Preparing the Heart
sermon based on
John 1:6-8, 19-28
by Rev. Randy Quinn
Over the years, I have come to
appreciate what each of the Gospel writers tell us by looking at their unique
twists on the same story. Each of the Gospel writers, for example, tells the
story of John the Baptist early in the Gospel. But they each record different
aspects of the baptism of Jesus. One has John argue with Jesus about who should
be baptizing whom (Matthew 3:13-17). Another insists that the voice from heaven
is only heard by Jesus (Luke 3:21-22). The Gospel of John, presumably written by
the Apostle John, and definitely not the Baptist, never even tells us that John
baptized Jesus (John 1:29-34).
Keeping the stories straight
is difficult at times because we often remember a piece from one Gospel even as
we are reading another. (The fact that John, the Gospel writer, is a different
person than John, the Baptist, is hard enough to keep straight!) But I think
there is value in hearing each Gospel on its own, listening to the story of what
God is saying through the voice of that particular author.
When we make the effort to
keep their stories separate, we realize that John has a different reason for
telling the story of Jesus and consequently he has a different outline.
Specifically, John, more than any of the other Gospel writers, places an
emphasis on the fact that Jesus is the incarnation of God; God the Eternal One
has been revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.
Christmas in this Gospel is
not about a baby being born in Bethlehem. It's a Holy Mystery in which we
celebrate the miracle of God's decision to take on human form and live among us
Today's text is about the
Baptist from the perspective of the Apostle John. Last week we heard the story
from Mark's perspective. If you will remember, Mark's story was more concerned
with the baptism of repentance, while John's telling of it is more concerned
with the testimony of the Baptist. Rather than placing a focus on the character
of the Baptist, the Gospel of John keeps the focus on the message, the message
God has for the people, the message God has for Christians throughout the ages.
much like the Buddhist monk who shared this wisdom:
has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the
sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to
the moon's location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon,
it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger."
"finger" may be words, a religious icon, a beautiful sunset, a passage of
Scripture, or another human being. But we must always "gaze beyond the finger"
in order to see the moon. The "moon" in our case is the incarnation of God.
Baptist was not the light; rather he came to testify to it (John 1:8). The
Baptist is the "finger" who points to the "moon;" he is not the moon itself. He
is a channel for grace, the one who points us toward Jesus, the light of the
week our text invited us to prepare the way for Jesus. Today, I think there is
an invitation to prepare our hearts. It's really the difference between
preparing our homes in order to entertain and preparing our homes in order to
entertain, we want to make sure our houses are neat and clean.
provide hospitality, our focus changes from the house to the guest.
It is a
subtle, but extremely important, shift in the way we think about our lives, our
homes, and our hearts. And while I think the best situation involves preparing
the way as well as preparing our hearts, I am also convinced that the more
important preparation is the latter one. But in many ways it's easier to prepare
the way than it is to prepare our hearts.
illustrate by reminding you of the way our family was received here last summer.
There was lots of work done on the parsonage in preparation for our arrival. The
yard was properly cared for and the windows were cleaned, rooms were painted.
There were concerns about making a shower for Melissa and doors wide enough to
navigate her wheel chair in and around the house. There was also concern for
Jesse and Mariah who wanted to use the basement bedrooms so an emergency exit
window was installed.
Sunday we're inviting you to an Open House, in part so you can see the work that
on the parsonage made us feel welcome. But that was "preparing the way." We knew
you had prepared your hearts when the meals began to arrive at the door. Every
night that first week we lived in the parsonage brought a different face with a
focus was no longer on the house, but the guests. And we noticed.
of the churches where I served, it was the practice that the lector prayed with
the pastor before going into worship. It was an important part of preparing for
worship. But one particular Sunday stands out in my mind.
Sundays I was racing from Sunday School to warm up with the choir, then back to
my office where I would meet with the lector, say a quick prayer, and then we
would walk out into the sanctuary. That day, I raced into my office and found
Fran quietly sitting there, inviting me to sit with her.
suddenly felt like a guest in my own office! I experienced grace that morning. I
experienced hospitality. The environment shifted from being about the events and
activities done in God's presence to being about the presence of God.
Christmas, we often entertain people in our homes. We you or me or any one of
us may have people over for dinner. We may share a cup of coffee and some
our focus remains on the house or on the food, we will not be very good hosts.
In fact, I've been in many homes where cleanliness and orderliness were not high
priorities but I felt welcomed and loved because of a genuine sense of
hospitality. And that comes from a heart that is prepared for guests, not a home
that is prepared for entertaining.
church, especially, I think it's vital that we keep that focus; that we remember
we are not here to entertain or to be entertained. Rather, we are here to make
ourselves present to and celebrate the presence of God.
baptism, we do the same thing. We prepare for the event by making sure there is
water available. (I even make sure it's warm when we begin.) We prepare the
water by blessing it. But the more important preparation is the preparation of
our hearts as we open ourselves to the possibility that God will be revealed in
this sacrament and in our lives.
It is an invitation to walk as
children of the light.
Sunday School class, we've been reading from James Moore's book, What Do You
Want for Christmas? In it, he quotes a friend of his who tells the story
about a staff member at their church named Vee. Let me read what he says about
Vee loved Christmas! Vee knew how
to keep Christmas well! She did it with the same military order and precision
that she employed as our church's wedding coordinator to get bridesmaids to
stand up straight, groomsmen to spit out their chewing gum, and wedding
photographers to obey the church's rules. Every box of her Christmas decorations
was numbered and labeled. She even kept photographs of the decorations so that
she could begin with an accurate record of how things had been done the year
before. It took a full week but by Thanksgiving each year, her home, her office,
her wardrobe I suspect, even her dogs had become the objects of her Advent
transformation. . . .
Beneath it all, Vee knew how to
keep Christmas because she knew that the Christ who was born in Bethlehem had
been born within her life. The result was that the love and grace of God that
became flesh in Bethlehem became flesh among us in our relationship with her.
people, the celebration becomes about the parties, the lights, the presents. For
some people there is lots of preparing the way, but very little preparing the
heart. I hope this year you'll remember the vital difference between
entertainment and hospitality, and that you'll keep your focus on the guest
not only the guests who come to your home, but the guest who comes to live in
In telling us about the
message of the Baptist, John makes a point that the crowds do not know who Jesus
is (John 1:26). If we read further, it almost appears as though the Baptist
doesn't either (John 1:31). And yet John is willing to testify about him.
The testimony comes from the
heart, the heart that is open to God's presence as we present ourselves to God.
As Christians preparing for Christmas, we stand with others and answer the
question of the ages: who is the one in the manger? It is Christ the Lord who
has come to live in our hearts.
Thanks be to God. Amen.