Second Sunday of Advent (4th of December)
Consider the life cycle of a blade of grass. It does not even exist by itself. It is just a part of a complex network of runners that criss-cross your lawn. And by itself, it is not crucial in any way to the lawn’s well-being. It’s nice enough. If all the blades of grass disappeared, then the lawn would be in trouble. And it contributes with photosynthesis to the life of the lawn. But it will soon grow longer than you like, perhaps in a week. If it’s my lawn we’re talking about then it’s at least two weeks. But then it will be cut off, and dry up, and die. Even if I let it grow to maturity and go to seed, it will only last for a little while. And then it will wither and fade.
And God, through the prophet Isaiah, says that this is like you and me. “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.” It is not, as the materialists would have you believe, that there is no part of you that survives physical death. Nor is it true, as the Gnostics have it, that our bodies are trapped in prisons of evil flesh and must escape them. But Isaiah and, later, the apostles use the word “flesh” to refer to all that part of us which is bound to this fallen world, part of its fallen pattern, and therefore not eternal.
St. Peter points out that all this world is under a death sentence. In the end, “the heavens [that is, the sky] will pass away with a rushing roar, and the [very] elements will be dissolved with fire”. Nothing will be left that is part of the warp and weft of this world, and that day will “come like a thief”, without warning. It will sneak up on you, so you must be prepared.
If that day were tomorrow, many of us would not be prepared. Many of us take God and church and Jesus for granted. St. Peter says, “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God”. But he also says that God himself is being patient with us, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
Even Isaiah’s non-complementary description of us is set in the context of encouragement. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” “Behold, the Lord God comes with might …. He will feed his flock like a shepherd”. There is no power in flesh, whether it appears mighty or weak. There is nothing that can stand against God. And by the same token, there is nothing that we ourselves can do to extract ourselves from this world of death. But God himself has promised to take care of all that. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned”.
And so we are told, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Mark the Evangelist quotes this passage over 700 years later to describe the mission and service of John the Baptist. And what is the one thing that John requires of people? What, evidently, is the one barrier that we puny insignificant blades of grass can throw up in the path of the Almighty God? The only thing we can do is refuse to repent. The thing that John preaches to prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight is “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
“You need to be washed clean,” says John to the people of Judea and Jerusalem. “You may be the people of God, but you are not acting like it. You are filthy, like the pagans, and need to be washed like they do. And I will only wash you if you are penitent. But listen, I may seem intense, living out here in the desert and eating insects and all, but there’s someone else coming after me. I’m not even worthy to touch his feet. I’m just washing you in water to symbolize your repentance. But he will immerse you and bathe you in the power of God himself.”
And here we sit, almost 2000 years later, knowing that all of this is true. Jesus paid the ultimate price for each one of us, and he has bathed us in the power of the Holy Spirit at our baptism. And yet, he still waits patiently, hoping that all may reach repentance. We can do nothing to him in his sovereignty, but he loves us so much that he chooses to wait, rather than simply uprooting us from his lawn.
In this season of Advent, as we approach our celebration of Christmas, the coming of Christ, we pay attention to the cry in the wilderness. Just as the people of John’s day needed to “prepare the way of the Lord”, so do we. Just as they needed to make a straight path for God to work in their hearts and lives, so do we. And the only thing that can mean is repenting for our sins. Taking stock of our lives, paying attention to our patterns and habits, searching ourselves to see if there is anything there that we know is of the flesh, destined for dissolution in fire.
For the most part, you know what these things are. But, for a reminder, there are several representative lists in scripture. There are the Ten Commandments in Exodus chapter 20. Read through those and see if you don’t find yourself described. Then there is the list in Galatians chapter five: The works of the flesh are “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like.” That has something for just about everyone. How about the 21st chapter of Revelation: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.” And remember that if you hate any of your Christian brothers in your heart, you are already a murderer. That’s what Jesus says. By my reckoning, we are all murderers and fornicators in Jesus eyes, until we repent and turn to him for salvation.
Do you live the description of Christian love that St. Paul gives us in 1 Corinthians 13 in your relationships? Are you patient and kind? Or are you jealous, boastful, arrogant, and rude? Do you insist on your own way? Are you irritable or resentful? Do you rejoice when wrong is done to others, or do you rejoice in what is right? Do you bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things with those you claim to love?
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you haven’t read your Bible. Shame on you. Go read those passages this week. I’m happy to provide them to you again. Or maybe you don’t need to read them, because you already know the sins that you need to turn away from, and you are simply in rebellion, refusing to repent. If that’s the case, look out. The prophet Samuel tells us that the sin of rebellion is like the sin of witchcraft.
But it is never too late. God is not a cosmic spoil-sport waiting for you to repent so that he can gleefully punish you. God loves you so much that he longs for you to repent, and return to him, and receive his blessing. Do it today. Do it now. Allow the fire of the Holy Spirit to burn away the sinful flesh now, rather than later. We don’t just wait for the end, but “for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, … be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.”