Sorry for the late posting--this message works for preparing for the new year as well! I am recovering from arthroscopic hip surgery the day after Christmasit (it was a success). I am on cruthces for 2 weeks and it made Advent busier than usual!
“Repent, prepare, make the paths straight, you brood of vipers…every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire…His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire!”
John the Baptist’s foreboding warning about Jesus’s coming judgement is not exactly the Jingle-Bells-Joy-to-the-World-Jolly-Old-St.-Nicholas-story we are looking for at this time of year.
John makes clear that the way we prepare for Christmas in our culture and the way we prepare for Jesus’ arrival in our spiritual life are two very different things. Don’t misunderstand me—there is nothing wrong with buying gifts, baking, decorating, and gathering with loved ones—our family is making all of those preparations as well—but these are not the activities that today’s Scripture calls us to as we prepare for Jesus’s coming. While our cultural preparations enable us to attend to the external needs of the season—what we will eat and do, share and see,—John the Baptist calls us to attend to our internal needs—something that is much more profound and jolts us into considering the deepest parts of ourselves, our minds and our hearts.
John actually does not even ask us to engage in his tasks of preparation—it’s not a suggestion, like, “let’s bake cookies today.” Rather, he commands us— "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." We do not have an option—there is no wiggle room here in the use of the imperative verb form.
The kingdom of heaven is here in Jesus and God wants us close to him, and showing up with our whole self—body, heart, mind and soul—no exceptions, nothing held back. Making a straight path for the arrival of our Savior and his kingdom means removing all obstacles that impede the full flourishing of God’s will, purpose and presence right here, right now. That a lot harder than wrapping presents, baking goodies, and planning feasts.
Making a straight path for the Savior begins not by identifying all of the sin out there in the world—although there is plenty of that for us to identify. Making a straight path for Jesus to arrive begins inside of us—for we cannot manifest in the kingdom outside of ourselves, what we have not experienced inside ourselves first.
John sees two kinds of people responding to his call to repent, prepare, and make a straight path. Droves of people from Jerusalem and Judea come to heed his call. They confess their brokenness, their need for healing, their desire to be released from hopelessness, depression, greed, self-reliance, control, self-pity or whatever is crooked within their hearts. They tell the truth and let this prophet wash them clean in baptism, so they are ready, open, healed and freed for to Jesus to arrive fully and wholly into their lives. Jesus describes these people who are ready in the Sermon on the Mount—the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourning, the merciful, the pure in heart, the suffering, the peacemakers, the persecuted.
But there is another group who also come—the Sadducees and Pharisees—but they do not come with confession on their lips, repentance in their hearts, and honesty about their brokenness and need for forgiveness. John chastises them for the stumbling blocks that make their paths crooked instead of straight—excuses, agendas and rationalizations about their own justification—they cling to education and status as their ticket to righteousness, they rely on pedigree, snobbery, inheritance, anger, defensiveness, self-righteousness, or resentment at those who are not like them. Perhaps they came to crow rather than confess, to pose rather than prostrate themselves before the coming kingdom.
We can see two lines of people coming to the Jordan, responding to John the Baptist’s imperatives to prepare and become ready—a dualism of sorts—good people with open hearts, confessing; the other, bad people with hardened hearts, self-righteous, and justifying. It seems like we are supposed to decide which line we are in—but I suspect the real truth is that all of us are in both lines. I know I am.
There is part of ourselves that is “all-in”—the part that came to church today, the healthy, honest part of our psyche that knows we cannot make it on our own, that we need healing and grace for those parts our lives that we just cannot make right, that we cannot fix, and for which we do not have an answer. We come streaming to the river and we ask God to love as we are, but to please not leave us here. We can name our mistakes and our brokenness, and we are ready for Jesus to give us peace, healing and hope, and we trust—we trust that somehow, Jesus will give us what we need.
And yet, there is still a part of us, that is in line with Sadducees and Pharisees, not because we are bad, but because we are afraid. If we let go of control, what will happen? There are parts of ourselves where we have not let God in—there are roadblocks and boulders making a crooked path where we are not ready to release our dominance or agenda.
It could be that place where we are justifying our attitude, behavior or anger:
• the relationship where we are hanging on to resentment and blame;
• that self-righteous attitude that necessarily diminishes another;
• the secret superiority we feel as we judge those who live or believe differently;
• the defenses we put up to avoid emotional intimacy with our spouse or other family;
• the reliance on status or income for our sense of self;
• those past experiences we believe are too bad for God to heal or forgive--
Whatever it is, there are places in our hearts where we refuse Jesus’ entry and stand guard against grace.
The problem with the crooked parts of ourselves is that they cannot bear the fruit of the kingdom the way we can when we give ourselves completely over to God. It’s not that whole people will be cut down and thrown into the unquenchable fire, but that the parts of ourselves contrary to God’s will must be cleared out. The kingdom of heaven is at hand! God can cleanse everything! Jesus can redeem, renew and make whole every part of ourselves! Every part of our being can be made new, healed and bear the fruit of love and hope for the kingdom!
Jesus wants entry into every part of ourselves, so the chaff—the anger, resentments, self-righteousness can be burned away. This is why John says, “make a straight path”—it takes work on our part. Part of that work is examining the benefits we gain by remaining angry, resentful, controlling, or self-righteous in any situation or relationship. We only think and behave in ways that benefit us somehow, so we begin to make a straight path by telling the truth to ourselves about what we get out of a particular “character flaw.”
I want you think of one area of your life where you are hanging on to worry, resentment, self-righteousness or anger and ask yourself, “What am I getting out of this? How does this feeling, attitude or behavior benefit me, feed me, help me feel better about myself even though it’s unhealthy?”
Over the years of doing this work on resentments, anger and perfectionism myself, I have discovered that I like being right; I want to look good and appear accomplished in front of others which drives perfectionism; I often feel responsible for managing other people’s feelings. But none of these motivations make me spiritually and emotionally available for Jesus to bear love, grace, hope and peace for the kingdom through me.
So, John the Baptist calls us to “make a straight path”—tell the truth and repent—so that Jesus can arrive in our whole heart, our whole person. With the fire of his Spirit, Jesus burns the chaff of anger or resentment or control away, and fully uses our whole life, our whole being, our whole experience—as a vehicle for God’s purposes.
In Jesus Christ, God makes God’s whole self available to us, so that we might make our whole selves available to God—this is the kind of Advent preparation John the Baptist beckons of our hearts and souls. When we make our own hearts and souls a straight path for Jesus’ birth and his in-breaking kingdom, then we will have those moments of transcendent peace and fullness that comes with our other Jingle-Bell-Joy-to-the-World-Jolly-Old-St.-Nicholas preparations.
This fullness of life in Christ is marvelously described in a poem Dan’s dad read in his sermon at our wedding. It was written by St. Symeon, the New Theologian who lived in the 10th and 11th centuries in Turkey:
We awaken in Christ's body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.
I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in His Godhead).
I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous? -- Then
open your heart to Him
and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ's body
where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,
and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed
and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
he awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.
In this Advent, John invites us to repent, to prepare, to make the path in our hearts straight, so that we can release the truth and allow Jesus to be born and become radiantly, fully alive in us.