Sermon for Sunday 9 December 2018
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. Amen.
One evening about a week ago, I went to bed feeling very excited about the next day. It wasn’t because of what was on my schedule, but because of what was not on my schedule. My calendar for the next day showed only one appointment. Just one thing, all day! It was like a little Christmas miracle – or, more accurately, an Advent miracle. I drifted off to sleep imagining those hours and hours of unscheduled time: time to prepare upcoming Advent and Christmas Eve sermons, time to plan worship, time to get a little ahead of the Christmas rush.
And then….you can probably imagine what happened. My unscheduled Advent Miracle was somehow taken over. Forgotten errands, surprise visitors, and internet interruptions all conspired against my hopes for writing time, until soon the day was ended. There had been no time to write, no time to plan, no time even to stand up from my desk. I went to bed that night feeling a bit anxious, knowing Christmas was one day closer, and I was not at all prepared.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” proclaims the prophet John. John himself is the one who was foretold, the voice crying out in the wilderness, the one who by his preaching prepared the way for Jesus’ life and ministry—but these words are meant for us, not for him. “Prepare the way,” preaches John. The Lord is coming. Things are about to change! And we have work to do before He gets here. But what does that look like?
We know what it looks like to prepare for Christmas with family and friends. There’s baking and cooking, cleaning and shopping. For those of us living far from home, there are travel arrangements to make. For students, there are end of semester papers to write and exams to take.
But this holiday busyness isn’t the preparation John’s talking about.
Scripture tells us John went all over the region preaching a message of repentance and forgiveness of sins. That doesn’t sound much like decking the halls, does it? Preparing for the Lord’s coming, according to John, is not about adding ornaments to make the world look prettier, or hanging lights to make our lives look less broken. Rather, we prepare be the way by removing obstacles that stand in the way of receiving Jesus and his message—especially the ones in our hearts.
At our Tuesday morning prayer service here at Redeemer, one of the worshipers was surprised to see “Joy to the World” located in the Advent section of our Lutheran hymnal. “Isn’t this a Christmas song?” she asked.
True, it is usually sung at Christmas. But I suspect “Joy to the World” made its way into the Advent section of our hymnal because of one line in the first verse:
(Sing it with me, and see if you can recognize the Advent bit…)
Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart prepare Him room
And Heaven and nature sing…
“Let every heart prepare Him room…” What does a heart prepared for Jesus look like? What does it look like to make room for Jesus?
I know there’s a lot of stuff in my heart that has to go.
One of those things that needs to be cleared out is judgment of others. To be honest, living in Jerusalem has not helped in this regard. I find that walking through the Holy City cultivates really unholy things in my heart. I’m constantly judging others, trying to put them in the right place. What religion are you? What language do you speak? Do we share the same political views? Are you a tourist, and if so, are you going to walk slowly in front of me the whole way to work, or might you move out of the way soon?
Another thing that could go so that my heart can prepare room for Jesus is despair over the state of the world. I’m not sure, really, that humanity is any worse today than it has been in past centuries. There has always been war. There has always been hatred. There has always been greed and indifference and oppression. But wow, today we are confronted with it constantly. Our brokenness is on full view, live streamed and tweeted so we don’t miss a single awful moment. Often, my broken heart takes a turn and becomes a cynical one, a self-concerned and self-protecting one, maybe even a fearful one.
And yet: “Do not be afraid” says Jesus. “I will be with you always, to the end of the age.”
So, what does it look like to prepare the way? What does it look like to prepare Him room in our hearts?
It looks like repentance. It means naming and acknowledging the stuff that lives in our hearts, the stuff that is not from God but is from our own fear and self-interest. John preached a baptism of repentance and forgiveness to prepare the way, because we can’t really hear or receive the Good News that in Christ, our sins are forgiven, if we have not acknowledged that we need forgiveness. We can’t receive the Good News that by our baptisms, we have eternal life—if we still think we will live forever by our own willpower. We can’t receive the Good News that every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; if we have not confessed the ways we admire and even worship the mighty, the crooked, and the rough in the world.
For this reason, each week (or nearly each week) we begin our Sunday liturgy with a prayer of confession. Before we sing, before we pray, before we hear the Scripture and (hopefully) hear a sermon that proclaims Jesus, crucified and risen, confess our sins. We begin with a moment of honesty about our brokenness—both the brokenness of the world, and of our hearts and lives. In this way, we prepare room in our hearts to hear the Good News that in Christ we are made whole.
Of course, it’s one thing to join in a corporate prayer of confession at the beginning of a worship service. It’s another thing to truly repent, to really face our individual need to be forgiven. It’s not always easy to forgive – but it can be even harder to be forgiven.
Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote,
“In forgiving we are still in control, “I forgive you.” But to be forgiven by you means first of all I have to say ,“I’m sorry. There is something that I didn’t do for you.” That is hard and puts me in a vulnerable position, in a dependent position. I have handed you over for suffering…Somehow I have failed you. I am sorry I failed you. I am sorry that I was the kind of mother, or father, or friend, or brother, or sister, or neighbor, whatever that I wanted to be. Can you forgive me? It is not just asking the individual. It is having the ability to say, “God, can you forgive me?” Can I be open to forgiveness? Then your heart can move from the hardened heart to a heart of flesh.”
One week about a decade ago, when I was an intern pastor in Chicago, I was asked to give the sermon while my supervising pastor was out of town. I was very excited, as it was one of the first times I had preached. I spent the whole week preparing—reading commentaries, translating from the Greek, consulting with fellow seminarians, even memorizing the entire Gospel text.
When Sunday morning rolled around, I got up early and prepared my kids for church, too. They were about 8 and 10 years old, and not always easy to get out the door. But this morning, I was on it. We got in the car and started the long drive from Chicago’s south side to the north side, where the church was located.
Traffic was not too bad, and I was feeling pretty proud of myself, so as a treat for the kids I stopped at Dunkin Donuts. Why not? It would take a few minutes, but I was prepared for the day.
I had just pulled away from the drive-thru window when my phone rang. It was the church.
“Carrie, you all right?”
“Yep!” I said, cheerfully. “Just down the road. Stopped for donuts.”
“Um, ok” said the voice on the other end. “We were just wondering, since it’s about time for the sermon to start. Should we sing another hymn?”
And then I realized: In all my preparation, I had forgotten to set my clock ahead. It was time to “Spring Forward”. The Sunday service was well under way, and I was eating a donut.
I hung up the phone and drove as quickly (and safely) as possible to the church. I felt terrible. The closer I got to the church, the more my stomach hurt. I was prepared for disappointed looks and harsh words and wondered if this might even mean I would fail my internship.
But as I walked into the worship space and stepped sheepishly into the pulpit, prepared for hearing condemnation, the congregation just said “Good morning, Carrie! How were the donuts?” There were smiles and laughter all around. And many month of teasing…
Love was born there that day.
Grace was born.
Forgiveness was born.
Jesus was born in the church and in my heart that day… and his love was so much more than I was prepared for.
Let us pray:
We praise and thank you, Creator God, for you have not left us alone. Each year you come to us, Emmanuel, God with us in a manger. Each time you come to us in the broken bread and the cup we share. In time or out of time, you will be revealed, and we shall see you face to face. Prepare our hearts to receive you. Amen.