Luke 3: 1-6
After Mary left Elizabeth with a song in her heart and her soul rejoicing, she went back to the Galilee. Both women gave birth to sons; one was named Jesus, the other named John. The cousins grew and they played, they laughed and they learned, and they became men.
We pick up our scripture from the Gospel of Luke:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea (i-tyu-re-a) and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
Luke posits our scripture in a time and place and with high-faluting people both of the Roman Empire and of the Jewish priesthood. Yet it is curious (but maybe not) that he chooses not to actually give the message that he needs to tell in Rome or Jerusalem, in places and with people of power, but in the wilderness with a very unique and common sort of guy named John.
John always appears in Advent, usually about the same week, this second week. So in the middle of angel’s wings, pre-natal conversations between Mary and Elizabeth, there appears this scruffy, locust eating, camel’s hair wearing, and wilderness living man. Surely his family must have thought him an outcast, you know that crazy cousin John. How can he be the messenger when he himself is so, well, kooky?
“Prepare the way of the Lord!” he says, “repent, and be saved”.
But you see God did choose John to deliver this message, prepare yourself. Perhaps when you are in the wilderness things become a bit clearer. When there is no clutter and extraneous things around you are no longer present, you can make ready your heart. The pathway for decent living and walking in the light of God is by repenting and turning your life around. He saw this, he knew this because the word of God found him and came to him, yes, in the wilderness.
John brings us a tough message because repent asks us to look deeply and honestly within ourselves and then to change those things which do not reflect the love of God. Prepare doesn’t mean to pull out the silver service and shine it up. It means something quite different.
This time of year I always get asked the question, “Are you ready for Christmas?” which really means, am I prepared? Have I purchased all of the presents I need to give, have I created a menu for Christmas day, have I attended the parties or sent out the necessary regrets. It means have I decorated the house and put up the tree, have I decked the halls with boughs of holly? Have I written my sermon? To which I say, sure, I’m ready.
Yet this itchy-scratchy passage pops up in my mind with John’s itchy-scratchy message. He offers a different definition of how to prepare; prepare by repenting. So the question “Am I ready?” brings me to another place. It really means, have I acknowledged the ways in which I may have disparaged others? Have I considered the ways that I have not used my God-given talents, the ways in which I have utterly failed to help other people less fortunate than myself, or those more fortunate than myself, the way in which my words may have hurt others? Bottom line: have I recognized and accepted my sins?
No one wants to talk about sins this time of year, I know? You’re thinking, ‘Come on Reverend, let’s just sing some Christmas carols, we want to really feel good, drink some wassail and reminisce’. I know what’s on your minds, I go there too. And yet, the voice of John lingers, prepare, repent, be saved.
As we draw closer to Christmas the message is clear that we have to make straight the path for Christ to come. We have to level the highs of our living and gird up the valleys of our depravity, in order to prepare the way because surely our lives have highs and lows.
Surely there are things that just get in our way from finding and following the path that we are to take. If you need forgiveness, then ask. If you are in need of reconciliation, then forge ahead. If you need rest, then take it. If you need to clear out and let go, then please, just do it.
Waiting in expectation and longing and yearning. Clearing out, mapping the safest and most direct route, that’s Advent. It’s not the frenzy and preparation that begins after Thanksgiving, the decorations, the buying, the parties, the buying, the cookies, the buying, the activities. This is not Advent. Advent is not adding on hills and valley’s it’s stripping them away. It’s simplifying, introspection, and reflecting on God’s grace in your life and preparing for the advent of the real Savior Jesus Christ.
Reclaim this season, this very, very sacred time of year for our own preparation. If we do not prepare our hearts we will lose the profound impact and the immeasurable influence that the birth of Christ has upon our lives and the world. How can you see the one light when these flashing electrical lawn displays outshine the greatest light? How can you make a place for the Savior when your heart is burdened? Prepare, repent, forgiveness is born.
Our lives are complicated but Advent is not. It is hope. It is faith. It is having the strength to be, to sit in a barren, empty place and then to prepare to come home again. It’s knowing that in spite of our best efforts the perfect Christmas will happen. We have no control over that. God does. The incarnation, God revealing Godself in the person of Jesus is the most flawless Christmas ever. It is a miracle of the most perfect kind. And it happens without any fanfare when our penitent hearts are uncluttered to receive this gift. Then the hills will be made low and the valleys lifted up. You will know that the redemption of the world is close at hand.