When I ran into Brock and Ruth Ann last week as they were setting up the crèche in the lower gathering space, I was thrilled to learn about this tradition here at Fox Valley Presbyterian Church. I have a collection of nativity scenes that some might say borders on an obsession. In fact, I’m pretty sure the movers who will load their many boxes onto a moving truck in about 10 days will confirm that obsession. I was excited in particular that the crèche tradition here in this church includes encouraging the children to touch the pieces and interact with them instead of constantly ushering them away lest the treasures get broken. This is a lovely tradition, and I even brought my own kids in to see it midweek while they were visiting since they won’t be here until Christmas Eve.
Together we noticed that the extensive set we have here at the church has all the usual pieces – Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, shepherds and sheep, other stable-type animals. There are astrologers from the east with camels and other pack animals, even an elephant! And there are other permanent or temporary residents of Bethlehem, maybe we can imagine one among them as the innkeeper or several of them as Joseph’s extended family all in town to register for the census as Luke says the holy family was.
But you know who doesn’t show up in our nativity set (or any others that I have ever seen)? John the Baptist. OK, so he doesn’t really show up in the birth story as much as the pregnancy story, but still. He shows up in Advent, this season of preparation for the coming of Christ, quite a bit. Although neither his appearance nor his words that we are used to hearing as we make this turn toward Christmas are quite as polished and serene as the rest of the figures in the crèche.
John the Baptist is what we sometimes call “a little rough around the edges.” His place of work is the Judean countryside. He doesn’t walk from city to city, town to town, or village to village. He wanders around in the wilderness where resources are scarce and comforts even scarcer. He wears clothes made of camel hair. My experience with camels is limited, but what I can tell you is this. If you find yourself riding a camel in the Israeli desert, make sure there is a saddle or blanket. That hair is dry, and prickly, and itchy. It is NOT good shirt material. He eats the bugs he finds in sparse grass – locusts, the bugs of the Egyptian plagues. His lifestyle isn’t really picturesque and his message is more like his clothing –
“Repent!” he cries out in the wilderness. “Repent!” he calls to those who are waiting for a savior, waiting for the Lord. “Repent, turn around, change your ways,” he calls to us so that we will be ready for Jesus. The grown John the Baptist, remember, isn’t getting people ready to receive a sweet baby in manger. John the Baptist is a contemporary of Jesus, so when he is old enough to be making life choices like wearing camel hair and eating bugs in the wilderness, he is getting people ready for a walking, talking, grown man Jesus – the Messiah. The one who will ask them to drop their nets. The one who will call them out of their sinful choices. The one who will ask them to choose between God and wealth. The one who will preach that they must turn the other cheek.
Advent is an interesting season in the church year. For one thing it’s the start of a new church year. A friend of mine wrote and posted on social media a “New Year’s Eve” prayer yesterday. I did a double take when I first saw it, but she was right. If the first Sunday in Advent is the first day of a new Christian year, than yesterday was like New Year’s Eve. But the new Christian year starts a bit different than the new secular year, doesn’t it? We don’t start with horns and confetti, loud parties and over-indulgence. We start with reflection and introspection. We start with a season of examination and a season setting things right that have veered off course. We start with a call to make ready, to realign our purposes with God’s, to clear our paths and make them straight so the way is clear for Jesus to walk into our hearts and our lives.
Advent is an interesting season because so much of our focus is on the story of getting ready for a baby, but that baby has already been born and lived and died and rose again. So the time isn’t pregnant for an infant anymore really, but the world is pregnant and waiting for new life, for hope to be realized, for the peace of swords being beaten into plowshares, for the kingdom of heaven to really feel near. Advent is the season when we are confronted with the reality that if we really believe that Jesus comes into this world to save us, we can do some work in our own lives to get ready.
When we think about making preparations for Christmas most of us start to run down the lists in our heads. Have I put up whatever decorations will make it up this year? When will the baking begin? Have we taken a family photo, bought cards, even thought about writing a letter? What presents will we buy for the kids, parents, nieces and nephews? What has been done to prepare for the day that that is coming and what is left still to be done?
But John the Baptist’s call from the wilderness is a call to check in on our other preparations for the coming of Christmas, the coming and re-coming of Jesus our Christ in our lives. What is missing in our relationship with God? What commitments and disciplines haven’t we made or have we let slide? Is prayer a part of our daily lives or is it something we just do when we gather on Sunday? Is serving others something we make time for not just at Christmas when the needs of the world are ringing in front of our faces at the entrance to every store in town? Are Scriptures more than just a tag line on the beautiful cards we selected or are they are part of our family’s conversations?
Are there too many other things in our lives, crowding out the necessary time and attention a REAL relationship with God requires? Is too much time spent clicking on the phone or computer, too little spent in study and prayer? Is too much energy given to attending to our own comforts, too little lifting up others who can’t even worry about comfort when they’re just worrying about survival? Is too much money being spent on extravagant gifts, too little spent making a faith statement about the causes of Jesus’ kingdom – – the poor, the outcast, those treated without grace and mercy?
“Repent!” John’s baptism proclaimed. It’s a word that makes us nervous because of the way we’ve seen it used – on a big sign post in a busy crowd, being shouted by an angry person who thinks they are sharing good news. “Repent!” we hear and we bristle, but all it means is turn around, turn away, come back in the other direction. Come out of the bustle of the city and town that you know and into the blessed wilderness of life with Christ. Life that is unknown. Life that is sometimes dangerous. Life that might be lacking the creature comforts and luxuries, but life that is dripping with the Spirit and presence of God. “Repent!” was John’s call to preparation. Find the path. Face God’s holy mountain and step by step start walking into the light. “Repent!”
The weeks and maybe even months leading into this season of Advent have felt heavy. The nations have been shouting at each other. This nation has been spewing violence in word and deed. The default position between those who are different has been one of adversaries who are battling against each other, who are each trying to throw the other off God’s holy mountain. It has felt like a time when the world has been moving away from the divine, away from peace, away from Christ who comes to guide our lives and save us from ourselves. So now more than ever we need to hear John’s call to repentance, his good news that another direction is possible. Now more than ever is the time to find a new path because “The one who is more powerful…is coming….” Jesus is coming. Jesus is near.
These news directions, these new paths, they can’t be paths of violence or vitriol. They can’t be paths of privilege. Instead the paths we are called to walk are the paths of hard spiritual work where our words and weapons of hatred are turned into tools for peace. They are paths where the soil of our souls will need to be turned over and the branches hanging in the way of our lives will be pruned. It’s time for us to pull the weeds and find these paths for ourselves and for others because Isaiah promises, “…[T]he Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.” On paths of repentance, on paths of mercy, on paths of reconciliation, on paths of justice, on paths of peace – the nations shall stream to God.
Prepare the way this Advent. The God of new beginnings is coming in Jesus. Prepare your way for the Lord.