Are you ready? There are only 14 days left. Can you believe it? Are you ready? And what does that even mean – to be ready? Does it mean decorations? Does it mean shopping? Does it mean relatives and visitors? What is it that you are preparing for, and where is the space for Jesus in all of this?
Last night my family went to LARC’s Acadian Village light display. We were skipping and running around the displays, and we almost ran right past an outline of the Holy Family. I told my kids that they almost missed Jesus. One of them doubled back in reverence and the other said, “Squirrel!” Because there was an illuminated squirrel running up the tree.
How much are we all like that during this time of year? How much space do we leave open for Jesus? How easily distracted are we by the spectacle of Christmas.
Today we hear from one of the spectacular characters in the story of Jesus. In fact, all of our readings are somewhat spectacular. By that I mean that they offer a word of comfort that is also a word of challenge. At the same time, it’s pretty easy to side step these passages because we think we know what they mean. At least, those of us who have grown up with the story of Christmas generally assume that these stories are all wrapped up with a nice bow and a tag that says, “Don’t open until Christmas” – because they’re about Jesus, right?
It’s like the story of the Pastor leading Children’s time and playing a guessing game. He tells the kids that he is thinking about something furry with a bushy tail that loves to gather nuts. After some silence a child raises her hand and says, “It sure sounds like a squirrel, but I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus.”
If we think about it from someone else’s perspective, we might just find that there is a little more to these passages than we expect. Suddenly I am reminded of the first time, as an adult, that I was asked what we are really celebrating on Christmas. I was 25 and working as a waiter. I was excitedly getting my side-work done to leave early for the Christmas Eve service. A co-worker asked me to tell her the story. I did so, and I felt like an idiot – fumbling through the more incredulous details.
I think that was because the story that we assume to be the backdrop of Christmas is really only part of the story. The story that I told – the one we expect the shopping malls to proclaim – is really only a cultural reflection of the real story. The story that we want to place in a certain time in history is actually a story that has repeated itself again and again throughout the whole of human history. The story of Christmas is a story that we can’t really tell without hearing and responding to a call to repentance.
Malachi’s announcement came more than 700 years before John the Baptist was born. It came in a time when the idea of salvation as life after death was still relatively new for Jewish believers. For these believers, they understood God’s actions to be more directly distributed as punishment or reward. Repentance was not something that was done individually, or in silent prayer. Repentance was done through relationships. Repentance and devotion to God were demonstrated through the quality of life for the lowest members of society and the practice of worship devoted to God.
That’s the backstory of our Gospel reading today. It’s not that Malachi gazed into a crystal ball and saw John. Instead Malachi was announcing the natural consequence for a people in a relationship with God. At some point God is going to blow the whistle and let us all know that we are out of bounds – and it is not going to feel good.
And so John jumps right out of Luke’s Gospel today – this wild itinerant preacher – reminding us to prepare the way of the Lord! He asks us, “Are you ready? Do you even know what we are getting ready for? What are you doing to make space for the presence of God in your home, in your school, in your place of work, and in your spare time?”
Of course, our reading spares us the accusation that we might be a ‘brood of vipers,’ but we all know that the implication is there. We all know that the church is both human and divine. We know that we live both in and out of time. That is why it was so important to Luke to locate the event of John’s proclamation in time. He wanted us to know when these events took place, because he wanted us to know that no event or prince or principality or priest could ever define the love of God.
In fact it actually works in just the opposite way. Instead, the love of God rips through our reality of power and governance and religious practice and demonstrates something new. But before we can see that, we have to get ready. And again I ask you, what are you getting ready for? Are you getting ready for another party, for out of town guests, or for some event? Are you getting ready to numb yourself from the anxiety of the end of another year? Or, are you getting ready for the coming of the Lord?
Sometimes I wonder if we even know how to get ready. Then I hear “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Of course that is the way the NRSV translates it. Others have noted that it might just as easily be translated, “A voice cries out – in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.”
You see, God meets us in the wilderness. God meets us in the wilderness of the shopping mall. God meets us in the wilderness of social obligation. God meets us in the wilderness of selfishness, doubt, and suffering – and God offers us life eternal that begins with our realization that we have it, with our confession of selfishness, and with our transformation into selflessness.
This Christmas there will be parties to attend, presents to buy, and obligations to fulfill, yet there is still an opportunity for something greater. There is still the opportunity of repentance. There is still the opportunity to turn your attention away from self and toward God and neighbor.
Last week in our Advent Conspiracy study we talked quite a bit about the opportunity to give and to encourage gifts that support a particular cause or ministry. One of the comments led to a discussion about things we can do all year long, instead of just for Christmas. We got into a dangerous space – a threatening space. It was a space that threatened us with the prospect of new relationships. It was a dangerous space that encouraged becoming something new because of those relationships.
Over the years, this congregation has experienced the dangerous space of changing relationships. That is something that will only go away when our mission is complete – and that means that either we cease to exist, or Jesus has come back. And although I refuse to try take away the ability of Jesus to return in some final, cosmic battle, I also refuse to believe that a final, cosmic battle is the only way he can return. So, as we continue to respond in love to the dangerously transformative space of new relationships, let us remember to make space for God to enter in. Let us remember to take the perspective of the other, to look for God in the wilderness, and to expect God’s active presence to continue making us more and more into the image of God.
That way, we can have the attitude and expectation of Paul. We can truly thank God for one another, even when we disagree. We can truly expect “love to overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight...So that in the Day of Christ we may be pure and blameless.”
The Day of Christ may come any moment. It may be terrible, or it might be terrific! One thing is for certain, the Day of Christ requires transformation, for who can stand in the presence of God and not be changed? That is what we are getting ready for. That is the invitation that we long to accept – the invitation to be made new again, and again, and again. And all to the glory of God. Amen.