'Be diligent to be found by Him without spot or blemish' (2 Pet. 3.14)
Friends, I’d be curious to take a poll of the congregation and ask you this question: over the past 9 months of this pandemic, have you kept your house cleaner and tidier than before, or, have you allowed it to get messier? For those of you watching the livestream now, perhaps you can type your answer in the chat feature of the website or the comments section of our YouTube channel.
It seems to me the results could go either way: On the one hand, we’ve all been spending more time at home than ever before, so it might drive you crazy to live in messy surroundings all the time – that’s motivation to clean. On the other hand, with all of the social distancing and self-isolation measures, none of us have been having company over to visit as we normally would, and we all know there’s no motivation to clean like ‘cleaning for company’!
Well in our Gospel today, John the Baptist arrives ahead of time to announce that company is indeed coming - and so it’s time to straighten up! But merely tidying on the surface will not do. What is needed this time is a deep cleaning and thorough renovation. That’s because the company we’re about to receive is no ordinary guest.
Apparently in Great Britain there’s a joke that wherever Her Majesty the Queen goes to visit she smells fresh paint! Cleaning for regular company is one thing, but what about for royalty? John the Baptist is the forerunner of the Lord, a messenger going ahead of royalty to get everyone ready for the coming King, Jesus Christ. As our Gospel writer St. Mark tells us, the arrival of John the Baptist - and the King after Him - was a long time coming. It was foretold long ago by Prophet Isaiah: that one day the LORD would come, not just to visit, but to move in with His people. In the words of our Psalm, God’s glory - His holy, special presence - would dwell in our land (Ps. 85.9). God is moving into the neighbourhood, into our house. He will be with us; He will be our God, we shall be His people.
And so Isaiah tells us: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. In this time of pandemic lockdown, we may feel as though we are in a desert or wilderness of sorts. But that is precisely the place through which the LORD will deliver us so as to dwell with us.
In fact, the prophet Isaiah addressed these words to the people of God during their time of exile. Their holy city of Jerusalem had been destroyed along with its Temple and they had been carried off across the desert to the distant land of Babylon. They were far from home and were barred from worshipping where they were accustomed to do so. Sound familiar?
And so although their plight was far more severe than our own during this time of pandemic, I think we can see some basic, general similarities between their situation and ours. It’s helpful for us to know that the people of God have endured circumstances like these (and worse) in ages past and have prevailed through their faith and God’s saving power. In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Our job as we await His coming to deliver us is to clear out any garbage, debris or clutter that could hinder the King’s arrival, His Advent.
And so friends, in this Advent season, I invite you to examine if there are any such obstacles in your life: perhaps a certain behaviour, habit, anger & irritability, resentment, etc.
And as a church community here at St. James, we must ask the same question: what are the obstacles in our common life, relationships, systems and practices that could prove to be a barrier to the Lord’s arrival and His dwelling with us?
So there is some work of preparation for us to do on the human side of things.
But the most powerful work in preparing for this arrival is done by God Himself. Listen to the next verse from Isaiah: Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. The image here is of the entire landscape being flattened and smoothed, almost as though a giant runway or helicopter pad were being built for God’s landing.
Now this imagery is not to be taken literally, but this vivid illustration is a way of expressing that in order for God to make His home with us here on earth, there will need to be thorough renovation and transformation of the entire created order. Only that will make it a dwelling fit for a King. And this work can only be accomplished by God, and only accomplished in the age to come.
There is a similarly vivid, not-to-be-taken literally image in our second reading from the Second Letter of St. Peter, which speaks of the heavens being burned up and dissolved.
That may be frightening, but clearly this is not about the final annihilation of all things, because as Peter says in v.13, according to [God’s] promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. So on the last day, when Christ the King comes again in glory, it’s not that this world will be utterly destroyed, because then He would have no place to dwell. Rather the world will be purified and refined, liberated from its bondage to corruption and decay, sickness and disease, terror and violence - and ultimately from Death itself.
The image of the blazing fire, I think, refers to the work of the Holy Spirit. Fire is one of the most commonly used images of the Spirit in the Bible. For example, the Holy Spirit first descended on the disciples on the Day of Pentecost as fire. So what Peter is describing here is a Pentecost of the entire cosmos.
The very same Spirit of God’s love that has been shed abroad in our hearts will purify and refine all of creation.
In our Gospel, John the Baptist say that just as He has baptized or immersed people in water, so the coming King will immerse the world with His glorious Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit will become the very air we breathe, the fire in their hearts.
So again, Peter is not speaking about the end of the world so much as its transformation into something new – a new heaven and new earth where heaven and earth will be together as one.
And because God’s dwelling place in heaven will be made one with earth, the glory of the LORD shall be revealed to us, Isaiah says. The world shall be glorified, filled with God’s holy presence and thus be a place where righteousness dwells, as Peter says.
But this is not only a future hope. The glory of the Lord can be revealed here and now in a way that anticipates and previews that which will be in the age to come.
In the words of our Psalm, surely [God’s] salvation is near to those who fear Him, that glory may dwell in our land. Psalm 85 goes on to describe what this glory will look like in our lives and in our common life as a church. Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.
So here we see that there are four character traits of God that are to be reflected in the lives and community of His faithful people. They are: steadfast love; faithfulness; righteousness; and peace.
I want to touch on each of these just briefly and think about how they can be shown forth in our lives and in our church.
First, steadfast love – The Hebrew word here, hesed, is one of the most important words in the entire Old Testament. It refers to God’s faithfulness to His covenant with His people. Despite His people’s rebellion and lack of faithfulness, time after time God shows them mercy because of His great love for them.
So this is about God’s kindness, loyalty and love. And as God’s people made in His image and likeness, we must show the same in our relationships with others, especially with those who are hard to love.
So I think this one would apply mostly to our family relationships – our families at home, our extended families, and our church family. Friends, ask yourself: where can you show steadfast love to a family member during this holiday season?
God requires such kindness, forgiveness, grace, mercy, loyalty and love from us because He Himself is kind and has shown the same to each one of us.
Second, faithfulness – This is about being trustworthy, honest, morally upright, reliable, having integrity. For us this means maintaining high standards of behaviour at all times, not just in polite company.
The Psalmist says that in God, steadfast love and faithfulness meet. God is perfectly holy and just with high standards of moral behaviour, and He is also gracious, forgiving and merciful to us when we fall short. The same must be true for us in our own lives and dealings with others.
Third, righteousness – Nowadays this is not a commonly used word, so we may not be quite sure what ‘righteousness’ means. So hopefully this illustration will be helpful. In the Bible, this word ‘righteousness’ can be applied to things, to inanimate objects. And in those cases it means that the given thing is working properly in accordance with a standard, just as God Himself does what He is supposed to do.
So think of a door: a ‘righteous’ door is one that fits properly in its frame; it’s the right size, it’s level, it doesn’t chafe against the jamb on the side or the top or bottom, the the hinges are swinging smoothly without squeaking, the bolt fits smoothly in the strike plate. That’s a ‘righteous’ door.
By the way, speaking of a door, one of the most common Advent images of Jesus is the one in our centre stained glass window here at St. James with a verse from the Book of Revelation Behold, I stand at the door and knock. The door is your heart and also the door of this church. So when Jesus comes knocking on the last day – and when He comes knocking here and now in this life through His Word and in this Holy Communion – how will our door open?
There’s a 19th century painting by William Holman Hunt of this same image. I assume our window here at St. James is based on this. And in the original, it’s quite clear the door has not been opened in some time. The hinges are rusty, there are weeds growing up in front. And there is no door handle on the outside, which means that it can only be opened from within, from our side. So it might open with a firm pull and a creak, we may have to oil the hinges first, but open it we must.
So then, like a well-functioning door, for us to live a righteous life means to live as we’re designed to live, in accordance with God’s laws, by loving God and our neighbour as ourselves, living with faith, hope and love. Righteousness can also refer to society as a whole – a society of justice, the world as God intends it to be.
Fourth, peace or shalom – This is not just the absence of conflict, but positively, it means prosperity, well-being, health, completeness, safety, good relationships. And we can experience this same peace in our lives and relationships as a result of being at peace with God. Steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness and peace.
These are high standards, to be sure. How can these characteristics of God be shown in human life? Because they already have been in the person of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. They have been made flesh in Jesus. They were fully present and active in Him; and so in and through Him, they can be alive and active in you too. In Christ the fulness of God was pleased to dwell – and so God dwells with you too by His Holy Spirit.
Surely God’s salvation is near, that His glory may dwell with us. For that, thanks be to God. Amen.