Second Sunday in Advent
"Preparing the Way"
Rev. Ryan Slifka
John the Baptist. It seems kind of strange that John pops up here in the middle of Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, the birth of Jesus. Not only is it kind of out of order in the story, it doesn’t really seem to be very festive with John throwing around words like “repentance,” and “forgiveness.” Now here’s a guy you’d want at the office Christmas party. Better hide your eggnog.
But there’s a method to the madness of putting John here in Advent. Because Advent is the season of spiritual preparation. Preparation for the coming of Christ. And this morning’s passage is all about preparation. John the Baptist bursts out on to the scene, crying out from the wilderness. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he shouts. John invokes ancient words. From the fortieth chapter of the prophet Isaiah from the Old Testament. 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.”
And in Luke, we are, of course, preparing for Jesus to enter the stage for the first time in his adult life. For John it’s Jesus’ entry on to the stage that will fulfill this ancient promise. In him all the world will see and experience salvation—human life redeemed, healed and restored to the way that it has always meant to be. And John is the great preparer: he himself is setting the stage for Jesus, and he exhorts everyone who gathers around him to do the same. To “prepare the way of the Lord.” Not only is this promised One coming, the infrastructure needs to be put in place for his arrival. John uses the language of building a highway. I like to think of it as the construction of a heavenly landing strip. God in Christ is getting ready to land, and John calls the people to get to get their shovels in the ground so they will be ready. Prepare the way for God in your own lives. So Christ has a place to touch down. So they can receive him when he shows up.
And it’s interesting. John is popular, huge crowds gather around to hear. Sometimes we imagine religious gatherings as the righteous people who have everything figured out. But John even calls them a brood of vipers (there’s a church growth technique I’ve never really tried—imagine if you saw “severe scolding” as the first thing in the order of worship instead of “greeting and welcome”) as if they have finally come slithering out from the rocks they have been hiding under. When people show up he basically says “it’s about time you got your lives in order. Start bearing fruit, or you’ll be completely unprepared for when he comes.” The people who show up to hear John are actually the least prepared for Christ to come. They don’t have the spiritual infrastructure in pace.
The first group that shows up is just a random crowd. An undifferentiated mass. I imagine it’s like the crowd that shows up in Courtenay for the lighting of the Christmas tree—people of all walks of life, shapes, and sizes. And John tells them that if they have two coats to give it away to someone who has none. Same with food. These folks are unprepared for Christ, because they have more than enough. And have trouble sharing it.
The second group that shows up are tax collectors. They work for the Romans, the occupying empire. They are in the finance industry and represent the status quo. And they have quotas to fill. These are people who are unprepared for Christ because their lives are driven by ambition. The need for “more, more, more.”
And the third group that shows up are soldiers. People who represent the empire, the status quo. People charged with keeping order, keeping society running smoothly. But they don’t make as much money as they would like to. And often they use their own authority and positions to their advantage. They are unprepared because they are too busy keeping up with the Joneses, to be ready for Christ to come.
It’s interesting. Because these folks and the things that John condemns in them are not normally on the high sin list when it comes to fire and brimstone preaching. Doesn’t start with sex. Or someone’s particular stances on matters of doctrine. No, the biggest obstacle to God touching down in their own lives in the world… the thing that gets in the way the most… is their relationship with money. Stuff. Resources. How they get it and what they do with it. And because of that they are unprepared, for Christ to touch down.
It makes you wonder, it makes you think about how we prepare for Christ’s coming in the season leading up to Christmas. As a culture, we generally prepare for this most significant holiday by spending what we have, or by going in to debt. In 2013, the average Canadian donated about $531 to charitable causes in the whole year. In that same year, shoppers planned to spend over $1800 on average—just on stuff related to Christmas. Between presents, food, travel, decorations and all the other stuff that comes with it. Certainly a lot of that is giving gifts. But if we’re honest with ourselves, they are mostly to our friends and families. Jesus says that where our treasure is, our hearts will be also. And our hearts in this season generally ain’t with Jesus. Even those of use who put him at the center of our lives.
It’s easy to take potshots at the commercialization of Christmas, I know. For many of us, me included, this can be, and usually is, a time of fun, celebration, and a loving experience with family. But John says that “preparing the way of the Lord” is so much more than that. It’s preparing the way for God’s salvation to touch down in the world. Something that changes our lives, and the world for the better. For that we so often seem unprepared. John doesn’t mince words about it. He tells the truth to those of us who gather around, harsh as he may be (I’d love to name a church plant “Brood of Vipers United Church” though, it’s got a ring to it). And it stings. Like the folks who gather around John we may find ourselves asking “well what do you want us to do about it?”
But what I love about John is that he doesn’t just tell us the truth and leave us there feeling guilty. His judgment brings good news. He’s kind of like Jesus in that way, even. “How do we prepare the way?” They ask. And John tells them. Their relationship with money and stuff can be an obstacle to God touching down in their lives, rather than making a path to the abundant life that Jesus promises them.
But John gives them practices, gives us practices, so we can prepare for God to touch down in our own lives.
If you have two coats, more than enough, John says. Start giving stuff away. Prepare the way of the Lord by practice generosity.
If, like the tax collector, you find you’re driven by ambition, know when enough is enough. Prepare the way of the Lord by practice self-restraint. Start taking only what you need.
If, like the soldiers, you are always keeping up with the Joneses. Be satisfied with your wages. Prepare the way of the Lord by practicing gratitude.
Generosity. Self-restraint. Gratitude. These are all practices that when we do them, we are somehow mysteriously preparing the way of the Lord to enter in to our lives and change us for the better. It’s not that if we do these things God will love us, no. John says that what he’s offering is not salvation—I baptize you with water, the one who is coming will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit. Somehow in opening ourselves, laying the infrastructure in our lives for the Holy Spirit. And when we do, we’ll notice that the crookedness in us is somehow being straightened. The roughness in us is being smoothed out. Because God will find a place to touch down. And everyone around will see God at work in us.
I mean, could you imagine if the people of Jesus started, small step by small step, preparing for Christ’s birth, by say, giving away in Advent as much as we spend on gifts? I mean, it would probably be harder. But how do you think it might change our lives? How would it change your life, to treat this as a season of preparation by changing your relationship with money to prepare God’s way? I mean, imagine how that might change our world, at least a little corner of it, if we started to treat this season as preparation for the coming of Christ in to our lives? I have no doubt that we would get a glimpse of the salvation of God. Life in full. And it could have the potential to change who we are. The world would see it in us. And would be touched by it, too. Because they’d see God touch down.
Friends, brothers and sisters in Christ. The Christian life, the Way of Jesus Christ, is the way of preparation. For laying the foundations for God’s way in the world. In preparing ourselves for Christmas, we are preparing ourselves to receive Christ anew when he finally shows up. By learning to let go of the things in our lives In our lives that get in his way.
In this Advent season, may you prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his path. And in you, through you, may all those meet you come to see the salvation of our God. Here and now.