This is the message I presented for the 3rd Sunday in Advent (December 15, 2002) at Tompkins Corners UMC. The Scriptures were Isaiah 61: 1 – 4, 8 – 11; 1 Thessalonians 5: 15 – 24; and John 1: 6 – 8, 19 – 28.
I have a confession to make, “I am not a gracious loser.” I realize that I not competitive in every area where I compete but in those areas where I do compete and excel I do not take losses easily, especially when I can point to errors on my part that contributed to the loss. And John’s statement about not being able to wear the shoes of the one that is coming reminds me of a particularly galling loss some twenty-three years ago. For as I fumed over the loss and walked out of the bowling center, I turned to the person who beat me and just said that he shouldn’t gloat for he couldn’t even carry my bowling bag.
Now, this may not be particularly interesting to anyone but me but a few months later as we prepare to travel to another tournament, he came with a bowling bag on wheels. Not only could he not carry my bag, he couldn’t carry his own.
No matter how it is done, we need to be reminded about what John said that day in the desert outside Jerusalem. We are not worthy to walk in the shoes of Jesus and we shouldn’t even begin to think that we could.
The spring of my sophomore year in college, I went to the pastor at First United Methodist Church in Kirksville about taking communion before leaving for spring break. Reverend Fortel was taken back by this request for no other college student had ever made such a request. But he agreed to do so and we met in the chapel just before spring break. The ritual for communion spoke of not even being worthy of collecting the crumbs from under the table. Since this communion was not of a formal service, I asked Rev. Fortel why this was. “Didn’t Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross give us the right to sit at God’s table?” I asked. Rev. Fortel pointed out that by ourselves we would never have that right and it is only by God’s grace and the salvation of Christ that we are able to come to the table.
There is another thing that you need to know about bowling and its roots to Protestant churches of Europe during the Reformation. Martin Luther was a great proponent of bowling, so much so that a bowling lane was placed in the center aisle of the sanctuary. Every Sunday, members of the congregation would stand at the end of the lane and roll a ball down the aisle towards the pins. A strike was an indication of one’s righteousness and the failure to strike was an indication of one’s unworthiness. It should be noted that the lane at that time was about 10 inches in width and unless you were particular adept at throwing a straight shot down the boards, getting a strike was down right near impossible. So it was that many people were obligated to practice and work on their righteousness each week.
Of course, this theological application does not seem to have been carried through the ages. But the concept of working on one’s righteousness should not have been lost in the passage of time. And, during this season of Advent, as we prepare for the coming of Christ, we are reminded of our responsibility to others so that they can prepare as well.
The passage from Isaiah is not only a reminder that God has not forgotten the people in exile in Babylon but a reminder that the people will be restored. We read that God will “bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives and release the prisoners.” And it is important to note that it is the people who will build up the ancient ruins, repair the ruined cities and take away the devastation of the previous generations.
“For I the Lord loves justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing” is what Isaiah told the people. And if the covenant between the people and God was to be reestablished, then so too must the people.
John Wesley knew that people could not live without the Gospel. There can never be hope in one’s life if the Gospel is not there. But he also knew that Gospel was meaningless if the people were hungry or cold or homeless. What good does it do to be of good cheer if one cannot feed one’s family? Our responsibility to bring the Gospel to the world means that we must also take care of those in need.
Our own preparation for the coming of the Lord is individual in nature. It is something that only we can do, though we may do it with others. But John’s call for repentance is a call for us to look into the bags that we carry, be they bowling bags or otherwise, rollaway or hand carried, and empty them out. Repentance requires that we start over, without the baggage of our past. We cannot prepare for the coming of the Lord if we hold to our old ways, if we keep looking back to the past.
Paul spoke of what we should be doing. Celebrate that God is present in our lives. Hear the words of the prophets and test them. Hold fast to that which is good but abstain from every form of evil. Isaiah spoke of the rewards that would come with the preparation. People would gain garlands instead of ashes, be anointed with oil instead of mourning and wear a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
This time of year is one of darkness; it can be one of gloom. But as the lights on the Advent wreath increase each Sunday, so too does the hope for the future. Take some time this week and look at the bags that you carry. Take some time this week and consider whether your life can strike out against injustice and oppression. Give some time this week to put away the old ways and look to the future.
Isaiah’s words “as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” ring true today. It is the Holy Spirit that has been given to us and through us shines in this time of darkness. With the presence of the Holy Spirit we are empowered to help others, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and free those oppressed by injustice and finally to hear the good news of the coming of the Christ child.