40:1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
40:2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
40:3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
40:4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
40:5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
40:6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.
40:7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.
40:8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
40:9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
40:10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
40:11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;
1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”
1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
This is the word of God for the beloved people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
During these weeks leading up to the celebration of Christmas, it is a time to prepare our hearts, minds, homes, and relationships for God coming into our midst, in the most precious form, the Christ child. As we prepare, we look for the reign of God breaking into the community, establishing justice and demonstrating compassion wherever it goes. As we prepare for God coming toward us in Jesus, we take stock of our life: the areas that need healing, the dark corners that need attention, the relationships that need some TLC, the inner life with God that needs to move into the next stage of the relationship. We look into the daily rhythm of life, the high points and the lows joined together.
We ask of ourselves: how are we doing harm to our neighbors and even strangers in the community? How are we demonstrating goodness and compassion to those closest to us and those who are the most vulnerable in this community? Are we bearing fruit in our life that shows others what the love of God in Jesus Christ is like? What do I do to stay and grow in love of God? Without making this searching inventory it is hard to assess the condition of our lives with one another and our life with God.
For the second week in a row, the gospel proclamation is not an infancy narrative about baby Jesus-it’s closer to fire and brimstone preaching from a wilderness prophet with his feet firmly planted in the personality and tradition of Elijah. John the Baptist, the voice crying out in the wilderness, declares prepare the way of the Lord.
The way Mark begins his gospel story is not as warm or as inviting as Matthew and Luke. There certainly aren’t as many characters to add layers of texture to the wandering journey of the Holy Family. This past week as I read a version of the Christmas story to Serena before bed, I took note of all the ways the author and illustrator had taken creative liberties to depict the Holy Family on the move. On the very last page as Mother Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus recline in the hay getting some much needed rest, with the three wise men kneeling closeby, I took notice of an odd character in the background. There’s a man playing a flute. As best as I can recall, there are a lot of folks in the Christmas story in Matthew and Luke, especially if you merge the two stories into one as if often done. But there is no mention of a boy playing the flute in Mary’s Labor and Delivery room.
For Mark, there are no sheep in the field or shepherds keeping watch. No wise men. No trip to Bethlehem for the Roman census. Not even a mention of Mary and Joseph. Baby Jesus isn’t the focal point or even the starting point for Mark’s gospel. Jesus the Christ, the Son of the one True God, is already enthroned, and the reign of God is at hand. Repent and believe that the kingdom has come near. Now that’s one abrupt and serious way to start a good news story about Jesus becoming King.
Like the prophets of old, John the Baptizer, declares out on the banks of River Jordan that it is time to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Repent, be baptized, and confess your sins, for one more powerful and with more authority is coming after me. Indeed, it is time to prepare for the coming of the Lord. In a season in which we are especially prone to cram in more than we actually have space for, emotionally, spiritually, and time-wise, preparation with intentionality to step near to God’s reign is a seemingly odd thing to do.
Instead of rushing to prepare for the next Christmas party, rush to prepare a quiet space in your heart so that you can remember those who need a grace-filled word in their life. Instead of meticulously scouring the house for a missing decoration or beloved recipe misplaced from last year, search your memory for those moments of discipleship denied (those moments when we didn’t follow Jesus very well). Instead of rushing to the joy of Christmas morning, walk alongside the Baptizer whose candor speaks truth about our unexamined living. Sit for awhile and let the possibility of individual and corporate confession permeate your soul.
I’m reminded of a night I was in school at Vanderbilt and I decided to visit the university chapel for a liturgy for the Examination of Conscience. It’s a traditionally Roman Catholic liturgy. Some of you in earlier years of your life might remember it. The pews were dotted with students here and there, far from being packed. As we moved further into the liturgy, a rather long lists of searching questions were asked all pointing to the two greatest commandments. Love of God and love of neighbor. How have I sinned against God? How have I sinned against my neighbor?
The liturgist didn’t offer up an exhaustive list of ways in which the congregants could have sinned against God and neighbor, but it certainly was a long list.
Uncomfortable? A bit. Necessary? Absolutely. If we take serious John the Baptizer’s declaration that the reign of God is near, the Messiah is on his way, and that we should change course, then searching questions of the soul are an essential element of Advent. Imagine how differently our life together might be if these questions or ones like them were asked regularly. Maybe our racial strife, violence toward, and hatred of neighbors would not be so intense. Maybe sexual harassment and assault wouldn’t be so rampant if men especially of faith could respect and maintain boundaries between themselves and others. Perhaps we have crises of morality and justice because we don’t stop long enough to ask the important questions that lead to individual and corporate repentance or we just don’t care about how the questions are answered.
So close your eyes for a few moments if you wish and hear these questions for the first time or with fresh ears.
- Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
- Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
- Do I confidentially pass on to another what was told to me in confidence?
- Can I be trusted?
- Am I a slave to dress, friends, work, or habits?
- Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
- Did the Bible live in me today?
- Do I give it time to speak to me everyday?
- Am I enjoying prayer?
- When did I last speak to someone else about my faith?
- Do I pray about the money I spend?
- Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
- Do I disobey God in anything?
- Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
- Am I defeated in any part of my life?
- Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy, or distrustful?
- How do I spend my spare time?
- Am I proud?
- Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?
- Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?
- Do I grumble or complain constantly?
- Is Christ real to me?
Perhaps it’s a good thing this Advent season that John the Baptist will visit us again in the lectionary next week. One week of examination, confession, and repentance is not enough to straighten out the path in the wilderness for the coming of the Lord. Two weeks isn’t enough either, but at least it’s a start. By doing this soul searching work, we are creating space for the good news to enter in and take root. We’ve got some time before this season of God coming toward us in Jesus Christ reaches its culmination. There is still time to prepare. Don’t delay for these is a plethora of facets of our global life together where we need to search our souls, confess, repent, and prepare for the day of the Lord. If you’re wondering where to begin, may Bishop Easterling’s Christmas benediction offer a lead.
“I wish you a Christmas full of wrestling with 65 million people who are displaced and dispossessed of a secure dwelling; I wish you a Christmas full of examining the prevalence of hatred culminating in gun violence; I wish you a Christmas full of pondering why the purchase of another human being is still an acceptable transaction; [I wish you a Christmas full of examining why more women than not have stories of being sexually victimized by family, colleagues, and friends;] I wish you a Christmas full of weeping over the prison industrial complex that houses over 2 million persons; I wish you a Christmas full of rejecting the notion that human beings exist on a continuum of acceptability based on man-made categories.”
Bless you in the name of the One who is always coming toward us. Amen.