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Luke 3:7-18; Isaiah 11:1-9

We’ve made it more than halfway through the season of Advent. We lit the candle of hope, and we reflected on the promise that even when we are too weary to hope, Jesus is our hope for us. We lit the candle of peace, and we explored what it might mean for us to be peacemakers in a world where there is precious little peace. This week, we lit the rose colored candle – the candle of joy. This Sunday is called Gaudete Sunday – meaning “rejoice” – and we celebrate that we have made it past the midway point in our waiting. Soon our waiting will be replaced with celebration. Soon we will creep close to the manger and peer inside and see the miracle of God made flesh. Today, we take a breather from our waiting and we allow ourselves to take a little taste of the joy that is coming into the world. 

When I was a kid, nothing frustrated me more than seeing a plate of my favorite kind of cookies or a bowl of a delicious pasta salad in the refrigerator with a sticky note that said “for the church.” That meant I would have to wait to taste them – if I even got to taste them at all. In some ways, Advent is like that. We enter the season of Advent knowing that a joyous miracle is going to happen, but we aren’t there yet. We can’t pull out all the stops for a few more weeks. It’s not quite time to celebrate.

On this Gaudete Sunday, it’s a little bit like Mom decided to make a couple of extra cookies and give them to us early. We taste them and we experience their goodness, even though we have to wait for the big event to have some more. We are invited to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” as it says in Psalm 34.

Today as we continue our series “Advent in Plain Sight” based on the object lessons in Jill J. Duffield’s book by the same name, we are exploring an object that might seem unusual for the season of Advent: belts. Perhaps when you hear the word “belts” at this time of year, you imagine the pictures of Santa Claus with his black belt with a large buckle. Or, maybe you think about how you have to loosen your own belt this time of year as you allow yourself to enjoy more sweets than usual. When I was first reading Jill J. Duffield’s book, I thought “belts” was a strange choice for Advent. And even stranger that we decided to explore this object on “rejoice” Sunday. But, as I have immersed myself in the Scripture passages for this morning and as I have imagined the world these passages describe, I think “belts” are just what we need for today. And, not just any belt – “the belt of righteousness” as it says in Isaiah 11. 

In the story we read about John the Baptist in Luke 3, we don’t get a description of what John looked like. However, if we turn to Matthew 3, we read this about John the Baptist: “Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). I think it’s safe to say John was an eccentric character who looked the part of a prophet who lived in the wilderness. In Luke 3, we encounter the message John the Baptist preached as he prepared the way for the Lord. He didn’t pull any punches. He said this: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin 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.”

Yikes. Typically people don’t respond very well to being called a “brood of vipers.” Yet, in this story, the people didn’t react with anger. They didn’t dismiss what he had to say. Instead, they asked, “What then should we do?” Even tax collectors came to him and asked to be baptized. They were so amazed by the teachings of John the Baptist that they began to wonder if he might be the Messiah.

John the Baptist gave them these instructions: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” And something about these words made the people wonder if he might be the promised one who was to come, the Messiah who would make all things new. 

Perhaps they had in mind the vision of the prophet Isaiah of a good king who would come and care for the poor, who would make all things right, and who would usher in an era of peace. Isaiah described the one who was to come in this way: “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins” (Isaiah 11:5).

On this third Sunday of Advent, we are reflecting on belts and the new creation. We are urged to ask ourselves what it would look like if we, too, were clothed with the belt of righteousness and faithfulness as we seek to follow the example of Jesus. John the Baptist said it looked like sharing what we have with others. St. Ambrose must have had this in mind when he famously said, “If you have two shirts in your closet, one belongs to you and the other to the man with no shirt.” 

Jill J. Duffield considers what this might mean for us when she wrote this: “The Savior for whom we wait and prepare is wrapped in a belt of righteousness, he is clothed in faithfulness. He traffics in miracles, not data, relationships, not transactions….He leaves the ninety-nine sheep and goes to find the one. He takes time to welcome little children and makes enemies of the most powerful. He eats with tax collectors, touches those deemed untouchable, and allows society’s outcasts to touch him…Isaiah’s vision, if we understand it to be performative language, expands our imagination and invites us to wrap ourselves with God’s belt of righteousness and gird our loins with a faithfulness prepared to participate in holy possibilities. Imagine.” 

In other words, what if Isaiah’s vision and John the Baptist’s message were not merely nice words that give us hope, but were an invitation for us to live our lives this way, too? What would happen if each of us followed the example of Jesus who reached out to children, those who were weak, and made time for the poor and the outcast? I imagine that if we did this, we’d get a little taste of heaven right here on earth.

On this third week of Advent, these texts from Isaiah and Luke give us a challenge and a promise. Let’s start with the challenge.

First, even if the world seems dry, chaotic, and desolate, perhaps this is just the time to grow. When I was maybe twelve years old, we had a giant tree stump in our backyard. My brother and I would take hatchets and we would sit and chop away at that stump. We would spend hours outside trying to cut away at the stump so that we could keep the tree from trying to grow back. And yet, every single spring, the stump would spring back to life. It was just like the words of the prophet Isaiah to a desperate people in a desolate time: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

We may look at the world around us and despair. We might think things have never been as bad as they are right now. But, I’m here to tell you that as long as the roots remain, as long as God is working and active in the world through the people God keeps on calling, new life will still spring up. As long as the Spirit stirs in the hearts of those who long to follow after God, it’s not too late. It’s not hopeless. Even when it seems like the end is near, newness and promise are just beginning.

We have been called to clothe ourselves with the belt of God’s righteousness and faithfulness, and to be glimpses of God’s kingdom right here on earth. We are called to offer the world a sneak peek – to let them taste and see that God is good, right here and now, not just when all things are made new and Christ returns. 

Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner famously said that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Where are those places for you? Where do you see a need that brings you deep joy to meet? As we answer this question – a question we need to ask ourselves every day – we will find opportunities to share the love of Jesus. We will see new life growing up in the most unusual of places, like a dandelion that courageously grows up in the sidewalk cracks. 

Second, there is joy in living the way we were meant to live. When we think about asking where our “deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” we might think, “I’m already too busy,” or “Here’s another sermon on how I’m not doing enough.” If that’s you, let me stop right here. The last thing on earth God is calling us to do when we are too busy already is to make ourselves even busier for the kingdom of God. Instead, we are being invited to consider how we were meant to live because when we are living out of our gifts and we are serving God in the way we live – whether it’s at work, or at home, or at church – we will experience the joy of living wholehearted lives. We may even find ourselves doing less and being more intentional about the things we say “yes” to as we seek to bring glimpses of the kingdom to our corner of the world.

My mom told me a story about a bait shop that had a large Christmas cactus in the store window. One day, my dad was in the shop and noticed the cactus had large round, red berries all over it. He had never seen anything quite like it, so he decided to ask the store owner how he had gotten his cactus to grow like that. The answer was: he hadn’t. One day he had been eating cherry tomatoes and some of the insides had squirted out onto his fingers. The shop owner looked around for something to wipe his hands on, and he decided to wipe his fingers off on the edge of his Christmas cactus pot. To his surprise, not long after that, a cherry tomato plant started growing in the pot right along with the Christmas cactus.

It turned out, the conditions of the soil in that pot and the light in the window were ideal both for the cactus and the tomato plant to grow. So, these unlikely plants became roommates, and the Christmas cactus with “red berries” became quite the conversation starter. We may live in a broken world that seems hopeless at times, but the conditions may just be right for new life to grow. We may not even intend to plant the seeds of new life – like that “accidental farmer” in the bait shop, but with God nothing is impossible.

Friends, let us rejoice! The kingdom of God is breaking into this world. Our wait is nearly over, and the signs of new life are emerging all around us, even on cold winter days. To conclude, I’d like to leave you with this poem written by Madeleine L’Engle. It is called “The Risk of Birth.” 

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honor & truth were trampled to scorn—
Yet here did the Savior make His home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.