ADVENT 2, YEAR C
Baruch 5:1-9, Luke 3:1-6
For this, the second Sunday in Advent, the Gospel lesson from Luke is only 6 verses long — and two of those are used to place the coming of John the Baptist in a very specific historical context.
This opening carries much more weight for Luke’s audience than it might for us and it serves multiple purposes. It puts John in a particular historical context, both for them and for us. For us, if we are at all Roman historians, it tells us that this took place in about 29 CE.
But for them it also makes a direct connection to the past and clearly marks John as another in a long line of prophets. If you check out the opening of the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos, Zepheniah, and Micah, they all start in this way and most of them also say “the Word of God came to ________.”
The other purpose served by this list of who was in charge at the time, including the names of the high priests, was to contrast their high status to the very low status of John, who was wandering around in the wilderness living off the land. Why didn’t the word of God come to Caiaphas or Annas, the high priests? Like the prophets before him, John is here to speak the truth to power, and the priests of this time were hand in glove with the Roman rulers who were oppressing the people of Israel.
John only tells us to turn away from our sins and be baptized and forgiven. Then he quotes from 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.’"
What does this mean, really? At the literal level the words paint a picture of a road-building project, sort of clearing a grand avenue through the wilderness so the Lord who is coming may walk comfortably and grandly among his people. It echos the triumphal processions often used by the Greeks and Romans to honor a conquoring general.
But what has that to do with us? and with this 21st Century celebration of Advent? I think that clearing a path through the wilderness is a concrete metaphor for the internal task we are meant to complete during this season. The wilderness we must tame and straighten out is the wilderness inside ourselves.
Now, when our backyard gardens are resting beneath the snow, is the time to cultivate our inner gardens, to smooth out the hills and valleys and prepare the soul so that God can reach us and work in us and through us. This is the time to look at ourselves, at our spiritual lives and our lifestyles, and to ask what is there that blocks us from living fully, from being the servant God calls us to be. Advent is the time to re-consider our lives and to remove the clutter so that God can re-enter and take his proper place at the very center.
If you’re like me, you have a secret garden tucked away where you’ve tried to lock away the dark parts of yourself — the rage, pettiness, jealousy, envy, — whatever demons, that in spite of locks and walls, still rise up unbidden from time to time. They cannot be contained by walls or locks, so you must open the door and take down the walls, exposing your own darkness to the light of recognition and forgiveness. God know you and loves you in spite of that darkness, so do not try to hide it, either from God or from yourself. This is how we make a path for God through the wilderness of our being and prepare for the return of the great light.
The very concept of wilderness is always suggestive, certainly as a contrast to civilization. Sometimes it stands for danger and chaos, but in the gospel of Luke it is a place of testing, withdrawal, prayer and miracles, perhaps a place removed from a civilization that was not what God wanted for his people.
But John’s cry to prepare, while it echoes the return from Exile, is also a cry to prepare for the coming of Jesus. It’s a warning that God is coming into the world and we’d better be ready. The first step is repentance.
To repent is to turn around, to change direction, to forego our usual behavior and create new ones directed by or to God. This is the reason that Advent is supposed to be a time of quiet reflection and personal assessment. Most of us have been baptized, but the need for self-reflection, confession, and repentance is an on-going process. It takes center stage at this time of year when we await the return of Jesus, the coming of God to dwell among us.
I know that my plea to not decorate the church until after Advent 4 strikes many of you as silly or maybe old fashioned. I know that many churches now decorate for Christmas somewhere around Advent 1. But I firmly believe that not doing so aides us in this spiritual preparation for the coming of the Christ child.
Think about your own preparations for the holidays. How much care do you take to clean, cook lovely food, bake goodies? How many little things do you fix, like light bulbs, doors that squeak, or outlets that don’t work? How much special decorating do you do?
These are mostly our secular activities and duties. Aren’t our spiritual activities and duties just as important?. Just as I stand in the doorway and look at a room to see if all is in order, so should I look at my soul. What is or is not in order?
Christmas planning always involves to-do lists, more so with each passing year. Self-examination should also include a to-do list, one we should write down and refer to often as a reminder of what we need to do to be prepared spiritually and to stay prepared.
Assessment of this sort must be the beginning of repentance. And why does this reading say we should repent? Because “the Lord is coming and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
When God comes to dwell with us, what might he save us from? Part of our self-examination this season might be to ask what we personally need to be saved from: jealousy, self-centeredness, pettiness, gossiping, hurtful or hateful talk, whatever keeps us from living life abundantly as God would wish us to do.
So as you go about your many preparations for Christmas, be mindful always of the inner preparation that goes along with it and that deserves at least as much close attention as having a clean house. Repentance creates a clean soul to go along with your clean house. Never forget that amongst your holiday guests, God will also be present, and she might be wearing white gloves! They won’t be used to check your windowsills, bookshelves, or cupboards; they will be used to check the condition of your heart and soul! AMEN