PRAYER: Holy God, enter into this space today and bring us to full attention. Teach us to be ready, to prepare ourselves by recognizing those parts of ourselves from which we need to turn. Enter into our hearts and show us how we can give our full attention with love and compassion. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.
We were in our mid-twenties when we were expecting our first child, and the free unsolicited advice came out of the woodwork. So many well-meaning folks decided that it was their moral duty to tell us exactly how our lives would be forever changed with the introduction of a baby into our lives. There were a couple of things working against us at that time. A) We had no other children; this was our first and, B) we were in our mid-twenties. We were just at the far edge of that period in your lives when you still think you know everything.
So when we got that unsolicited advice, we smiled and nodded, all while thinking that these people have no idea what they’re talking about. We knew. We knew what we were doing and we knew that having a child wouldn’t change our lives. Everything was fine. Have you ever watched that show “The Good Place”? You wake up in the afterlife on a couch and since you’d undoubtedly be somewhat dazed and confused, on the wall in front of you are the words, ¶ “Welcome! Everything is Fine.”
We brought our first child home from the hospital. Everything was not fine. She came with no instructions, no user manual. When she cried, she didn’t tell us why. Everything was NOT fine. But… we had a second child, and a third and a whole bunch of foster children. Like anything in life, we got better with practice.
Now that we have grandchildren. Oh, let me tell you… everything is fine with grandchildren. They’re the best. It’s completely different because with grandchildren, we don’t have to worry about raising them. We don’t have to worry about the cost of diapers or do we have enough formula. And I can’t stress this part enough: we don’t have to worry about why they’re crying at 3:00 AM. We can just focus on how incredibly adorable they are and we can just love them without any of the parental responsibilities, while at the same time, we can watch those people that DID keep us up at 3:00 in the morning all those years ago, experience what we had to go through. ¶
In the Advent season, a lot of Christians are like grandparents. We’re all so focused on the cute baby Jesus in the adorable nativity scenes. We spend so much time in Advent celebrating the season, buying gifts, and the like, but we don’t necessarily grab hold of the responsibility that comes along with it.
It’s true. Everyone wants the baby Jesus at Christmas, but look at what the lectionary gives us instead: a weird guy wearing camel’s hair, eating locusts, and calling for repentance. We have certain traditions we do and preparations we tend to make for the holidays but maybe God, through this passage, is challenging us to think about “preparing” differently.
What are we preparing or getting ready for this Advent? John the Baptist who went ahead of Jesus was making the way ready for Jesus by spiritually preparing people for him. In Advent, we are not just getting ready for holiday celebrations, we are making the way ready for Jesus in our hearts and inner spiritual lives.
To prepare the way for Jesus, John calls people to repentance in verse 4. Repentance is an important part of preparing the way for Jesus in our hearts and spirits too. It is not something that is done once, but rather over and over again.
Repentance is also a very challenging word in our society. When we hear that word, we often think about things like ‘guilt’, ‘shame’, and ‘judgment’. But it’s much much deeper than that. We talked in our small groups this past week about the notion of just kind of shrugging our shoulders and saying “sorry”… without really meaning it. That’s not repentance. Repentance comes from the Greek work “metanoia” meaning to change one’s mind. The Hebrew word for repentance is “teshuvah,” meaning “to turn back.” Repenting is about turning away from what does not connect us with God and turning toward what does. It is about refocusing our lives internally for the Holy Spirit.
In our texts from the lectionary today, we have a reading from the 40th chapter of Isaiah. This is the very passage that John the Baptist quotes. ¶ Isaiah 40:2-3 says, “2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
To get ready is to prepare our hearts and lives for Jesus, and that’s what John was trying to do. That is what a prophet does. A prophet is one who, like John, calls for spiritual preparation. It can be difficult, even lonely work, not just because you might be eating locusts, but because it involves challenging and changing the status quo or sometimes saying things that are challenging for people to hear. ¶
God often chooses unlikely people to deliver the message. A long, long time ago when I worked at Merrill Lynch, my department manager left the company to go work somewhere else and I applied to get promoted to his job. I got invited to interview and on the day of the interview I stepped into the Men’s room to make sure I wouldn’t be squirming though the interview. That would be bad.
Now this facility where I worked was huge. It’s just down the road a little bit in Pennington. There were 13 buildings, four cafeterias, a network of underground tunnels… it was really big. I don’t know how many janitorial staff were employed there, but in my building where I was going to be interviewed, I always saw the same people working to keep the facility clean every day. Except that day. On that day, when I stepped into the restroom, there was a new janitor that I had never seen before and I never saw him again after that day. But he was in the bathroom cleaning toilets humming some tune I didn’t recognize, but at the end of every phrase he would sing, “Praise Jesus.” I have to admit, I was really taken by this man. I knew in that moment that I wouldn’t get the promotion I was hoping for, and I was right. But I was reminded of prioritizing what’s important.
Some people have a hard time responding to people or situations that do not fit our comfort zones. But very often, those are the people that have a lot to offer us if we’re willing to pay attention. If you’ve ever had a chance to read the book of Jonah, you’ve seen a great example of this. Jonah was called by God to go preach to the people of Ninevah. He was to deliver a message of repentance. The only problem was that Jonah didn’t like the people of Ninevah… they were such… Ninevites! Way too Ninevite for Jonah’s taste and he wanted nothing to do with them. But if you know the story of Jonah, you know that he eventually found his way there and he gave what had to be one of the most half-hearted sermons ever given. 8 words: “Forty days more, and Ninevah will be overthrown.” Don’t you wish I would keep my sermons that quick and to the point?
But you see, Ninevah believed him. Ninevah repented. Ninevah changed their hearts and minds and turned to God. Ninevah – the city and the people that Jonah despised – ended up teaching Jonah about repentance and grace. That was certainly NOT what he expected from them!
We talked in our small group discussions this week about the difference between baptism by water – as John offered – and baptism by the Holy Spirit as Jesus offers. Baptism by water is a cleansing of our sins, but baptism by the Holy Spirit is a cleansing from the inside out – a transformation from the inside out by God as we are made into new creations by the arrival of Jesus.
For us, here today, to get ready is to prepare our hearts and lives for Jesus. And our reading today about John the Baptist reminds us that a big part of preparing our hearts and lives for Jesus involves repentance. Repentance is a lifelong commitment in which we turn ourselves away from those things that are not of God.
I’m sure that everyone here could easily name some – thing – that you need to repent from or turn away from in order to prepare a way for God in your heart. It could be an activity or an attitude, a behavior or a belief. It is fundamental that we prepare our hearts and lives for Jesus by turning away from those things, by recognizing that the time is now to prepare for this new season in our lives.
Look, I know that repentance is not exactly something that’s emphasized in our culture today. And I promise you that I’ll never be one of those preachers that equates every single thought, word, or deed in our lives as inherently sinful. That’s just not what I believe it’s about. The point of our Christian faith is about grace, not guilt. But it’s also about acknowledging that some behaviors, some practices, some beliefs are harmful for us and those around us. In order to build community, we must be cognizant of that.
Jesus said that he came to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. We can be conduits of that grace in how we treat the poor both individually and communally, in how we work to set free the oppressed. But we cannot do any of that until we have taken steps toward repenting from the harm that we do toward others, the way we are not neighbors to others.
And again – this is something that we talked about in our small group discussion this past week. We do well to recognize those areas in which the church itself needs to repent, those behaviors towards others that we need to turn from.
To get ready is to prepare our hearts and lives for Jesus. In a little while, as we prepare the table of the Lord together, we will offer up a prayer of confession. A prayer of confession has always been part of the communion liturgy, and today I invite you to say the words and hear the words with a fresh spirit. Notice that nowhere in this prayer of confession is the word “I”. It says that We have not loved God with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done God’s will. Our hope is found in community… together.
Allow your hearts and minds to hear these words as if for the very first time. Say the words as individuals, but also as a community. As we prepare – as we get ready for the arrival of Jesus, let’s begin to repent – turn away – do the hard work that we may be Christ for the world, bringing good news, offering respite and hope to the brokenhearted, and peace to our neighbors. Let’s get ready!
To God be the glory.