Preparing the Way

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
Year A – December 8, 2013

David H. Knight, Priest Associate

Send your spirit God to open our hearts and our minds to your word, and strengthen us to live according to your will, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

 ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.’”  Matthew 3:1-3

For the years since we returned from Dallas Jeannie and I have enjoyed gathering at Thanksgiving with our youngest son at his wife’s family’s lovely home in Bethesda. Our other sons and their families are usually there too. It is always a wonderful time with family and of course a time to feast in a manner which is totally inconsistent with my low sodium regimen—so many choices of dessert, so little time.  You know how that goes.  In past years, it wasn’t until Friday morning after Thanksgiving that we noticed the long lines as we drove by the shopping malls in Bethesda, but this year Black Friday had taken on a new pernicious twist.  Stores have done away with the one last holiday of the year that was about family and community.  Christmas has long been commercialized beyond any recognition of its original meaning, yet now even on Thanksgiving Day, we can spend the day over at the shopping mall where we no longer have to make small talk over the stuffing and gravy with relatives.   Thanks to our culture that now willingly submits to the enticement of the retail industry, we can now spend the whole day of Thanksgiving beginning at Best Buy purchasing a flat screen TV and then going home to watch football, being totally free of any human interaction at all.   But as Eleanor reminded us in her sermon last Sunday as we began this holy season, “The truth us, the retail industry doesn’t do that to us, we do that to ourselves.  We let ourselves be manipulated into believing that we will somehow fall short of providing a storybook Christmas for our families.”

 In this season of Advent, the Church finds itself, in a manner of speaking, in a kind of wilderness in our culture as it is.  Today more and more, the church’s traditional observance of Advent stands in tension with contemporary culture. Just as you and I can sometimes feel we are in a wilderness when surrounded by a crowd of people, so the church is in a wilderness in the midst of our frenetic holiday season. On the one hand, the Church over the centuries has come to appreciate the need that Christians have to contemplate what God has done for us in sending Jesus into our midst as an infant to take upon himself our nature, yet, on the other hand facing the church’s traditional call for Advent preparation is met with the enticements of our secular, consumer oriented culture and our social busyness filled with parties and such often making us exhausted by the time Christmas Day arrives. Then it’s over.  Whatever happened to the 12 Days of Christmas which begin on Christmas Eve? 

 How different is the preparation to which John the Baptist calls the people of Israel.  In today’s gospel reading, John the Baptist calls upon us to examine our ways in such a manner that we make ourselves ready for the coming of the infant Jesus into our midst. In this season, we hear the call to prepare the way of the Lord, to make his paths straight. John reminds us that rather than basking prematurely in holiday cheer, we might well examine ourselves in order that we might discern how we can bear good fruit.  He says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  The very notion of repentance for many conjures up feeling sorry for our misdeeds and the call from God to shape up for fear of God’s wrath. Repentance for many reminds us of our guilt, but what John and what Advent reminds us is that repentance is not about guilt but rather about God’s desire to find us in a place where we are in accord with the life of Jesus. It is about God’s power to transform our lives into the image of Christ.  Advent is indeed a season in which, as we observe it with faithfulness, finds us in a wilderness because it calls us to be in contradiction to the hype and business of this time of year in our culture.  In this season of what is intended to be quiet preparation, God promises to keep pointing the way ahead for us and for the church.

 Sometimes a I drive I listen to the local “Big Oldies” stations—makes me relive memories of days of yore, but one afternoon in late November I had to switch channels as the Christmas carols on that Tuesday before Thanksgiving brought out the Scrooge in me big time and made me grumpy.  I quickly switched to NPR.  By good fortune, I came in on a news commentary about Pope Francis’s very recent proclamation titled Evangelii Gaudium, or, the “Joy of the Gospel.”  In the commentary there was discussion centering around pieces of what the pope said.  I became very interested in what he had to say and later explored excerpts of the actual document posted on the internet. What I read in the pope’s proclamation I found to be very uplifting as well as appropriate for this Advent season even though it was not written directly to the season of Advent alone.  He calls us to remember that following Jesus is intended to be a joy. He then went on to talk about his vision of the church which, since he has become pope, he has often said has lost its way. What he said about his vision for the church is profound: He says, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out in the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”  He spoke of how our economic system has lost not only its way but its values.  “How can it be,” he asks, “that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” The Very Reverend Gary Hall, Dean of the Washington National Cathedral in his sermon last Sunday as Advent began, put it this way about what the pope is saying, and not only to Roman Catholics, but to all Christians. What Dean Hall proclaimed in his sermon last week bears repeating on this Second Sunday of Advent as well: He said, “The real wakeup story of Evangelii Gaudium is the way it calls us both forward and back to what Christianity is all about. ‘The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus,’ says Francis. ‘Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness, and loneliness. With Christ, joy is constantly born anew.’”

 As John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of his day and told the people of Judea to wake up, repent and be ready, so Pope Francis is calling us in this Advent season to wake up as well.  Jesus comes to us again and again as prophet, as teacher, and as an infant in the manger, and as judge. As Jesus comes to us in these encounters, you and I will know love and justice. We will know a peace which the world cannot give. We will know forgiveness.  We will know blessing, and above all, deep joy and hope. Our encounters as Jesus comes to us will be encounters for which we will do well to keep awake in anticipation.

 Once again on this Second Sunday of Advent, we hear the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.”  The wilderness in which that voice speaks is the wilderness in which you and I can find ourselves when we let all the trappings of this time of year engulf us.  The challenge and the opportunity before us is to find our own quiet, still place in the midst of all these holiday trappings so that we can prepare ourselves once again for the coming of the Christ Child into our midst.  You may well discover your own ways to find that still, quiet space and the first step is to make space.  Donald Postema, in his book, Space for God, writes about making that space not only in ourselves,  but in our schedules to receive the love of God.  Here at St. Mary’s there are offerings that you might find helpful.  One will take place next Saturday, December 14, from 9:30 ‘til noon when there will be A Quiet Morning in the Old Parish Hall which will center around Celtic Spirituality in Advent.  Then, each Wednesday at 5:30 during Advent there is something that remains one of St. Mary’s best kept secrets, though it’s posted in the calendar, but I simply want to tell you what it has meant to me to take advantage myself of this offering. It is simply called “Be Still.”  A small group led by one of our own meets in Little St. Mary’s for one half hour of centering prayer—actually it’s 25 minutes.  After we are led in a very brief meditation, we simply sit quietly for twenty minutes.  We close with the Lord’s Prayer and depart.  It’s that simple, that brief.  It is hard to put into words, yet let me tell you what a gift that is after a busy day.  5:30 might or might not be the best time of day for you, but if you can come, you are most welcome.  My point simply is this: the discipline of taking time at some point in the day to sit quietly is a gift. 

 And so once again we hear these words, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.”

 My prayer for each of us is that you and I may find a balance between the duties we have in this busy time of year that we may make time in our hearts and in our schedules during this holy season for God’s gift in waiting patiently for the coming of the Christ Child.  May God’s vision for us and for the church be part of our Advent journey and may we ever remain hopeful in God’s promise to us.

  Make ye straight what long was crooked,
make the rougher places plain;
let (our) hearts be true and humble,
s befits his holy reign.
For the glory of the Lord
now o’er earth is shed abroad;
and all flesh shall see the token
that the word is never broken.

Hymn 67  – third stanza