The Return of The King - Week 2: "The Herald"

When I worked at Walt Disney World many moons ago, I recall several visits that we were paid by Michael Eisner, the Chairman and CEO of the Disney company at the time.

As Eisner walked through the Magic Kingdom park during his visits, there would always be a team of people who would find out where he was going, and who would go before his entourage to prepare everyone along the way.

Everything had to be perfect because Eisner was notorious for picking up on the slightest imperfection.  He was fond of retelling the story of how he walked by a gate in one of the parks on the way to lunch and casually remarked how it would look better blue.  After lunch he and his posse walked by it again, only this time it was blue--re-painted while he ate.

It was considered an honor if Eisner walked through your area of the park and didn't have anything to say about it.  He was gracing us with his presence, essentially.  I will never forget those moments.  Like a king, he had heralds who declare his coming, and prepare his subjects for his arrival.  And like a king, when he noticed things were a bit off, there were repercussions.

The Scripture passage that we'll be studying today for the Second Sunday of Advent, and the second installment of our sermon series, "The Return of the King" is focused on a herald, and preparation for the coming of a king.

Before we dig into our text, though, let me say a little something about Advent once again just to center our conversation.  To begin with Advent is a season when we are reminded of God's promises--particularly his promise to send a Messiah, which was fulfilled in Jesus the Christ.  Advent is also an anticipation of the return of the king--Jesus the king of kings, who promised that he would return to set this world to rights.

The easy thing to do this time of year is to focus on the "babe born in a manger..." and to gloss over what this "babe" was born to become.  Jesus himself had some pretty challenging things to say about his mission and purpose.

Which brings us to this strange quote from the Prince of Peace:  "I did not come to brings peace--but a sword."  Why would Jesus say this?  And what does it have to do with Advent, or our message today, for that matter?

Today we're going to be studying a bit about John the Baptist, who proclaimed the coming kingdom of God and the arrival of the Messiah.  He was a herald, sent to prepare people for the coming of the Christ.  His message was full of hope, but it was also full of danger.  John's purpose was to prepare the world for Jesus, who brought both---hope and danger.

There's no middle ground with Jesus.

There's no such thing as cheap grace... grace is costly.

There's no such thing as a comfortable Gospel.

The very existence of Jesus creates division.  His imminent arrival should fill us with a desire to be prepared.  The fact that he entered into our mess, and chooses to continue doing so until all things are right---that should cause us to rejoice despite the quaking feeling in our gut.  You see...

Jesus is proof that you matter to God.  

Let's go to Matthew chapter 3, verses 1-12:
3 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Like Elijah, the Baptist just appears in the text out of nowhere.  And he preaches in the wilderness, which has great significance for the Hebrew people as a symbol of their history--a place of memories and also anticipation.  It was in the wilderness that they disobeyed God and wandered, but it was also in the wilderness where they learned to rely on God and to find their way.  
3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” 4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.
Right away we see that John is connected to the ancient stories of prophets of old.  His clothing, and his very actions all speak of the past, but he declares a new age with his words.  He has one foot in the old world and one in the new.  He identifies with the righteous poor by eating kosher food that is found in the desert, and living in the margins of society.  
5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
It's interesting that in a religious world that was centered on the city center, the temple mount of Jerusalem--John preaches in the desert, and people leave the center and travel to where he is... not the other way around.  
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
John attacks the religious leaders who come out to assess the threat of this new movement.  He affirms the advent of a new age that threatens their central power.  John asserts that their privilege by birth doesn't matter any longer because if God wanted to, he could create children of privilege out of stones--a way of placing their elite status firmly in the hands of God.  
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
John paints a picture of the Day of The Lord, a new era for all humankind where everything has changed and the "world" no longer gets the last word.  The Messiah that we wait for, John not-so-subtly indicates, is one that is part of God's future, but was planned for and prophesied about from the past.  

What John does here is the work of a herald--a moment of preparation.  When the king arrives, he is telling everyone, there will be no easy way out, no safe decision.  Those who think they are insiders could be left on the outs, and those who have always felt marginalized will find their place in the center.

The world John was speaking into was filled with great uncertainty.  Things were a mess.  Humanity had done a bang up job of completely rejecting God's goals of justice and mercy.  John reminded his listeners that they were in a wilderness, and the time for disobedience had run out---it was time to remember who they were, and who had claimed them.  And to get ready for a change.

And all of this leads me to this observation...

It seems to me that what most of want out of Advent is for it to be over, and for Christmas to get here as soon as possible.  It's easier for us this way because then we don't have to think about the fact that we're probably not ready for Jesus' arrival.  In fact, we know we're not ready.

Let's not get to hasty on the Christmas carols just yet...  Maybe we need to take a moment and listen to the herald who is trying to deliver an important message.

You see, the place where you are sitting is a wilderness.  That pew... that chair... has been the place where someone sat praying for peace... begging for release... trying to find meaning...  crying out to God for salvation...

Maybe you came here---into this wilderness to see if you could find something, anything to give you purpose.

And the reason why you try not to think too hard about the coming of the Christ is because you know that you haven't done a bang up job of making the way straight for him, cleaning up the mess, paying attention to the details...  But what most of us don't always get is that even though Jesus arrival does bring some admonition, what some might call judgement---his arrival absolutely screams his acceptance of us... as we are, in our brokenness and our sin.

Because Jesus is proof that you matter to God.

Parents of kindergartners assembled outside of their children's classroom to pick them up from school.  It was the last day before Christmas break, and the children were filled with excitement and anticipation.  They each held gift bags, filled with gifts for their parents that they'd been working on for weeks.  They streamed out of their classroom, gathering their books, screaming with laughter.  One little boy shouted to his parents and tried to wave with his arms full of books and his hand barely hanging on to the gift bag holding his special surprise.  Suddenly it slipped from his grasp and fell to the ground with a crash.  The sound of broken ceramics was unmistakable and for a moment all he could do was stand there in horror.  He burst into tears and knelt by the bag.  "It's all right," his father said to him.  "It's nothing.  It doesn't matter.  Don't worry about it.  It doesn't matter"  The boy's mother rushed to his side.  "Oh but it does matter!" she exclaimed. "It matters more than anything." and she held her son and wept with him.  Soon the father knelt with them, and enveloped them in his arms, with tears rolling down his cheeks.

We come to God with our prized creations, broken and shattered.  Our lives in chaos.  Our world a mess.  We come to God with sin and shame, sorrow and loss.  And God envelopes us... and weeps with us... and feels our pain... and gives us hope in the midst of it.  And God does this through Jesus--the king who came and who will one day come again...  Because we matter to him.  You matter to him.

Don't be in a rush to sing Christmas carols... to get through Christmas...  Wait. Prepare.  Repent.  Listen to the herald.

Jesus is proof that you matter to God.
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