The One who began a good work in you will complete it in time, for your sake, and the sake of the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Second Sunday of Advent, year C
Texts: Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6; Malachi 3:1-4
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Advent’s messages are very familiar to us. But they’re really hard to sort out.
Every year John the Baptist preaches on two Advent Sundays, and we know the message by heart: Repent. Prepare for God’s coming. Then the Evangelists always link John back to Isaiah: straight paths in the wilderness, flattened mountains and filled-up valleys, rough roads made smooth. Today, we’re also told we’ll be refined, purified, like ore.
These are powerful yearly messages, but we have multiple difficulties with them. It’s hard to know what we’re preparing for, what it will mean to our lives, and who’s doing what. And they’re pretty threatening sounding, too. They make Advent feel daunting, even dispiriting.
So first, which coming of Christ are we preparing for?
Our celebration of Christmas? The calendar placement of these four weeks makes it feel that way. But putting up a Christmas tree and getting an Advent wreath doesn’t require metaphors of massive landscaping projects or being heated in a nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit refining forge.
Are we preparing for Christ’s coming at the end of time? If we trust Jesus, and we do, he told us repeatedly our preparation for that time is to be ready always. We’re not to worry about when it will happen, just be ready every day, faithful in our service. Again, it doesn’t sound comparable to smashing mountains to sea level.
Are we preparing for Christ to come into our lives right now? Well, John’s call to “prepare” and “repent” seems to fit that coming best. So does refining ore and re-ordering wilderness. Is your heart ready for Christ to dwell within you? Advent asks. Do you need cleaning up, refining, purifying? Do you need things rooted out of your heart’s wilderness, your rough ways smoothed out? John and the prophets make the most sense for our lives right now.
But who actually works this Advent preparation we’re hearing about?
John seems to think we do. He says directly, “Repent. Prepare.” As if you should do that.
But gold ore doesn’t refine itself. Malachi says God’s Messiah will put you through fire and refine you. And mountains and valleys don’t drive the big machines. Isaiah sounds like someone else is doing it: every valley shall be lifted up, every mountain and hill be made low. Like it’s not our work.
Clearly, we’re called to be changed for Christ’s coming into our hearts and lives. But much of today’s Advent calling doesn’t seem like something we can do for ourselves.
And we know we have failures to account for, things in us that aren’t God-pleasing. We know we’re not always like Christ. But all of these calls to prepare and repent, and the frightening thoughts of fiery furnaces and road graders can fill us with dread and shame that we’re not enough for God and never will be.
Thank God for Paul’s gift today.
In this beautiful letter to the congregation he unabashedly loves, Paul begins with pure joy: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.”
The Philippians weren’t perfect. They were as flawed as the people of Galatia or Corinth or Rome, whom Paul also loved. But when Paul prays for Lydia and her people, it all begins with joy.
That’s the overwhelming promise of Scripture, and Paul’s Advent gift to you: God’s first and constant thought of you is joy. There will be time to talk about challenging things, even for the Philippians in this letter. But this is your beginning and constant truth: you are beloved to God and bring joy to the heart of God.
You probably need refining, purifying. But you are precious gold. You probably need some landscaping work. But God created your landscape and sees beauty and promise in it.
And here’s the next gift: the very next line.
Paul says, “I am confident of this, that the One who began a good work in you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
Can you hear that? God in Christ has already begun this good work in you, from your baptism till now. Christ is already living in your heart, making adjustments, doing remodeling, cooking away impurities. And Paul is confident that the refining, the landscaping, will all be completed by deadline.
This is Advent’s joy: whatever preparation your heart needs for Christ to live in you, the Triune God is already doing it, and Christ has already come to you. Even your repentance, turning to God from your sin into the life of God’s love, is empowered by God’s Spirit living in you.
Hold this promise: God in Christ has begun a good work in you and will complete it.
What remains is to trust that the Refiner sees your precious metal and is working to bring it out with love and gentle, firm correction. It might even get pretty hot inside as Christ refines you. But the Artisan won’t destroy what is beloved in the process.
What remains is to trust that the Landscaper sees your potential with some grading or shifting of priorities, loves who you are and what you can be, and carefully crafts you into Christ for the world. It might feel like the Spirit’s driving a bulldozer sometimes. But this Operator has a deft, skilled touch, and will leave the garden better than before.
And remember that God in Christ has a lot more at stake than just you. The Triune God is trying to refine the precious metal of this creation, re-shape the landscape of this world, one child of God at a time. You. And me. And on and on.
This is how the inner beauty God sees in creation will finally be seen by all and all nations will be healed. That’s when Advent’s true work will be finished, when “all flesh sees the salvation of God.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen