The Prayers of the Church on both Christ the King Sunday and the First Sunday in Advent began with the words, “Stir up, O Lord.” This formula dates back to the Gregorian Sacramentary of the eighth century, so those prayers have been around for a very long time. But the form of these prayers the contemporary Church knows best comes from the Book of Common Prayer written by Cromwell in the 1600s. We have those prayers because the team that put our Lutheran Book of Worship leaned heavily in places on the liturgy in Cromwell’s hymnal for the beauty of its language and for its reliance on historical sources for the Church’s worship.
The Latin for the words “stir up” is “excita”, and that word means pretty much what it seems to mean to an English speaker. The prayer begs God to excite either His own power for the good of the world or, alternatively, to excite the faith of believers so they willingly share the Gospel that saves them from sin and death with others. Faith is only faithfully lived out if what we say at church guides what we do at home. The Book of Common Prayer is the hymnal of the Church of England, the American descendants of which are the Episcopalians, and the everyday English woman found a delicious way to “take home” those stir up prayers.
Since the reign of Queen Victoria, the Sunday before the first Sunday of Advent is known as Stir-Up Sunday. That’s the day on which wives and mothers and cooks would make up the steamed pudding that is a must on English Christmas dinner tables. It looks like a fruit cake to us Americans even if the English do call it a pudding, and it is so heavy with dried fruit and spices that it is a real chore to mix. So, everyone in the household strong enough to do it must present themselves to the kitchen to take a turn at stirring the fruitcake, er, pudding, so it is thoroughly mixed, and while they’re at it, have a prayer for the household.
I’ve not met many American lovers of steamed puddings or fruitcakes, any here? But in the distant past I used to make what I called an apricot poundcake. Yeah, it was a fruitcake but no one knew so they ate it and, for the most part liked it. I’ll admit that it is barely possible that they just liked the rum we poured into it teaspoon by teaspoon over the four weeks it sat in its tin. Still, there are precious few households in our country in which you can find the family stirring in the fruit and the brandy for the family Christmas dessert.
It is helpful then, that in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we hear St. Paul recommending another sort of fruit to that congregation, the fruit of righteousness. Clearly Paul wrote to the congregation in Philippi some years after Jesus Christ was made man by the power of the Holy Spirit by Mary, preached in the Galilee and Judea, was crucified and buried, and was raised from the dead by the Father and ascended to heaven. These new Christians knew, like Paul did, that they are waiting for Jesus to return, and so the question for them was, what do they do while they are waiting for our Lord to come back?
Well, that’s our question, too. The Church of Christ has waited about two thousand years for the second coming of Jesus Christ, and the question facing every generation of Christians is how do we faithfully wait for our Lord. Paul’s response was simple, for Paul, anyway, and loving. He wrote to them, “For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,” the End of Days, “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” So the answer, whether we’re talking about meeting Jesus after our deaths or after His return and the resurrection of the dead is the same. We spend our lives producing the fruits of righteousness.
So, what are those fruits, and by fruits we don’t mean apples and plums but results or consequences. The central character in this morning’s Gospel reading is perhaps the very best example of a believer’s whose faith produced the fruit of righteousness, and that is John the Baptist. You may remember that I have said in the past that I love this text, if only because I get to look over the congregation and say to you, as John the Baptist did, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?” Wonderful stuff, but the pastor who reads the Gospel and preaches the Gospel has to remember that he or she is first among the snake babies. We bite ourselves with our own preaching. John goes on to tell those assembled to hear him preach and receive his baptism for repentance in the Jordon River that they are to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.”
What are those fruits? Well, they obviously don’t include being really nice, because John himself was a very rough character. It was not only that he dressed in animal skins and ate locusts; that was John living on the bounty the Lord provided him in the wilderness. John was blunt, very blunt, and obviously spent no time on sweetness when he needed to get the unvarnished truth across to people who didn’t want to hear it. Snake babies are sinners, and John let them know that they needed to repent of their sins and amend their lives. They needed to produce fruits of righteousness, not fruits of unrighteousness.
We had this conversation in confirmation class recently. This class of confirmands is as fond of redirecting pastor’s attention from the curriculum as previous classes have been, so we got into a conversation about why people do things they should not do. Their specific example was Abraham telling his wife Sarah to tell the Egyptians she was his sister and not his wife. We talked about Abraham’s fear of rulers and lack of trust in God and concluded that if we want to do righteous things it helps if we think righteous thoughts. In other words, if we fill our heads with what is good, good stuff is more likely to happen than not. If we fill our heads with bad thoughts, bad stuff will surely follow.
The good stuff includes knowing that Christ is coming back, and that we are to prepare the way for His return. That was the role of John the Baptist, to prepare the way of the Lord, to fill in the low spots on the king’s highway and to smooth out the high spots. The image of John the Baptist as road engineer that Luke gives us comes from the progress of a king to one of his provinces to check the books and see how the land and the people under the supervision of his servants is doing. Is it well managed? Are the fields properly prepared for the planting? Is someone cooking the books? Are the people allowed to keep enough of their own work to prosper? And are the roads and towns safe from bandits and burglars? When the king went on progress he gave months or more of notice, and the people who ruled his lands in his name would go to work on the highways, smoothing out the high spots and filling in the low spots so that the wheels of the king’s chariots and wagons would roll smoothly throughout their journey. That way it would at least look like they properly managed the king’s lands for his good and not their own.
Well, we are people tasked not with ruling Christ’s lands but with stewarding His Gospel. From generation to generation our role has been to pass on to the next generation what the previous generation had taught us about the judgment and mercy of God and the Church’s worship. John the Baptist, the first of Christ’s disciples or maybe the second, depending on how we think of the Virgin Mary, has passed on to us the role of spiritual road engineer. We are to prepare the way of the Lord, filling in the low spots on that way.
We begin with ourselves. Every single year we are reminded that God is both judge and savior, that we might take a look at those places where our faith has diminished, and needs filled in. We do it as individuals, examining our own lives for those unrighteous thoughts that lead us to sin against one another, and we do it as the Church. When the crowds representing Israel asked John, “What then shall we do?” John responded by telling them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” In other words, be generous to an extraordinary degree, and fill in the low spots of need and poverty. Be honest in your work, even though it might be easy to cheat and enrich yourselves. And finally, do not bully or use brute strength to take from people what is theirs. We fill in the low spots by providing what makes another low, and what would otherwise allow us to make more of ourselves than we should.
You must know, this Advent, that as we light candles representing the light of Christ, that we do so in a world that is increasingly dark. When we are done with Advent, it is our job than to represent that light after the Advent wreath and candles have been boxed up and stored. Like street lights, we prepare the way for those living in deep darkness to the Light which brightens the whole of creation and makes holy our lives. Shine. Prepare the way of the Lord. Fill in the low spots, and we shall all see Jesus.