Thursday, December 22, 2016

The gift of Christmas, broken for you.

The gift of Christmas--broken, for you.

Poinsettia poised on one arm, and bags of Christmas grocery items hanging off the other (butter, butter, and more butter), I was inching my way towards New Gate and then home late yesterday afternoon. I had managed several “Kul sane wa intou salmeen!” (Merry Christmas, y’all!) greetings with friends along the way through the Old City, although without the customary handshakes and kisses and coffees. Everyone could see I was loaded down—and on a mission—so the Arab hospitality customs would need to wait for another day.

Classes were out at the Freres School by the time I passed, so kids were everywhere in the street. I held my bags of butter a bit tighter, and cradled the poinsettia a bit closer to my body, to avoid being knocked over in the end-of-school Christmas crush.

I was shouting out another “Kul sane wa….” to a shopkeeper when a little boy, no more than six years old, approached me. He wordlessly held up to my face a broken green Christmas tree ornament—apparently not noticing the precarious piles I was balancing already. I gave him a look of desperation (“What do you want me to do with this?”) and then put the bags and the butter and the poinsettia on the ground. He held the little green thing out to me again and I took it.

It was broken. Quite. The side was cracked. It was apparently once shaped like a bell. The top, where a hook might go so it could actually be used as a tree ornament, was completely missing. My two-second judgment was that this kid, seeing a responsible-looking adult, was picking up trash from the street and being helpful. It reminded me of what my own kids used to do when finding something weird on a walk to the park. “Here, Mom—I picked this up, and now I don’t know what to do with it. So you take it.”

I looked back at the boy and smiled. “Harbani!” I said to him. It’s broken.

As soon as I said it, I knew I had miscalculated. The boy looked at the cracked green bell in my hand, and then back at me. He still said nothing, but his body language needed no translation—hands, shoulders, deep brown eyes all said “But…it’s for you.”

This was a gift, for me. Broken, but for me.

Before I had a chance to make amends, he was off, running down the street toward the other boys. I quickly held up my gift and yelled to him, “Shukran! Kul sane wa inta salam!” Thank you! Merry Christmas!

He stopped and swung around to look at me. A huge smiled flashed across his face as he shouted, “Wa inti salme!” And also for you! And then he was off in a flurry of after-school joy.

I’m not preaching for Christmas Eve in Bethlehem this year, but if I were, this is the story I would tell.

In our nativity scenes and on our Christmas cards, Mary always looks serene. Joseph has everything under control. The stable has apparently just been cleaned. And the baby Jesus—well, no crying he makes! All is calm, all is bright.

But the scandal of the incarnation is that the Messiah didn’t come as a king, or a celebrity, or the perfect specimen of human. Jesus came as a real baby, in a real body. A body that was broken, for us.

For me, this means that today we experience Emmanuel, God with Us, through the beautiful AND the broken things—and perhaps especially amidst the beautifully broken things—of the world. God is not bound to the realm of the heavenly and the perfect. God came among us through Jesus—born under occupation, laid to rest in a manger, worshiped by shepherds, hunted by a king, rejected by religious authorities, surrounded by sinners and outcasts. Arrested. Beaten. Crucified.

A beautiful gift for the whole world.
Broken, for us.

From the Holy City of Jerusalem, I wish you all peace, joy, and love through Jesus, the babe of Bethlehem, the Prince of Peace, the light shining in the darkness of this broken world.

Merry Christmas! Kul sane wa intou salmeen!

Monday, December 19, 2016

"Who's your daddy? DNA, Dreams, and Discernment" Sermon for Sunday 18 December (4 Advent)

Sermon for Sunday, 18 December 2016
4th Sunday of Advent

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Some years ago, I took a day off work to visit the Chicago Institute of Art with a dear friend. We visited our favorite masterpieces, discovered new ones, and ate fancy salads and drank wine at the rooftop restaurant. And then, like most days off, it was over far too soon. As we exited the Contemporary and Modern Art Wing, I saw something that at first I thought might be another art installation. It was so unexpected, I wondered if it was some kind of performance art. It was a large van, parked just in front of the museum, with a message on the side that proclaimed in giant letters: “WHO’S YOUR DADDY? MOBILE DNA TESTS OFFERED HERE WHILE YOU WAIT!”

When my friend and I stopped laughing, and realized it was for real, we tried to understand why a mobile DNA testing van would be parked in front of the art museum. We tried to imagine the situation in which you absolutely, positively, immediately, HAD TO KNOW the identity of someone’s daddy.

Well, welcome to the 4th Sunday of Advent! Today is that day! After weeks of waiting, after lighting four candles, after singing through the entire list of Advent hymns, after hearing from the prophets and praying for peace and patience, we are just hours away from celebrating the birth of the long-awaited baby Jesus. And this is exactly the moment when a mobile DNA van might be nice. After all, before we travel to Bethlehem, before we sing “Silent Night” by candlelight, and before we open gifts, we should really know the identity of this baby we’re celebrating. Is this the one we’ve been waiting for? Is this the Messiah? Is this the Son of God? What child is this, anyway?

This was certainly the question Joseph was asking when he learned Mary was pregnant. After all, they were engaged, but not yet married. They were promised to one another, but had also promised not to do anything that would result in pregnancies. As difficult as their situation can still be in some cultures today, in Joseph and Mary’s time it was a disaster. Some biblical commentaries point out that by custom, Joseph could have had Mary stoned! But Scripture tells us Joseph was a righteous man, and therefore he had decided to dismiss her quietly. He would separate from her, in front of a few witnesses, thereby protecting as much of her honor as possible.

And this could have been the end of Joseph’s involvement in the Christmas story.
But then something unusual and unexpected happened! There was no mobile DNA testing service to clear things up, but as usual, God was on the move. Just when Joseph thought he had it all figured out, and knew what he would do next, a messenger came to him in a dream and said:

“Listen, Joe…I know this isn’t what you expected. I know this is going to make people talk. But it is going to be ok. God is doing something great! The baby about to be born to Mary is named Jesus, because he will save people from their sins. And he shall be called Emmanuel, God with us.”

And when Joseph rose from this strange dream, he changed course completely. It’s not that things were much clearer than before. Saying that your fiancée is “pregnant by the Holy Spirit” is not likely to stop people from talking! But in great faith, trusting that the message from the angel was from a good and trustworthy God, Joseph took Mary as his wife, caring for her until the baby was born, and when he was born, they named him Jesus.

Now when this morning’s Gospel lesson started, “The birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way”, we may have thought the lectionary writers were tired of Advent and decided to give us the Christmas story a week early! 

But it turns out the message for this 4th Sunday of Advent is not really about Jesus and his miraculous birth at all. It’s not about the theoretical results of this baby’s DNA test. It’s not even about the positive identification of this baby as the Messiah, the Son of God, the one foretold by the prophets, the one who shall be named Emmanuel, God with us, the one who will be with us even unto the end of the age (Matthew 28:20) (Although this is Good News indeed, Amen!)

This morning’s chapter in the story of Jesus’ birth is not about who Jesus is at all. It’s about who Joseph is! It’s not Christmas yet. The baby is not yet born. We’re still waiting! And while we wait, Matthew invites us to consider how God called Joseph the righteous to play an important part in the birth of the one we call Emmanuel—and how he followed in faith, even though it made no sense to him at the time.

Take a moment to remember now: When has God called you to do something strange and unexpected? What did the call sound like? How did you know it was a call from God, and not an idea of your own? Most importantly, why did you choose to listen—and then to follow? Joseph’s angel dream may sound crazy or even scary, but in times of discernment and struggle I think many of us would welcome an angel with such a clear message. In my experience, God doesn’t always speak out so clearly. More often, the message comes bit by bit. Or it sneaks into conversations with friends.

Or we find ourselves in a situation where the call can no longer be ignored. Poet David Whyte said, “For most of us, the call will not come so grandly, so biblically, but intimately, in the face of the one you know you have to love.”

In retrospect, God may have been speaking to me when, as a 4th grader, I decided to sign up to volunteer at the local nursing home, and ended up receiving the “Volunteer of the Month” award at age 10. But I knew I wanted to be a doctor and makes lots of money.

God also may have been speaking when, as a college student studying piano performance, I would routinely show up to my lessons having not practiced at all. “Oh, but Habitat for Humanity had a building project this weekend, and I simply had to go and help the poor!” I would tell my teacher. She was not amused. But I knew I wanted to be a musician.

God may have been speaking when, at my spouse’s ordination to the ministry, a church member grabbed me by the arm and said, “OK, Carrie, now when will we hear you preach?” But I had no intention of preaching! I knew I wanted to be a midwife.

And then I found myself at the birth of a baby. I was the doula, there to offer support and comfort and to advocate for the mother during labor. But I was annoyed—I didn’t want to be the doula. I wanted to be the midwife. I wanted to be the one catching the baby! I had been trying, without success, to earn an internship with a local midwife to complete my studies. But every interview was a bust. Every time, the midwife would say, “We really like you, Carrie, and we know you have studied, but we just don’t feel it.”

So I found myself at this birth, there to offer support, but as I coached the mother through labor, I was all the time looking longingly at the midwife and what she was doing. I knew that was where I wanted to be.

And then, things went all wrong. The baby was born, but the mother was bleeding, and it wouldn’t stop. Everything became an emergency. The doctors were on their way, and I watched in shock as the midwife struggled to save the woman’s life.

In that moment, I knew without a doubt that I was not called to be a midwife.
I also knew, in that moment, exactly what I was called to do.

So I leaned down by the mother’s ear, and held her hand, and I prayed.

The next day (really, it was the next day) I sent an email to my home pastor in Oklahoma with the message, “Tell me how to apply to seminary.” And then I listed my childbirth books and supplies on Ebay.

Listen, I had no idea how it work out. We lived many hours from a seminary, in rural Texas. We had two small children, and no money for school. But I had faith that the God who spoke so clearly to me in that moment (and who, apparently, had been speaking my whole life) would be with me wherever the journey took me. So I took the first step.

Joseph had no idea where his decision to marry Mary would take him, either. He did know it was a risk! And he had a pretty good idea of what the community would say about him. He knew he was signing up for a marriage like no other and a parenthood like no other. But Joseph also knew something wonderful had been promised. And like Mary, who in great faith chose to sing God’s praises in the midst of a crisis pregnancy, in great faith Joseph chose to take a step in the direction God was leading. He chose to follow God—and became a small but critical part of the story of the world’s salvation.

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, as we prepare to make the last steps of the journey to Bethlehem, where the babe is about to born, we rejoice that Joseph and Mary listened to God’s call. We rejoice that God chose to come among us as a baby, the one we call “Emmanuel”, God with us.

And we rejoice that God is still speaking to the faithful. God is still doing new and wonderful things in our lives and in the world. And God is still inviting us to follow, in faith, as the Greatest Story Ever Told continues to unfold through us, God’s children.

Like Joseph, we will take the first steps in faith, for we don't need a DNA test to know the identity of the one who leads us.

The one who fulfilled the promise to be born among us,
The one whose love was poured out for us on the cross,
And the one whose power over sin and death was revealed by the empty tomb,
will also fulfill the promise to be God With Us every step of the way—even to the end of the age.

I invite you to turn to page 304 in your hymnals, so that we can read together the prayer at the very bottom of the page. Page 304...

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, December 16, 2016

On Yad Vashem, Christmas, and the Scandal of the Incarnation

Christmas ornament hanging on Greek Patriachate Road
Old City Jerusalem
Entering the parking lot of Yad Vashem (the Israeli Holocaust Memorial) for a visit today, the parking attendant said, “Americans! You love Trump? We love Trump! He is great for us. He is great for Israel.”

The tour leaders and I flashed non-committal smiles and paid the 40 NIS to park the bus.

This was my first visit to Yad Vashem, although I’ve lived here for more than two years now. In the same way that I lived in Chicagoland for 9 years and never did make it to the top of the Sears (Willis) Tower, so there are many things I haven’t seen in Jerusalem that the average tourist marks off in the first 24 hours. Hoping to do better in 2017.

When I got off the bus, the driver said to me (perhaps out of habit) – “Have fun!” Um, not really. A Holocaust museum is in no way fun. And while I may have quibbles with our particular guide’s interpretations of some historical events, I think it is a very effective (and heartbreaking) museum. The point is well made. Never again, indeed.

My goal in visiting today was to experience the museum as it was—to feel all the feelings, apart from how they may (or may not) relate to what is happening in Israel/Palestine or the US today. And for the most part, that’s what happened.

But I was surprised at how viscerally I was affected, especially by the beginning of the museum’s narrative. 

After seeing videos of thriving European Jewish life before the war, we were met with the history of how Hitler and the Nazis came to power. Over and over, we saw how the Nazis preyed upon the German people’s sense of wanting to be “powerful again”. How they needed someone in the world to blame for their hardships after the first war. How they so readily accepted the idea that some humans were actually “sub-human” and therefore not even worthy of discrimination, but actually deserved extermination. How media was used to popularize these ideas (not via Facebook, but through posters, and sermons, and household items, and even children’s board games).

In Warsaw, when the horrific Jewish ghetto was established, a wall was built around it. “Guess who built it?” asked our tour guide. The Jews, of course. “And guess who paid for it?” she asked again. One of the students on our tour, a Mexican-American, slumped against the wall of the museum and looked stricken.

“Why didn’t the US or other allies just bomb Auschwitz?” asked our guide. An entire wall is filled with an aerial view of the Auschwitz compound, proving the Americans both knew about it and could fly over it. No one offered an answer, so our guide offered her own: “Indifference.” Aleppo, anyone?

When we were near the end of the museum tour, our guide stopped mid-sentence and pointed out a man who had just entered the room in his wheelchair. “He’s an Auschwitz survivor,” she whispered. “Last time I saw him, he was still able to walk.” We all waited in silence while he passed. He was, at that moment, the entire museum, incarnate. A memorial, in the flesh.

This Christmas, I don’t want to hear about Clinton’s emails, or how Bernie could have won. I don’t want to hear “give Trump a chance.” This is not about partisanship. I want to hear what we are doing to fight against our common human addiction to putting our neighbors behind walls, denying their rights because it secures ours, and killing them (or allowing them to be killed) because it serves our political purposes.

 I want to hear how we avoid bowing to the Herods of the world, who are only concerned with preserving power and privilege, and who will destroy any who oppose them.

I want to hear what Christmas and the incarnation of Jesus (God daring to become human and walk around in bodies like ours) means the other 364 days a year. Faced with the reality of the Holocaust, how does the incarnate Body of Christ respond? Dietrich Bonhoeffer has something to say about that.

Faced with the reality of Aleppo, where is Christ’s Body? We seem to think sharing articles and virtual prayers will be enough. We are so concerned with Christ being left out of Christmas, and yet we are more than happy to leave the cross out of Christianity. 

One week from tomorrow, I will cross a military checkpoint and a massive wall to reach Bethlehem, and to celebrate how (as someone quipped in last night’s Bible Study): “God did us a solid and was born among us.” And where is Christ’s Body in response to what is happening in the land of his birth today? Are we content to keep the story of Jesus behind a wall?

To put it a different way: Is Christmas about remembering how, for 33 short years in all of human history, God walked among us? Or do we believe that because of Christmas, God walks among us still, making every body sacred, every body holy, and every body worthy of respect, safety, and freedom? 

You enter Yad Vashem by descending, as if into a grave. You exit by going up, towards the light. As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the one we call the Morning Star, the light who shines in the darkness, I hope and pray that my fellow Christians will not only celebrate Christmas, but will commit to practicing Incarnation. The Holocaust is a horror. Racism and prejudice are powerful addictions. War is hell. Fifty years of occupation is shameful! 

Our indifference to it all is the ultimate human sin--And Christmas is the scandal with the power to transform it.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

And may the scandal of the Incarnation unsettle us all in 2017.

"And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth." - John 1:14

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

On Mary's Song and God's Creative Resistance (Sermon for 3rd Sunday in Advent)

Sermon for Sunday 11 December 2016
3rd Sunday of Advent

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The residents of the Bedouin encampment Khan al-Ahmar, located a few kilometers east of Jerusalem in Area C, between two Israeli settlements, were tired of sending their children to the Bedouin school seven kilometers away. They were also uninterested in sending them even further away, to Jericho or East Jerusalem, which was suggested by the Israeli government. They wanted their own school—but it’s simply not possible for Palestinians to acquire building permits in Area C, under complete Israeli control. Frustrated, and having exhausted all legal options, the parents took matters into their own hands. They got creative. In 2009, with the help of an Italian NGO, they built their own school—out of old tires and dried mud.

One hundred and sixty Bedouin children now learn and play behind those tire and mud walls. But, according to the state, the school is a “threat”, and is built on land that “belongs” to the Kfar Adumim settlement and far too close to Road 1. It has been under demolition orders since one month after it was opened.
Seven years later, the school stands. So does the demolition order! But until now, every year, the school has expanded. Until now, every year, new boys and girls have attended the school, learning and growing and preparing for an uncertain future, because of their community’s creativity.  

I heard the story of the Khan al-Ahmar school on Friday morning, during a conference in Bethlehem with the theme: “Faith, sumud, and creative resistance.”

I was sitting near the back of the conference room, where Mary’s song, the Magnificat, stared at me from my computer screen in an otherwise blank document entitled: “Sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Advent.”

I was staring back at that blank screen when, suddenly, a message popped up (along with an adorable photo) of a friend’s long-awaited baby daughter, who had been born just a few hours before.

And I thought, “I just don’t know what I’m going to write about for Sunday morning…”

Ah, but the Holy Spirit is faithful, even when the preacher is slow! What better to preach about on the 3rd Sunday of waiting for the Lord, and the 3rd Sunday of lighting candles against the darkness than creative resistance? And who better to teach us about creative resistance than the Creator of all things? After all, the birth of one particular baby—to Mary, in Bethlehem, just down the road from that conference room—is God’s own creative resistance. What we call the miracle of the Incarnation is God’s way of resisting human sin, evil, despair, and our ongoing addiction to hurting one another.

In great love, and with great creativity, God the Creator saw our weakness, saw our brokenness, saw our disobedience, and chose to do something radical, wild and unexpected: God chose to be born among us as a tiny baby. Coming to be with us in this humble way—instead of as a military leader, or a wealthy ruler, or a vengeful dictator—God reclaimed humanity and all of creation for love, for peace, for justice, and for mercy. Artists and activists today would call this creative cultural resistance.

Of course, to Mary, the one who literally bore the weight of God’s creativity, this miracle probably just felt like trouble. I imagine Mary would have preferred God to use all that creativity to build her a new house, or to give her fiancée a new job, rather than making her pregnant by the Holy Spirit and making her into the laughing stock of the neighborhood.

Mary had every reason to refuse to participate. She had every reason to run the other way when the Angel Gabriel paid her a visit. But instead, she said: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Today, we rejoice that Mary said “yes”, and chose to join God in creatively resisting the powers of fear, of despair, and of darkness. Mary answered God’s call to join in birthing something beautiful into the world! Her song, the Magnificat, is the outpouring of her passion, her love, and her bold decision to join the cause for the world’s liberation from sin and death.

Of course, we sort of take it for granted that Mary was just so good, so holy, and so pure that of course she said “yes”. Of course she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit and then sang a song. Right? This is the image of Mary we see in our nativity sets and in our icons. This is the sweet Mary we will see portrayed in the children’s Christmas play after worship.

But to tell you the truth, I’m not sure singing would have been my natural response to God’s over-active creativity. If I did sing something, I have a feeling it would be something more like, “Are you serious, God?”

Just as it is important to me to proclaim Jesus as both fully human and fully divine, so it is important to me that we proclaim Mary’s full humanity. I think Mary, being fully human, probably had a few choice words to say to God after she discovered she was pregnant and before she sang “My soul magnifies the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”  Amen?

So, the question then becomes: What was it that gave Mary the courage to sing? What was it, ultimately, that gave her the audacity to think she could join in God’s radical strategy to reclaim humanity and the world for the sake of love?

My Greek professor would have pointed us back to the second half of Mary’s song, which happens to be written in past (or “aorist”) tense. Now, this fact wouldn’t be interesting at all if Mary sang her song on Christmas morning. Past tense would make sense if Mary gazed into the manger at the sweet baby Jesus, and sang “You, the Almighty, have done great things for me.” If Mary sang the Magnificat after the pregnancy, after the long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, after going into labor with no plan of where to stay, and after preparing a bed for the baby Jesus in an animal’s feeding trough, then we would hear it as a song of triumph, and survival, and thankfulness to God for getting her through it all. Past tense, in that case, would be the perfect tense.

But as it is, we know that Mary sings “You have done great things for me” while she is still pregnant.

Mary sings “You have shown strength with your arm and scattered the proud in their conceit” while she is still unmarried and her neighbors are still judging her.

Mary sings, “You have filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” while her future is still uncertain.

Mary sings—in past tense, about future events, not because her struggle is over, but because she knows God is with her. She sings her heart out, not because she’s not worried about the future, but because she knows who holds the future.

Mary sings because God is good. God is faithful. And she has the audacity to say yes…and to sing…because she knows God keeps God’s promises.

And this, dear friends in Christ, is why I think the Magnificat needs to be the official soundtrack for 2017.

In this uncertain time, when the great powers of the world seem to be realigning, when extremists are trying to kidnap our religious traditions, and when even presidents engage in hate speech;

And especially in this coming year when here in Palestine and Israel we’re marking both the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the Palestinian territories;

we need the song of Mary.

We need to be reminded of how to sing God’s praises while the world is still only pregnant with promise.

We need to be reminded that while the wall still stands, and the occupation continues into the second half of a century, we are not simply waiting for God to do something about it. God has already done something wild, unexpected, and creative: God invited a young girl to be part of birthing the kingdom of justice, peace, and love into the world. And two thousand years later, God has also invited us to be part of the creative cultural resistance called faith in Jesus, crucified and risen.

One of the sessions at Friday’s conference in Bethlehem was called “Where are we now?” The speaker, a famous Israeli journalist and a prominent voice against the occupation, began his speech by saying: “Where are we now? Well, the answer is that we are in a very bad place, and we are going to a much worse place. And now I should just sit down, for perhaps there is nothing else to say.”

From a political perspective, this may be entirely true.

But our faith teaches us that, faced with sin, evil, and disobedience of humanity, God our Creator decided there was much more to say. God even decided that what needed to be said was best expressed in flesh, walking among us.

For this reason, no matter what we face in life, no matter what darkness surrounds us in the world, and no matter what politicians or prophets of doom may predict, as people of faith we know there is always something more to say.

There is always a song to sing!

Mary sang it with the words, “Magnificat anima mea Dominum”
The community of Khan al-Ahmar sang it with tires and dried mud.
The water protectors at Standing Rock sang it with their steadfast presence.
Palestinian and Israeli firefighters sang it when together they battled dangerous wildfires.
And you, each of you, sing it when you care for the poor, when you speak out for justice, when you teach the story of Jesus to your children.

On this third Sunday of Advent, along with Mary, let us we choose hope. Let us choose joy. Let us choose resistance and creativity. Let us choose to sing! Let us sing against the darkness…until the star appears, until the baby is born again in our hearts, and until the fullness of peace, justice, and love are born into the world.
Amen, come Lord Jesus!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Sermon for 2 Advent: "Ready or not"

Sermon for Sunday 4 December 2016
2nd Sunday of Advent

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

“Ready or not”

We had so carefully prepared for our autumn trip to the US. Plane tickets were purchased months in advance. Guided tours of historic sites were confirmed and interviews at prospective colleges were arranged. Hotels were booked when possible. But in Kingston, New York, the less tiny town closest to the very tiny town where one college was located, our best option for lodging was not a hotel, but a portion of someone else’s house. We arranged this rental through a very popular website—a site which shall not be named, for fear that what I’m about to say next may reflect poorly on their business.

As we approached the address of the rental, I remembered the listing had said, “historic” and “under renovation.” Indeed. The centuries-old mansion retained only a faint glimmer of its old glory. It was clear that someone was trying to restore it. I only hoped the inside was further along than the outside.

We rang the doorbell. No answer.
We knocked at the back door. No answer.
We waited a bit in the driveway.
We searched our phones for some contact information.
Finally, seeing no other option, Robert went to the back door, opened it, and yelled inside.

Soon a man popped out, in a state of dress that suggested he had been in the process of a very long nap.

After a short conversation at the door, the man disappeared back inside the house. We waited a bit longer, and then he emerged, fully dressed, with a big smile on his face. “Let me show you around!” he said.

Our host took us around to the front door, and we stepped inside, where, in the entryway, we encountered a massive canvas proclaiming in giant, hand-painted letters (I kid you not): “Repent! And sin no more.”

Now, you might assume I started planning this Advent sermon on the spot, but I promise I was only thinking about finding a pillow and a place to lie down!

Our host did his best to dress up the obvious faults in his house: 
The ceiling is missing, but the new one will be amazing. This part of the house has no floor, but a new, ecologically friendly floor would be arriving soon, and very soon.

The host then pointed us to the spiral metal staircase leading to our second-floor living quarters.
It was not just that the staircase was narrow enough that I wondered if my carry-on suitcase would fit.
It was that when you looked up, you saw that the staircase didn’t actually reach all the way to the second floor.
There was a gap. A fairly significant one, at that. “You have to hop a bit at the top” said the host, helpfully.

The surprises only continued.

There was a sofa bed, but no sheets or pillows. A bathroom, but no towels. A television with no channels. A coffee maker with no coffee, no filters, and no carafe.
I was starting to get the feeling this host was not expecting us.

He really was a very nice man. He brought us coffee, and a bottle of wine. He suggested a great pizza place in the next town over. He brought us breakfast (the listing said “bed and breakfast” after all) in the form of granola bars and pomegranate juice.
But no amount of organic juice in the world could cover up the fact that our host was unprepared for our arrival.

In this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, we meet a locust-eating, camel-hair-wearing prophet of the Lord warning us not to make the same mistake in welcoming the Messiah. “Prepare the way!” says John. “Repent! Make his paths straight!” At the very least, he might say: If you want to welcome Jesus, make sure the staircase reaches all the way to the second floor. Make the necessary renovations before he arrives. Make a place for Jesus and his kingdom—in your heart, in your life, in your world. Be prepared. Be watchful!

Be ready, for Jesus is coming soon.

John the Baptist’s sole calling in life was to prepare the people for the arrival of the Son of God—and he didn’t mess around. His lifestyle was provocative. His message was challenging. And his sermons were literally filled with “fire and brimstone”.  As it is written:

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

This sermon might not fill the pews at Redeemer Lutheran in Jerusalem today, but John knew his audience. He knew they needed a message to wake them up and get their attention. Above all, John knew who he was and what he was called to do: He was the voice in the wilderness. He was the one the prophet Isaiah had foretold. He was the one sent to cry out to any who would listen: The kingdom is near! Salvation is at hand! The world is about to be turned upside down! And you are so not ready.

Sometimes, we don't even realize how un-ready we are. When I was in college, studying music, I made money by teaching piano lessons. Most of these lessons took place in the afternoon, after kids were out of school. But for some kids, soccer and ballet and swimming and horseback riding (and a million other things) got in the way, so they needed lessons in the morning. Before school. At 7:30.
That’s 7:30 a.m.--Not exactly a preferred time for college students to be awake and functional.

Many years later, I can now admit that there was once—okay, more than once—when the doorbell rang while I was still in bed, sound asleep. Perhaps you don’t believe someone could leap out of bed, put on glasses, brush teeth, and answer the door in sixty seconds. But I did it! And I was sure no one noticed. I was confident that my last-minute preparations would be enough. I figured: I was awake enough. I was ready enough.
Now that I’m a parent, I have a pretty good idea the mothers of those early morning piano students knew exactly what was up. 

In the same way, I am sure John the Baptist knew exactly what was up with the Pharisees and Sadducees who were coming to him for baptism. He knew they were famous—at least in their own minds—for following the letter of the law. They enjoyed being the most pious, the most religious guys on the block. They lived their lives (and preached to others) as if they had it all figured out.

So when John saw the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized, he knew they weren’t coming because they wanted to repent. They weren’t coming because they believed what John was saying about the Messiah and wanted to prepare. They were coming to be baptized because everybody else was doing it! They were coming to the water to have all their bases covered. They wanted a little sprinkle, just in case the Messiah did show up as John said, and then they could say, “See! I was prepared! I was ready! I knew you were coming, Jesus!  My head is even still a little bit wet from that baptism John gave me.”

This is a bit like me showing up at my front door at 7:32 am in my pajamas saying, “Here I am! Ready to teach your children some music” and thinking I should win a Teacher of the Year award.

There is an oft-quoted saying that success is “only 10% hard work, and 90% showing up.” But John the Baptist says showing up is the easy part! Being dressed and at the door is not enough to be a good piano teacher. And getting dunked in water by a prophet is not enough to be ready for the Messiah and his kingdom.

For this reason, when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

Bear fruit worthy of repentance! In other words, John says being prepared for God’s Son to be born among us, and for God’s kingdom to be born on earth as it is in heaven, requires something more than just showing up. It requires more than passively waiting for things to change. Welcoming God’s kingdom of love, peace, justice, and reconciliation into our lives and into the world requires turning away from our old habits and our favorite sins—racism, sexism, systems of oppression, selfishness, revenge, and apathy toward the suffering of our neighbor—and turning towards God. It requires, as John said, making the path of the Lord straight.

Let me be clear: The birth of Jesus is a precious, undeserved gift. And, at the same time, John’s fiery sermon about repentance is for us. We are the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Just as John called them to consider why they had come to the water, so this season of waiting and preparation is a time for us to consider why we are journeying to the manger.

Advent is time for us to reflect:
Is my heart ready to receive Jesus, born anew in my life? Is our community ready to receive the justice and peace we’ve been praying for? Is our world ready for the upside-down kingdom of God to be fulfilled on earth, as it is in heaven?

What fruit are we bearing as we prepare the way? 

This week, I had the pleasure of visiting the Peace Centre for the Blind in East Jerusalem, one of the ministries our English congregation has supported for many years. I received an email from the director, Ms. Lydia, earlier in the week, and learned that the school is facing the worst financial crisis of the last 34 years. It was a very good time to deliver our congregation’s annual donation.

When I arrived, Lydia was on the sofa with a young student and her father, so I sat down quietly and listened. Ms. Lydia—herself blind since she was a toddler—was knitting a fluffy green scarf while chatting with the girl in Arabic.

“What do you mean you want to quit school?” she said. “What will you do? You are making such great progress! We need you here. Don’t worry about the checkpoints. We are working on your permissions. How about one more month? One more week? One more day?”

As Ms. Lydia knitted furiously, and talked just as furiously, I saw the girl and her father start to relax. Their resolve was fading. Soon, they were smiling. I was certain this student would be back the next day, and the next week, and maybe even the next month to continue learning. The girl and her father stood up to leave, and Ms. Lydia kept right on knitting.

There are eleven students living and learning at the Peace Centre right now. Only eleven students. I’m sure there are some who would say that after 34 years of fighting the Israeli government, and fighting prejudice against the disabled, and fighting for money to keep the doors open, that Ms. Lydia should just retire. That she should close the school. That eleven blind Palestinian girls are not worth the struggle, the money, or the effort.

But every time I sit with Lydia, I come away knowing that this woman of faith is not only preparing eleven visually impaired girls for meaningful work and an empowered life—she is preparing the way of the Lord. She is preparing the way for God’s kingdom on earth. She is making the path straight for a kingdom in which all girls, no matter where they are born or what religion they are, have the chance to get an education. Ms. Lydia and her passion for these girls is a call for the world to repent--and she is getting us all ready for God's kingdom, where the visually impaired don’t need our pity, because society has a place prepared just for them.

Ms. Lydia’s school may not be making profits, but it is bearing fruit—fruit worthy of repentance. Fruit worthy of the coming kingdom. Fruit worthy of Jesus, the Son of God, who is indeed coming soon. 

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, on this second Sunday of Advent, as the light from the Advent candles has increased, and our joy has increased, and our anticipation of Christmas has increased, so may our repentance and commitment to bearing fruit increase. For He is coming soon: the One who is more powerful than any prophet, preacher, or politician. The One who heals the sick. The One who gives sight to the blind. The One who brings justice to the oppressed. The One who liberates the occupied. The One who embodies peace, from the manger to the cross and to the empty tomb. We don’t want to be caught sleeping when he comes. We don’t want to be unprepared. Lord, we want to be ready! Amen.