Who Makes the Paths Straight?

O Come, O Come Emmanuel. I speak to you in the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Mother to us all. Amen+
True Confession:
I’m terrible at
preparing for Christmas.
For years, our house
remained bare of decorations
because the weeks
before Christmas
were all about preparing
for finals when I was a teacher,
and now that I’m a priest,
I’m too busy
with church to ensure
that our halls are decked.
There’s too much
going on during this season
to, well, actually enjoy the season.
This year is no different,
though I’m trying to make a few changes.
No, we don’t have any lights up yet
in our temporary apartment,
and I have yet to buy
a single gift—
don’t tell my wife Tracey,
whose birthday is December 25!
Still, I’m determined to enjoy
this season, if only in some small ways.
Just yesterday I finally
found at Mariano’s
the peppermint ice cream
that only comes out
this time of year.
I delight in the lights put up
outside of our church—
the globes in the trees,
and the lights entwining
our front steps and bell tower,
and I’m excited about
Light Up Nights this year
in Ravenswood.
Our church will be
the starting place
for the tour of the neighborhood
to admire our neighbors’ decorations.
If you’ve been paying attention,
you’ve seen that people are going all out:
Lighted arches for people to walk through,
elaborate decorations—
large christmas ornaments,
sleighs and lighted deer on front lawns—
and that weekend
there will be luminaria lining the sidewalks
and hot beverage stations
with cocoa and hot cider.
And Tracey bought us tickets
to see David Sedaris next weekend,
when he will read
from his collected essays.
My fingers are crossed
that he’ll read
“The Santaland Diaries,”
made famous years ago
on NPR’s This American Life
in which he chronicles his
two Christmas seasons
playing an elf at Macy’s in New York.
Surely, surely, that,
plus the peppermint ice-cream,
plus the light up nights,
plus the gifts that I PROMISE
I will buy and wrap
and place in an attractive pile,
not under a Christmas tree exactly,
but perhaps a string of lights,
surely THAT will help
me be prepared for Christmas.
But you know what?
No matter how many
Christmas parties and events I attend
or gifts I wrap,
you know what won’t happen?
Or, rather, do you know WHO
won’t make an appearance?
John the Baptist.
No guy in the wilderness,
no camel hair or locusts,
no calls to repentance,
no talk of sin.
In fact, if you think about it,
John the Baptist
shows up nowhere,
out there, out in the world,
during this time of year.
Check out your Christmas cards:
there is never a picture
of John the Baptist on the front,
only Christmas trees and doves
or, for the more pious,
the Holy Family at the manger.
Well, okay, fine, that’s Christmas,
but take a look at your Advent calendars, too:
Open the little doors
for your Bible verse or chocolate each day,
or get the adult version
that has a mini bottle of wine or scotch—
yes, they make these, check it out—
so that you can count down
the days until Christmas.
You will never find
John the Baptist
gracing any Advent calendar,
even though he
is the main character
of this season of
watching and waiting and preparing.
And no wonder.
John the Baptist is a total downer.
He spoils the season,
spoils Christmas,
so most people ignore him.
Except us.
Except those of us
who come to church
in the weeks of Advent;
WE have to wrestle with John
every Advent
on the second and third Sundays of the season,
and that’s after
we get apocalyptic warnings
of the second coming of Christ
on the first Sunday of Advent.
But this is the heart of Advent,
the Paradox of Advent.
In this season,
we live in a tension
between joy and judgement,
hope and warning.
Each Sunday we hear
promises of joy coming
in the Hebrew scriptures
a looking forward
to the time when
God will make all right,
a gesture towards the Messiah.
And then we hear
in the Gospels
the warnings of what
it means to have God come to us,
and we move swiftly
from joy and promise
to repentance and warning.
Each Sunday,
our readings follow this pattern,
and every Collect points
to our need to “cast away the works of darkness,”
or to “forsake our sins,”
so that we prepare by repenting,
by turning again to God
so that we might
“greet with joy
the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.”
Do you hear that?
We are promised deliverance,
delight, righteousness, mercy,
but, first, a little judgment,
a little repentance,
taking an honest look at our sins.
Needless to say,
we don’t love this.
Clearly, this is NOT
going to fly
out in the world
that is prepared to
get their photo taken with Santa Claus,
to dress up in PJs
with the family
to attend a live Polar Express,
who might even consider
the coming of a cute baby in a manger,
but Jesus coming as Judge?
No thank you.
Most of us like our Christmas nostalgic,
sepia tinged, Victorian,
snow-covered, tinsel strewn,
but Advent is not nostalgic.
As the great Episcopal priest and preacher
Fleming Rutledge reminds us,
Advent doesn’t look back;
it looks forward,
forward to the time when
Jesus will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead.
So, the promise of joy
AND the promise of judgment.
Preparing to celebrate
the birth of the Messiah
AND his coming again
at the end of the ages.
THIS is the paradox of Advent;
this is where we live in this
quiet, dark time.
But, if you think about it,
it makes sense.
With great joy
we look forward
to freedom, to liberation,
to a time when
mercy and truth will meet;
when righteousness and peace will kiss (Psalm 85:10),
but those hopes,
those realities have a cost.
This might be hard for us to fathom—
for who likes judgment?
And certainly now
in our culture,
any hint of judgment
is deemed as mean,
as judgmental
since we’re all
supposed to be perfectly fine,
just as we are.
This notion that
we must be judged before joy can come,
that we must repent,
reorient ourselves,
if we want to see God,
be refined in the fire,
well, that’s hard
for those of us
whose lives are fairly easy,
living in a free, democratic nation,
enough food, a roof over our heads,
but imagine being a Jew
living under the Roman occupation.
Imagine experiencing homelessness,
no place to lay your head.
Imagine being the ones
in Michigan to have just suffered
yet another senseless, violent
school shooting . . .
Suddenly, the notion
of a God who will come
in righteousness to judge sin
and conquer injustice,
well, that starts
to sound pretty good,
even if that includes
judgment for YOU.
John the Baptist
stands on the threshold
between ancient expectation,
and the coming of Jesus,
as a vulnerable infant,
a teacher and Messiah,
one crucified for love of us,
one raised to new life,
defeating Death and Sin.
And in Advent,
John the Baptist,
the one in the wilderness
calling all of us
to repent for the forgiveness of sins,
provides the link,
between the coming of Jesus,
all those years ago,
vulnerable as a human,
and his coming again in glory.
John the Baptist warns us
to repent and recalls
the words of Isaiah:
the voice of one crying out
in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight!”
No wonder we don’t
put him in our Christmas Cards;
it’s no surprise
that no Advent calendar features him.
He spoils our joy, our hope, our wonder
in this season . . .
But wait.
Just as we are cast down,
just as we fear that
we can never repent,
cannot turn ourselves
around enough,
reorient ourselves to God,
we hear the rest of the passage,
John quoting Isaiah
about how God will
prepare the way back to Jerusalem
after the Babylonian exile:
“Every valley shall be filled,
every mountain and hill made low,
the crooked made straight,
the rough ways made smooth.”
The way to the Lord
will be prepared,
but not by us.
We who want
lights and tinsel,
presents and peppermint ice cream
all year around,
can hardly manage
to turn ourselves
in the right direction.
And, so, our God
of tender compassion
prepares the way,
makes straight the paths,
so that God can come
to US,
so that all flesh
shall see the salvation of God.
When we can’t turn;
when we can’t change our ways,
God will smooth
the path to our hearts,
God will find the way home to us,
preparing the way for our salvation
so that we may greet
with joy the coming of Jesus.
John the Baptist
marries joy and repentance,
hope and preparation,
reminding us
that only by first facing
death and sin,
can we truly long for,
hope for,
the joy, the redemption,
of Jesus Christ.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.