“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
I was in Tesco the other day. Half of one aisle is taken up with Advent calenders, decorated with Hello Kitty, or Batman, or Ben 10, or the Disney princesses. One could gripe, as I did at first, that none of them had a religious scene, but that’s probably misplaced. The number of Advent calenders on sale show that at least some of the Christian message of Advent is still part of the popular culture. The idea of waiting, of patiently expecting Christmas is one most families still treasure. It’s certainly one of my favourite memories: seeing the days count up to Christmas, the agony of waiting helped by the daily intake of chocolate.
But our readings this Advent show a far more complex nature. I want us to think together just about how complex Advent is, and the two things Advent calls us to do.
On the one hand, we do have the theme of waiting for God’s Messiah. Our Old Testament readings this Advent speak into the deep historical longing of the Jews for a Chosen One to rescue them from oppression and death. Last week, the prophet Isaiah talked of God being our “judge”, turning conflict into peace, “swords into ploughshares.” This week, Isaiah talks of the Messiah as the “Root of Jesse,” part of the family line of King David who will gather and heal all who come to him. Tonight, with our Advent Lessons and Carols at 6 pm, we will hear of the other scriptural titles given to Jesus: Wisdom, Lord, Key of David, Morning Star, Desire of Nations, God with us. All these titles and all these readings are for us a way of looking back at the longing there was for Jesus to come. They form part of our own romantic way of describing who it was who came at that first Christmas. They can be as nostalgic as our Advent calenders, part of the way we wait for the joy of Christmas.
On the other hand, however, we have the Advent theme of judgement and preparation, not for a Christmas memory but for Jesus' Second Coming. Judgement and preparation. Our New Testament readings this Advent point us towards these dark themes, but I think they are as joyful as the nostalgia of Christmas. Last week, Matthew's Gospel gave us Jesus' own words about judgement:
"[this] is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be left in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding wih a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come."
David challenged us last week: will we stay or will we go? Will we meet with the joy of the Risen Lord or not?
This week we have a figure who also seems dark, who seems ominous, but one I think challenges us not just to look backwards to the Jesus of history but to be ready for the coming of Christ again now. And that figure is – John the Baptist. I’m not too sure any of us would take someone like John the Baptist seriously now. For want of a better phrase, he seems a religious nutter – he comes from nowhere, “the wilderness,” he’s probably unshaven, dressed in a rag of camel’s hair, eating only locusts and honey. And he keeps on shouting, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near….Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” I don’t know about you, but I would edge as far down the pew as I could from this guy.
But John shows us this second side to Advent. Advent is a time not only for waiting, for expectant joy, but also for self-examination, for a change of life. And why? Because Jesus comes to bring all to wholeness and health, not just 2000 years ago, but today. And how do we get our lives in order? Well, it begins in a place maybe that you don’t expect, that’s probably already happened to you, but that you probably don’t even remember. New life begins in baptism. In baptism, we become part of God’s family that says, “I don’t want to be broken. I want to be whole. Help me, God.” That’s repentance, the turning to God for help. And our baptism floods into our life, not just as one moment in our past, but as a daily reminder.
And so John the Baptist shows us that Advent is also about preparing for Jesus to come again, just as much as it is about preparing the presents and turkey for Christmas day. Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. In other words, make it easy for people to see, welcome, and receive Jesus. You are the roadworker for Jesus. We all pray, “your kingdom come,” every time we worship. Well, in Advent, God tells us, “make my kingdom come.”
Is there anything in your life this Advent you want to let go? Maybe it’s a bad attitude that hurts those around you. Maybe it’s anger towards someone else who has hurt you. Maybe it’s a habit that, deep down, you know is wrong because it stops you being who God calls you to be? Then let it go, let God come to you with healing and forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Remember you are part of God’s family through baptism. And finally, how can you make straight the way of the Lord? What can you do to not only prepare all the lovely trappings of Christmas but also prepare for and make real the coming of Christ's kingdom? Here are a few of my thoughts about how I can see others preparing the coming of the kingdom here in this community:
When you see Peter Raffle and Florrie Hunt working behind the scenes as church wardens to help us be ready for worship, or when you see the ladies making tea and coffee for after the service– that’s the coming of God’s kingdom, and we must copy them.
When you see that a group of women are praying in the Lady chapel on Monday nights for healing – that’s the coming of God’s kingdom, and we must copy them.
When you see David Charlton putting himself forward, even out of his comfort zone, to offer ministry – that’s the coming of God’s kingdom, and we must copy him.
When you hear that someone vulnerable, someone bereaved, someone elderly or young needs help, and respond to them as if they were Jesus – that’s the coming of God’s kingdom, and we must keep it up.
When you are broken and have no words to say, but literally cry out to God – that’s the coming of God’s kingdom, and you will see Jesus in your life.
When you share what you have, even what little you have, with the poor and the needy – that’s the coming of God’s kingdom, and others will see Jesus in you.
Let’s pray together then, for the coming of God’s kingdom, for the Second Coming of Christ:
Father, as your kingdom dawns and sheds light throughout the world,
Help us to turn to you,
Help us to prepare the way for your Son.