Stirred up for Christ

The Blessed Virgin Mary with Jesus and Saint John Baptist by William Bouguereau, 1875

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2013.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 146:4-9, James 5:7-10, and Matthew 11:2-11.

Last Sunday we celebrated the season with a service of Advent Lessons and Carols. The traditional bidding prayer for that service characterizes the day well:

Beloved in Christ, this Advent be it our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels: in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is to come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.

The prayer is a reminder that people of faith are invited on a journey this season. The church invites us on a pilgrimage, really, as well move at various levels through the story of salvation, until we get again to the place of kneeling before the crib, of lifting our heads toward the heavens to see the star, of overhearing the songs of the angels. And this morning, of this Third Sunday of Advent, we are well on our way.

On the First Sunday of Advent, God called us to get ready. It was our prayer that God would show us his mercy and kingdom right where we live; where we struggle and work and fight and love. The scriptures told us about a day when God would “judge between the nations, . . . . arbitrate for many peoples; . . . . beat swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks; when nation would not lift up sword against nation, and neither would they learn war any more.” These are days that sound so amazing, so fanciful, so fantastic, that surely they are from God. And yet, we wait for them, and we hope for them.

Last week, the scriptures spoke of repentance and we recalled how God often places us in a wilderness— a place where we can gain strength, call upon long-forgotten reserves, and be strong, centered and whole. We were promised that One is coming who will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire.” This is no mere “christening.” This is not even baptism by emersion, whether in a local pond or the River Jordan. Rather, there is to come the possibility of baptism by fiery Holy Spirit in such a way as to change us for ever; to make us better; to make us holy.

And then today, we move a step closer to Bethlehem by being asked about our expectations. Jesus is talking about John the Baptist when he says, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.”

We all come with expectations. We come to church with expectations for the sermon, for the space, for the way that people might respond to us. We come to God with expectations—with expectations around prayer, sometimes with expectations around our well-being and the well-being of those we love.

We even have expectations around this season—around the food, the music, the friends, the family, the feeling of the season.

But the Good News for us this day is in those same words that Jesus offers: “See,” he says, [God says, really] “I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” I think this means, in part, that wherever we may be; God has already been there. God has already been to, experienced, or imagined all the joy, the confusion, the excitement, the frustration that we might be feeling. God has been here. Without being trite in any way, God really does “feel our pain”—because God has experienced it– – in Mary giving birth to Jesus; in Jesus being rejected by the religious of his day; in Jesus dying on the Cross; in the persecutions of the first Christians; and in any place and any time where people of faith experience pain and heartache and death …. for love. God and God’s messengers have come ahead of us, to prepare the way, to open the doors, and to clear the path.

As we move into the final days of Advent and the first few days of Christmas, may we be gentle with our expectations, so that God might meet us truly where we are; rather than where we might imagine ourselves to be.

This Third Sunday of Advent is sometimes known as “stir-up Sunday.” This has to do with the Collect for the Day which begins with the words, “Stir up thy power, O Lord.” In folk tradition, the image of “stirring up” has also come to be associated with the need to stir up a proper Christmas pudding.  For this reason, those Sundays before and during Advent that included the Latin “Excita, quaesumus,” became a kind of practical reminder to get busy; get going; get to making the pudding, spreading the joy, sharing the love; being Christ in the World.

Whether you are working on a Christmas pudding; whether you continue you getting and giving of gifts; or whether you begin a quiet countdown to Christmas itself; may we each know the grace of God, that we might be ready to receive the good that God would do us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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