Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Preparing is Good - A Sermon

Happy St. Nick’s day.  Yes, this is the real day of St. Nicholas.  Feel the anticipation.  In Europe, this used to be the big gift giving day, and there is still a tradition of putting out a shoe by the door so that St. Nick can fill it with goodies.  

Of course, if I were European, the kids would probably wake up to a note saying, “Oops, got really busy and forgot.  Left some money with Dad to buy candy.  Love, St. Nick.”  Needless to say, preparing for things is not my strong suit.

In fact, preparing for almost any big event is an occasion of stress and anxiety, not to mention lists of things to remember.  I just want to get the events over with so real life can take over again.

But what if what you’re preparing for IS real life?  Or NEW life?  What if the type of preparing you need to do is not the frantic dinner making, gift buying, card sending type but the quiet, individual, internal type?

Baruch (I’m sure you’ve heard of him), wrote to the people of Israel while they were in exile in Babylon.  He wasn’t exactly a prophet - he was the prophet Jeremiah’s secretary.  But Jeremiah was among those sent elsewhere during the exile, so Baruch carries his spirit to the people.

And what is that spirit?  Preparation.  He tells them that their time of suffering is almost over and now it is time to prepare to go home.  They are to take off the garment of sorrow and put on the robe of righteousness and diadem of glory.  

They need to prepare because returning home is hard -- not getting the pots and pans ready -- that’s easy.  Getting your soul ready -- not so much.  I have never been in prison or in a war, but I have heard from those who have, and they tell me that coming home is hard.  It’s a different way of life even if it’s one they look forward to.  Some people find it so hard that they sign back up for another hitch -- or commit crimes so they can return to prison.  

Though I did not experience those things, I was an exchange student for a couple of years, and they prepared us for our return home as well.  With good reason.  Many of us found it difficult returning to a culture we had spent an entire year shutting out so we could learn the new culture.  It all seemed strange and somehow wrong.  They call it “Reverse Culture Shock” and without preparing for it, life is very confusing and painful.

In today’s prisons and military (as well as cultural exchanges), they spend more time and resources trying to prepare those returning to civilian society because they know going back is hard.

The people of Israel must prepare to be on their own again, no longer slaves.  And no longer surrounded by the gods of their captors.  They also return to a remnant that did NOT go into exile.  History tells us their return was not easy.  But their preparation -- and the promise that they would not return alone -- saved them, God was with them.

Now, John the Baptist is ALSO speaking to Israel about preparing.  Like Baruch, he brings the spirit of Jeremiah in his lines about filling valleys and making mountains low -- smoothing the way.  It’s not so much a return to the old country he is preparing for, but a coming of a savior who will let Israel return to its old life.

Now, please note that this is not the baby Jesus -- this is the adult Christ John wants them to prepare for.  John is really the last of the old time prophets, and what he THINKS the people are to prepare for is a warrior prince who will save Israel from their Roman oppressors so they can return to the glory days of Baruch’s return.  They can be free again.  He is not exactly right, but the preparation is spot on. 

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul is also asking the people to prepare themselves for Christ.  He gets closer to the point because he wants them to prepare for the coming of Christ, “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.”

Paul sees Christ coming to bring the people -- all those who believe and trust him -- to their real home -- eternal life in the Kingdom of God.  That is indeed our hope too, though becoming blameless, as we know, is not within our power.  All we can do is trust in God’s love, and seek to live in that same love.

But when you think about it, learning to love others is the best preparation for the Kingdom of God.  Learning to put the welfare of others before your own is good training for the life Christ points us to.  

It is not the external preparation of the holidays, and it’s not really the Old Testament preparation of going back home.  Instead, it is the preparation of going to a home we have never been to yet -- but once we get there, we will never have to leave.

Now that we are in our second week of Advent, we are getting used to the idea of preparing.  But let us remember that our best preparations are here (the heart and mind) -- and let’s refuse to fall into that trap of thinking that Christmas preparations are all about the gifts, decorations parties and cards.  St. Nicholas would approve.  Amen.