Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Do Not Be Afraid

Luke 2:1-20
December 24, 2013

There was fear on that night.  There must have been.  On hillside and in stable, fear permeated the darkness.  Fear was a tangible presence held at bay by the dim light of a fire.  Fear hovered close, like a wolf waiting to snatch a sheep when the shepherd glanced away. Luke tells us of the shepherds' fear.  Startled by angels, surrounded by wild glory, they trembled and shook against the hard ground.  The sky and stars exploded into heavenly choruses overwhelming all their senses.  The angel voices, the dizzying brightness, the celestial praises; beautiful and terrifying.  Was this real or was this dream?

But theirs was not the only fear.  Mary and Joseph, consigned to an animal's stall must have feared what the night would bring.  There is no more dangerous experience for any woman than to give birth, and none more dangerous for a child than to be born.  Mary, so young, should have been encircled by other women, midwives and mothers.  They who had already done this woman's work would have guided her in this maternal mystery.  But only the deep, snuffling sounds of animals greeted the babe's first cries.  

And Joseph?   How could he not have been afraid?  Did he swallow his own fear and hold Mary's hand, whispering words of comfort to her in the hardest moments?  Did he mask his own terror at what might go wrong by reassuring her that all was right?  Was he overwhelmed, wanting to take her pain, but instead stood helpless as she endured alone?  There was fear that night.  On hillside and in stable, there was fear.

But that heavenly host, those angel voices, who caused the shepherds to quake, cried out, "Do not be afraid!"  They came not with news of terror but of great joy, glad tidings, divine reassurance.  A savior has been born! Their heralding cry echoed through the heavens and resounded across the earth.  Do not be afraid!  This is good news!  Do not be afraid!

Into that dark night, divine messengers reassured lowly shepherds, a baby has been born, God is with us. Do not be afraid!

What do we fear?

What makes us afraid?

Do phobias haunt us?  Heights and snakes and spiders and small spaces.

What do we fear?

What makes us afraid?

Do we fear for our safety?  In our neighborhoods and communities.  Do we shudder at the  permeating violence far away and right next door?  Are we the sad witnesses of daily small acts of indifference?

What do we fear?

What makes us afraid?

Is it fear of losing the ones we love?  Are we afraid we won't have enough?  Enough money?  Enough security?  Enough choices?  Enough time?

What do we fear?

What makes us afraid?

Are we afraid of being alone or being forgotten?  Are we fearful that what we hope and believe to be true isn't?  Are we afraid that what we give the most attention to will turn out to be meaningless?  Do we fear that what and who we dismiss will be what should have commanded our attention?

What do we fear?

What makes us afraid?

The angels assured the shepherds that their presence in the heavens was not a reason to be fearful but joyful.  The holy was born into the humble.  A rough shelter, home for animals, had become a sacred space.  God had come into the world in the most wonderful, the most unexpected way -- as one of us.  Do not be afraid, the angels proclaimed.  Go and see for yourselves the good news made flesh.  Go and see for yourselves the baby born in Bethlehem.
Do not be afraid.

The words of the angels echo through time and greet us this night.  Do not be afraid.  Just as it was on that night so long ago, Love is born in our midst.  God is born into our brokenness and our frailties.  Jesus is born among us so that our fears can be cast out.  Jesus is born among us so that our hope can be renewed.  Do not be afraid.  The world shall not be overcome by the darkness it creates.  Love and Light are reborn.  Do not be afraid. The hopes and fears of all the years meet tonight in an angelic chorus and the sound of a baby's cry.  All creation shouts out the glorious refrain.  Do not be afraid.  God is with us! Love is born!  Jesus is here!

Do not be afraid!



Sunday, December 22, 2013

Just Like Us

Matthew 1:18-25
December 22, 2013

            One of the funniest quirks about the movie Love Actually, comes in its first few minutes.  One of the characters, Karen, a stay-at-home mother, rushes off the phone with her grieving friend Daniel to hear news from her young daughter about her upcoming part in the school Christmas play. 
            She proudly tells her mother that her part in the nativity story is the lobster.  Not just any old lobster, but first lobster.  Karen, looking slightly askance at this, asks, “You mean there was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?”  Her daughter, without missing a beat, says, “Duh.” 
            You see more of this play at the culmination of the movie, but it’s never explained why sea creatures are present at the nativity.  It makes for a bizarre nativity scene to be sure, but that’s all right.  Having lobsters and octopi and a Spiderman Magi is just all part of the general eclectic fun of this wonderful movie. 
            But honestly, why is having a lobster in a live nativity in a school play any more bizarre than the nativity scenes we set out in our own homes?  Let’s think about what a “traditional” nativity scene looks like.  The crèche that we have at our house has the standard characters.  There’s Mary, blonde, blue-eyed, dressed in beautiful blue robes, and sculpted in a kneeling position, with her gaze focused peacefully downward.  Joseph is always standing.  In our version he’s holding a staff, and like Mary his eyes are peacefully looking downward.  Then there’s the baby Jesus.  Our baby Jesus looks more like a toddler than a newborn.  And the “swaddling clothes,” which Luke’s gospel assures us he was wrapped in, is just a blanket thrown across his middle.  Our crèche also has the other standard characters:  a shepherd, an angel, the wise men, a sheep, a camel. 
            This isn’t meant to be a complaint about our nativity scene or nativity scenes in general.  St. Francis of Assisi, who created the first nativity – a living nativity with real people and real animals – did so to help the people he served see the Biblical story.  It was a way for them to not only learn the story of Jesus’ birth, but to feel a part of it as well.  Our nativities are still meant to do that.  But the figures that I set out each year, while lovely and symbolic, aren’t realistic.  Just once I’d like to see a realistic nativity.  I want to see a manger scene where Mary not only looks Middle Eastern, but also looks like she’s just given birth, which is a sweaty and messy process.  Having given birth twice myself, I know she would not have been perfectly dressed, perfectly coiffed and kneeling before the manger.  Joseph was probably frazzled, scared, and worried sick about his wife and child.  And Jesus would have looked like a newborn, wrinkled and tiny and a little traumatized by what he’d just gone through.  All three would have been exhausted.  That would be realistic. 
            If we’re going to be realistic about the actual birth of Jesus, let’s also be realistic about the scene that’s set before us in Matthew.  This is Matthew’s birth narrative.  As one scholar said, “Don’t blink, you might miss it.”  The passage begins, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way…”  Then it immediately moves into the story of Joseph.  Mary, who is silent in Matthew’s account, is questionably pregnant and we learn of Joseph’s initial response.  Joseph, not Mary, is the focus of Matthew’s telling. 
            Yet how do we picture this time in Joseph’s life?  The traditional scene is of Joseph, a kind, gentle man, not wanting to cause any harm to his betrothed, Mary.  Because of his care and concern for her, he decides to dismiss her quietly.  No questions asked.  Once he’s resolved to do this, he goes to sleep.  But his sleep is disturbed when an angel of the Lord comes to him in a dream and reveals God’s purpose for the child to come. 
            Mary is going to have a son.  You will name him Jesus, for he is going to save God’s people from their sins.  All of this is going to fulfill the words of the prophet.  A virgin shall conceive a son, and the son shall be named Emmanuel or God with us. 
            When Joseph woke up, he did exactly what the angel commanded.  He took Mary as his wife, but they had no “marital relations” until after the birth.  When the baby was born, a son just as he had been told, Joseph named him Jesus. 
            That’s Matthew’s account of the birth story.  Don’t blink.  You might miss it.  It is a brief account to say the least.  But what would it have looked like?  What would the realistic picture of this event in the life of Joseph have actually been?  I don’t dispute Joseph’s kindness or his care and concern for Mary.  But I think he would have been distressed to say the least.  What we read as engaged or betrothed isn’t the same relationship we understand it to be today.  Being betrothed essentially meant that Joseph and Mary were married.  It was the first step in a two-step process.  It was an official relationship.  The second step would be for Mary to move into Joseph’s home and for them to live as husband and wife.  Although that second step hadn’t happened yet, they were still technically married.  We might equate it to societies that have both a civil ceremony and a religious ceremony for marrying couples.  You do one first, then the other.  Regardless, Joseph and Mary were married, and the fact that Mary turns up pregnant could only be seen as a result of her unfaithfulness. 
            I think it’s a good bet that Joseph felt distressed, angry, betrayed.  Although we hear nothing from Mary in Matthew’s telling, I suspect she was distressed as well.  Her song of praise is not recorded here.  She was young and pregnant.  No matter that the pregnancy occurred through the Holy Spirit, she must have still been afraid and worried as to what would become of her and the baby. 
            Joseph is described as being a righteous man.  There is more debate than I realized about what that description really means.  Was Joseph righteous, meaning that he was just a good guy?  Or was he righteous, meaning he was trying to live according to the Law?  The Law dictated not only that Joseph severe his relationship with Mary, but that she should be punished for her unfaithfulness as well.  That punishment may very well have been death by stoning.  Dismissing her quietly might have been Joseph’s attempt at saving her life.  But the truth is, if he had cast her out she would have been an unmarried mother-to-be in a society that would have responded severely.  Either way, Mary’s fate and the fate of her child was precarious. 
            It is not an idyllic scene, is it?  Even God’s intervention through Joseph’s dream doesn’t make it any neater or more picturesque.  Joseph and Mary aren’t precious little figurines just absorbing the actions of God on behalf of the world without response.  They were real people, with real fears and worries. They were flesh and blood; they had real emotions.  Joseph’s decision to dismiss Mary and his subsequent change of mind and heart was no more an idyllic moment than the actual birth of Jesus.  Yet we portray these stories as being just that.  Idyllic.  Beatific.  Serene.  But that’s not realistic. 
            It seems to me that we need to think about and picture these stories as realistic.  Because isn’t that what the incarnation was and is about?  Isn’t that the point, the meaning, the purpose of Jesus’ birth?  God becomes incarnate, is born into the world as a human, as flesh and bone and blood, as a baby, born like every baby is born, a real birth.  The fundamental truth of the incarnation of God in Jesus is that God’s overwhelming, amazing, indescribable love is born into the real.  God becomes incarnate into the real, messy, chaotic, imperfect world we live in.  God’s purposes are worked through real people, real people who were just like us.  They were just like us.  Mary and Joseph didn’t live on some higher spiritual plane than the rest of us.  They were just like us, with real talents and real flaws.  They were just like us, with hopes and dreams and disappointments.  God’s purposes were fulfilled through people just like us.  God’s love was born into the world through people just like us.  We are just like them.  While the birth of the baby Jesus happened long ago, it seems to me that God’s love becomes incarnate again and again and again through people just like us.  Isn’t that the wonder of the gospel, the good news?  God’s love doesn’t require perfection.  God’s love just requires real.  God works God’s purposes through real people, in messy circumstances, in chaotic and uncertain times, because God’s love is born into what is real.  Not perfect.  Not idyllic.  Real.  Just like us.  Let all of God’s very real children say, “Alleluia!  Amen."

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Are You the One?

Matthew 11:2-11
Third Sunday Of Advent
December 15, 2013

            My dear friend, fellow clergy person and BFF, Ellen Brantley, holds a Blue Christmas Service at her church each year.  She told me that only a handful of people attend.  The ones who do are the ones who acknowledge how much they need a service like this; a service that recognizes that the holidays aren’t sweetness and light for everyone.  Ellen said she wishes that more folks would attend, even if the service doesn’t address their life or circumstances.  It would be a sign of support and empathy for those who need the service most. 
            I imagine that there are a lot of people who want to be empathetic and supportive of those that struggle at this time of year.  But I also suspect that doing that would force them to admit that they also struggle at this time of year.  This season, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, is supposed to be idyllic.  We have an enormous amount of pressure on us to be happy.  This is the time of year when we are supposed to be making memories, experiencing Norman Rockwell type moments with extended family and friends gathered around a long table laden with food.  Christmas lights should twinkle in the eyes of young children, while strains of Silent Night and Joy to the World drift in from the carolers who are now at our door. 
            It’s a lovely image, a lovely ideal, but it’s an ideal.  Ideals are hard to live up to.  But we feel pressured to try and think we’ve failed if we don’t quite make it.  We’re supposed to be happy at this time of year, but more people turn to clergy and counselors and doctors for help with depression at this time of year than any other.  That’s irony, isn’t it?  The season when we are told in numerous ways that we are supposed to be brimming with joy is also the time when depression numbers skyrocket.  We are under a great deal of pressure to be happy, to reach for ideals, and even if the gap between reality and those ideals doesn’t leave us depressed, it may leave us disappointed. 
            Disappointed.  My trusty Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word disappointed as “defeated in expectation or hope.”  Disappointed is how we find John the Baptist in Matthew’s gospel.  This is a strange continuation of the story of John the Baptist.  Just last week we read about him proclaiming the Jesus was the One, the Messiah, the Savior the people had been waiting for.  He was proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” 
            But this week it’s a different story.  Some months must have passed since John appeared out of the wilderness.  Some time has passed since John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan.  And what has changed?  John is in jail.  He’s in jail not for committing some legal infraction, but because he spoke an uncomfortable truth to power, to Herod and to his wife Herodias.  A truth that they did not want to hear.  So that same power, that same vehicle of oppression and tyranny has put John in jail. 
            Jail at any time or in any context would not be a happy place to be.  If the depiction of ancient jail cells in movies is somewhat accurate, I would believe that John was not only in a small, dark cell, but he would also be shackled to the wall with chains.  The chains might have enough slack in them so that he could move about as much as the space allowed, but that’s not saying much. 
            So there he is in jail with time to think.  I wonder if he didn’t share of the same expectations about the Messiah as everyone else.  Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to overthrow Rome’s tyranny?  Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to end the oppression of the people and stomp out the injustice they had endured for so long?  Well if that’s what the Messiah was supposed to do, it hadn’t happened yet.  The proof of that was the jail cell John waited in.  Up until his arrest he has been preaching that with the coming of Jesus the in-breaking of God’s kingdom was upon them.  Repent, for the kingdom of heaven comes near.  But now?  Has it all been a lie? What if he has been wrong this whole time?  When he finally has the opportunity to talk with his disciples, he sends them to Jesus with just one question.  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? “
            Are you the one who is to come?
            John must have been disappointed; defeated in expectation or hope.  Like all of us, he wants to know, at least a little, that what he has been doing, what he has been preaching, the sacrifices he has made and will make with his life, are worth it.  They were done in service to God and to God’s Messiah.  So let’s make absolutely sure that the one I’ve been proclaiming is the One.
            Are you the one who is to come? 
            It may seem counter intuitive that this should be the chosen passage for the Third Sunday in Advent.  We shouldn’t be dealing in disappointment or doubt at this stage of the game.  We’re too close.  Christmas is almost upon us.  Perhaps, though, addressing our disappointments is exactly what we need to do on this Third Sunday.   The closer we move toward Christmas, the recognition of the incarnation of the Word, of Love, of God in our frail and broken midst, the more we look around and see how far we are from peace and goodwill to all.  The angels tell the shepherds to fear not.  But reasons for fear are everywhere.  The world’s tears have yet to be dried.  Death still stings.  Hatred and ignorance feeds the maw of violence.  The world is still broken.  In the face of all that how can we not feel some disappointment that our hopes for peace and justice and goodwill for everybody have yet to be realized?  Even as we are told by countless messengers that we should be happy and joyful, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed, at least some of the time.
            Jesus’ answer to John doesn’t help the situation either, for John or for us.  Jesus does not give a definitive answer.  He doesn’t come right out and say, “Okay, John, yes I am the Messiah.  I just don’t like to spread that info around too much, but I am the One.  I have arrived.” 
            Jesus says nothing even close to that.  Instead he tells John’s disciples to go and tell John what they observe, what they hear and see.  “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
            Jesus won’t declare that he is the Messiah, the one they’ve been waiting for.  This is consistent throughout the gospels.  Instead he points to what is happening.  He points to the signs all around that declare the kingdom of heaven is indeed upon them.  He points to the signs of the kingdom of God just as John pointed to him as the incarnation of God’s salvation. 
            The blind see.  The lame walk.  The lepers are cleansed.  The deaf hear.  The dead are raised.  The poor receive good news.  The kingdom is upon us.
            This may serve as a disappointing answer, because like John, we want absolute clarity.  Yet truthfully isn’t this the same answer we also receive?  Except for those lucky people who see Jesus’s face in a potato chip, we don’t get definitive answers to the why’s of our world.  God’s voice doesn’t boom from the heavens.  We don’t get answers to the why’s very often.  Why do bad things happen?  Why does tragedy occur?  Why do people hate and hurt?  The answers to the why’s aren’t forthcoming.  But in the midst of all that is broken, we also see what is being healed.  We also see that good is being done, peace is being made, good will is being shared.  And every time we see that, every time we see a gesture of love, an act of kindness, an offering of peace, we are reminded that the kingdom of heaven is upon us.  May our disappointment, our defeated expectations move once more into renewed hope.  The one we have been waiting for has come and will come again.  God is in our midst.  Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia! Amen.”

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Light

When I was a little girl, my special task in our Christmas preparations was to put together our Swedish Angel Chimes.  Without belaboring a description, the Angel Chimes use the breeze created by four small candles at its base to make a circle of angels spin.  When the angels spin, little metal pingers (that's a technical term) tap two cymbal like bells.  When they do you hear, "ding, ding, ding."  I loved them.  I loved that it was my job to put them together, and I did so with methodical dedication.  I loved the special red candles that my mother kept on hand just for them.  My mother is a candle loving person, so we had candles of all shapes, varieties and colors in our house all year long.  But at Christmas our house became a fairy wonderland of red and white candles.  

I've been thinking a lot about candles these last few days.  Today is my daughter's 15th birthday.  I sound like the typical aging parent when I say this, but I truly cannot believe that 15 years have passed since this beautiful, smart, unique, quirky, funny, creative, determined little person graced our lives.  So not only am I thinking about the various Christmas candles that still need to be placed around my house, I'm also thinking about birthday candles.  From Phoebe's first birthday -- when she wasn't sure what to do with the cupcake placed in front of her, much less the single candle stuck in it -- to now, she has done what all of us do on our birthdays; blow out her growing number of candles and make a wish.  I hope that at least some of the wishes she's made over the last 15 years have come true.  I hope at least some of the wishes she makes from now on will be realized as well.  

As I've been anticipating this day and thinking about candles, I've also thought about their uses and their purpose in our lives.  Yes, candles do have a purpose.  We use them for decoration, for wish making, for pragmatic purposes.  It's always good to have candles on hand if and when the power goes out.  As a budding teen I so wanted the three way makeup mirror that was popular at that time.  There was a light setting for daylight, office light and evening.  The evening mimicked candlelight, which is the best light for a romantic evening.  I dreamed of the day when I would be able to wear makeup applied specifically for an evening graced by the light of candles.  

We also use candles as symbols.  They are lit in memory. They are lit in prayer.  Last night, the families and friends of the victims of last year's school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut lit candles.  A candle in memory of every child and adult lost.  A candle lit in memory of the last night those families would still have their loved ones.  I suspect that as each candle was lit, there were wishes made as well.  Wishes that this senseless, useless loss had never happened.  That would be my wish.  That would be my prayer.

Candles are a large part of our religious celebrations.  Each week the tall candles that sit on the communion table at the front of my church's sanctuary are lit at the beginning of the worship service.  They serve as a reminder and as a symbol of God's light in the world.  In some churches I've served, the candles are ritually extinguished at the end of the service.  Before the last candle is put out, the flame is transferred back to the large candlelighter and carried out of the church.  God's light going back into the world.  

While so many of us speak of this time as Christmas or the holidays, in my Christian tradition it is Advent.  During Advent we add more candles to our worship with our Advent wreath.  Unlike wreaths that hang on doors or walls, our's rests on a tall stand.  Four candles stand in its circle, with a large white candle in the middle.  The four tapers represent Hope, Peace, Love and Joy.  The white candle is the Christ Candle, lit on Christmas Eve.  

Lighting the candles each week is a ritual.  It is tradition.  It is symbolic.  It adds to the general ambience and beauty of the service.  But this year, more than ever, I see the lighting of these candles as proclamation.  These aren't just symbols of hope, peace, love and joy.  There are our way of proclaiming that the reasons for all exist.  They are proclamation that we stick to our fervent belief  that the darkness will not overcome the light.   As this first anniversary of Newtown arrives, and as we remember far too many sad anniversaries of tragedy, it is easy to believe that the darkness of this world -- the hatred, the brokenness, the fear, the loss -- is too powerful to be overcome.  But we light candles, in Advent wreaths and in rituals, in memory, in celebration, in joy and in sorrow because the light still pierces the darkness.  

Sunday, December 8, 2013

In These Days

Matthew 3:1-12
December 8, 2013

            A fellow preacher told a story about one of the earthquakes in California.  In a residential neighborhood, a crack formed right down the center of the street.  The residents, because they live in California and they experience different levels of earthquakes on a semi regular basis, weren’t as upset by this as you would expect them to be.  They were outside looking at this enormous crack in their street, chatting, laughing.  It was more like a neighborhood block party than it was a response to an earthquake.  Even the kids of the neighborhood were getting into it.  They got their bikes and they were racing toward the large crack and making their bikes jump over the gap.
            A policeman came and saw what everyone was doing, and he started to shout at them.  “What is wrong with you people?  Don’t you know that we’re going to be out of power and without water for who knows how long?  Take this seriously!”
            As we’re quickly learning in our own state, earthquakes happen when the plates that form the earth meet and create a fault line.  When those plates at the fault line move, we experience an earthquake.  One commentator described John the Baptizer as the person who stands at the fault line. 
            Biblical scholars see John as a man with his feet in two worlds.  His dress, his diet, his speech are like the prophets of old.  He comes out of the wilderness.  He looks strange, wearing camel’s hair and eating wild honey and locusts.  He doesn’t waste breath introducing himself or trying to establish his street cred.  He jumps right in and tells the people the glaring truth.   They need to repent.  The kingdom of heaven is upon them.  One is coming who is going to shake them up and change everything.  John looks like a prophet out of the past, but he points to the future.  He is the like the policeman admonishing the complacent neighbors.  He stands at the fault line and tries to make the people understand that the past and the future are about to meet in Jesus Christ.  And just as the earth shakes beneath our feet when those tectonic plates move against each other, so will our world be shaken and moved when the Son of God comes.  This isn’t a festival or a celebration.  The kingdom of God is upon us.  Repent!
            John is a man of the past pointing to the future.  His message to all who will listen is that they need to make the necessary preparations for this future which is bearing down upon them.  This future will bring judgment.  This future will bring salvation.  The most important preparation they can make is to repent. 
            Repentance is a word we hear used often.  We hear it, obviously, from John.  We hear it in other contexts throughout the Bible.  We may hear it or think about it when we pray our corporate prayer of confession.  But do we really think about what it means? 
            Repentance or metanoia in Greek is more than just saying “I’m sorry.”  It’s not really about feeling remorseful or apologetic for past mistakes, errors or hurts.  To repent means to turn around.  It means that you’re heading away from God, so you need to repent and turn back to God.  Repentance means to realign yourself with God and with God’s purposes.  While we may associate repentance and judgment with negative feelings and actions, that’s not how Matthew would have understood it.  Judgment in the gospel of Matthew is a good thing.  Matthew believed that judgment is necessary because it brings us back to God; it turns us around, realigns is and puts our lives back in God’s hands.  Judgment shakes us up and pulls us back onto the right path.  So judgment and repentance work hand in hand. 
            We are shaken up.  We are realigned.  We turn back to God.  We repent.
            There’s just one problem.  It’s Advent, and I don’t want to hear about repentance.  If it were Lent, that would be fine.  I can repent during Lent till the cows come home.  But Advent is supposed to be happy and sweet and joyful.  This is supposed to be the pleasant time of year.  Just look at the ways we prepare.  We create fairytale-esque scenes with lights and decorations.  We light candles.  We count down the days until Christmas with specially designed calendars; some of which include chocolate.  There’s music everywhere we go.  We buy presents for one another and wrap them in colorful paper and bows and ribbons.  If you’re like me, this time of year makes you want to bake.  And there are some cookies and other goodies that I only bake at Christmas because they’re special.  This time of year is special. 
            So save your repentance and your judgment for Lent, John.  Come see me then.  I’ll be happy to jump on that repentance bandwagon then.  But that’s missing the point isn’t it?  If repentance is to turn around, to be realigned and judgment is a shaking up in the most positive sense, then what better time to repent than right now, in Advent.  What better, more appropriate preparation can we make for the in-breaking of God than to turn around?  What could shake us up more than God being born among us?
            That’s really what we’re preparing for isn’t it?  God among us.  This isn’t just about a baby being born, although a baby being born is a most wonderful event.  The divine and the human are about to meet.  God becomes one of us, born just as we are born into this messy, chaotic, broken world.  How can we not be shaken to our very core at that prospect?
            Into these days Jesus comes.  The Biblical scholars I refer to consider the beginning of this narrative about John the Baptizer a bit awkward.  It’s an awkward transition; “In those days.”  In the chapter before we read about Joseph, Mary and Jesus’ narrow escape from Herod’s death warrant.  We also read the terrible tale of Herod’s massacre of the innocents; a tragedy that sadly seems to be repeated over and over again.  Yet the only transition from the heartache of Herod’s evil to John’s prophetic words about the coming of the Messiah is “In those days.” 
            In those days, John stood before the people and announced that the Messiah they longed for and the kingdom they waited for was right there, in their midst.  But before they could fully grasp and appreciate what was happening all around them, they had to repent.  They had to turn around and realign themselves before God.  They had to reorient their priorities and their lives.  If they wanted to experience and accept this new world, this new beginning, then they must repent. 
            In those days.  The people who gathered around John – those who came from every walk of life, from the city, from the country, from places of honor and prestige, from the lowliest of the low – they weren’t so different from us.  They lived in a different context, but they experienced the same fears and anxieties and worries that we do.  They wanted a better world for their children, and they feared there may not be one.  They needed a word of hope.  They needed a word of peace.  They needed a word of promise.  They needed a new beginning. 
            In these days don’t we long for the same thing?  We too need a word of hope and peace and promise.  We too need a new beginning.  I believe that’s what repentance offers us.  It’s a chance to turn around and start anew. 
            This past week I sat around a table at a Bible study and I asked this question, “When have you experienced a new beginning?”  Every person at that table, including me, spoke of some moment in their lives when they were given a new beginning.  For some those moments were dramatic; a radical turn from the lives they were leading.  For others, that moment was recognized more from the perspective of hindsight rather than what they could see in the immediacy of those days.  But for all of us we knew that at some point we had been offered a new beginning.  We were offered a chance to repent, to turn around. 
            What was even more powerful was the recognition that we had been offered that new beginning more than once.  For some of us, we realized that we were in the midst of a new beginning right now in these days. 
            What is your new beginning?  When have you been given a second chance or a third or a fourth?  When in your life have you heard the words, “Repent.  The kingdom of heaven is upon us.  It’s right here.  Turn around.  Repent.”
            Isn’t that what really happens at this time of year?  Isn’t that what we’re actually preparing for during this Advent?  Our chance at an extraordinary new beginning.  A new beginning that will shake us up and turn us around.  In these days we make ready for the coming of God in our midst, the meeting of the holy and the ordinary, the divine and the mortal, our new beginning.  Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia!  Amen.”