Sunday, December 09, 2012

2nd Sunday of Advent 2012 - "Which Way?"

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 3:1-6

Jesus said, "I am the Way ..."(John 14:6).  John the Baptist carries on and fulfills Malachi's call to "Prepare the way".  This is what John is doing; he is "preparing the way of the Lord" as Malachi in his day sought to "prepare the way" and as the Church is also being charged to "prepare the way"; all in virtually the same context - the Lord is coming; Advent.  Even John the Baptist was not talking about the Birth of our Lord which had already passed!  Here we are two-thousand years later, and the sense of urgency about "preparing the way" seems substantially diminished.  We no longer feel compelled to even ask, "Which way is THE way?" because we've become assimilated into the dominant culture.  We're comfortable here.  And besides, if we say the "magic words" and claim to believe in Jesus as Messiah, what more is required of us?  What more can we expect?  What more does our Lord expect?

When we say Jesus is "the Way", we stipulate He is the ONLY way.  Fair enough because this is implied in our Lord's proclamation when He says He is "the" way rather than "a" way, but what exactly does He mean?  How do we come to understand "the Way"?  I think we can make such a determination without over-thinking ourselves to death, but I also think we must necessarily think through it because faith is not benign, faith is not incidental, and faith is certainly not secondary to the disciple, the follower, the student of Christ.  Faith is discipleship; intentional, purposeful, active engagement in the life of Messiah Jesus.  Faith does not just "sit there" and "exist" any more than love does.  This is not "the Way"; it is a "spot" on "the Way".  Faith on the "Way" is moving and proactive and sacrificial as is love.  Faith is like every other good gift from Above; we are expected to utilize these God-given gifts for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.

St. John Chrysostom was a 4th century "Church Father" (a developer of Christian doctrine) who believed "the Way" was revealed by John the Baptist when John told the "multitudes" that in order to "flee from the wrath to come" and "make [the Lord's] paths straight", we must "bear fruits worthy of repentance" (Luke 3:4,7-8 NKJV).  That is, WE must do our own work rather than to rely on the work and faith of those who came before us.  Look at how John the Baptist actually used Abraham "against" the people of Abraham who would attempt to lean on Abraham's faith and the Lord's Covenant with Abraham's legitimate seed - those who constantly "take" but never, ever "give".  We can partake of the fruits of others, to be sure, but we are equally obliged to bear our own fruits for others to enjoy and spiritually benefit from, "fruits worthy of repentance". 

The word "repentance" itself, however, has been so misappropriated over time as to be rendered either completely meaningless or completely negative.  Typically when the word is tossed into a sermon, there is an implication from the preacher and the traditional understanding of the congregation that "bad people" must become "good people".  The negative connotation, then, is in that implication which comes from a general understanding and universal assumption that "all have sinned" as it is written in the Scriptures.  We remind ourselves and one another that we are "all sinners in need of grace".  So what do we do?  We convince ourselves that we must stop doing bad things. 

Fair enough, of course, but not nearly far enough because it not enough to simply acknowledge and passively "admit" our short-comings, and "confess" our sins in a general way.  That's the easy part.  Compared to actually and actively repenting, confession requires little more than being honest with ourselves.  And because the Protestant tradition negates the need to confess our sins to a priest, it is very easy to make our confession silently.  But if our confession stops there and we have been convinced - or have convinced ourselves - that nothing more is required of us, our faith - such as it is - dismisses "the Way" of Christ because "repentance" has not taken place.  We have "confessed" and we may have renewed our resolve not to do that particular sin again, but we have yet to actually "repent".  To "repent", then, is not merely the absence of a former path; it is rather the presence of a new path and the resolve to walk that path, that "Way" of Christ.  So to "confess" and THEN "repent" can be - perhaps must be - considered mutually exclusive of one another.  One should lead to the other, but neither replaces the other.     

To "prepare" the way of the Lord, then, means much more than to simply stand aside while He passes and refrain from doing "bad things".  If we have rutted out a road to the point that it is impassable and we do nothing to correct the damage, knowing it is the ONLY road to where we need to go, the road remains impassable even if we are doing no further damage to the road.  The road still has to be fixed; the road must be made passable again before it is even useful.  So the Church must be actively engaged in the preparation process to "prepare the Way of the Lord" - because our Lord IS COMING BACK!  The "road", therefore, must be fixed because our Lord, when He was among us, created this Road for us.  We neglected it and may have even done the damage through misuse and abuse, using it for our own purposes with no thought about who might be coming behind us rather than for the purposes of the Kingdom.  We perhaps managed with our 4WD's and 4-wheelers and "gators" and other off-road vehicles, but what did we do for those who lacked these resources?  Did we even offer them a ride?  Or did we simply rest in the knowledge, "I got mine"?

This is the most engaging and compelling component of the Advent season.  If we knew Jesus were coming tomorrow and the call was issued to "prepare the way" (which, of course, has happened and continues to happen!), what would we do to prepare before His 9am arrival?  Well, we would stop doing bad things, of course, but has "the path made straight"?  Is there genuine "fruit worthy of repentance"?  The Lord will do His part, of course, just as we are reminded by St. James that the "rains will come", but the farmer can wait only after he has done the necessary work before the rain can even do any good (James 5:7-8)

The farmer prepares the soil and plants the seed, but what may come of that seed is finally in the Lord's hands.  But it would do the farmer or the Kingdom little good if the farmer only "admitted" or "confessed" that he failed to plant the seed, and then just let it go and walk away, reasoning that "the Lord knows my heart".  In order for "fruits" to be produced, the farmer would need to "repent" from his failure by "making amends" to go out and plant the seed; seed, incidentally, that did not just "pop" up from nothing.  It is seed that comes from other seed.  Perhaps the "seed of Abraham" from which entire nations and kings would spring forth?

We must not, however, get hung up on the notion that we can somehow "work" or "buy" our way back into the Lord's good graces.  This is not what the Scripture passage is about.  "Fruit worthy of repentance" is NOT about "personal" salvation.  It is about engagement in the ministry of Messiah Jesus which seeks others to join "the Way" of Messiah.  It is about sanctification, "going on to perfection", but the spiritual process transcends "personal" and becomes "community" - NECESSARILY

"Bearing fruit worthy of repentance" is about discipleship for the sake of the Lord and His Church.  It is about acknowledging that Messiah Jesus is "the Way", and that "Way" has our Lord's footprints all over it.  It is the "Way" that has been laid out for us.  It is the "Way" that has been made possible - and passable - by Messiah Jesus, and it is the "Way" by which He will judge when He returns as it is written in The Revelation: "Behold, I am coming quickly [says the Lord], and My reward is with Me to give to everyone according to his work.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last" (22:12-13)

"He who testifies to these things says, 'Surely I am coming quickly', [says the Lord]!"

This, dear friends, is Advent.

"Even so, come Lord Jesus!"  "The grace of our Lord Christ Jesus be with you all. Amen."

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