This sermon was preached at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cherry Hills Village, CO on Dec. 2. It can be viewed at http://www.bethanylive.org.
The texts are Jeremiah 33: 14-16 and Luke 3: 1-6
Children’s message: Have a basket of balls (about the size of ball pit balls-the light plastic ones) and a volunteer. (I prefer to use adults as asking a child or youth on the spot is not really fair, or consent.) Explain that you are going to throw the balls one at a time to the other person to see if they can catch all of them (about 4-5 is plenty). Start pitching to the volunteer. They will probably be able to catch two but then will need to drop a ball to catch another one. “It’s hard to catch another ball when you already have something in your hands isn’t it? How could Jeff catch each one? By letting go of each ball after he catches it? Ok let’s try that! Have the catcher catch a ball and then put it down (have another basket for them so that they don’t roll). Hmmmm, (to the catcher) was that easier? Why? (Have them say that when they let go of the ball, they could be prepared for the next one coming their way.) yes! That is best isn’t it? Our life is like that too. Sometimes we have to let go of something in order to be ready for the next thing that God wants to give us. Maybe it’s letting go of being a first grader to get to go to second grade, or stop doing soccer to have time for ballet, or letting go of your room for a new baby brother or sister, or here in the Advent season we are preparing for Christmas and so we might let go of some space in our living rooms for a tree or let go of and give away toys that you are too old for and someone else can use, or let go of those delicious cookies your family makes to share with someone. In our Bible story today, John is telling people that in order to prepare for Jesus, they have to let go. They have to let go of worrying about if they are good enough, they have to let go of what people might think of them and they have to let go of worrying if they are keeping all the rules perfectly for God to love them. They have to drop those things so that they are prepared to catch all of the love and grace that is coming at them from Jesus. Just like Jeff’s hands were open and ready to catch a ball, our hearts have to be open and ready to catch God’s love from Jesus because God’s love is coming no matter what! Let’s pray:
Life can feel like we constantly have balls being thrown at us to catch. Balls to catch of expectations from others and of ourselves. This time of year, it seems that the expectations are high to have the perfectly decorated house, tree, perfect gifts, cards to send out, food prepared, and the list can go on and on of all the preparation expectations we feel from culture and we put on ourselves. Little secret: I haven’t sent Christmas cards in 14 years. It’s so freeing! Try it! I let it go. So much of life is letting go. There has been a lot in my life (besides Christmas cards) that I’ve had to let go of. Whether is was my childhood dream of being a professional violinist, letting go of my children as they have become young adults, letting go of the idea that our parents will be around forever, letting go of what my own aging and mid-life is like. And there have been many times that letting go was the scariest and hardest thing I did, and I was convinced that it was simply the end of everything. And then it wasn’t. When I let go of my fear and the story I was telling myself of what life should and would be like, I could be ready, open and prepared for what was actually happening next: and it was usually something I never expected.
We often think that preparation is a long task list of to-dos that we have to check off or is making sure that we have all of our ducks in a row. But John the Baptist offers the people and us a different view of preparation. Preparation for what is next, is really about letting go.
Luke gives us the setting for John’s ministry by providing a list of several of the rulers of the Roman Empire that were prominent in the region as well as the chief priests of the Jewish Temple Institution. Luke does this to remind us that there were indeed secular and religious powers at work whose main agenda was control over the population in order to maintain status quo. Luke then states of John that he is the son of Zechariah, a priest from the back country and that John, himself, is in the wilderness. John is a nobody from nowhere. But his proclamation is so compelling that people are flocking to him in the middle of nowhere. He baptizes them for the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness means letting go-letting go of sin-what separates them from God. He tells the people to let go of their sin because it’s not what defines them. And while you’re at it: let go of who the Roman Empire says you are, let go of who the Temple system says you are. Let go of those definitions of yourself. Let go of all of that because the Messiah is coming to proclaim the truth of who you are. You are more than your sin, the things you have done and left undone. You are more than your wealth or poverty, your ethnicity, your gender or status in the Empire. You are more than the sacrifices you offer at the Temple, or whether you are deemed clean or unclean. When you let go of those identities you can then be prepared for the gift that is coming to you: the gift of being the beloved child of God through Jesus and free to be who God created you to be.
This seems so simple and yet it is the most difficult thing that we can do. To let go of what we think has value in our lives or gives us value: our jobs, homes, cars, family members, what we wear, eat, where we live, our hobbies, our opinions is to prepare for what God values: us just as we are and God comes to us over and over again with this message of love, wholeness and grace. This message indeed levels the playing field: valleys and mountains, rough places and crooked paths are no match for God’s love. But in our culture, this word of the Lord that tells us to let go of what doesn’t give us true life can seem like the words of a lunatic, a crackpot or a lonely voice crying out in the wilderness where no one wants to be. That voice is one that is hard to hear.
A spiritual practice I began a few years ago was to at the beginning of each new liturgical year, to choose a word or short phrase that would help me to hear the voice of God in my life. Last year my word was “breathe,” as I found when I was stressed or anxious, I held my breath instead of breathing in and connecting with the Holy Spirit. I even had a bracelet I wore with that word on it so that I could be reminded. This text made me realize that my phrase for this year will be “letting go.” What do I need to let go of to hear the voice of God? What do I need to let go of in order to be my true and authentic self? Maybe it’s letting go what other people think of me, what the world says I should be, expectations of others, perfectionism, my ego? Maybe it’s letting go of whatever keeps me from truly connecting with others. Letting go is not just about me. Letting go means being open to people around me who think differently, act differently, live differently. The world wants us to hold on tightly to the lie of power, status quo, control and homogeny for the sake of our self-preservation. It’s letting go of my vision of righteousness and justice and, as Jeremiah proclaimed to the Israelites, and being open to God’s vision of wholeness for all people-or as Isaiah says: all flesh. In the love of God through Jesus Christ, I am prepared to let go of bias, bigotry and fear and can be open to receiving the truth that God’s power, righteousness and justice straightens the pathways, levels the valleys and mountains and draws us all into a loving relationship with God and one another.
Letting go will be a powerful spiritual practice for me this year. I invite you to into this spiritual practice and choose a word or phrase that orients you to God’s presence, love and grace. In Advent, we prepare indeed for this gift from God by letting go of what separates us from God and each other and opening our hands and hearts to receive this unconditional and eternal love through Jesus Christ freely. Amen.