Second Sunday of Advent
6 December 2009
If I were to do a survey of which songs have been stuck in your heads lately, I bet we would notice a lot of commonalities among us. A handful of you would say, “Jingle Bell Rock.” Several of you more nostalgic types would probably offer, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” while Elvis fans would chime in with “Blue Christmas.” Those of you who don’t mind the cold have probably been happily humming, “Let it snow! Let is snow! Let it snow!” And I’m guessing a large segment of you, against your will, have been looping, “Feliz Navidad!”
‘Tis the season for inescapable piped-in popular holiday music.
You may notice that in the church we resist singing Christmas songs for as long as possible. Whereas out there, this is called the Christmas season, in here it is called Advent. In here, Christmas doesn’t get started until December 25, and then it lasts for 12 days, long past when the stores have taken down their Christmas decorations (which, of course, they put up sometime around Halloween). For Christians, Advent is a season of its own, and its music is not so much festive as it is plaintive. It is laced with longing. It sings of darkness, bleakness, yearning: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. To sing towards the One we hope will come, is to acknowledge we do not yet have what we need. Advent hymns remind us that before we can sing Joy to the World, we have to be honest about what the world currently looks like.
I have had an unusual song stuck in my own head for the past several days. It is not a Christmas carol, it’s not in our hymnal and it’s not played at the mall. It comes from my favorite Disney movie, “The Lion King.” You may remember the sinister character of Scar, bitter brother of King Mufasa. Scar envies his brother’s position, and believes that he himself would be a superior ruler. He will never have that chance, though, now that Mufasa has a son, Simba.
It is Scar’s menacing song that has been blaring in my brain these last few days. “So prepare for a chance of a lifetime, Be prepared for sensational news. A shining new era is tiptoeing nearer.” Throughout the song he warns the listening hyenas, “Be prepared!”
Of course, what he is singing about, as the villain, is his coming reign of destruction, when he will have his brother murdered and his nephew discredited, and he himself will take the throne. He is warning his minions to be prepared – everything as they know it will be overturned. He is telling them to prepare for a death, so that then they can prepare for a new kind of world. Even though Scar’s intentions are malevolent, I can’t help but feel something familiar in the urgent warning tone of his words when he sings, “Be prepared!”
This morning, a lone figure stands in the desert, shouting the same thing. He is no villain, and his motives are not mean – but his words are a warning. We cannot avoid him. There is no way to the manger without first passing John the Baptist.
Every Advent, he shows up. We eat party food and Christmas candy; he eats locusts and honey. We dress in red and green; he wraps himself in camel hair. We want to glimpse the baby in the manger; he forces us to fix our eyes first on our own barren hearts and twisted lives. He is the voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” His is not the voice of a villain, but his message is still scary. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for every one who has a conscience.”
When John the Baptizer says “prepare,” what he means is “repent.” Is there any word we resist as much as that one? This man comes into your life and demands that you repent - how do you respond to that? Do you, in fact, repent? Does it make you want to change your life? Or defend yourself? We associate the word with street corner preachers who announce that everyone is going to hell. Turn or burn! Repent, or die! And all that makes us want to do is shake our heads and walk away.
People did not walk away from John. They were drawn towards him. Crowds flocked to him. What he was announcing was not street corner judgment, but world-changing, life-altering news. What is will be no more. What shall be is on its way. “Every valley shall be filled, every mountain shall be brought down, the crooked shall be made straight, the rough places will be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” The world is about to turn! It will turn towards beauty, redemption, transformation. John is calling the people to turn, too. Turn from their old ways, leave behind their old lives, and prepare for the Promised One.
If we are going to walk away from the call to repent, then we are also willing to walk away from the promise. If we are honest, we know this is true: there are things in our lives that we need to turn from. You don’t have to call it “sin” if that word is what’s holding you back. Truth be told, not everything we need to let go of is a sin. But now is the time to be honest, to take stock, to get real, and to turn. Turn away from toxic attitudes and behaviors. Quit trying to make your old ways work. Consider how habit is ruling you, instead of intention. Think about how you speak to the people you love. Think about the messages you let play in your own head. Look at all of it – how you think, how you speak, how you act, how you treat people, what you cling to, what you think you have to have. Examine it all. And then make a choice. Turn away from the things you know you need to leave behind. Now is the time! This is the way.
This is what it means to prepare the way of the Lord. This is what it means to repent – to turn from what was to the promise of what shall be. We don’t know what it will look like – the salvation that God brings. We cannot predict or control what lives transformed will become. All we can do is our part, to make a way, to clear a path, to prepare.
It is difficult – maybe more difficult in this season than in others – to make room for the kind of self-reflection that repentance requires. We are so busy preparing our lists and our menus and our homes that there is no time or energy left for preparing our hearts. We cannot let this be. We have to resist the tyranny of busyness in whatever small ways we can. We cannot let busyness have the final word over what happens in our hearts.
Etty Hillesum was a young Dutch Jewish woman who composed a series of journals before being sent to Auschwitz, where she was put to death. In one of those journals, Etty wrote, “…sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths, or the turning inwards in prayer for five short minutes.”[i] Can you open the door of your heart this much? A little bit each day, a little bit of self-examination, and repentance, and prayer, might be enough to prepare. A little bit of turning away from what no longer works in your life, and turning towards the God who brings new life. Those few moments could be the most important thing you do in a day. Those few moments could change the rest of your actions and attitudes that day. In other words, those few moments each day could change your life.
It is not just your life and mine that need to be changed. The promise John’s call represents is the transformation of the whole world. All the ugliness and evil, all the hatred and pain, the violence and lies – all of it will one day be redeemed. God will break into the world with deliverance and healing, with salvation. And all flesh will see it together. No more division or exclusion. No more blindness to what is real, which is Love.
John’s call is so fierce, and his promise is so true. The world will turn. It will turn on a cradle, it will turn on a cross. The question for us, for Advent is, will it turn in our hearts too?
[i] The Advent Door. Jan Richardson. http://theadventdoor.com/