunday of Advent.  Jesus is coming, and he’s coming soon.  When he knocks on the door of your heart, have you prepared room in your heart for Jesus, and which room?  Don’t give him just the guest room; give him your room.  He’s the Lord – make him master of the house.

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