Second Sunday of Advent
December 6, 2020
A few weeks ago I taught a course on Medieval Christianity to students studying for ordination. It went as well as you can imagine. I made some bad church history jokes. I drank entirely too much coffee. The students said they enjoyed it but I think they were just being nice because they wanted a good grade.
And speaking of grades, it was the first time in my life that I graded papers. I mean, I went to school for twenty years straight, from age 5 to 25. I’ve had plenty of papers graded, but I’ve never wielded the red pen. And I didn’t like it. They were trying to be nice to me and I wanted to be nice to them. I hated grading someone that is eventually going to be my peer. I hated telling someone that they got something wrong. And yet I know that’s what teachers have to do. My favorite teachers and professors were the ones who held me to a higher standard, the ones who were tough graders. They weren’t hard teachers to be mean, no. They were hard because they wanted the best out of me, they held me to a higher standard. My grades, then, were the consequences of how well I met that high standard or not. And sometimes, somebody has got to tell the truth, even if it is going to disappoint us or make us uncomfortable. Even if it is going to be hard. That’s just what the prophets do.
See, prophets are not fortune tellers, they don’t see the future. Prophets hold God’s people to a high standard and warn us of the consequences of our actions, good or bad. Isaiah tells the people to start living right or else the Temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed. Micah says to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God and God will restore the good fortunes of the people. A high standard and a serious consequence.
John the Baptist appears in the wilderness with a high standard. Repentance. John urges the people to turn their lives around, to forsake their sins, to turn their hearts to God again. In the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist says that “whoever has two coats, must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 2:11). John the Baptist calls the people to confess their sins of greed, and baptism was washing away of the old so that they would be ready for the new. And if not, if the people didn’t live up to that high standard, there would be a consequence. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruits is cut down and thrown into the fire” (2:9). This is how the prophets work. They wield a mighty red pen. A high standard with a serious consequence.
Now, the prophets are saying all these things not because they’re mean. Oh no. The prophets are like that demanding professor you who gave out the hardest grades. Not because they didn’t like you. But because they loved you and wanted the best from you. Because they held you to a high standard with consequences.
Now I bet that each of you has a prophet in your life. Someone who loves you dearly but who isn’t afraid to speak the truth to you, to hold you to a high standard. You need to listen to that person. When they have something critical to say, open your ears. When they want to hold you to a higher standard, hear them out. When they warn you of the consequences of the decisions you are making, listen to them. They are saying those hard things to you because they love you.
Usually, our reaction is to avoid criticism. Or to explain things away. Or to find the easier teacher, the easier professor who doesn’t ask for much. Instead of digging deeper with a real friend who will tell us the truth we seek out easy-going buddies and acquaintances. You know, the ones who like us, who slap us on the back, but who don’t really love us. This is not the way to growth. This is not the way to grow stronger in your faith. If you want to be a stronger person, a stronger Christian, a more faithful disciple, you need to have a prophet in your life.
Don’t hear what I’m not saying. Don’t take every piece of criticism from every Joe Blow that you meet. Don’t live your life trying to make everybody happy. Don’t listen to every piece of petty criticism that comes your way. That’s also the path to disaster. Defining yourself by other people’s expectations of you is the perfect recipe for self-destruction and emotional implosion. Once you hop on that hamster wheel it’s almost impossible to come off. When you receive the anonymous criticism, or the petty little comment, just move along. Those people in your life are not John the Baptist, they’re just a stick in the mud.
What I am saying is that you should gather around yourself one or two trusted friends who will tell you the truth. The John the Baptist in your life who is willing to stand out there in the wilderness, all alone, calling you to repentance. People who themselves are committed to the Lord Jesus and who will only speak the truth in love; never out of pettiness. In my own life I give thanks to God for this select group of friends and mentors who hold me to a higher standard. I give thanks for their honesty in sharing with me the consequences of my actions – either good or bad.
Because, truthfully, we gather here today to hear from the One who will always speak the Truth. We are gathered to hear the Word of God – both its standards and its consequences. In this sense, the Holy Spirit is that One who critiques us, challenges us, holds us to the high standard of love because God first loves us.
So what is the high standard for today? It is the same that John the Baptist proclaimed two thousand years ago along the banks of the River Jordan. Repent. Forsake our sins. Now is the time to turn around. To soften our hearts. To see with the eyes of love. To put ourselves in another’s place, to live with empathy instead of antipathy.
And what is the consequence? A hardened heart creates a hardened culture. Greed today creates decadence tomorrow. In the same way, gratitude now creates generosity tomorrow. Now is the time to acknowledge that there are consequences for our actions – consequences not only for ourselves but for others, too. You do not live in a vacuum; every decision you make creates a long chain of events that other people have to live with. Whether good or bad. That is the what the prophets warn us about. Because one Day, on the Last Day, all the consequences of our actions will be revealed. For even now, the ax is lying at the root of the tree.
As we boldly prayed this morning, heed the prophets and forsake your sins. And I am calling you to turn away from your sins, I am holding you to a high standard not because I like preaching dark sermons about judgment. I mean, I really hate grading papers. I am holding you to a high standard because God loves you. And I believe that God desires each of us to live with a softened heart. As you make your way through Advent to Christmas, listen to the prophets. Turn from your sins. And prepare yourselves to be baptized by the Holy Spirit.