Prepare the Way

Luke 3:1-6
2nd Sunday of Advent
Elizabeth M. Deibert

We learned this week that Richard’s dad and brother might bring his aunt and uncle for Christmas. They don’t have grandchildren yet, so they enjoy the energy of our family. We’d enjoy having them. Richard is concerned about whether they can climb the stairs. I’m concerned that the carpet upstairs desperately needs cleaning. Preparations for Christmas. Opportunity to focus on what’s important – welcoming people. Or not.

Richard and I got into a money argument Friday morning because I’m worried about what we should get the kids – keeping things in balance, and I interpreted his response to my anxiety about this as an unwillingness to engage the subject of finances when really, he just thought this wasn’t the right time for the conversation because I said I had a sermon to write. He’s keeping everything in separate box in his brain, while all the things in my brain have connections to all the other things. Christmas preparations. Opportunity to focus on what’s valuable – good, loving, respectful communication. Or not.

At the Festive Friday party we hosted for families of children and youth, we had a conversation about when everyone puts up decorations. Some get it up on Thanksgiving week-end in time for the first Sunday of Advent. They are done with it by December
26th or at least by the new year. Others of us wait until close to Christmas, then leave up until the 12 day of Christmas – Epiphany, the 6th of January. Preparations for Christmas, the season. Opportunities to focus on the reason for the season – or not.

Our scripture today is concerned with a different kind of preparation. We might call these advent preparations. John the Baptist talks about preparing the way, making a path for our God. He’s preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sin. Repentance? How does that fit into this season of decking the halls and trying to be jolly? Repentance is the heart of our Christmas Preparations. That is how we prepare the way.

Hear the word of the Lord from Luke 3.

NRS Luke 3:1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 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; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

We prepare the way by repentance. But repentance is not a popular theme these days. We could blame that on the fundamentalist and right wing preachers, who made a mockery of it by shouting from street corners and revival tents and bully pulpits, while having too much hypocrisy in their own lives to make their calls to holiness seem authentic. The right wing preacher would focus our attention on the crookedness of our lives.

We prepare the way for Christmas by repentance. But repentance is not a popular theme. We could blame that on secular humanists and left wing Christians, who invite us to make fun of a faith focused on repentance, who encourage us to think good thoughts about ourselves, to build up self-esteem, and believe in a God who always accepts all people just as they are without condition or reserve. The left wing preacher would focus our attention on the last verse – the promise that all flesh shall see the salvation of our God.

Both polarized groups are missing something – both have cheapened our view of the Christian life and tried to put God in a box for safe keeping. We need to stop choosing sides and realize that both messages are needed. Repentance and forgiveness. Never one without the other. Our reading from Malachi mentions the “refining fire” Fire burns. Fire melts and molds. There is a harshness to fire, but a glorious purpose in the shaping of a godly character. Think of the way fire clear away the brush so the forest is healthier.

We have need of God’s refining fire. We have need of a healthy fear of the Lord’s judgment. We have become far too cozy with God, as if the Lord of heaven and earth is our good buddy with whom we can laugh about sin, ‘cause it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is grace. What a friend we have in Jesus. Yes, but we are not equals. He lived without sin. We live full of sin. Thank God, our Lord is merciful enough to keep us from seeing the full ugliness of our own hearts.

John the Baptist is the forerunner paving the way for Christ’s first sermon which begins “Repent and believe the good news.” John says “repent” and goes on to call his gathered congregation a “brood of vipers.” He challenges them to bear fruits worthy of repentance or be thrown into the fire. When they ask what he means by this repentance, he says, “Whoever has two coats, share with someone who has none. Whoever has food, do likewise.” Repent doesn’t mean sitting around feeling bad about my seven coats in the closet. It doesn’t mean that I should ask for forgiveness with no intention of changing. It means doing something different. Making a change.

To those who had the power of money matters, tax collectors, John said, “Collect no more money than the amount prescribed.” Be fairer than other tax collectors.

To soldiers he said, “Do not threaten people or make false accusations or take what doesn’t belong to you. Be satisfied with what you have.”

To the all crowd, John said of Jesus, I am not worthy to untie his sandals. There’s the measure of humility that we need. If we recognize that we are completely unworthy, fully needy of God’s forgiveness because of our continual sin and blindness of heart, if we can truly repent, which means turning away from the sin we acknowledge, then we are beginning to prepare the way of the Lord.

To prepare the way of the Lord is to stop comparing ourselves with other people, allowing ourselves an opportunity for self-righteousness. That’s why we find it hard to stop watching the slime about other people, people like Tiger Woods, people in high places who fall from grace, because it reinforces our thinking that we’re pretty good folk. We haven’t done anything that bad. We’re nice people.

But the comparison we need to make is of ourselves with a holy God, not ourselves with others. We need to compare ourselves with the people God intended us to be. Ourselves with Jesus Christ. Then we see how far short we fall. It’s not about condemnation of others. It’s not about wallowing in guilt and bad feelings about ourselves. There is no repentance in that – only continued sin and sickness. God wants us well and whole, and we take part in the healing process by cooperating with the treatment plan and taking the medicine. The medicine is repentance, acknowledgment of fault and turning from it. The treatment plan is forgiveness, followed by a renewed commitment to holiness, which requires daily repentance. Forgiveness without continuing repentance and desire for holiness does not cure our adness, our sinful condition. We need comfort of God’s promises, but also the challenge of God’s holy claim on our lives.

Repentance – a daily pattern of turning away from all which is not pleasing to God. Daily awareness of the depth of God’s forgiveness comes by seeing also the depth of our sin. Repentance – making way, preparing for Christ to be born anew in our hearts – is the challenge of this season. Hear these words from The Illumined Heart by Frederica Mathewes-Green: “The ancient Christian literature on repentance is beautiful – full of simplicity, humility, and spreading peace. There is nothing in it of masochism or despair. Those who know themselves to be so greatly forgiven are far from gloomy, but are flooded with joy and deep tranquility. Those who are forgiven much love much. They find it hard to hold grudges against others; they find it hard to hold any thing in this life very tightly. For the Christian, two things seem to be ever linked: sorrow over sin, and gratitude for forgiveness. Repentance is the source of life and joy.” (p. 42)

So we can spend all our time preparing for the cultural traditions of Christmas–holiday lights, presents for one another, food and seasonal gathering. One can stay quite busy with all of that.

But stop to think about Jill and Mark, who left this morning to attend the funeral of their close friend Gary, forty-something, who died, leaving a seven year old and a wife. Think about the family of Tricia’s friends, the Knauert family, four kids and a wife moving through a first Christmas without dad and husband. Think about all the people in the world who are hungrier this Christmas than last Christmas. Do our holiday lights, presents, and sugar cookies do much for that grief? Those Christmas preparations would be like trying puts band-aids on a severed leg.

That’s why it is imperative that we prepare for advent. Prepare our hearts more than our houses. Pray, work on our relationships, give generously, read scripture, listen to music which inspires our faith, think about how we can make a difference. Prepare the way of the Lord by a renewed desire to repent. Repentance is not so much emotion but is renewal of the mind, a rethinking of motives and actions, a willingness to admit sin, and then to work at living according to the will of God. It is attitude. Sorrow for sin. Gratitude for forgiveness. The best gift you can give anyone this year is your own spirit of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.

Lord, we are part of a generation that wants to dismiss the gravity of sin, to deny our own short-comings, to defend our own actions at all costs, even the cost of life and joy and peace. In place of true repentance, we have despair, confusion, and anger. Help us to see that the call to repentance is good news. But more importantly, help us to repent. Help us to see the selfishness of our lives, the self-justifying attitudes, the unwillingness to deeply examine ourselves, and be open to change. May your loving and purifying Spirit burn away all impurities in us, and overwhelm us with gratitude for your merciful, boundless forgiveness.
Come, O long-expected Jesus, born to set your people free. From our fears and sins release us. Let us find our rest in Thee.