Sermon
December 10, 2000
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate

was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother

Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler

of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of

God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of

repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the

words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall

be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked

shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall

see the salvation of God.' "

 

Philippians 1:1-11

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ

Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and

peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in

every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the

gospel from the first day until now.

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will

bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me

in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my

imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is

my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with

knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in

the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest

of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of

God.

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Sermon: Prepare the Wall

I want to thank all of you who have taken time out of your busy schedules

and come to church today. I know how hectic these weeks before Christmas

can be when we try and prepare for the holidays and the gifts and the tree

and the decorations and the family coming from near and far - or having to

get ready to do the traveling ourselves. It's not a simple thing to prepare

for Christmas.

I think if the planners of holidays had know what a crunch we'd all be in,

they'd have scheduled Thanksgiving a little earlier and given us six or

eight weeks of Advent.

Now I don't want to know who has everything ready and the cards are in the

mail and the presents are all wrapped and you're relaxed. Please, I have

warm affection for each of you; don't ruin it by telling me you're already

prepared for Christmas!

One of the great themes of Advent is preparation, which is the reason we

read and sing about John the Baptist who went into all the region around the

Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as

it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of

one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord!

I remember the first Christmas Eileen and I celebrated as husband and wife.

We were married in May of 1980 and in June we moved to Vermont, into the

parsonage of the Union Church of Proctor.

Our parsonage was a big Victorian turn-of-the-century Vermont house,

complete with a front porch, a side porch, a sleep porch, a walk in panty, a

walk in linen closet, a winter kitchen, a summer kitchen, and a beautiful

dining room. And it was in that dining room that I had an epiphany about

Advent, and it all came to me when I opened a roll of wallpaper.

Let me explain one thing before I go on. I grew up in a two-bedroom

apartment in New York City. Every three years the Mike the porter would

come by and ask my parents if they wanted the apartment painted white,

green, or yellow. My parents would pick a color and a team of painters

would come in and do the whole apartment in two days. That was the complete

extent of my experience in home decorating.

Then, as a newly married man, I moved to this massive house in Vermont and

my wife - still a strange term to me at the time - my wife suggested we

wallpaper this dining room.

Sure, I said, how hard can that be! We'll have it done by Thanksgiving and

invite both our families here for the traditional turkey dinner in our newly

decorated dining room. What a great idea!

Now I don't want to tell you about picking out the wallpaper, and I don't

want to mention that the first piece was hung upside down. Both those

events are sermons in their own right. Today I'm just going to tell you

about the first line of instructions when I took the plastic wrap off the

first role of wallpaper and this little sheet of paper with directions fell

out.

Directions, first step, number 1 - Prepare the wall.

Sounds simple enough - prepare the wall. Let's do a thorough job and take

off all the old paper - that's a good idea. How long can that take?

How long? How long, O Lord, how long!

It was an archaeological expedition. Apparently at one time the dining room

was a color of green that you associate with a camouflaged tank disabled

sometime during WW II in the jungles of Panama. Under that was a very

interesting nautical theme, and under that a bright and cheery leaf motif

which I suspect was put up to ward off the melancholy which comes to all

Vermonters around the middle of April when you know it's spring somewhere

but that somewhere happens to be over 150 miles south and you're still

slugging through mud season.

First we borrowed a spray gun, then we rented a steamer: Night after night

scraping, spraying, scraping, peeling, steaming, scraping, peeling,

scraping, scraping. Finally we got to the last layer and in places we could

already see the plaster wall. Hooray, the end is near!

O, what fools we were. For when we began to scrape and peel that last

layer, we discovered that little tiny pieces, and some not so little pieces,

were pulling out of the topcoat of the old plaster wall.

Divots, cracks, craters, potholes began to appear. With each scrape and

peel another spot to spackle, another spot to sand, another delay, another

disappointment.

Spackling is a skill - a skill I don't have. The more time I put into

spackling, the worse the appearance of the final result. O sure it looks

good at night when you have time to work and the only illumination is a

couple of bear bulbs in the middle of the room. You go to bed feeling

pretty good about what you've accomplished.

But then, in the morning, when you wake up and walk into the room full of

beautiful sunlight, there they are - many little shadows showing exactly

where those cracks and craters were, where you carefully spackled and

patiently sanded, where instead of holes, you've made bumps, instead of

cracks, you've made lines so that the wall resembles something like a relief

map of the highway system in Los Angeles after an earthquake.

But the job must move on. You've left perfection behind long ago, and now

you just want to get it done. So you prime and you size and six weeks, no

eight weeks, no twelve weeks later, you have a wall that is free of what is

old and ready to receive what is new, and when you look at it in the right

light, is smooth and finished and prepared.

And so there it is, step 1 of the directions is complete: Prepare the Wall.

It took a lot longer than we could have imagined; it involved a multitude of

steps, the learning of new skills, and help from friendly parishioners.

This first step ended up being 95% of the total job, but finally it is done.

Who could have thought that so much would be covered by those three simple

words: Prepare the wall.

And you want to know something - the wall looked so good I was tempted to

not even cover it with wallpaper. I mean the wallpaper, which was the

point, was almost an afterthought once the wall was prepared for it.

Now I mention this last point because I want to move from a lighthearted

explanation of preparing the wall to a more serious examination of what John

the Baptist meant when he proclaimed: Prepare the Way of the Lord!

Last week the Rabbi from Temple Sholom, Norman Koch, was visiting and I

asked him, "What is the Jewish view of preparing the way for the messiah?"

He told me one school of thought held that the Messiah will come when he is

no longer needed. The Rabbis teach that if you are planting a tree and you

hear that the Messiah is at the gate, finish planting the tree and then go

and greet him.

Don't think the messiah is going to finish your work for you or make your

work unnecessary. The messiah's job is not to create a better world, but to

receive the world that we have created and say to us, "Well done!"

This made me think of my wallpaper experience, and how when I was done

preparing the wall, it almost didn't need wallpaper any more. Wallpaper was

the finishing touch that made it all complete, but most of the work was in

the preparation.

It made me think also of the words of Paul we read this morning:

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will

bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. And this is my prayer,

that your love may overflow more and more that in the day of Christ you may

be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that

comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Of course we believe that the messiah has come, and that God in Christ has

initiated the work of salvation through the cross. But, we also believe

that Christ will come again. And Advent is a season when we think not only

about the birth of baby Jesus in the manger, but also about the coming of

the Son of Man in Glory at the end of time.

So the words of John the Baptist, "Prepare the Way" were preached not only

to that first congregation by the river Jordan, but to us here today, to us

who have been given the task of preparing the way for the Lord to return and

claim sovereignty, dominion, power, and glory.

What can we do to prepare the Way? What can we do to make a world where the

messiah is no longer needed?

Let us call to mind the words of the prophet Micah:

Micah 6:6-8

"With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?

Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of

rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of

my body for the sin of my soul?"

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of

you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your

God?

Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

That sounds like a set of instructions with more work behind them even than

"Prepare the Wall."

To do justice - does that mean that we must be concerned about people living

in places I've never been living under systems of oppression that we can't

control? Does it mean that even though I am a straight white Anglo male I

must concern myself with prejudice against the not straight not white not

Anglo not male? Does it mean we must consider the means of production and

the conditions of the workers when we buy sneakers or sweaters or cute plush

toys with labels that say "Made in Malaysia"?

And loving kindness - does that mean we must refrain from telling Aunt

Harriet that the traditional pigs knuckles and sauerkraut casserole no

longer is well liked at the Christmas buffet? Or exactly how much patience

and tolerance are we supposed to have for the co-worker who stands over the

desk talking about their Thanksgiving at Club Med with seemingly nothing to

do on the job except thwart everyone else from finishing their work and

leaving for the day. And how about that driver who doesn't understand that

the new set of stop signs at the top of the Green here mean you take turns,

not that you see how fast you can follow the car in front of you through the

intersection? Does loving kindness mean you don't lay on the horn as they

cut you off? I admit I've failed that test.

And walking humbly with our God - does that direct us to a life of personal

piety and faithful discipleship? Does God expect a daily word of prayer, a

ready awareness of his presence, an appreciation of blessing, a heart of

gratitude, a generous sharing of our time, talents, and money?

Prepare the Way by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with

our God - is that what is necessary to take a world and scrape off and peel

away what is old and make it ready for what is new? Is that the path of

preparation for the Messiah who has come and begun this great work and will

come again and bring it to completion?

"I am confident of this," says Paul, "that the one who began a good work

among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. And this

is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more that in the day of

Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of

righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of

God."

Prepare the Way!  Amen

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