Pastor Bryan Niebanck

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”

Matthew 3:3

Have you ever had a visitor who tells you that they are coming over to your house, and you basically have no say in the matter?  Perhaps they only give you a five-minute warning.  Maybe they are even kind enough to give you a thirty-minute warning.  Perhaps there was a time when a child gave you a warning that their friend was coming over, like it or not, or maybe you did not find out until they were at the door.  Regardless, does having a warning that you have a visitor coming whether you like it or not make you stressfully try to get the house ready?  Do you feel that you can welcome that visitor in kind?

When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, he proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.  This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Matt. 3:2-3).  John the Baptist has told the people of Israel that someone is coming after him, of whom John is not even worthy to carry his sandals (Matt. 3:11).  This person is coming whether the people are ready for him or not.  So, John says, prepare.  Prepare the way of the Lord.  Get yourselves ready to welcome him.  Whether you are ready for Christmas to come or not, Christmas is coming.  We are celebrating Christmas yet again.  And Advent is the season where you can prepare the way for Christ to enter your hearts.  It is where you can forge the way of peace.

How many of you feel that you are in a wilderness?  You may not be sure of where to turn, or perhaps you look at the way other Christians pray or show their faith and think, “I will never be like them,” or, “I can never do what preacher is asking me to do, so I guess I am just out of luck.”  The good news is that, in preparing the way for the Lord, we do not need to reach a certain level of faith or be better than the person next to us in our devotion.  We just need to be better than we were yesterday.  When we find a way to selflessly serve, for example, we are better than we were yesterday.  It is not about how long you pray, or the form of your prayer, or what you can take away from prayer.  It is not about whether you can hear God speaking to you or if you just hear silence.  There are many different ways to communicate with God and improve our devotion towards God.  Sometimes we can sit at a prayer fountain and spend hours in that moment, and have a meaningful interaction.  Other times we can think about God for a moment while we are waiting for a train, and have just as meaningful of an experience.  On Friday, as I was waiting for the train to get into Hogue’s to relieve Dena of the bell ringing, I was forced to stop for a minute.  Sometimes we just need to stop and breathe.  We need to take in the present for a minute.  How can you selflessly serve God this week?  How can you selflessly serve your neighbor, when the only thing you gain from your tireless hours is the knowledge that someone else’s life was brightened because of what you did?  If you are in a wilderness – maybe you do not feel close to God, maybe you do not feel peace or joy – then think about one step that you can make that brings you closer to God.  Even if you just take one step all Advent, or all year, it is one step closer to God.  This much we can do for God.  We can show God that He is a priority in our lives.  We can show God that we will take a few moments to prepare the way into our hearts and lives this year.

I am not going to list out a whole bunch of steps and directions this time because it really is different for each one of us.  I may want to start more days journaling in the morning in 2023.  One of my goals is to wake a little earlier, go on a morning run, and start the day with some devotions.  We’ll see if it works out; I bet I’ll fail sometimes, but if I do better at it next year than I did this year, something good has happened.  Whatever you do to seek God more is absolutely your choice.  But Jesus is coming.  Jesus will knock, and we want to have room in our inn.  We want to make room in our hearts.  Remember how we began the year?  I challenged you to pick one in 2022: Praise, Prayer, Listen, Share.  Which have you improved on the most this year?  What will be your goals in 2023?

When John the Baptist challenged the people with the coming of the Messiah, he called them to repent.  That is, he called them to turn away from their comfortable life.  He called them to make a change.  This may mean that you have to do something outside your comfort zone.  If you have to repent from a wrongdoing – if that has been holding you back from God – do so; if you have to take a bold step that you may have been afraid to take, try that.  For some, it may be getting up in front of people to light a candle, or reading, or even doing the children’s story.  For others, it may be welcoming someone into our lives who we have been afraid to face.  It may be going on a mission trip even though you are not sure right now how you can help.  You trust that if God has called you to something, God can use you.  Being with God requires a bold step.  Preparing the way for God requires us to take a bold step.

The motto of the United Church of Christ is this: “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”  We know all too well that people in the days before Jesus would not welcome everyone; sometimes there is just no room, and sometimes someone may turn out to be a robber.  We have the same barriers today, and they are legitimate barriers.  But can we welcome one another into the space that is our hearts and our church?  When we meet someone, can we make them feel loved?  Regardless of where they or we are on controversial issues, in politics, on LGBTQ, we are called to love our neighbor.  We do not have to affirm the belief of our neighbor, but we should accept them and create a welcoming space.  As Paul encouraged us in Romans 15: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:5-7).  Acceptance makes someone feel loved.  Forgiveness makes someone feel loved.  Encouragement makes someone feel loved.  They all make someone feel welcome.  How can we be more accepting, more forgiving, and more encouraging to not only prepare the way for God in our own lives, but prepare the way for God in another’s life?

Last week, we started our Advent series with a call to reflect.  I called you to reflect on our Advent hope, to not be afraid because we have that hope, and because we hope, we can trust in the Lord and live honorably while we wait for what is to come.  As we wait for salvation and peace in our hope, let us live honorably.  Today, I call you to surrender.  Surrender yourself to God by giving what you can of yourself for the kingdom of God.  Surrender some of your time to spend more time with God.  Surrender your love to others who may not have expected to receive that love.  Surrendering to God is depending on God.  When we depend on God, we are giving ourselves over to God, because He is coming and we trust and know that this is good.  The shepherds came without question to the stable to lay their eyes on the newborn Christ child.  The mother Mary surrendered to God when she told the angel Gabriel, “Let it be to me as I have been told.”  The father Joseph surrendered his reputation in his hometown by going to be with Mary despite the talk around Nazareth.  He surrendered to the will of God, since the angel appeared to him in a dream.  The Lord will win, so there is no sense in fighting a call of God.  Whatever time we offer, God will use that time.

God loves us.  God loves us so much that God wants us to be a part of his work.  As we take a bold step to further that work, and give to others, we find that it is more blessed to give than to receive.  And that can give us an overwhelming sense of peace this Christmas.  Bring love to someone else this Christmas.  Bring God back into the world.  Be peace to your neighbor.  Whatever brings you peace, forge the way of peace.  That is how God will enter the world, in peace, in love, and in glory, adored by all who come to Him.  May all glory and honor be to God.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Isaiah 11:1-10
11:1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
11:2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
11:3 His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;
11:4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
11:5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
11:6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
11:7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
11:8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
11:9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
11:10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
72:1 Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.
72:2 May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.
72:3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.
72:4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.
72:5 May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
72:6 May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.
72:7 In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
72:18 Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.
72:19 Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen.

Romans 15:4-13
15:4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.
15:5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus,
15:6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
15:7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
15:8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs,
15:9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”;
15:10 and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;
15:11 and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”;
15:12 and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 3:1-12
3:1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,
3:2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
3:3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”
3:4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.
3:5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan,
3:6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
3:8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
3:9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
3:10 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.
3:11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
3:12 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.”

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