Advent 2A December 4 2016
A few years ago, I had the privilege of spending the time after Thanksgiving and just before the beginning of Advent with some friends of mine on their family’s farm in Dushor, PA. This was not just any farm, either. It was a Christmas tree farm! That was quite a magical and memorable way to begin this season that can be so overwhelming and draining.
It seems that as soon as December hits, we are preparing for parties that we might end up too tired to enjoy, stressing over finding the right gifts, and fretting over family discord that might or might not ever show its ugly head. We can sometimes exhaust ourselves with travel, too. And this is not to mention the regular commitments we all have in our live. By the time we get to Christmas, we might be ready to sing Joy To The World with gritted teeth as if it were just the next task on our to-do lists. Outdoor lights set up? Check. Cookies baked? Check. Gifts wrapped? Check. Sang Silent Night while holding a candle? Check.
Do you remember the Crazy Target Lady commercials from a few years ago? They were perfect examples of how so many of us can sometimes feel during December. She was the one who always wore bright red and had a wild eyed zeal for Christmas discounts! She was screaming with delight at the super duper savings and Christmas Joy as though she had consumed several pots of coffee while sticking her finger into an electrical outlet. I think
one of the reasons I liked these commercials was that it good naturedly poked fun at all of us who scramble around frantically, desperate to buy Christmas Joy, make it all just PERFECT!!! To make it the MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR, DAMN IT!!
But that year…that year with my friends in Dushor was very different for me. For one thing, I learned a great deal about Christmas trees. There are many different kinds and this particular farm had at least five different varieties, each with different characteristics that might make one better suited than another for your tastes. The most interesting one to me had a different smell when you snapped off a little twig. It smelled like oranges. Some trees are bluer, some silvery, some have short spikey needles and others long or soft. Walking along the rows of trees in the quiet, cool, overcast mornings could not have been more different from that hysterical prep work with which we are all too familiar. It was nice to have that calm moment, a peaceful spot to stand and look at God’s beautiful creation and just breathe. Just take a breath and be still before the onrush of Christmas.
In many ways, Advent is meant to be like that still, quiet mountainside. It is full of God’s good creation just waiting to be enjoyed, just waiting to be part of the celebration of the birth of the Son of God, just waiting to be breathed in. If we can stop for a moment and see it, Advent is as beautiful and full of God’s still peace as that forest of trees.
But we are supposed to be preparing for Christmas. While we might want that stillness to breathe in deeply, it doesn’t really seem like preparation, does it? It seems like a whole lot of doing nothing and we don’t have time for that.
Prepare the way of the Lord! Prepare! These are the words from our gospel text for today. What on earth does that mean? I feel like we should all be scrambling around making something or cleaning something, but I’m not sure what.
When I hear John’s words, I think of all those scenes in action movies when the good guys are getting ready to go fight the bad guys. They are gathering their weapons, calling all the people, making plans, and preparing mentally to go out and face the enemy. That is how we might feel when John the Baptist shouts at us to “Prepare!” We should be putting on something or at least getting ourselves mentally ready. But how on earth do you prepare for the coming of God?
While there are many things in life that we may need to prepare for in the way we might prepare for battle, I am not sure this is one of them. We do not need to prepare as though we are doing battle with God. However, the notion of preparing for anything in our faith life through the disciplines of prayer, study, worship and service in the same way a warrior prepares through their martial disciplines is not a bad way to think of it.
Our scriptures during Advent often speak of preparing the way of the Lord. The Gospel of Matthew today quotes the words of the prophet Isaiah and tells us John the Baptist calls on us to prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight. So, it seems that one of the ways we prepare is to make a straight path. We could think of it as making a straight road, sort of like a runway, so that when he gets here he’ll have a place to land! While that’s not a bad image to think of, there is one problem. Without a runway, the plane can’t land or would maybe even crash! Scripture is pretty clear that ready or not, Jesus is coming and our preparation has nothing to do with the time of his arrival. So how ever we think of preparing, it isn’t something that we must do SO THAT Jesus can come but it is something we do BECAUSE he IS coming.
How do we prepare for someone to arrive, especially someone we are really looking forward to seeing? Maybe we clean the house, plan a big meal, mark the calendar. We count the days till they arrive and then count again just to be sure. Check the weather. Watch the clock. Look out the window to see they are here yet. We might struggle to look down the road, to see if we can catch a glimpse of them just as they come around the corner. We could meet them at the door with open arms. There are real tasks to do to prepare for a guest and it is easy to get too wrapped up in all the busyness, but the very best parts are about the excitement and anticipation in our hearts.
Another way we could think of preparing the way of the Lord might be the way gardeners prepare for the coming seasons. There is always work to be done in a garden and, ready or not, Spring comes around every year. The more prepared a gardener is, the more prepared the garden is and, therefore, the more they get out of the Spring or Summer growing season or any season for that matter. They learn all the different kinds of plants they want to grow and which ones suit their needs and region. There’s pruning, plowing, planting, harvesting, clearing, cleaning and resting to be done. Sometimes, a gardener will just “be” in the garden, breathing in the soil, air, and sun.
These kinds of preparations for the coming of God could be plowing and clearing we do in our own hearts, in our faith lives and in our relationships with others by exercising compassion and love, patience and kindness. Preparation could be looking at the seeds God plants in us. In other words, looking at what God wants in the world and in humans through scripture and worship that is planted in us and will eventually grow fruit for the world.
It could be examining our lives and pruning here and there to prepare it for new growth, cutting back in the areas that are holding us back from being the people we were created and called to be. That could be the ways in which we treat each other as well and we would be preparing the way by exercising generosity with those in need, those outside our usual circles, and granting love and grace to our enemies.
In our text from Isaiah today we heard him say that when God comes, he will make all things right, all things just and fair. He will even wear righteousness and faithfulness and the whole world will be at peace. Just take a moment to breathe that in. The whole world will be at peace when God comes.
Of course, that does not mean we get to sit back and say that injustice, violence, and strife in this world doesn’t really matter because some day God will make it right. Making straight paths in the wilderness, in the wild and deserted places of the world and our lives, is about making things right and just to the best of our ability right now. God will make a new heaven and a new earth, but God is also at work right now bringing it about, and our hands, feet, hearts and minds are some of God’s favorite tools!
So, when is this coming that we are preparing for going to happen? Oh, I know the bible gives many details about the first time Jesus came to us and it gives us complicated clues and hints as to what will happen when he comes again, but we don’t really know what it will look like. Just like a garden waiting for spring, there can be hints and clues and then one day, ready or not, you wake up and the whole place is blooming!
I don’t know when God will come, but what I do know is that God always comes in ways we never expect. Like coming to that very young unmarried girl or coming to shepherds and wise men, virgins and tax collectors and fishermen. Like coming to live with people just like you and me and coming to die just like we do. Most amazing of all, most unexpected of all, like coming out of the grave to new life, and coming again and again to us in bread and wine, in water and word, in the hands and feet, hearts and minds of this very body of Christ.
So, during this Advent season, as we long to hear the story of God coming to us at Christmas and prepare for the Celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, remember to prepare for him today. Now. Not just prepare for remembering his birthday. Prepare for him to come again. Use whatever image suits you best. Breathe in the beauty and stillness of God all around us. Prune and prepare the gardens of our lives in anticipation of Spring. Engage in and practice our spiritual disciplines. Look down the road to see if you can catch a glimpse—feel the excitement and anticipation of his arrival—for he is indeed coming!