“The Proclamation of John the Baptist 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 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.’”
Welcome to the Second Sunday in Advent. Prepare, Watch, Wait are some of the words that are hallmarks of this season. As agonizing as it can be, we tend to think of waiting as a wholly passive exercise – like just sitting and watching the secondhand slowly ticking by. But Advent teaches us otherwise: Fruitful waiting requires preparation and intention. Throughout the Advent season we actively ready ourselves to receive Christmas’s gift of ultimate love with hearts open and full. That sure can be a challenge as I am sure you’ve noticed that there is an on-going battle within our culture – the holiday verses the holy day: manic preparations verses the need for contemplation and solitude during the Ho ho ho-ing.
As we prepare we are aware that we have plenty to do: shopping, baking, decorating, and making travel plans or cleaning the house for guests. And beyond all that are some of the behind-the-scene preparations like what is taking place in this sanctuary with its decorations. Advent certainly is a journey of doing.
Advent is also a journey of being. It is a time when we can stop and reflect back on our lives – a sort of “coming home” to our past selves that bring us to this present moment once again. How has this journey informed us? Where will the road ahead take us and how will it shape us? Advent is also a journey of the soul.
One person described his journey this way: “Not too long ago, our family made a journey. It was a long journey, and it took the better part of a day to get there and the better part of another day to get back. It was a tiring journey, but it was well worth everything we had to endure to get there. ‘There’ was home, and ‘there’ was a place where we were surrounded by the love of family members, some of whom we had not seen in more years than we care to count. And when we came back, we were not the same people we were before the journey. We felt refreshed and renewed, reassured that, even though ‘home’ has changed a lot since we were growing up there, the love we expected to find was still there in abundance.
Each year, during the season of Advent, the church sets off on a journey. We begin to prepare our hearts and our minds for the coming of the Christ-child, so that this time he will have a proper place to be born.
And we think we know the way to Bethlehem. We can find it on the map. It’s not that far from Jerusalem, by today’s standards; shouldn’t be a problem.
But the problem is that so much has changed since our last visit. A whole year has passed, a year that brought many changes in our lives, some of them good, some of them not so good, some of them heartbreaking. The geographic map of life has changed, and even old familiar places don’t seem the same any more. So maybe we could use a little help in finding our way back to Bethlehem this year.” (sermon.com)
Yes, every year Advent feels familiar, yet every year we come to this season a changed person – some years we feel we have lost our way and will never find Bethlehem. Some years we feel we have found our sure-footed way. Some years we know that God’s love has found us and we marvel and rejoice.
It seems there is no middle ground to this time of year. Either we are caught up in the season or turned off by the commercialism. And that is the challenge of Advent – to realize what the season is all about. It is really not so much a countdown to Christmas or a waiting game to add more and more and more to our Santa list. Advent is really meant to be much more of a personal journey. It is a time for us to prepare our hearts for a birthing that changes us inwardly and outwardly.
There are certainly many distractions of the season, but there are also many things that can keep us focused too if we use them. What are some of the things that keep you focused during this advent journey – that help you find your way to Bethlehem?
The Advent wreath is a perfect example – a symbol of light and hope. Maybe you even have an Advent wreath at home that you light. Nothing fancy is needed. You can take four candles and arrange them in a circle. Maybe you have a manger at home and place the characters around as the weeks go by. Don’t forget, the baby doesn’t get delivered until the 25th and the wise men show up even much later than that. Those who use an Advent calendar may find that helpful to prepare internally.
The practice of meditation and solitude may be helpful tools for this journey. Solitude is an important discipline in our lives. So maybe for a few minutes each day turn off all the distractions – the tv, radio, computer. Put down the book, the magazine and the newspaper. Turn off your phone and hold off on texting for a while. Excuse yourself from others who may be present. Solitude is much different from isolation. Solitude reminds us that we are already in God’s presence, while isolation makes us feel we really are alone. Solitude readies us for a prayer or meditation and opens us to God’s leading. Isolation may make us feel abandoned and bitter.
Perhaps we can take as little as five minutes out of each day to reflect and meditate on the joy God has already given us. We can remind ourselves that in God and God’s son, all things are truly possible. This is a season full of promise just as the readings proclaim. Solitude may help us understand that. All too often the holiday overshadows the holy day.
John the Baptist echoes the words of the prophet Isaiah and we are told to prepare the way. One of the commentators informs us that “in ancient times in the east the roads were not very good. The soil of Palestine was so hard and rocky that the ordinary roads were no better than tracks – like some old logging roads. There were some surfaced and artificially made roads, but those were made by the king and for the use of the king. They were called ‘the king’s highway.’
The roads were kept in repair only as the king needed them for any journey that he might make. As the king was due to arrive in any area, a message was sent out to the people to get the king’s roads in order.” (sermons.com)
In this morning’s reading from Luke, John the Baptist was preparing the way for the king. After four hundred years of no prophetic voices, people recognized John the Baptist as a prophet, the voice from the desert that Isaiah spoke of. John’s voice summoned people to righteousness, acting as a signpost, directing us to God.
Theologian David Leininger wrote: (One Shock after Another; sermons.com.) “What a message for us at Advent! ‘Let every heart/Prepare him room’ we sing. Perhaps we would do well to say let every heart get out the bulldozers and backhoes, the rock crushers and road graders.
There are mountains that need to come down – mountains of racism, sexism, ageism, and any other ‘-ism’ that blocks our way to healthy relationships with one another and with our [God].
There are valleys to be filled – valleys of depression, despair, loneliness, grief, pain, any of which can keep us from the rich relationship the Savior offers and that keep us from enjoying the fellowship of the faith.
There are crooked places to be made straight – yes, there is perversity, even among those we might never imagine; fine exteriors mask rotten interiors of abuse, neglect, immorality, even violence.
There are rough places to be made smooth – rough places that have come because of oppression and injustice. There is work to do! Bring on the heavy equipment!”
John the Baptist called us and continues to call us to prepare a way for God. Isn’t that what Advent is all about? Watching, waiting, preparing: there is nothing passive about it. Our focus right now does not need to be on Christmas Day, so much as it needs to be on experiencing the journey of Advent day by day. Taking advantage of this pregnant time. To experience the fullness of Christmas Day, we must listen to John the Baptist and fully live out the next 17 days of Advent as faithfully as we can. We must prepare the way – in our hearts as well as in our homes for this very holy day.
Prayer, meditation, solitude, awareness, intentionality are all a part of this finding our way to Bethlehem. And there are other significant actions that will also help us prepare the way during the fullness of this time that can lead to new birth in our own lives. For instance, we can choose to offer the gift of forgiveness to others, and accept the gift of forgiveness being offered to us. And if we want to, we can accept the limitations of those we love. We can bear the failing of the weak and come to recognize that weakness is not sin. We can choose to drop the expectations and stipulations we put on relationships with others, ourselves, and even on God. We can choose to exchange our resentments and grievances for gratitude for the blessings we already have. We can do so because Advent is a time that invites us to change what we can – to repent and alter our ways when we are not living as God wants us to. In many ways, now is the time to get the road ready for God’s coming.
Each year John the Baptist calls us to prepare a way for the Lord. And when we do, our actions become the light added to dispel the darkness. We need to make ready a road that leads not only into Christmas Day – to Bethlehem, but into our very lives and hearts. Our Advent journey to Christmas is not one that is laid before us, rather it is the path that is open to us and found within.
Fred Buechner (Clergy Coaching Network) wrote: “it is impossible to conceive how differently things would have turned out if that birth had not happened . . . For millions of people who have lived since, the birth of Jesus made possible not just a new way of understanding life but a new way of living it.
During this advent time I pray we are not too busy to make room to be surprised as God blesses us in this year’s Advent journey. And may we have the courage to travel it boldly and joyfully. Amen.
Copyright DMC, 2018