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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 (John 1:14).

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.

It's much like the Buddhist monk who shared this wisdom1:

"Truth 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."

The "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.

John the 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 world.

Last 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 practice hospitality.

When we entertain, we want to make sure our houses are neat and clean.

When we 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.

Let me 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.

(Next Sunday we're inviting you to an Open House, in part so you can see the work that was done.)

The work 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 different meal.

The focus was no longer on the house, but the guests. And we noticed.

In one 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.

Most 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.

I 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.

At 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 cookies.

But if 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.

In 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.

In 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.

In our 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 her2:

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.

For some 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 your heart.

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.


1 Dajian Huineng, a Chαn Buddhist monk and patriarch (638-713), as quoted in "Radical Gratitude.

2 Moore, p. 44