Advent 2, December 5, 2010
Isaiah 11:1-11, Matthew 3:1-12
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in God’s word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. Psalm 130:5-6
At night planes cross the patch of sky outside our window as I hold Clara whose often fighting sleep. 4 or 5 a minute, from right to left as they take off from Bush Intercontinental Airport with hundreds of people flying to dozens of places, their blinking wing lights fire the light bulb in my own head. Where are they going and why? Who or what are they leaving behind? Are there babies up there crying like mine down here? And if so, will anyone speak a kind word to the horrified mother? If not grounded, where would I fly, which warm beach would I bring my book to lounge upon? 6…7…8… seconds and they’re gone, out of sight and out of mind. A momentary flash in my mind never to return, never to complete the myriad stories contained within.
But in this small, superficial way, I can say that the plane’s part of my story. I glimpsed them, conjured dreams and wondered aloud, a mere spectator on their journey through the heavens. But to them, I am nothing. Lost in the sea of Houston lights 20,000 feet beneath them I am neither seen nor connected to their story. It’s as if I don’t exist, making no difference or exerting any influence on what they’re doing. I am a spectator.
Too often in life God is like that airplane in my life: flying through a patch of my vision crowded otherwise by a perfectly coiffed life. God remains distant, with me only a spectator. Perhaps God is heading to some exotic, exciting place, while I change diapers and check the sports scores. Perhaps God’s working his way closer to family or a friend I’m out of touch with, but the demands of work keep me so focused I can hardly breath. Cholera in Haiti, war in Yemen and Pakistan, racism along our border – while my hand clings ever tighter to my checkbook. As God takes flight I watch longingly from 20,000 feet below, getting a quick dreamy fix before heading back into the rush of oncoming life.
These glimpses, ever so fleeting, permit me to claim credit for the goodness and grace of God in the world. I’ve glimpsed God in HPJC and the wheelchair association, conjured dreams of a growing church and wondered aloud about justice, a mere spectator on God’s journey through the world. But in this small, superficial way, I can say that God is part of my story. Is that all there is?
To spectators like us, John the Baptist’s words bring God crashing down into our laps: “Repent! For the kingdom of God has come near.” The modern Christian’s notion that we can live our life like everyone around us and still be deeply connected to Jesus is nothing but a myth. It’s just too good to be true. Jesus said, “You cannot love both God and the American Dream. You can only love one and hate the other.” The invitation is always the same: be close to God. Jesus says, “Come, follow me.” An invitation to close relationship. “Enter the kingdom, where you can be with God, and not that one.” “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” “I am the Father are one.” “You are the vine, I am the branches.” Notice how all these metaphors refer to living our lives in proximity to God, not as spectators. Paul sums this up by saying, “Live in Christ.”
And so with 10 times the force of any modern day preacher he points his camel-clad finger right at me and barks “No spectators allowed! God’s kingdom is here, now. You’re either in the plane or on the ground, which is it going to be?” Oh how different the story would be if instead of spectator, I was a passenger on that plane!
No longer idly watching as 20, 30, 40 planes fly past my window as Malakai reads and Clara bounces, we’d be choosing pat down or body scan, stowing overhead luggage and readying playthings for the flight. Boarding passes in hand we’d find our seats with excitement welling inside us. The stale air, the discouraging look as people identify us as possible problem flyers, the bump of a neighbors bag gives way to buckled seats, muted instructions and the captains voice: “Buckle your seatbelts and get ready to fly!” Finally, jaws chomping the engines thunder and the seats shake, knuckles turning white with a squeezed prayer as we accelerate for lift-off. There’s no denying you’re part of something and little you can do to stop it as you barrel down the runway aimed like a canon at the sky.
Again the thunder as John bellows, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”
Yes, yes, we’re really moving now! I’m not meant to watch God from a distance, but to be with God and my life muddied by God. It turns out my outward behavior – my schedule, my finances, my time- is an expression of my inward soul. Like Jesus who also uses this same analogy, the fruit highlights the quality of a person’s character and inner wellbeing, not one’s choice of behavior. A fig tree cannot bear thistles anymore than a briar patch can produce ripe fruit! “The path of repentance is an inner journey that brings forth outward change and at the same time repentance is change in our actions that can nurture inward change. Like the chicken and egg conundrum it can be difficult at times to figure out which came first- how did that turning to God really come about? But then again, maybe the sequence doesn’t really matter. Either way will do (Leader mag).”
What does bearing the fruit of repentance look like anyway, this Christian life as something other than a spectator? Because this, according to Paul, is how we prepare for Jesus. Paul says that being intertwined with God bears the fruit of: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control (Galatians 5:22, 23). John himself seems to hint strongly at themes of social justice and closing the gap between the rich and poor. But our Isaiah 11:1-10 text is one of the most stunning images of the fruit our world can bear through God’s Spirit. It’s a world ordered how God intends for it to be. Righteousness, equity, faithfulness are the churchy words used to describe people getting along. It’s now possible for lambs, calves, and kids to play non-anxiously with lions, leopards, wolves and snakes. As Ivan Friesen says, bearing fruit is making a “decision for the poor as well as a verdict against those who oppress the poor (Isaiah, pg 100). O Come O Come Immanuel has this line we just sang that sums it up so well, “…and order all things far and nigh…” That’s it, that’s bearing fruit worthy of repentance: when we mediate between enemies and equip them to be in relationship. When we seek, or extend forgiveness. When we take responsibility for the health of our relationships and do more than manage conflict, we seek to transform it. Everything and everyone ordered and in its proper place. I envision the church as an army of mediators and conflict resolvers scattered throughout the city at dozens of workplaces, neighborhoods, and in each one of own families.
John’s Advent message is clear: “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make the path straight.” God has come, is here now, and is coming. God doesn’t want you to be disconnected and at a distance. You are created to live with Christ, like Christ, and through Christ. Until you’re so indistinguishable you can say with Paul, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20).” But this, we’re reminded by Joan Chittister, “takes a lifetime of practice, patience and slow slow growth (The Liturgical Year, pg 60).”
My friends, God is present whether you see it or not, flying past your window, over and over again. Waiting, hoping, wanting to be seen so you can come on board and deepen your life with God. Now is the time. Here is the place, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge God and he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6).” After all, that’s why the angel said “I bring you good news of great joy (Luke 2:10).”
2000 years ago a voice cried out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Today for 30, 60, and 90 seconds bells toll to remind us to live in Christ.
Participants, buckle your seatbelts and get ready to fly!