(A sermon based on Luke 3:1-6 for the Second Sunday of Advent)
The Advent season, during which we move inexorably and excitedly and apprehensively toward Christmas, is a season of preparation, a time to get ready.
We prepare—we get ready—for Christmas to come by decorating our homes and, if we have company coming, by cleaning them. We prepare—we get ready—for Christmas by making shopping lists of gifts and groceries. We prepare—get ready—for Christmas at church by hanging the green and by lighting the candles.
While we naturally and appropriately think of Advent as leading up to Christmas, it is of course the coming of Jesus for which we are preparing—and we are getting ready for that coming in all of its aspects: his coming in his birth, his coming in the future, and his coming to us here and now. I want us to think today about getting ready—about being prepared—for Jesus to come to us. What should we do—what will we do—to prepare our hearts, our lives, and our church for the arrival of Jesus?
Calling people to prepare for the coming of Jesus was the life work of that wild preacher called John the Baptist. Related to Jesus as kinsman, John’s more important relationship to him was as his forerunner, his herald. John went around “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and his message was, Luke says, a fulfillment of the prophecy found in Isaiah 40 which said that there would be 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’” (3:4b-6). The prophet, who was speaking to Jews in Exile in the 6th century B.C.E., used the image of the way being cleared through the desert for a highway on which God would go to Babylon and take his people home; the prophet also talked about the people getting their lives ready for God’s arrival—and that’s what John preached about, too.
In a sense, John was making room for Jesus and he was challenging his listeners to make room for Jesus. John’s message, as paraphrased by Frederick Buechner, was “Your only hope…was to clean up your life as if your life depended on it, which it did, and get baptized in a hurry as a sign that you had” [Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: a Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1979), p. 78]. And so I say to us today what John said to his listeners: “Get ready because Jesus is coming.” “How do we get ready?” you may well ask. John’s answer is today’s answer: “Repent!”
To prepare for Jesus and to make room for Jesus means to repent and to repent means to change the direction of your life, to turn around and go the other way from the way you have been going. While such turning is finally made possible only by the work of God in our lives, it is nonetheless the case that we must do our part—we must exercise our wills to do those things that make room for Jesus in our hearts and in our midst.
“What things?” you might ask. “How do we need to turn, to change, to repent?” John’s listeners asked him the same thing and his answer to them is the answer for us:
“Whoever had two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” (Luke 3:11-14)
Maybe we cannot be truly open to the coming of Jesus into our individual lives and into the life of the church until we are truly open to the coming of other people into our lives and into the life of the church.
This much is clear from the words of John the Baptist: to get ready for Jesus by repenting means to turn from our unthinking self-centeredness to an intentional focus on the needs of others; to get ready for Jesus by repenting means to turn from our unthinking use and misuse of others for our own benefit to an intentional commitment to do no harm and to do much good; to get ready for Jesus by repenting means to be honest and open and generous and fair and just and righteous and loving in the way we think of ourselves and in the ways we treat others; to get ready for Jesus by repenting means to think of love others like we love ourselves and to act like it.
In his poem “Advent Stanzas,” Robert Cording wrote,
Each year you are born again. It is no remedy
For what we go on doing to each other,
For history’s blind repetitions of hate and reprisal.
[Robert Cording, “Advent Stanzas,” The Southern Review, Spring 2004; reprinted in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2005, ed. Philip Zaleski (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), pp. 18-22]
His coming really is the remedy for such things, of course—the problem is not with him but with us, and the truth is that we have the ability to turn our hearts and lives in the right direction ourselves and then, with his arrival, we will experience the full turning that will make all the difference to those and to those around us.
The hard truth is that all those people who are out there who need so desperately for Jesus to come to them too often cannot see around the curve that we allow—and even cause—to remain in the road rather than straightening it out—by which I mean that we don’t straighten our selfishness into selflessness, our greed into generosity, and our cynicism into grace. Once we straighten the way, the prophet said, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (v. 6).
John C. Morris tells of
a highway in southern Vermont where many serious accidents happen because cars and trucks build up their speed descending a mountain, only to come upon a sharp curve in the road. The people living in the house near that curve keep a pile of blankets on their porch because they know there will be accidents regularly, and the victims will need to be covered while waiting for the rescue squad. Residents of the area have been petitioning the state for years to straighten the road out in order to prevent accidents and save lives. John the Baptist seems to be saying something similar -- the curves of injustice, immorality and inhumanity need to be changed into smooth paths so that everyone will see God’s salvation. [John C. Morris, “Smoothing the Path (Mal. 3:1-4; Lk. 1:68-79; Phil. 1:3-11; Lk. 3:1-6)”, Christian Century, November 22-29, 2000, retrieved from http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2011]
I know, I know—we do a lot of things as individuals and through the church to provide blankets to those who need them.
But I wonder: how many people out there can’t see Jesus around the curves in the road—around the crooked ways of our hearts, around the distorted ways of our relating, around the graceless ways of our actions—that we refuse to straighten out?