This Advent, I have been sensing in myself a need to prepare for the Christ Child a little differently. The busyness of life has me longing for a season of quiet reflection, of anti-consumerism, of less…well…busyness. In some ways, the church has made accommodations for that desire. The music in Advent is a bit more muted and quietly beautiful. The offerings of yoga or even the Blue Christmas service make room for quiet meditation and reflection. Even my Advent devotion this year of taking daily photos based on a provided word has forced me to look around more intentionally at life. When I heard Isaiah’s words this week, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” my spirit had been hoping Isaiah’s preparation meant slowing down and creating an inner openness to the Holy Spirit.
Although I am sure Jesus would be all too happy to have me slow down a bit, my Advent longings may be a bit too passive for what Isaiah and John the Baptist are trying to accomplish.[i] Of course, you can see where I may have gone astray. Isaiah is speaking to a people in exile: far from their homeland, oppressed by a foreign power, being forced to assume a foreign culture, God finally speaks a word of comfort to God’s people. “Comfort, O Comfort my people,” says the Lord to Isaiah. They are soothing words to a downtrodden people. They are words of affection to an affection-starved nation. They are healing words to a broken group of followers. But those words of comfort are not followed by a cozy bed of meditation and contemplation. Instead, those comforting words are followed by a call to action, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” God is about to do a new thing, but in order to do that new thing, the people of God must prepare the way through repentance. Now I know we usually reserve repentance talk for Lent, but in this season of preparing for a new thing – of preparing for the Christ Child – the prophet tells the people of God they need repentant hearts.
One of the courses of study for parish priests and counselors is called family systems. The study of family systems looks at human behavior through the lens of behavior within families, looking at ways families handle conflict, how they engage one another, and how they solve problems. Patterns we learn in our families are taken into other systems. One of the main lessons we learn from family systems is that you cannot change the behavior of others; you can only change your own behavior. But changing your own behavior is not as easy as the change sounds. Any of us who saw our mother behave like her mother, only to one day see that same behavior in ourselves realizes how hard changing our patterns can be.
When we talk about repentance, that is the kind of deep change we are talking about. Repentance is not wallowing in guilt, feeling badly about something we said or did (or keep saying or doing). Repentance is acknowledging our sinfulness and working to change our behavior. The word “repent,” actually means to turn around; to turn away from sinful behavior and walk another way. So when John the Baptist recalls Isaiah’s words, saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he’s not saying, unpack your creches, put up the greens, and buy some presents. Prepare the way of the Lord means making sure your heart is ready for the coming of the Christ Child – a feat you cannot accomplish if your heart is heavy with sin and regret.[ii]
Now do not get me wrong – I have pulled down the boxes of Christmas decorations, hung a wreath, and have purchased some gifts. Those are honored traditions that bring us great joy, and I believe God wants us to be a people of joy. But I suspect that if your heart is heavy-laden with the sins of life, or if you are so busy with the busyness of life that you have disconnected from God, your joy this year at the arrival of the Holy Child will not be as deep as your joy could be.
I have met many a church member who loathes the season of Lent for the focus on repentance. I am sure they would be cringing today by the ways I am squashing Advent too. But here is the reason why we have to talk about repentance today. The gospel lesson we read from Mark contains the very first eight verses of Mark. Mark introduces his gospel with these words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The reason John the Baptist is so excited, and is quoting Isaiah in our text today is that he knows what is coming is good news. And so, when John quotes Isaiah with the words, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he really means two things. First, he means do the active work of preparing your heart for the Lord. Not just the awesome, touchy-feely stuff of centering yourself or finding a quiet space, but the hard stuff of repentance. And second, John means do the work of sharing the good news. The work of Advent and the joy of Christmas is not just for us. When your heart is bursting on Christmas Eve with joy because you did the tough work or repenting and returning to the Lord, don’t you want someone with which to share your joy? One of the ways we prepare the way of the Lord is to share the good news of God in Christ with others.[iii]
Now I know what you are going to say, “Here she goes again, talking about inviting people to church.” Or maybe you are thinking, “Yeah, but people who come on Christmas Eve usually only come once a year, so why bother?” The good news about spreading the good news is that you are likely going to spread that good news in spite of yourself. You see, when we do the work of repentance, of changing our hearts, minds, and hands to doing the work of God, a renewed spirit is kindled in us, and a deep joy burns in us. The work of repentance creates in us a clean heart, and renews a right spirit within us. And when we feel the love of God overwhelming us, we cannot help but let slip to our neighbor, “I know you have a church home, but I just want to share how awesome my experience at church has been lately. If you ever want to come with me, I would be happy to bring you.” Or when your friend is expressing his deep sadness and sense of loneliness, you find yourself saying, “I have been there. But I have to tell you, every time I leave church, something about my encounter with God and community makes me feel less alone.” Or when a stranger is ranting about how awful the church and Christians have been lately (which, we know some awful things are happening in the name of Christ lately), you find yourself saying, “I totally agree. That is why I love my church so much – because they show me another way of witnessing to Christ. I would love to show you sometime!”
I realize you may have been hoping for a word of comfort and permission to quietly prepare your heart for the Christ Child today. Lord knows I have been longing for that this week too. But turning my busyness into purposeful preparation: for repentance and sharing the good news sounds much more fulfilling and life-giving. The coming of the Christ Child, the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, is a life-altering event. Today, the church prepares us for not arriving at the manger with check-lists done, gifts in hand, and arms full of stuff. Instead, the church prepares us for arrive at the manger with open arms, free of the burdens that are weighing our spirits down, surrounded by others who have similarly prepared, and those who heard a good word from you, and wanted to drop their baggage at the manger too. Come, prepare the way of the Lord. Amen.
[i] Karoline Lewis, “Wilderness Preaching,” December 3, 2017, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5018 on December 6, 2017.
[ii] Martin B. Copenhaver, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 47.
[iii] Richard F. Ward, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 31.