Advent III–from Dec. 12


Isaiah 35: 1-10, Psalm 146: 5-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

Some of my family live in the south,
and when we were growing up,
they occasionally took me out into the cornfields
for a spiritual revival—we called them tent meetings.
I only went to a couple of them, but they were memorable.
They weren’t church services, per se,
so much as times of listening to a passionate preacher,
who with all the power of persuasion he could muster,
which was a lot, preach and teach, along the lines
of John the Baptist. Repent and come back to God.
Our cornfields weren’t exactly the desert,
and the Little Wabash River, wasn’t exactly the Jordan,
but the intensity of passion
the preachers unleashed on those southern evenings,
might have resembled the passion of John the Baptist,
who so wanted people’s hearts to be renewed by God.
A feature of the tent meeting
was something known as the altar call.
The altar call at a revival is a time when the preacher,
at the height of his rhetorical powers calls people forward
to the altar so the people can pray for them,
so Jesus can come and claim their hearts,
so they could turn their lives around, and repent,
and come to the Lord.
Sometimes they’d go to be baptized.

I just loved the altar call, and I loved going forward
to repent my sinful ways—I was six or seven,
and to their credit, not one of my relatives stopped me from going up.
I don’t remember what I was repenting,
but I really wanted to get in on what was happening.
And maybe something really happened for me
as a little kid, because here I am today,
wanting you all to renew your hearts, too.

Now we do altar calls, too, every Sunday,
when we come forward for communion–that’s an altar call,
because we’re renewed every Sunday in this holy meal.
Whenever we baptize someone, a child or an adult,
we’re doing an altar call, because those persons
are coming forward for the renewal of their lives.
We are washed in water that’s more than water.
We’re reborn. We’re drenched, we put on Christ.

Renewal, repentance, transformation,
rebirth, restoration, reconciliation,
these are all words about baptism,
and we hear them all at Advent time.

This is a season of renewal–
traveling home once again to God.
In this season, the prophets speak of the power of God
to make all things new.
And they expect God to do it—
Isaiah again calls out a vision of God’s renewal,
in glorious imagery of a world
transformed by the power of our Lord.
The wilderness becomes glad;
those deserts rejoice and bloom.
Think of the hearts God will awaken,
those dry places so in need of life-giving water,
but it doesn’t stop there.
Our hearts will become a flowering spring.
With eyes of faith, says Isaiah,
we’ll see the glory and majesty of God
restoring the world.
In the places of desolation, those burning sands,
the haunts of jackals, God will come,
healing, opening the eyes of the blind,
and the ears of the deaf,
tongues will be loosened, and dancing
and leaping with joy become the order of the day.

God comes like a rainy season
in a dry and parched country,
flooding it with water.
Waters break forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
We don’t live in desert country, but those prophets did,
and they saw with their own eyes what happens
when the rains come—overnight the landscape becomes green,
and flowers bloom from what looked like dead branches of trees.

This is what life with God is like, a flowering wilderness.
And through it runs the Holy Way we follow,
a homeward way back to God
to a land restored, protected from danger.
No traveler on that Holy Way, Isaiah says,
will go astray; “not even fools,” shall go astray.
And we’ll come into Zion singing with everlasting joy.
For us, this the promise of what happens when Christ is born.

Be strong, Isaiah says, while God is doing his work.
Be patient and unafraid, strengthen your hands,
and make firm your knees. God’s healing is at work,
even when we can’t see it happening right away,
Isaiah says. James, repeats this, too,
in his letter—be patient, God is on the way.
Watch for signs of him, like a farmer watches
over his precious field—waiting and rejoicing
when the rains come.
Strengthen your hearts, for the Lord is near.

When John the Baptist was preaching around the Jordan,
he knew the Messiah was near.
He was eventually arrested—no freedom of religion
in ancient Palestine.
In John’s time, he must have caused enough excitement
for the Romans to think he was a threat to civil order,
or fomenting rebellion.
He was jailed, and there he continued
to hear accounts of what Jesus was doing.
And he wondered, in his prison,
if Jesus was the one, was he the Messiah,
was he really the one?
Jesus told John’s disciples:
tell him what you hear and see,
God is at work in people’s lives.
Jesus aligns himself with the visions of the prophets;
he’s like the rain in the desert,
a healing power in people’s lives.
Blessed is anyone who doesn’t take offense at me,
Jesus said, knowing full well, that people would.

We all ask that question, at some point:
is Jesus the one for us. Is he coming for us,
is he really our Savior—and we, like John,
want to know, here in our prisons,
if Jesus really is the one who will set us free.
The Gospel says yes, it is he. Believe in him.
He is the one who comes to us,
here in the particularity of our lives,
born into our human world, taking on our flesh
making holy every part of our life,
leading us into the fullness and abundance of Life
with a capital L.

In a few moments this morning,
we’ll be receiving new members into the fellowship
of this church. It’s another kind of altar call.
Some of them have been coming here for a while,
and some are new, but all of them are coming
to this community through the affirmation of their baptisms.
Advent, this season of Incarnation,
is a wonderful time to receive members,
because we’re affirming
the birth of God in the manger of our lives.
They’re coming down
a Holy Way through the wilderness,
to this place, this particular community,
making a commitment to the Triune God
and to the people of God gathered here.
Their hearts are prepared, they’ve been watching and waiting,
and today they are coming,
because for whatever reason, something
has happened to call them here.
Even though our font is small, it’s connected
to all the water there ever was,
to the life-giving waters of Christ,
a fountain of life and hope,
streams in the desert, waters in the wilderness.
an endless river of renewal,
joining us forever to Christ, to the life of God,
and to the people of God.
As they make their affirmation of baptism,
may all our hearts be renewed,
in trust and divine hope,
that Jesus himself is our stream in the desert,
our flowering wilderness, our Holy Way.

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