This is the message I presented for the 2nd Sunday in Advent (December 8, 2002) at Tompkins Corners UMC. The Scriptures were Isaiah 40: 1 – 11, 2 Peter 3: 8 – 15, and Mark 1: 1 – 8.
If you are like me, one of the first exposures to the words of the Old Testament and Gospel for today came from hearing and participating in a performance of George Frederic Handel’s “Messiah”. Note that the title of the piece has no “the” in it, it is simply “Messiah”. In fact, the first solo I ever did was the tenor solo announcing the voice crying out in the wilderness preparing the way for the Lord. And some of my students at that time commented that I seemed a little bit on the scared side when I sang. They said my face looked a little paler than usual.
There are a number of misconceptions about the piece. First, it is more than just a Christmas piece, though that is when it is most often sung. Its first performance was not at Christmas but on Easter in 1742. And it is more than the “Hallelujah Chorus”. My own surprise came when I discovered that this chorus comes not at the end of the performance but rather in the middle and serves as the transition from the birth of Christ to Passion Week.
It is an oratorio in three sections, dealing with the birth, passion, and triumph of Jesus Christ. Through its majesty, beauty, and greatness, you gain a sense of the emotion and vitality that Jesus must have been then and still is today. One can only imagine what Handel was thinking as he put the words from the scripture that announced the birth of Christ and put down the notes that would carry the message of the Scripture out to the public.
And I think that is how we should hear the words, as Handel perhaps intended them to be heard, announcing the birth of Christ, telling us to prepare for His coming and his ministry, culminating with His resurrection.
Even today we need to be reminded that Jesus came for us, individually and together. Consider the following:
It is a primary truth of Christianity that God reaches us directly. No person is insulated. As ocean floods the inlets, as sunlight environs the plant, so God enfolds and enwreathes the finite spirit. There is this difference, however, inlet and plant are penetrated whether they will or not. Sea and sunshine crowd themselves in a tergo. Not so with God. He can be received only through appreciation and conscious appropriation. He comes only through doors that are purposely opened for him. A person may live as near God as the bubble is to the ocean and yet not find him. He may be “closer than breathing, nearer than hands or feet,” and still be missed. Historical Christianity is dry and formal when it lacks the immediate and inward response to our Great Companion; but our spirits are trained to know him, to appreciate him, by the mediation of historical revelation. A person’s spiritual life is always dwarfed when cut apart from history. Mysticism is empty unless it is enriched by outward and historical revelation. The supreme education of the soul comes through an intimate acquaintance with Jesus Christ of history. (1)
We must then begin to prepare to meet Jesus, if not for the first time, then once again. That is what Advent is about; our preparation for the coming of Christ. It is a preparation that is individual in nature.
It is a preparation that cannot be delayed. Whether we hear the words of Peter in his letter today or the words of John the Baptist, it is clear that we must prepare for the coming of the Lord; that our encounter with the Lord will be ours and ours alone. It is a preparation that must begin now, for time is of no matter to God. His clock is not one we can read or even begin to comprehend; as Peter wrote, time is not important to God so it cannot be important to us. If we must prepare, we must do it now.
It is also important that we realize that John’s voice crying out in the wilderness was not preparing a way for the Lord to come to us but rather for us to come to the Lord. John’s message of repentance was also one of change; if one was to be baptized by the water, washed clean, then one must be willing to change. This is something many people have forgotten today. Too many people today want Christ as their Savior but they want Him on their terms; a deal that cannot be made.
And many evangelists preach a message that fits into that concept of God fitting into your plans rather than the other way around. John’s call was to repent, to change one’s self in order to be ready for God. If we are to gain because of Christ, we cannot keep our old ways.
For as we prepare ourselves, so too are we able to help others. To Isaiah, God said, “comfort my people.” The end of the Babylonian exile was near and the people of Israel would soon be going back to Jerusalem. The call to prepare the way was a call to remove all obstacles that would hamper that coming. In one sense, it means to prepare one’s heart in order to accept the Holy Spirit. It also means that we must help others. Now we can never get someone to accept the Holy Spirit; I continue to believe that is an individual event. But I also believe that we, individually and as a church, can and must do everything possible to help others come to that moment. We must comfort those in need; we must prepare the way so that when the time comes, the path is clear for individuals to come to Christ.
The other day I came across a powerful idea, one that I think fits the small church of today. There are many models for the growth of churches in America today but I don’t believe that they work well with small churches, such as Tompkins Corners or Walker Valley. But there are ways that we can grow and there are ways that we can reach out.
One way is to pay attention to what visitors to this or any church experience on Sunday morning. Will they experience warm hospitality? Will they get a palpable sense of the presence of God? Christopher Schwartz has stated that this is the single most powerful evangelistic outreach possible and through it church growth is possible without the presence or plan of an evangelism program. He concluded his discussion about church growth by noting that all growing congregations have eight traits in common:
- Leaders who empower others to do ministry;
- Ministry tasks distributed according to the gifts of the members;
- A passionate spirituality marked by prayer and putting faith into practice;
- Organizational structures that promote ministry;
- Inspiring worship services;
- Small groups in which the loving and healing power of fellowship is experienced;
- Need-oriented evangelism that meets the needs of the people the church is trying to reach;
- And loving relationships among the members of the church.
Schwartz maintains that if all eight of these characteristics are present, congregations will grow naturally and organically, without the need for an evangelist program.
This can be quite a challenge for many people. Some people think that the task of sharing the Gospel is harder than it actually is. It would seem that, as the humorist Dave Barry once wrote, the people who are the most interested in telling you about their religion don’t want to hear about yours.
Ben Campbell Johnson, of Columbia Theological Seminary, suggests that you ask people outside church “When has God seemed near to you?” There is nothing judgmental about this approach; it starts with where people are and it takes their experience seriously.
If you cannot or will not share your faith with others, it may be that you are in the midst of a crisis of your own. Often times, people use aggressive tactics because they themselves are insecure about their own faith and are anxious for others to believe and behave in the manner that they do so as to make their own faith more plausible.
The question then, is whether one believes in the efficacy of the Gospel — the Gospel that justifies so that we don’t need to earn our status before God or vie for position with others. It is the Gospel that gives shape and purpose to life, making us other-directed rather than self-centered. It is the Gospel of peace that can reconcile broken relationships and build communities. It is the Gospel of justice that advocates for the poor and the marginalized. It is a Gospel of good news and how can one keep from sharing the good news?
This can be a time of great joy and peace, but it is often a time of despair and darkness. As we prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord, we are also challenged to make it easier for others to come to Christ. That preparation begins at the table set before us today. Christ invites us without regard to who or what we are. He says to each one of us that this bread was broken for each one of us and that blood that was shed was shed for us. We hear the words of Isaiah speaking of comfort and know that Christ died so that we may be comforted. We hear the words of John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness, telling us to prepare the way and we know that Christ died so that the way would be prepared. As we complete this, the second Sunday in Advent, we continue preparing for the coming of Christ. And we are invited, no, commanded to help in whatever way we can, through our own talents and gifts, to provided comfort to those who are in pain and to help prepare the way so that others may come to the Lord.
And just as Handel wrote the chorus to celebrate the birth of Christ, so too should we proclaim the presence of Christ in our lives.
(1) From The Double Search by Rufus M. Jones