(watch here: https://youtu.be/a3OJog3CQ0g)
1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’
Our passage encouraging us to prepare our hearts for the coming of Lord on Christmas reminds me of the one about a man who, upon reflecting on his ancestry one day, determined to go to Russia for a visit. “Why not?” he thought. “Must be an interesting place.” However, when he tried to do some business on the black market, he was quickly arrested by the police and imprisoned. When he was brought before the judge, he was informed that doing business with the black market was a terrible crime to society, since the people suffer from the inability of the government to collect taxes and the punishment was well known: death. Although he protested that he was a foreigner, the judge refused to reduce the sentence. “The government is trying to stamp out the black market. We have no mercy on people who come here and disregard our laws. However, you are a foreigner, and we do want to encourage foreigners to come here as tourists and to do business, legally, of course. We want to show the world that the Russian legal system has mercy. Therefore, we will allow you three wishes. Anything that you desire, just ask and you shall be granted them. The only condition is that you cannot request to commute your death sentence. After your three wishes have been granted, you will have to pay for your crime.” “Well, if that is what I have left to do with my life, my first request is to go skiing in the Carpathian mountains.” “What?” the judge remarked, “skiing? This is the summer…there isn’t any snow now.” “Well,” the fellow answered, folding his arms across his chest, “I’m prepared to wait. Because that’s my first wish.” “Let it be so!” The judge banged his gavel on the desk and called the police. “When the snow falls on the Carpathian Mountains, you are to fetch this fellow and let him ski to his heart’s content, from sunrise until sunset. Afterwards he is to be brought to me to complete his sentencing.” Six months later the police came to collect the man and took him up to the most beautiful ski resort high up on the Carpathian Mountains. The fellow skied all day and after night fall the police whisked him to the judge. “The state has granted your first wish. What is your second?” “Well, I always wanted to swim in the Black Sea. That is my second request.” “The Black Sea is frozen. It’s winter now.” “Well,” the fellow answered, “I’m prepared to wait.” The judge said banging down his gavel, “The police will come to you on a beautiful summer’s day and escort you to the ocean where you will swim to your hearts content from sunrise until sunset. Then you will be brought here to complete the sentencing.” On a beautiful summer’s day, the police took him to the nicest resort are on the Black Sea. The man swam the entire day and then after sun fall, was ushered in front of the judge. “The state has kept it’s word. Now you may have your last wish, after which you will be executed” “Well,” the man began, “nothing could please me more than to be buried in a cemetery alongside of you.” “What?” the judge said, “but I’m not dead yet. How could we do that?” “I don’t know, but I’m prepared to wait…”
Therein lies the great irony of this season of waiting we refer to as Advent. A long time ago, the church decided to dedicate these four weeks leading up to the birth of Jesus as a time of eager anticipation and preparation. We began last week by being advised to stay alert in our time of waiting for we just don’t know when Jesus will return to us. Symbolically, we lift up the day of Christmas as the day of his return but for many people he is simply unrecognized on that day. He doesn’t return on the 25th of December each year for most people, believers and nonbelievers alike, so to say we’re awaiting his return on Christmas morning isn’t necessarily true. Jesus will come to some people on that day and we rejoice in their witness. But for many, if not most, the wait will continue into the new year. So we spend four weeks preparing ourselves for what? For someone who never comes? Perhaps a little ironic? Maybe we ought to reframe our perception of the season to be more akin to that of the clever condemned man: we’re prepared to wait. Rather than preparing ourselves for Christ, we ought to prepare ourselves for waiting for Christ.
I realize it’s a fine distinction I’m trying to make but bear with me. We hear the words of John the Baptist calling us to repent. He wants us to recognize our sins and ask God for forgiveness. Why? Because in doing so, we are preparing ourselves for the coming of our Lord. We are “making his path straight” and “filling every valley” and “making every hill and mountain low” and “smoothing the rough ways” so that Christ will have a nice, easy access to our hearts. Repentance opens our hearts to Christ. But it doesn’t ensure that Christ will come! See, I think we’ve been going about our Advent preparation all wrong. We expect Christ to come to us because we’re told simply to repent. If we repent, then he will come, or so we’re told. But Christ never went anywhere! He’s still here among us! We have to simply join in the work he’s already doing in us and the world around us! It’s not a matter of receiving Christ, it’s a matter of revealing Christ! Isn’t that ultimately what we’re doing throughout these seasons of Advent and Christmas? We’re busy shopping and cooking and traveling and resting. Why? So that we can give and laugh and serve and share joy and love. Jesus is revealed, not received! When? In the times of waiting! It’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey. Jesus makes himself known along the way, not at the end of the journey.
So we ought to appreciate this time of waiting more. Indeed, we ought to prepare ourselves for waiting. Now how do we go about this? Peter and Paul offer great words of advice that can help us in our time of waiting. Peter advised, “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15) Figure out what it is about Christ’s return that gives you hope. His love? His forgiveness? His mercy? His justice? His compassion? His healing? Once you’ve figured it out, explain it to someone. Paul, ever the great evangelist, prompted us, “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:2) We ought to tell people about who Jesus is to us. Who is Jesus and what did he do? Jesus is our Savior and Redeemer. Jesus died for us so that we might be freed from our bondage to sin and our fear of death and the devil. It’s just that simple! Now share it with others who haven’t heard! In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote, “for we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (2:10) We were made to do good works for God and for our neighbor. Don’t sit and wait for what you consider to be the perfect time to do good works. Every minute of every day is a good time to do good works! In his letter to the Romans, Paul encouraged us, “besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (11-12) We are to put on the armor of light in this time of waiting! We are to be beacons of light in this dark world of ours. There is great darkness in this world and God wants us to share his light.
You see, there is mighty work to be done in this time of waiting. We are called to do more than simply repent. Yes, repentance opens our hearts for Christ but we must focus on revealing Christ instead of just receiving him. Are you ready to reveal Christ this season? Christ is revealed in the waiting so are you prepared to wait? Let us go forth opened and prepared. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.