Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Let Every Heart Prepare

Advent, Week 2  Isaiah 11:1-10  •  Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19  •  

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,  "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."  This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'" Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

(From the Gospel Lesson for the 2nd Sunday in Advent
Matthew 3:1-9 NRSV)

Now, that’s not very Christmassy! 

Brood of vipers?  Who does he think he’s talking to?  Didn’t anyone ever tell that man that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar? If he wants to get his message through, he’ll do much better if he dresses decently, and a funky diet always turns people off.

Every year at this time, just as our Christmas preparations shift into high gear, John the Baptist steps onto the stage.  A real wet blanket.  A guy who out-scrooges Scrooge.  A discordant voice in a season that’s supposed to be cheerful. What does he mean, “Prepare the way of the Lord?”  What does he think I’ve been doing, shopping nonstop since Thanksgiving?

Make no mistake: this is not someone you want on your “A List” when planning your Holiday Open House. He is not going to be a fun addition to the office holiday party. And that’s without even hearing what he’d have to say about an American shopping mall in December.

John is rough.  He is crude.  He is speaking a word of judgment.  He doesn’t care who gets offended. He will not soften his message in hopes of reaching a few who might respond to a nicer appeal. John comes out of the desert, his spirit filled with a vision of a God who comes to transform our world. In the solitude of the waste spaces John sees that we, fallen and recalcitrant humanity, are not even remotely ready to welcome the messenger of God, let alone the Messiah Himself.  He is the herald of the coming king.

John meets us two millennia later in our shallow preparations for the cultural celebration of “Xmas.” and shouts a warning. “What are you doing treating the grand miracle of God’s entry into history as if it was a mere sales event?” “It is the King of Glory who stands at the gate! What do your family jealousies have to do with that?” “It is the Alpha and Omega who wants to share a feast with you.  What does that have to do with your guest list, which you make as short as possible?” “It is the Savior of the World who wants to visit you. What room does that leave for your pride and self-importance?”

That’s why John visits us every Advent: as long as we harbor and nurture our jealousies, our fears, our resentments, our self-importance, we cannot welcome the One who comes to lead us away from all such things. John’s message goes to the heart of our pretensions, our fears and the burdens we carry when we give those things a place in our living. The road to Christmas leads through a remote desert place, where a disheveled man in ragged clothes reminds us that the most important place to prepare for Christmas is in our minds, hearts and wills.

John reminds us that our forebears in the faith regarded the coming of Christ as a matter to greet awestruck on their knees.  For a mere instant of cosmic time, which was lived out in thirty-three of our years, the energy and the love of God was focused on the human race in the person of a man whose followers later called Emmanuel, “God-With-Us.” This, John would have us know, is not something to be treated in a cavalier way - indeed it is something we have to prepare for.

Joy to the world!  The Lord is come!  Let earth receive her King.  Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.

That’s why the lectionary pairs the appearance of John the Baptist with Isaiah’s incomparable vision of the day when heaven and nature will sing together - a hope echoed in Paul’s vision of Israelites and Gentiles joining hands to praise God together. John bids us prepare our hearts and minds for God to do the unexpected, to break through the world’s pride and ours; to remind us of Christ’s coming in history; to open our hearts to his promised coming in our lives today; to awaken our hope that when all is complete, his final coming will bring the kingdom where all are reconciled in his love. These are, if you will, the three dimensions of the Advent season, and together they prepare us to receive the wonder of the Incarnation.

Howard MacMullen, © 2010

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