“Advent Review” Luke 3:7-18. Donald W. Dotterer, PhD. 12/23/18.
One of the major issues of the 2016 presidential campaign was America’s aging infrastructure. Infrastructure is defined as the “underlying structure” of countries and communities. Infrastructure includes roads, bridges, and dams, the water and sewer systems, railways and subways, airports and harbors.
One of the facts of life on this earth is that almost everything at one time or another gets old and wears out. That’s true of our bodies, right? Every New Year that passes I say, “my body’s not what it used to be.” And it’s true of roads and bridges and water systems as well.
For example, it was recently reported that our region is on track to have the wettest year ever. That’s not surprising is it? Our three churches, Riverview, Faith Community Jefferson and Faith on 68 had serious damage to their towers and roofs from excessive rain this year.
At the beginning of December, we’d had 53 inches of rain, four inches below the all-time record set in 2004. The rain we had last week will add to that total.
So we’re getting more rain. The problem is that our rain-handling infrastructure may not be able to handle it. These facilities weren’t built to handle this much water. There have been more floods and landslides. The aging locks and dams around Pittsburgh that were built after devastating Great Flood of 1936 are a particular concern.[i] We put ourselves and entire populations at serious risk when we ignore the physical infrastructure of our communities.
But as important as maintaining the physical infrastructure of our communities is, it is even more important that we maintain and develop the underlying structure of our spiritual lives.
One of the innovations of John Wesley’s Methodist movement--still the greatest evangelical movement in the history of the world--was the “class meeting.”
Class meetings begin the1700’s. Class meetings were small groups of twelve Christians that made sure that Methodists were connected to other Methodists, and that no person’s spiritual needs were ignored or overlooked.
The central question that was asked at the class meeting was “How is it with your soul?” Or in the original wording, “How does your soul prosper?”
I like that. “How does your soul prosper?” Not how does your bank account prosper. Not how does your retirement fund prosper. But how does your soul prosper?
I believe that God gave us the season of Advent so that we can consider that question anew. Advent is an opportunity for us to consider and reflect upon how things are going with our souls, which are the underlying structures of our physical bodies.
If our souls are sound, that is, if we are connected to God, then the condition of our physical bodies won’t matter so much. Advent gives us the opportunity to reflect upon how it is going with our souls.
So, how are we doing? Do we feel like we are wearing out, maybe stretched too thin? Are we feeling tired and running on empty? Are we feeling overstressed and ready to collapse?
like an old bridge that is carrying too much weight?
Do we feel overwhelmed like an inadequate flood control system? We may feel especially that way at this time of year.
Advent and Christmas can be the answer we need to strengthen and repair all that. Advent and Christmas are God’s gifts to us to renew and refresh our souls as we grow closer to Christ, the one who brings hope, peace, joy and love to our lives.
So the countdown to Christmas is on. The countdown is in our faces. When we walk into Walmart there’s a sign reminding us how many days there are until Christmas. It’s been there since October. You can’t avoid it. It’s now down to two.
Boone Porter reminds us that these last few days of frantic preparation for Christmas can be lots of fun. Or they can be frightfully hectic. Or they can be both.
We would hope, however, that Christians would not be in quite such a hurry. We hear people say they wish Christ were put back into Christmas. You see that on road signs and bumper stickers.
But Christ has never been missing from Christmas. He has always been there.[ii] Our Advent task, I believe, is to be willing to take time to see Jesus. By taking time for prayer and reflection we not only make it possible for us to have a deeper appreciation of the seasons of Advent and Christmas, but we enable ourselves to grow so that we can become people who bear witness to others of the presence of Christ with us. Indeed, how do our souls prosper?
As we look over the four weeks of Advent that lead up to Christmas, this is what we see. Clearly. This Advent there have been four great lessons that prepare us for Christmas, four lessons that help us to prepare our hearts and minds to receive Jesus the Christ, the One who makes all things new.
So I thought that today, this fourth Sunday of Advent which is bringing us so close to Christmas, we would take a look at where we’ve been over the past four weeks. I think we need to remember what we’ve learned as we have prepared the way for Christ to come on Christmas Day.
We started out with the theme that we hear every year on the first Sunday of Advent. That theme is the Second Coming of Jesus and the end of this world. That means the end of this sinful and suffering world and the creation of a new one under the lordship of Jesus. That is our hope and our expectation.
That first Sunday of Advent we receive the assurance that Jesus comes to us when times are turbulent and difficult, and that no matter what, God is always with us. That is why the first candle we light on the Advent wreath is the candle of hope. The past two weeks we have had our yearly visit from John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin who is the one chosen to announce the good news of the coming of Jesus, the real Chosen One who can and will save us. All four of the gospel writers begin their stories of the life and work of Jesus with an account of John the Baptist.
So John is important. But John is a strange and unlovable messenger. The problem is that we don’t know what exactly to do with John. He doesn’t fit into anything we know about Christmas. You won’t see him in any nativity scenes.
John the Baptist is unlike anyone you or I have met. He lives in the desert and dresses in wild animal skins. John lives on bugs and honey. He calls the official clergy a bunch of snakes. He tells people that they need to change their lives
or they will go to hell! John isn’t anyone that we would want to invite to join us for Christmas dinner.
But John’s message is one we that we need to hear, and we need to hear it every year. Every year we hear John’s proclamation, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” That is, get yourself ready because God is coming!
And that friends, is really big news! John’s not talking about getting your house decorated for the holidays. He’s not talking about getting the presents wrapped. He’s not talking about getting the cards in the mail.
No, what John is talking about preparing your soul for the one who really can bring you hope, peace, love and joy, in this life and in the next.
Jesus is coming, and coming soon! That’s John’s message plain and simple. But what does that mean? Really. What I think it means is this: that Jesus Christ brings the power of God in heaven to this troubled and hurting world. The power that is coming is not our power. It is not the power of our good deeds. It is the power of God breaking into our world to do great and impossible things. And we need to get ready for that.
But how? How do we get ready for God to do that? Well, John tells us very specifically how to do it.
First of all, the road needs to be made straight. We need smooth out the bumps. The crooked needs to be made straight.
One of the roads I’ve traveled on a lot over the past 25 years is Freedom Road. We all know Freedom Road, right?
It’s the road that connects Route 65 coming into Rochester with Cranberry.
I’ve hated that road since the first time I drove it. Talk about an infrastructure problem! Do you remember that song by the Beatles, “The Long and Winding Road”?
Well, that’s what Freedom Road is, or was, anyway. It was steep and hilly, narrow and bumpy. It was a crooked road if there ever was one. I would tell my family that if I don’t come home some night to tell the police to look over the hillsides
of Freedom Road.
But finally, two years and 80 million dollars later, that crooked road has been made straight--at least the worst part of it. So it took time and cost a lot of money.
God through his prophet John the Baptist calls us to do the same with our lives. We need to straighten out the crooked parts. We need to smooth out the bumps. We need to bear good fruit or yes, there will be the consequences of judgment.
That takes time. It costs us something. That’s part of the message too.
So what do we need do to make the path straight, to smooth out the bumps, to bear good fruit? John is quite specific about that. He says we need to be generous. We need to be honest.
We need to be satisfied with what we’ve got. We need to do this because you see God, God is coming to us in Jesus.
The second candle on the Advent wreath stands for peace.
The third candle stands for joy. Getting it right with God in life
is the source of peace and joy. It removes all guilt and fear of judgement and loss.
Now we come to week four and candle number four.
The fourth candle of Advent is the candle of love. Today we hear the heartwarming story of Mary and Elizabeth. We are blessed so many ways by this story.
Here we see a relationship between two women who are both pregnant with their first child. Elizabeth is older and has been unable to conceive. But finally she has been blessed with the fruit of the womb. The birth of a child is always a blessing and a miracle, but even more so when a woman gets pregnant
near the end of her child bearing years.
That is special enough. But the child she would bear would be no ordinary man. That child would be none other than John the Baptist, the first prophet in Israel in 400 years. And his calling would be to announce the coming of the Messiah, the Savior of the world.
Then we have Mary, the teenage girl who was blessed with the privilege of bearing the child who was the very Son of God. What strikes me the most about Mary is her humility. Her ordinariness. Mary is really Everywoman, but she was chosen to be in Greek what is called theotokos—the God bearer, the Mother of God.
She is with her son from beginning to end. She gives birth to him in a stable among animals. She has him dedicated in the temple as a baby. She raises him in a small town of Nazareth. She tells him he needs to do a miracle so people can enjoy a wedding feast as he turns water into wine.
His mother stands by him at the cross, watching his execution as a criminal. And she was there at Pentecost
when the Holy Spirit began his church. She is the only woman there who is named. Mary was an ordinary person who showed great love. We can show great love as well.
Well, there you have it. That’s our Advent review. Put it all together and this is what we have, a great lead-up to the greatest story ever told, the story of how God saved the world.
We are now ready for Christmas. Ready to receive all the hope, peace, joy and love that Jesus can bring to our world. Ready to have our souls prosper at Christmas.
Last Monday, December 17, marked the 150th anniversary of powered human flight. From the beginning of time, there have been people who have wanted to fly. Leonardo da Vinci studied the way that birds go up and down, ahead and over. More than 2000 years ago, the Chinese used kites to learn about lift and drag. But despite many valiant attempts, no one succeeded at powered human flight.
But on the morning of December 17, 1903, two bicycle makers from Dayton, Ohio named Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved the impossible. With Orville at the helm, their homemade flying machine, powered by a twelve horsepower engine, rose magnificently from the ground at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
It landed 120 feet away. By today's standards that doesn't sound very impressive. The distance that the Wright Flyer traveled was just little over one-half the length of a Boeing 747. But those 120 ft. flight changed the world and gave birth to the age of modern aviation, and the world was never the same again.2
So it is also with the gift of God that comes to us in Jesus Christ on Christmas Day. Jesus was born in a manger in a stable over 2000 years ago. The impossible happened as God came to earth as an infant child, and the world has never been the same.
A new baby is on its way, one who has already changed the world. This is the promise and hope of Advent and Christmas.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Pittsburgh City Paper, Dec. 5-12, pp. 8-10.
[ii] Thanks to Boone Porter for these insights, The Living Church, 12/23/18, p. 13.
2 John Glenn, "A Century Later, America Still Soars," Parade Magazine, 6/29/03, p.3.