Outward & Visible Signs

Advent 3C
Luke 3:7-18

May Christ come.  May we see Christ.  May we share Christ.  Amen.

Preparing for Christmas, in the Advent sense, is sort of a strange, counter-cultural movement.  Around our house, preparing for Christmas means a sort of partially expressed vision of Christmas around us.  Little by little, day by day, we move closer to the finished product, but until then, it’s liminal – partial, almost…  In stores, preparing for Christmas seems to mean vomiting every trapping of the season onto whomever will have it as early as they’ll have it.  Preparation happens by full-immersion, like the sharp cold of the water when you fall into a dunk tank.

In the church, preparation is different.  This Advent wreath is the most “Christmasy” thing around here.  Only the wreath itself, the evergreen branches, point to a symbol of the holy day for which we prepare.  The decorations and physical signs will be more like what you see in stores – jumping rapidly from the Fourth Sunday in Advent into Christmas.  The space will be transformed after only this one bit of warning.

It harkens back to what you may have read in the Prayer Book a long time ago about what makes something “sacramental”.  It’s memorably explained as outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.  The decorations of Christmas are the outward and visible signs.  But the real point we’re making is about the inward and spiritual grace that comes from knowing that Christ is here – in our midst and ready to work with us in the world at bringing about God’s will on Earth and among the people.

That’s what we prepare for.  It’s deceptively simple.  Just two parts: knowing that God is here, and acting like God is here.  It should be easy, right?

But the truth is, we know that Christmas, as we experience it in stores, and even as we experience it in church, isn’t the whole picture.  The explosion of the signs and symbols of Christmas isn’t spontaneous.  No matter how quickly it appears and no matter how suddenly it seems to be ready, the real preparation is always like what happens at home.  It may happen faster in stores and at church, but even so, lights are still hung one string at a time.  Wreaths and trees and creches and candles – they all still take work, little by little, until, at last, the preparations are finished and we’re ready to see the finished product.  It’s never truly spontaneous, and it’s certainly never truly instantaneous.

In that way, the decorations we see are similar to what we’re aiming for in Advent.  The beauty of the finished product could never really be revealed without the work to get us there.

Advent is about the inner work – the inward and spiritual work that helps us to realize the inward and spiritual grace that was the point all along.

In this Gospel lesson today, we hear the next chapter in the story of John the Baptist – a character who exists almost entirely as an icon of preparation.  There are so many ways that the message of John can be interrupted by the details of John.  The words that get in the way today are those first ones he says when people come to him for baptism: “You brood of vipers!”  Imagine if that’s how we greeted everyone who came here for the first time.  Imagine if that was your first introduction to an invitation to deepen your faith.  It’s hard to get past that.  But somehow he does.  Somehow, the people stick around and learn more.

With John it’s always the “more” that we want to hear – never the distracting beginnings.

The crowds hear John’s call, and say, “Okay – what then should we do?”  We hear your warnings, but what does that mean for our lives.  “Repent”.  Okay.  “Prepare the way.”  Okay.  But what does that mean?  What does that mean for me?

Share from your abundance with those who are lacking.  That’s what it means.  That’s a tangible way to prepare.

So, some others come.  The tax collectors – those pariahs of their time – came, too.  “Okay – what then should we do?”  Do your job.  Do what you need to do.  But don’t use your position of power to harm people.  The soldiers ask the same thing, and John’s response to them is the same.  Don’t be a jerk.

Suddenly, the path to knowing God more intimately didn’t seem like such a stretch.  It seemed like something anyone could handle.  I mean, if tax collectors and soldiers have a reasonable chance, then any of us do.

So John digs in.  He has their attention, he’s given them a reasonable path for preparing themselves: be as generous as you can be with those who are lacking and don’t hurt anybody.  Got it.  Now he tells them the secret: this is only the advent.  Christmas is coming.  “I baptize you with water…”  I have this outward and visible sign…  “But one who is more powerful than I is coming…  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with FIRE!”  This outward and visible sign only vaguely points to the inward and spiritual grace that you will receive if you are truly prepared.

You like what I have to say?  Just you wait.

That’s where Advent brings us: to doing the prep work.  To holding on to the faith that something even better is coming.  We’ll express that better experience with lights and trees and candles and wreaths, but those are just outward signs.  The real grace that is promised in Christmas is the grace of deeper knowing – more deeply knowing that Christ is here; more deeply knowing that God can reach us, and perhaps more to the point, that we can reach God; more deeply knowing that the inner beauty of our faith matches the outer beauty of the season.

Just you wait.  Amen.