Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’,
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
I’ve often wondered what would happen if John the Baptist actually attended a Christmas party. Would he bring locusts with honey as a covered dish? Would he leave the camel hair’s robe behind for a tacky sweater? I can only imagine the crap he’d find in the wilderness to give someone for white elephant. Let’s face it, whether you’re alive today or 2,000 years ago, John the Baptist is one weird dude. And his message doesn’t exactly get you into the traditional holiday spirit either. “Repent!” Come on, John if I wanted to hear that I’d stand on the street corner.
Just the other day my pastor pointed out that while you see plenty of religious Christmas Cards of Mary and Joseph, the Shepherds and the Wise Men, and a baby manger, you never see a card featuring John the Baptist, even though he is the primary herald of Jesus’ Coming. So John would likely not get an invitation to a Christmas Party. If Isaiah’s words are any indication of what to expect, John would probably cause all kind of havoc at a party. If nothing else he’d purge every one of their holiday cheer with his talk of grass withering and flowers fading. To many today, the figure of Christmas John might seem to resemble closest with his strange lifestyle and disposition is the Grinch.
John tells us to prepare by repenting. Not by shopping, not by decorating, not even by tossing a few pennies in the Salvation Army bowl. No, John preaches repentance, and he preaches it at a time when it’s the last thing we want to hear. “Come on, John. It’s Christmas. We should all be celebrating, not putting on sack cloth like they did in the Old Testament and wailing for mercy. This is a birthday, not a funeral.” And if we looked just a little harder behind his beard we might see a tiny knowing smile. John’s way of preparing is very different from the Advent routine most of us follow today, because despite the fact that John won’t live to see Easter, he knows where this story will ultimately end.
Let’s talk about repentance. It’s a word I sometimes hesitate to use, because its meaning has gotten twisted over time. To many of us today repentance is a “buzzword” that has generally become synonymous with an apology. We think of repentance as simply telling God we’re sorry. And oftentimes when we “repent” we think of God like some Almighty Scorekeeper who needs an official statement every time we fall out of line to keep the record straight. God is thankfully not a bureaucrat. God’s a lot more interested in changing our hearts and lives than keeping books in order.
When we hear the word “repentance” we think of it as all about feeling regret and guilt over the past, but true repentance isn’t stressing over the past, but rather focusing on the future. We admit our past mistakes not order to be consumed by them, but to motivate ourselves to do better in the future. True repentance means desiring and committing ourselves to live better and love deeper. Repentance means reaching out or perhaps as John would put it “diving in” to receive the greater gifts and comfort God is offering us.
Will we mess up again and need to repent? Most likely. Paul always described our faith like a race. Every once in a while you have to slow down or even stop to catch your breath, but gradually, even as we stumble at times, we keep the course, knowing that we can only move forward or back. Repentance that keeps us frozen in place along the track indefinitely isn’t repentance at all.
So John is preaching repentance, telling Israel not so much “Fall on your knees” as “Come back” or “Begin anew.” John is calling them to live new lives and put aside the old things that they lived for before. New life in a new world! This is still how we describe baptism today. If baptism were only about guilt and feeling bad about our past why would we describe it as a cleansing exercise? It’s not to leave scars, but to heal them.
But of course John’s just the messenger. His baptism is only the beginning. Just beyond the river lies something and someone greater than he. John proclaims that this person will baptize us with the Holy Spirit. If we know our Old Testament well enough we know what happens when the Spirit of God enters something, even a nameless, lifeless clump of dirt. Life comes forth, even where none existed before. If God can make life out of nothing, how much easier is to breathe new life into us who still live, though weary and broken? John points the way to new life and true reconciliation with God. This dirty, senile-looking man from the wild guiding us toward the ultimate source of our life and our joy. Far from an unwelcome intruder to our holiday festivities, John the Baptist offers comfort and joy that can survive the other 364 days a year.
The way’s been prepared for us. We can choose to loss ourselves in the traditional holiday atmosphere and routine expecting it to be enough to keep us going during the rest of what for most of us is a stress-heavy and chaotic year ahead. Or we can follow John’s lead to a party that doesn’t end on December 25. There is so much more to celebrate than we can imagine. You’re invited!
Read last week’s Advent Reflection, Advent Reflection I: The Right Kind of Hope.