Advent’s Turn Toward New Life

December 8, 2013

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA

2nd Sunday of Advent – Year A RCL

Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

Advent is a time of waiting…

It is a time of hopeful anticipation and cheerful expectation of God breaking into our lives anew!
The reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans says, “Whatever was written in the former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”

The lesson from Isaiah describes even more fully what is hoped for. Saying that The spirit of the Lord will rest upon the one that is a descendant of Jesse, that is Jesus. “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”

When we judge with our eyes and ears, we often bring our preconceptions and prejudices. But when we judge with our heart, that is with righteousness and compassion, as Jesus did, this will bring about the kind of harmony that allows the wolf to live with the lamb and the leopard to lie down with the kid.

This is surely something to be hopeful for… and if possible, to help bring about.

But the gospel text from Matthew has a very different tone. It doesn’t seem to speak of hope at all. Instead, it begins with a call by John the Baptist to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

I don’t know about you, any sentence that begins with REPENT is surely not one of HOPE… or is it?

To repent is to change direction… to turn toward God. John is saying WAKE UP, turn toward God and look at what is coming. When we are in this position, turned toward God, we are able to trust God, and in trusting God, we can open ourselves up to be ready for something new.

Each year we celebrate January 1st as the beginning of a New Year. It is a time when many people make resolutions to do something different. For the Christian church, Advent is the beginning of our new year. It’s a time to reflect and discern about what new thing we will strive for in our spiritual life.

How will Christ be born anew for us?

Reading on in the gospel, though, we see John admonishing the Pharisees and Sadducees, the strictest rule-followers of the Jewish faith. To these most devout Jews, John challenges them, saying that they can’t just show up and point to Abraham, that is, their tradition, and that’s all that is needed.

Similarly, we can’t just show up year after year and rely on past accomplishments, our status as “members of the church,” or even our profession of faith… No, John says we must BEAR FRUIT.

Saying our prayers and keeping the commandments is a start, to be sure, but it isn’t the same thing as Bearing Fruit. So, how do we make ourselves ready to bear NEW fruit – to prepare for our own rebirth?

Well, first we have to trust that God has given us what we need. There is a good grain of wheat inside each one of us that is able to bear fruit.

As the wheat-seedling begins to grow, long before harvest, it is encased in a protective layer. As we grow, this layer keeps us safe and insulated. This covering serves a purpose for a time, but then, after the harvest, this layer is no longer needed and it must be broken away. If it isn’t, the wheat is unable to fulfill its purpose.

This “breaking away” happens with threshing. The grain is pounded to separate the husk from the wheat. As you would guess, the thicker and more rigid the husk, the more pounding that is required to break the wheat free.

It can be risky and unsettling. Being exposed makes us vulnerable, and we’ve become accustom to that outer shell. We’re safe inside it – but it keeps us from being able to bear fruit. And so, when we are ready, or at least willing, we must let the protective layer break free and fall to the ground.

Then, Jesus, with winnowing fork in hand, gently tosses the wheat in the air, letting the chaff, that outer husk, fall away completely. It’s no longer needed, so it being cast into the fire is of no consequence. It is that part of ourselves that we need to let go of, so we can be the grain of wheat God has called us to be – to be gathered into the granary and begin to bear fruit.

Over the past few days, I couldn’t help but think of this image of the threshing and winnowing as I listened to stories about Nelson Mandela’s life. In his 95 years there were numerous rebirths within him. Each transformation involved a time of preparation, and then, with the chaff pulled away, he was able to bear new fruit.

After years of trying to influence the discriminatory and segregated political system that oppressed black people in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned at the age of 46. Yet, even on the verge of his trial, when he faced not only the likelihood of imprisonment, but the possibility of death, he continued to hold onto HOPE for a greater purpose. In his last speech before the trial, a speech some refer to as his “Political Will and Testament” he said,

I fought against white domination and I fought against black domination. I cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society where all live together in harmony.

And, during his 27 years in prison, he held onto that hope. Those years in prison, 18 of them spent on Robben Island, was certainly a time of threshing and winnowing.
While in prison, he had to decide how to face each day. He chose to face his life-sentence with dignity, and steady perseverance:

  • Breaking rocks in a quarry in silence day after day;
  • being allowed only one 30-minute visit per year;
  • only one letter each six months

this was a time of threshing.

And the grain of wheat that emerged from prison in 1990, Mandela 72 years old, was one that understood that violence was not the answer; hatred was not helpful. He saw himself not as a prophet but as a humble servant who had to be politically skillful so that he could sit side-by-side with those who had imprisoned him. It was only in this way that progress toward the end goal would be possible.

While watching Good Morning America this past Friday morning, Christiane Amanpour, an international news correspondent who covered Mandela over the years, said

Nelson Mandela holds up his clenched fist in triumph the day after his release from prison in 1990 after 27 years at the age of 72. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

Nelson Mandela holds up his clenched fist in triumph the day after his release from prison in 1990 after 27 years at the age of 72. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

“People say that he didn’t have bitterness, but actually what he did was triumph over that bitterness, that resentment, that hatred for having been deprived of his life and his freedom.” Then, sharing a comment Mandela had made, ‘I could have been bitter but that would have been to give into death and defeat.’ And she contends that this was “his absolute strength and his legacy.”

I think that this is what letting the chaff be thrown into the fire looks like. Letting go of what is no longer needed, and moving forward to let the wheat bear fruit.

And so, in this second week of Advent, we have time to consider what new grain of wheat is waiting to be born in each of us. With that, we also must think about what we might be holding onto that prevents us from bearing fruit? What can we do to set our wheat free?

Looking at the broader context of Christ Church, what new things are meant to be born out of our parish this year? And, what might need to be discarded in order to bear this new fruit?
While our ministry within these walls is vital, we must ask if we might also be constrained by these very same walls. Are we limiting our potential for spreading God’s message of love by staying in our comfortable shell? Is it time to find new ways to meet people where THEY are, and if so, what might that look like?

There are also many injustices and prejudices that persist in churches, in our communities, in our country, and around the globe. They cannot be ignored, and must be overcome. Is that work worth doing this year?

And if so, what are we willing to leave behind in order to bring the kingdom of God near?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but EASY wasn’t part of the promise. What is promised is that God is with us if we stay turned toward God. Jesus will help with the winnowing, bringing forth the wheat of rebirth, as we seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our discerning.

Just imagine what might be BORN anew this year!

With the spirit of this congregation, one I am thrilled to be part of, I know that so much is possible, because I’ve seen what has been accomplished so far!

This Advent, I am filled with Hope cheerful anticipation that that in the year ahead, we will find new ways to bear new fruit!

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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