I am ready for Advent to be over. I want to skip straight to Christmas. I read the lectionary text this week and thought, “I don’t want to preach this.” I don’t want to talk about a “brood of vipers” 2 weeks before Christmas. I want donkeys, angels, barns, babies, singing – I don’t want to talk about repentance. I confess I don’t want the Advent preparation that I last week said we should and need to face. I want Christmas. Yet, I know we can’t approach the manger without being prepared for the glory of the Christ child.
John the Baptist was preparing the way for the Lord, the Messiah, Jesus Christ to come to the people. He baptized people who came to him for salvation. The newly baptized knew there was a life-altering significance to their baptism. They asked John, “What should we do?” John’s answers to the crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers showed he had knowledge of their ways of living. To the crowds, he told to share with the needy. To the tax collectors, he told to not cheat and steal in their collection. To the soldiers, he told them not to take advantage of others by their power. Collectively, his message was to care for the needy and practice justice.
John’s message to the newly baptized was not about religious and sacramental practice. He reminded them of their duty to be just, humble, and hospitable. Baptism was a sign of their repentance. Their act of repentance was to turn to justice, humility, and compassion. John not only gives them the direction to point their life; he also gives them the command to bear fruit. Fruit would be the evidence that they have been successful in redirecting their life. John’s preaching is primarily about how we treat our neighbors.
I saw Salmon Fishing in the Yemen a few months ago. It didn’t seem like a movie I would enjoy, but it turned out to be one of the best movies I saw this year – after the Twilight movie. Salmon Fishing is the story of an oil sheikh’s desire, as you might suspect, to bring salmon fishing to the Yemen. The sheikh, Muhammed bin Zaidi, enjoyed fishing at his estate in Britain and wanted to share that joy with the people of his homeland.
Harriet Talbot, with his investment firm, was to oversee the project. She was determined to see his vision realized because she knew Muhammed was not like other business people. The British government learned about this project and endorsed it as a sign of Anglo-Arab cooperation.
Harriet sought the help of Dr. Alfred Jones with the government department of fisheries and agriculture. Dr. Jones thought the project was absurd because he thought the conditions of Yemen were not conducive to sustaining the required living conditions of the salmon. It turns out he was wrong. Geologists had found cold fresh water aquifers that had just needed to be dammed. The water could be used to irrigate the desert to become an agricultural oasis in the desert.
Finding the water was miraculous. The remaining details were no small hurdles. Dr. Alfred’s team would need to secure 10,000 salmon and transport them to the Yemen. Chinese hydro-engineers would need to be consulted to build the dam to pool the water aquifers. A British oxygen company would need to oxygenate the water. And, a Russian aircraft carrier would be needed to fly in the fish. The sheikh didn’t blink at Dr. Alfred’s estimate that the project would cost 50 million pounds.
The sheikh was a visionary and a man of faith. Muhammed and Dr. Alfred waded into the water together fishing while discussing the feasibility of the project. Muhammed saw common virtues among fisherman around the world; they practiced patience, tolerance, and humility. He saw the implications of a project that brought those virtues to the people of the Yemen. The sheikh named that the project would be a miracle of God requiring faith and constancy. He knew that Dr. Alfred was being pursued by politics to work on the project. However, Muhammed wouldn’t allow Dr. Alfred to lead the project unless he did with an open heart.
Not everybody saw the value of the project or supported the sheikh. Some people of his country saw the completion of the project as invasion of the western world and western ways. And, the British fisherman wouldn’t support harvesting 10,000 salmon from their water. Dr. Alfred was hesitant to take the fish from breeding stocks because he didn’t know if they would swim upstream to spawn. He came to realize that the swim was in their DNA, whether their parent had done it or not.
We are like both the salmon fishing project, the fisherman, and the salmon. Our Advent preparation for the coming Christ child is a project of massive scale worth more than 50 million pounds and far more important than fish. Advent is about being open to the unbelievable. What seems impossible is possible with God. A child come to us, God with us. God came to live among humanity to understand the challenges of being human so that God may show us even more grace rooted in love and compassion.
The sheikh was preparing a landscape in the Yemen bringing lush green to the wild desert to create an agricultural industry for his people for generations. People didn’t share his vision and questioned his motives. God is creating a new landscape for our lives. We must gain the vision of how new habits introduce a new way of living and lead to a new possibilities. Advent, like salmon fishing in the Yemen, is of un-estimable worth and life-altering significance. The world may not understand why we do what we do, but our brothers and sisters in Christ understand our motive is fulfilling a desire for renewed life marked by grace.
We are also like the fish. Advent is a period of repentance that requires us to turn against the current of mediocrity, greed, and selfishness toward God that our season may be centered on preparing for Christ. Like the salmon with the strong pull to go against the current and swim upstream to spawn, it is in the DNA of humanity to fight the force of culture and return to God.
We are also like the fisherman. The sheikh named the virtues of fisherman as patience, humility, and tolerance. These are similar to the actions John the Baptist called the newly baptized to practice – justice, humility, and compassion. As we turn toward God, our lives show patience with and tolerance of others because we have compassion for our neighbor. Patience and tolerance are signs that justice begins with seeing that we are all children of God. Finally, humility – a repentant person can only kneel humbly before God.
Advent gives us the time and space to examine our lives, to re-center our focus on the miracle of Christ, and prepare space in our lives, our holiday season, for the true center of our being. In this final week of Advent, many will ask us if we are ready for Christmas. Hear that question not with the thought of finalizing your shopping list. The evidence of our readiness for Christmas is the fruit of humility, tolerance, and being generous with our neighbor, especially at this time of year.