Taking Adventine Inventory

English: A painting created by Leonardo Da Vin...

Matthew 3:1-12

 

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly.

You brood of vipers.  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

’Tis the season to be jolly, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.

Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Frosty the snowman was a jolly, happy soul.

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Jingle bells?

 

You see the conflict, don’t you?  We come to church on Sundays during this season of Advent and we hear tough passages, stern passages, hard passages of scripture.  Last week it was about the coming Day of the Lord.  “Then two will be in the field,” it says; “one will be taken and one will be left.”  Then there’s this week: “You brood of vipers”!  We hear these passages and, if you’re like me anyway, we think, “Huh.  I guess Advent’s kind of a solemn time, maybe even introspective.”

But after church we go shopping.  The weather outside is frightful, so we bundle up in the comfort of our warm homes, donning now our gayest winter apparel, and we brave the elements—in the comfort of our heated vehicles, maybe even equipped with heated seats.  And we go to the malls where, well, frankly, we end up feeling pretty good about ourselves.

While we shop in the bleak midwinter, whether we realize it or not, we are continuously reminded just how clever we are.  Baby, it’s cold outside; but no matter!  We heat our shops—“the fire is so delightful”—, we de-ice our sidewalks, we fill our dark spaces with artificial light.  And we marvel at the cleverness of the seasonal decorations and even at ourselves reflected in so many windows and double-glass doors as we sip our steaming peppermint lattes.  It’s kind of like a big party.  And there’s that ubiquitous music, telling us over and over that Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, so please put a penny in the old man’s hat.  And we think, “I guess this really is the most wonderful time of the year.”

Next Sunday, however, we’re back in church and we hear: “See, the Judge is standing at the doors!”

I don’t know about you, but I kind of prefer the malls.

Nevertheless, as today’s collect reminds us, God has sent prophets as messengers to preach repentance and to prepare the way for our salvation.

Are the prophets of the malls doing these things?  They remind me just how clever I am.  They sing to me of red-nosed reindeer and jingling bells and imaginary snowmen-priests in meadows.  I smile and feel good about myself and laugh and enjoy a festive atmosphere with hundreds of other clever, smiling people.  The messages of these prophets are delightful!

But they’re not preaching much repentance or preparing a way for my salvation—unless it’s salvation for the afternoon from visiting family.

On the other hand, the Church’s prophets—prophets like John the Baptist—are.  Today’s Gospel preaches repentance.  Today’s Gospel prepares the way for our salvation.

Keep in mind that the commercialization of the holiday season is a relatively recent invention in the larger scheme of history.  It’s very prominent today, as I’ve illustrated.  It was quite prominent when I was a boy too, as I remember from personal experience.  It was around too, I’m sure, during my parents’ childhoods, though maybe to a lesser extent.  It’s even there a little bit in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843.

Yet long before this the Church established Advent as a time of introspection, where we Christians ought to think long and hard about Christ’s return; or, to say it in the words of John the Baptist, to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

That’s the main idea of today’s passage, by the way.  John the Baptist uses pictures from agriculture.  “The ax is lying at the root,” he says.  The bad trees, those that do not bear good fruit, these ought to be pruned away so that room will be made for good trees.

He says too, “The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  Chaff is the unwanted stuff, like the skin of an onion or on a clove of garlic.  You peel this stuff off and throw it away, or burn it, in order to get to the good stuff.

That’s like us.  We need to get rid of the unproductive, dried up, tangled, superfluous stuff of our lives and bear good fruit, the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

This idea of bearing fruit worthy of repentance aligns with today’s New Year custom of making resolutions.  We spend time reflecting over the past year—how we’ve lived our lives, the mistakes we’ve made, the successes we’ve experienced—and we resolve to do some things differently in the year ahead, to abandon some old not-so-good ways and to better ourselves.

What else is this custom but to do exactly what John the Baptist is saying?  Repent—meaning abandon or turn aside from your old ways—and bear fruit worthy of your new ways.

So then, this is all I’m asking of you today: take spiritual inventory.  Do it now, during Advent.  Don’t wait until that lethargic week after Christmas, when most people are too tired to ponder anything requiring much effort.  That sort of introspection just leads to anemic New Year’s resolutions.  Rather, as the Church has wisely allocated, take spiritual inventory throughout this four-week season of Advent.

And don’t just take personal inventory.  That’s where it begins, sure.  What do you need to let go of that gets in the way of your walk with Christ?  How can you serve Christ better in the year ahead?  What do you need to do to bear richer, fuller, plumper spiritual fruit?

These are all good and necessary questions.  So ask them!  But don’t stop with these.  Take spiritual inventory of your relationships.  Who is important to you?  Your husband? wife? son? daughter? parent? partner? coworker? sibling? friend?  And what about things?  I once heard a young person describe her i-Touch in terms of relationship.  Are you so dialed in to a screen that it hinders your maturity in Christ?

But go even one step further and take spiritual inventory of this church body.  Do you know our mission statement?  St. Luke’s is called to do one thing in three ways: according to our mission statement, we are called to illuminate San Antonio with the light of Christ; and the three ways we do this are through: transformative education; compassionate care; and inspiring worship (including music).

Think through this mission statement during Advent.  What are we doing well?  Where should we improve?  Then, please, share your thoughts.  Before the annual meeting!

So, take spiritual inventory this Advent.  Take it with respect to your individual self, take it with respect to your relationships, and take it with respect to this corporate body, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.  This is the time of the year for it—the most wonderful time of the year, during which we forsake our sins and greet Christ’s coming with joy.

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