2 Advent C
Transcribed from a sermon given by
Rev. Valerie Ann Hart
December 9, 2009
St. Barnabas Episcopal Church
The time of Advent is often described as a journey. Sometimes it’s described as the journey to Bethlehem, or the journey of the Christ child, or the journey of Christ into our hearts. Our spiritual life is also often talked about as a journey; a journey toward God.
If we’re going to go on a journey, the first thing we need to do is to be headed in the right direction. If you’re in Iowa and you want to get to New York City, you want to head east and if you want to get to San Francisco, you want to head west. Pretty clearly you’ve got to be going the right direction. But every now and then, the messages are unclear. If you’ve ever been driving in a big city and you’re trying to follow the signs, you may find it hard to know whether you go east or west on some given freeway. There are lots of different messages, but it’s hard to know the right way to go.
Our lives can be like that; so many different messages. It’s kind of like when you were a kid and you played a game called “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.” This is where they put a blindfold on you so you can’t see, then they put you in the middle of the room with a tail, with a pin or tape or some other way to attach it, and they spin you around. Then you’re supposed to walk up to the picture of a donkey and get the tail in the right place. Sometimes the other kids gather around telling you, “Go a little more to the left. No, no, go to the right. No, no, no, a little more to the left. Go up higher.”
If you’re at a party where all the kids are really nice kids, they’re all going to be telling you how to get closer to the donkey. But sometimes there are kids at the party who don’t have your best interest at heart. They want to get to laugh at wherever it is you end up putting that tail, so they’re going to tell you the wrong thing. Now you start hearing different voices. Some of the voices say, “Go to the left.” and others are saying, “No, go to the right.” and you don’t know what to do. It’s kind of like the world today when you turn on the radio or TV. Some of the voices are screaming, “Go to the right.” and other voices saying, “No, go to the left.”
So what do you do? You have to discern which of the voices you should listen to. You may hear one voice that you know is the kid that always gives you a hard time, “So okay, I’ll ignore that one.” Then you listen some more and you notice the voice of your parents or the voice of your best friend that you trust and you’re, “Okay. That’s the one I can trust. I’ll do what that voice tells me to do.”
Sometimes you may be playing this game and all these people are saying go, “Left”, “Right”, “Forward”, “Back” then all of a sudden, you hear the voice of your mother or father shouting, “No! Turn around. Go the other way.” That’s when you’re about to step into the swimming pool. That’s the voice you better listen to, and that’s the voice of John the Baptist. When he’s out in the wilderness, he is saying to the individuals gathered there and to his community, “Stop. You’re going the wrong way. Turn around.”
That’s what repentance really means. Repentance comes from the Greek word, “metanoia,” to know in a new way; to see things differently. It’s also translated as “to turn around; to go completely in a different direction than you’ve been going.” That’s what John the Baptist is saying. “Turn around. You’re going the wrong way.”
Which voices are we listening to? There are so many voices out there. There are the voices that say, “If you just spend more money for Christmas, you’ll have a happier time.” There are the voices that say, “All you need to do is go to Las Vegas and then you’ll have fun and you can do whatever you want.” Then there is the voice that says, “If you buy a new car you’re going to be happy forever.” And there is the voice that says, “You’ll feel better if you buy a new drug, just talk to your doctor about it. Yes, there’s several ways it could kill you, but it’ll help that particular disease that you didn’t even know you had.”
Of course, there are all kinds of other voices, “Oh, one glass of wine isn’t going to hurt you.” All kinds of voices are out there. Which ones do you listen to?
There were all kinds of voices in first century Jerusalem, as well. The people who came to hear John the Baptist were surrounded by pagan culture. The Romans had control. They had power and were all about power and might. Then there was the Greek culture which was very prevalent. They had plays, entertainment, and many gods who could be a lot of fun to worship. There was a lot of encouragement to go in different directions, to be secular, to forget about worshiping God.
John was the voice of was crying in the wilderness, speaking for God.
In our lives, we need to listen carefully to discern which of all these voices is the one telling us the right way to go. One of the voices is Scripture. That’s usually pretty reliable, confusing at times perhaps, but basically reliable. Then there are good, Godly friends. You know which of your friends have the advice that’s going to be helpful and which of the ones you probably shouldn’t be listening to. We need to discern which of the voices to listen to and which way to go.
And when we discover we’ve been going the wrong way, we need to repent.
Repentance means saying, “I’ve been doing it wrong. I haven’t been going towards God. I’ve been going away from God. I haven’t been going towards love. I’ve been going away from love. I haven’t been helping other people. I’ve been hurting other people.”
When you realize that you go, “Whoa! I better stop.” To repent does not just mean that you acknowledge what you’ve done. Repentance is not just saying, “I’m sorry.” Repentance is saying “I’m sorry” and then turning around, turning your life around, so that you don’t go there again, but you go in the other direction. The first step in our spiritual journey is to get going the right way. To get going the right way is what repentance is all about.
But there’s more to what John has to say about the journey. In this Gospel reading, John quotes from the Old Testament that says that God will make the high places low, fill in the valleys, and straighten the journey. When you’re in your car, you may not notice the mountains so much, but if you’re on a hike, you know that when you come to a mountain its hard work. When you go into a deep valley, it can be scary. When you’re going on a crooked path, it takes a long time and you feel like you’re getting nowhere. When the path is rough its hard work and you may fall and trip. It’s a lot easier to go on a level place, the smooth and straight road.
The Old Testament says that God’s going to level things out. In that reading, it’s talking about the people of Israel who were in exile and that God’s going to make it possible for them all to get back to Jerusalem and the Temple and to God. In the reading in the Gospel, the way it’s described is that John said that it is up to us to prepare the way. It’s up to us to level the mountains. Well there are two ways to understand that.
One is the inner journey in which we are preparing to receive Christ into our hearts. Remember the “Joy to World”? “Joy to the world, the Lord has come. Let earth receive her King. Let every heart receive Him.” It’s about getting our hearts ready to receive Christ. So we’ve got to get rid of the obstacles. What are the mountains in you that keep Christ from getting in? What are the deep valleys of darkness, the negativity, the resentments, the things you’ve held onto from your childhood that you haven’t worked out yet? What’s the crooked path? Where have you gone wrong? It could be that secret thing you won’t tell anybody else. Probably should tell somebody and straighten it out. What is rough and unclean about us that would get in the way of Christ coming in? That’s our work right now, to get rid of those obstacles to Christ’s Love. To get rid of those things that keep us from realizing that the Love of God has been made known to the world in Jesus Christ and we are not letting that love in.
There’s another side. There’s the community side. We are to knock down the mountains for everybody so that everybody can let Him. Christians don’t live alone. Christians do not live in isolation. Our spiritual journey isn’t just about ourselves. It’s about a community. We live as part of a community and always have. Christianity started with Jesus having 12 disciples. When He sent them out, He sent them out two by two. He doesn’t send us out alone. We are here together as the church, the community, the Body of Christ gathered together.
So our job, right now during Advent, is to get out there and level those hills. We need to get the bulldozers. We need to get rid of the obstacles that keep other people from knowing God. Knock them down, straighten things out, make it easy for each other. That’s what ministry is about. Ministry is about making it easier for other people to know God.
So when someone’s by the church door, say’s, “Hello” and hands you a bulletin, it makes it a little easier to come into the church, to feel welcome. When you have people who stand up here and sing, lead us in song and inspire us, it helps us; it smoothes the way. There’s nothing like music in a worship service to kind of grease our way to God, smooth things out.
And the people who make the coffee for after the service so we can have fellowship. And the ones who come during the week and fix up the grounds so it looks beautiful. And the people who are over taking care of the children. There are so many things, little things, things that nobody notices. That’s what ministry is about, because we’re helping to clear the way for God, to make it easier for other people to approach God.
That’s our work. That’s our job. That’s the mission. It’s not an impossible mission that God calls us to, to love one another, to help one another find God, to stay on the path, to make the path straight, to know which way to go. And it’s a glorious and joyous thing because we, as a community, are the Body of Christ. We are the ones who are preparing the way for the Lord. We are the ones to make the valleys filled and the high places low so the journey to God can be easy and direct together.