3rd Sunday of Advent – “Heaven is Singing”
Isaiah 12: 2-6 Philippians 4: 4-7
December 16, 2018
Well, with Christmas nearly here, there is probably not one among us whose thoughts don’t stray towards Bethlehem with wonder in our thoughts. Do you want to go to Bethlehem? Well, getting there hasn’t always been easy.
Back in 1996 when I was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, getting to Bethlehem required disembarking our tour bus at an armored check point outside the town, having our passports taken, then walking a full block under the watchful eye of heavily armed Israeli soldiers. Only after successfully navigating this pulse-quickening walk could we board a Palestinian bus to finally take us into Bethlehem. Our tour bus still had to stop at a checkpoint before entering the city, but then instead of requiring passengers to get off, armed soldiers got on. They walked up and down the aisles with intimidation. After a few anxiety-producing minutes, when the all clear was given, we could drive to the other side of the checkpoint, change buses, and enter Bethlehem.
We simply drove to a kiosk where our bus driver spoke to a guard for a few moments. Then we were waved on, with the greatest discomfort was the speed bump that lies at the gate of the twenty-five- foot cement wall which now sadly separates Israel from the West Bank. And that is how you get to Bethlehem these days, at least physically.
But let me hasten to say, that if getting to Bethlehem physically seems a bit challenging, it is nothing compared to the difficulty of getting to Bethlehem spiritually. At least that is what John the Baptist would have us understand and what the church has been reminding us of for as long as the lectionary has existed, because at Advent there is no getting to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem without first naming God as your salvation.
It is like saying I will trust and not be afraid or joy comes from knowing that God will show me the way. Salvation is like singing to God for God has done glorious things in my life. So I will sing and let it be known throughout the world.
- For me, salvation has come when I knew the right path to follow in my life having sometimes wishing for the adventure of the wrong path. I could have gone one way or another way, but God helped me to follow the right path even after I had made mistakes.
- Salvation comes when we do right by our family and friends who become family to us confident in God’s promised blessings of joy.
- Salvation comes when we admit our wrongs and pray with thanksgiving for forgiveness, presenting your request to God.
- Salvation is knowing you are dearly beloved child of God with the gifts of the spirit at your disposal. The greatest of these gifts is love.
Well, I can tell you what it’s not! Undoubtedly along the way I have heard of many demonstrations of half-hearted repentance, the kind that we are capable of. Maybe we, like the folks of the biblical day, tell ourselves our half-hearted repentance for wrong-doing is adequate if we simply feel a little badly about what we have done or left undone. It’s not a mark of full repentance. Or maybe we think, like the folks of John’s day, that our half-hearted repentance for wrongdoing is adequate because of our identity as decent church folks who are part of the Christian family. Maybe we think that identity gives us extra credit points and ought to protect us. Maybe, trying to depend on one’s heritage or privilege doesn’t demonstrate full repentance.
Let’s face it, our tender feelings aren’t enough. And our pedigree as children of God isn’t enough, either. What matters is what we do, and how we live.
A number of years ago, Norman Cousins wrote an editorial in which he reported a conversation he had on a trip to India. He talked at length with a Hindu priest named Satis Prasad. The man said he wanted to come to our country to work as a missionary among the North American people. Cousins assumed that he meant that he wanted to convert us to the Hindu religion. But when asked, Satis Prasad said, “Oh no, I would like to convert them to the Christian religion. Christianity cannot survive in the abstract. It needs not membership, but believers. Not people who talk about their faith but live their faith. The people of your country may claim they believe in Christianity; but from what I read at this distance, Christianity is more a custom than anything else. I would ask that you either accept the teachings of Jesus in your everyday life and in your affairs as a nation or stop invoking God’s name as sanction for everything you do. I want to help save Christianity for the Christian.” I suppose one could say this but not here. You folks live your faith as you go into the community with your mission dollars.
Some in the crowd asked, “What then should we do?” “Share with one another. If you have two coats give one to someone who has none. If you have more food than you need give some away to someone who is hungry.” In other words, demonstrating being humble in one’s life will involve generosity. Be generous.
But the tax collectors in the crowd were apparently still not clear and they shouted, “Teacher, what should we do?” Now, the tax collectors in John’s day paid the Roman overlords for the privilege of collecting tolls and tariffs and customs fees. Then they extorted as much money as possible from the populace to recoup their initial outlay and make a profit. “Collect no more than the amount prescribed.” In other words, a demonstration of salvation will be absolute honesty and dependability.
“Be satisfied with your wages.” In other words, a demonstration of salvation will be an end of grasping greediness and the false contentment.
Generosity, integrity, contentment: signs of a life that has undergone thoroughgoing salvation…proof that faith is more than talk. No easy outs, no short cuts, no excuses.
Paul in his letter to the Philippians was never shy about asking his listeners to do something great. Not for some personal entitlement, but in order to accept the peace of God which transcends all understanding that will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus.
And have no doubt the Messiah is definitely on the way. We might be awed by the majesty and mystery of the One coming. We might not be worthy to untie the thongs of the Messiah’s sandals. Presumably we are becoming prepared for Jesus’ birth anew and for the sake of readiness for the Messiah’s coming maybe we are ready to step into the presence of greatness, the greatness found in Bethlehem, without the self-consciousness of any misdeeds and wrong-doings clinging to us. Let the past go, I say, be rid of it, be sorry for it, lay it down. Take up new lives, worthy of the one whose presence you seek.
And that my friends, that is the identity you want on your passport when you make for that gate to Bethlehem and ask it to open for you.
As we journey to Bethlehem in this season, we pray the gates may open wide for us and for the many others who wish to love and welcome God’s Son and stream into his presence singing to the heavens: Rejoice in God always, I will say it again. Rejoice! Amen.