While folks will be working hard over the next few weeks to capture the spirit of the season through music and parties and movies, Christ through the Church is calling us to choose a different path. This is not the time to get into “the Christmas spirit” because we are not only preparing to celebrate His birth, we are also preparing ourselves for His Second Coming when He shall come to judge the living and the dead. As our collect today informs us, He is calling us to prepare the way for our salvation by heeding the warnings of the prophets and forsaking our sins. This call while sobering is somewhat generic so it would behoove us to focus in more closely on what it is that the prophets are warning us about and which sins it is that we need to forsake.
It is a little difficult to discern a warning in this Isaiah passage because it is filled with such beautiful promises. It begins with a prophecy of Jesus. He is the shoot from the stump of Jesse. We know this because St. Matthew opens his gospel with the genealogy of Jesus, whom he calls “the son of David” and he tells us that Jesse is David’s father.
After this prophecy of Jesus, Isaiah paints a picture of what Jesus’ reign will look like. There will be harmony between natural enemies like a wolf and a lamb. This is an image most likely signifying peace between warring nations. There will be no more hurt or destruction and the earth will be as full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea. Isaiah says “His resting place shall be glorious.”
This is a vision of the kingdom of God in its fullness. How this will all come about is where we find the prophet’s warning. “but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist and faithfulness the belt of his loins.”
This Messiah King will not be clothed in the usual trappings of earthly emperors that signify their power. He will be robed in righteousness. His righteousness is a two edged sword that brings equity for the meek but death to the wicked. So the warning of the prophets is that the King will come in righteousness to judge the world. In what condition will He find us at His coming? Will we be on the side of the meek or on the side of the wicked?
What then are the sins that we need to forsake? On one level that is a very personal matter. I say that not in the sense of situational ethics or relativism but simply acknowledging that we each are at very different places in this journey of faith. Sins that I am wrestling with may have been completely banished from your life and visa versa. So part of forsaking our sins is asking the Holy Spirit to convict us and reveal what specific sins that He is calling us to forsake.
That said, there is a theme in our lessons that points us in a direction. Isaiah speaks of God giving equity to the meek. The Psalmist speaks of God defending the needy among His people. Romans speaks of the obligation of the strong to bear with the failings of the weak. And John the Baptist calls on those who repent to bear fruit in keeping with repentance.
As a parish we are doing a number of things well. When Bishop Frank was here he told several of us that we have some of the best liturgy in the Diocese. Additionally I cannot imagine a better musician than Kirk and Marty has created for us a first class Christian Education program. I could go on and on but the one area that I am convinced that we need to shore up is our outreach to the most vulnerable among us. Why them? Because they are the ones that Scripture consistently portrays as being close to God’s heart. You read over and over His concern for the widow and the orphan. Mary in the Magnificat celebrates that God has cast down the mighty from their thrones but has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things. In the Psalm we read, “For He shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress and the oppressed who has no helper.”
I don’t mean to imply that we are not doing any ministry in this area. Our work with the Burmese refugees and the upcoming clean water project in Honduras are great example of what we are doing right. But again I am convicted that we need to do more, particularly on a personal basis. I say that because of the Scriptures that point us in that direction.
Think about the parable of the Good Samaritan. You will recall in the story that a man was beaten by robbers and when a priest and a Levite saw him they passed on the other side of the road. But a Samaritan took it upon himself not only to provide immediate assistance but gave the innkeeper money from his own pocket so that the man would continue to receive care. He didn’t form a committee. He didn’t apply for Obamacare. He didn’t say to himself, “Someone ought to do something about this” and then move on. He acted. He did what he could. He didn’t change the world but he changed that man’s world.
What about us? I’m sure most of us have acted as Good Samaritans, but have there been other times when we acted like the priest and the Levite and crossed to the other side. If so we should take advantage of this penitential season, repent of our sin, and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit on how to be not only a Good Samaritan but an even Gooder Samaritan. (Apologies to English teachers).
Another text comes to mind that calls us to action is from James 2. “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
The modern version of this text is when someone comes to you and needs help with their basic needs like food and clothing and you say to them, “I’ll pray for you.” First of all you probably won’t but second, according to James, this kind of faith without works is dead. If this has been your approach in the past then again take advantage of this penitential season, repent of the sin, and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit on how to add works to your faith.
I could come up with plenty more texts to show us our personal responsibilities to serve those in need but I want to move on and ask why we don’t do so and possibly expose a more fundamental sin for us to forsake in this penitential season. I suggest that we are not more vigorous in our service of others because of our uber busy lives. It’s not that we are heartless or indifferent, it’s just that we don’t have the time.
But if we will inspect our busy lives then we may discover that they are more aligned with pursuing the American dream than with responding to a call to be servants like Christ. And while the American dream is not inherently evil it requires a lot of selfishness to make the dream come true and that is the more fundamental sin for us to forsake. It is not as if the Good Samaritan was less busy than the priest and the Levite, rather he was more selfless than the other two and so he acted Christ-like in loving his neighbor.
The collect adds one more thing to the call to heed the warnings of the prophets and to forsake our sins and that is the reason for doing so. “That we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.” We do not approach this penitential season like the wearing of the Middle Ages hair shirts or the self flagellation of the crazy monk in the DaVinci Code. This is not a season of self- punishment, it is a season of self-preparation.
It’s so important to clarify our goal so that we are not driven by guilt or emotion because both of those lead to bad ends. Guilt and emotion do not make us faithful. Guilt and emotion do not sustain us. Conviction does. Conviction acts in spite of feeling. Our conviction then is that we heed the prophets and forsake out sins so that when He comes in righteousness we will be celebrating and not cowering. I John says “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.”
As I was writing this sermon Fr. Chris answered a call. A couple that had been working in Florida was driving back to Indiana and their truck was broken into and their things were stolen. They needed help with gas and food. So Fr. Chris met them at the Kangaroo, put gas in their truck, bought them a pizza and gave them a gift card. This according to James is pure religion. This is what we are to be about. Fr. Chris did not change the world by this one act of kindness but he changed their world. He did not try to be their savior, he just did what he could and that is all the Lord is asking us to do.
Let’s listen for God’s guidance during this season rather than getting caught up in premature celebration. There will plenty of time for that. Let’s heed the warnings of the prophets and forsake our sins so that we will greet with JOY the coming of our Redeemer.