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2023-12-10 Advent 2

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen!

There is always weeping and gnashing of teeth at our house when Advent and the Christmas season roll around every year. It always ushers in the great debate: when can we start decorating for Christmas?! I know people who barely unpin the poppy off their jackets on November 12th and already the lights are going up and O Tannenbaum is standing in the corner! Maybe you are one of those people! But I always put up a fuss about this. I’m stringent about not decorating until the First Sunday in Advent. Because here’s what happens. By the time Christmas actually gets here, we’re sick of it! “Been celebrating it for a month and a half already!” Mariah Carey Christmas songs have been burned into our minds since mid November! It’s so bad, we can’t escape them even if we wanted to! So I always put up the bullwark of Advent 1 as a meet, right and salutary date to start decorating and getting ready for Christmas. In fact, I had an old-school German professor in university and his tree didn’t go up until December 24th and it was taken down on Epiphany on January 6th! A true 12 days of Christmas celebration!

But decorations aren’t our chief concern as God’s people, as nice and as festive as they are. Instead our focus ought to be other preparations. Step aside Santa, Rudolph and Frosty, there’s a new Advent Icon in town: the one, the only, St. John the Baptist. What, you mean Camel hair tunics and leather belts and locusts and wild honey aren’t part of your Christmas decor?! Ok, Ok. It’s true. He does sound like the poster boy for the World Economic Forum. “You vill eat ze bugs! You vill own nussing und be happy!” All jesting aside, John truly is our icon of Advent and preparing for Christmas. He was our Lord Jesus’ first cousin, born to his mother Elizabeth late in life by quasi-miraculous means. He lived an ascetic life with eyes transfixed not on bodily comfort but rather on the will of God. He was the voice in the desert that Isaiah the prophet spoke of: “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ’Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight” (MK 1:2-3). He was the front runner of the Messiah. He was the grey area in between the black and white of the Old and New Testaments. He prophesied that “The One” was coming. One who was immeasurably greater than he was. A person so amazing that John was not even worthy to stoop down and loosen His sandal straps. Despite his odd persona, people flocked out into the countryside to see John, hear his word and be baptized by him in the wilderness.

It’s an interesting thing to note the way that each of the 4 Gospels begin. Matthew and Luke begin with the familiar and much loved Christmas stories. John begins with his lofty theological connections about Jesus and Genesis. And Mark, how does His Gospel begin? John the Baptist Prepares the Way. He bypasses the manger, the angels, the wisemen, he bypasses it all and gets smackdab to the very heart of the matter: repentance, baptism and forgiveness of sins! Now, you’ll notice right away that you’ve never received a Christmas card from Hallmark with a message written inside like this: “Season’s Greetings, Sinner!” Or “Wishing you and your black-hearted brood of vipers family all the best this holiday season!” Or “May your hearts and homes be filled with heart-wrenching repentance!…Before it’s too late!” Somehow, I just don’t think Hallmark is going to champion the Advent greeting card cause.

It’s hard to sell this. It’s hard to market this. Strong messages about repentance and sin weren’t all that popular then and they sure aren’t today! And yet, this is what the voice in the wilderness proclaims. It’s not nice words. It’s not a bunch of politically correct fluffiness. It’s not a load of woke rantings. Instead, it’s a gritty, down to earth, real-life, brass tacks message. We are all a sorry lot of poor miserable sinners. Plain and simple. How can you sugar coat that?! How can you make it sound appealing to the masses? Well, you just can’t! It’s a harsh word of Law that ought to stop us dead in our tracks and make us perk up our ears. Seldom do church advertising campaigns run stuff like this though. If a church has a sign outside the building that you can put little catch phrases or slogans on, I guarantee it’s not John the Baptist type stuff. It’s not the voice calling in the wilderness. It’s Hallmark. It’s nice. It’s funny. It’s unimportant and immaterial. It’s like Oprah or Mya Angelou or Joel Osteen because that’s what sells. That’s what people expect to see and to hear. But it’s not the heart of Advent, or Christmas, or the Gospel!

The heart of Advent is Christmas, and the heart of Christmas is Christ. The long awaited Savior, the promised Messiah is here. He’s the real deal. He will be the one to forgive the sins of poor miserable sinners. He will be the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. He is what the season is really all about. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. And His way is none other than repentance. Turn away from your sins and return to the Lord. We confess our sins, rather than try to hide them like Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. Prepare the way and the make the path straight. In fact, Christianity was originally called “the Way” (Acts 9:2) because it is turning away from sin and turning to Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life.

There is an old parable from India that speaks about an orphaned tiger cub who was adopted by goats. He was brought up to speak their language, act just like them and eat their food. The little tiger believed that he truly was a goat. One day, a large tiger came by. All the goats fled in terror, but the little cub lingered behind, uneasy but somehow unafraid. The cub bleated a bit and nibbled on some grass. The big tiger laughed and asked him what he was doing. The little cub simply bleated back in reply. The big cat took the cub to a pool of water to show him the reflection of the two side by side. But it didn’t sink in. The big tiger went and killed a deer for the little cub to eat. At first the cub recoiled from it but then instinct kicked in. He sunk his fangs into the venison and felt his claws extend into the ground. A roar began to dwell deep in his chest and he looked over at the big tiger. For the first time, he realized who he truly was.

This odd little parable is a bit like repentance. We leave our mistaken way of sin behind and become who God intended us to be. We look in the pool of the Baptismal font and our reflection looks like Jesus. We eat the food that Jesus gives us in the bread and wine, and we become more and more like our Messiah as we eat His body and drink His blood as He commanded. The Gospel completely changes our lives around, making us a do u-turn. And this is the message that John the Baptist proclaimed. Make straight the paths. Prepare, for the king is coming! Be who He has made you to be. Do what He has created you to do.

For our Advent hope in the Messiah has brought forth His Peace that He comes to give His repentant people. Peace with God through the confession of our sins. Peace with God through the washing of our Baptism. Peace with God through the blood of the Lamb. He is the one who takes our sins away and wraps us in forgiveness. And because of His rich Advent grace and mercy, we get ready, we prepare. We “prepare the way of the Lord” in the wilderness of our hearts, making room for the King of kings and Lord of lords. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

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