(Luke 3: 1-6)
Commentator Kathy Beach Verhy writes on this passage about her mother preparing for their annual Christmas party. She describes the image engrained in her memory of her mother picking through their oriental rug in the living room, pulling each hair and bit of cracker from parties past. After she had carefully pulled each bit out, she stroked the carpet so that each fiber of the rug moved in the same direction, meticulously arranging the carpet so that it was at its absolute most perfect state for when the party guests arrived.
I remember my own mother preparing for their annual Christmas party. Trips to Costco to fill up with wine and Swedish meatballs, finding the perfect Christmas decorations to set the mood. My mom has mastered the art of throwing the perfect party. She sits at her computer desk and plots where each item will go on the table, which dishes she will make in advance and how far in advance. She cleans and doubles cleans the house to create the perfect welcoming home for their party.
Many of us are busy perfecting our own homes for the party that is to come, dusting in corners not dusted since the last party, scrubbing toilets seldom used for the guests who will arrive soon, rummaging in the basement to find the Christmas decorations so that the house is a perfect amount of Christmas decorated for the children to enjoy. In the midst of all that preparing, I think there is a metaphor for the way we prepare. The ways we meticulously clean our homes, find the right decorations for the kids, stroke the oriental carpet so it is in its most perfect presentation, prepare the meal setup. This is the kind of meticulous preparation that we ought to also put into our lives as we prepare for the coming of Christ.
Picking through the details, cleaning, setting up, smoothing the rough edges, that is what John the Baptist calls the people to do on the shores of the river Jordan as they prepare for the beginning of Christ’s ministry.
John the Baptist calls on the people to do as the prophet Isaiah said to “prepare the way of the word.” To make paths straight for Christ to come into our lives, to level the mountains and raise up the valleys, to smooth the way of the Lord to allow Christ to come into our world and into our lives.
In the advent season, that is what we do, we prepare.
Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote in a sermon she preached a few years ago on John the Baptist, “You know how the people were prepared to receive Christ? Because they admitted that they needed him.”
The people standing on the shores of the river Jordan some 2,000 years ago lived in the midst of desperate and hard times. They lived in times of threatening and fear. The people who came to the shores of the river Jordan came in desperate need of a savior. They came as people afraid, people feeling guilt, people feeling shame, people recognizing the need for a new world order. They came for what John calls “a baptism of repentance.”
The texts of advent move us through this emotional turmoil. The desperate need for a savior. So when the people gathered on the bank of the river those 2,000 plus years ago they gathered there because they knew they needed to.
And some 2,000 years later that is what we are tasked to do. To recognize that we need a savior. To admit that we are in desperate need of a savior, one to relieve our pain, one to sit with us in our grief, one to call upon a new world order.
But there is the rub – yes, we are in need of a savior, but are we able to admit that? Are we able to accept that? Are we able to admit or accept that we must let go of those things which give us half-hearted relief?
Later in her sermon Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “It’s just too hard to hold onto our BS with one hand and reach for Jesus with the other.”
And that’s where our text leads us in the way of preparation, to letting go of our BS so we can reach out with both hands to the one who offers us and our world new life.
Letting go of that BS comes in the form of repentance, the baptism of repentance which Luke recounts John proclaiming.
Years of abuse of the word repentance has caused us to be terrified of the word. It implies a certain hateful judgment. It has come to assume that repentance thus leads to God’s grace. Both of which are not true.
The Greek word used to describe John’s baptism of repentance is the word “metanoia.” The literal translation of this word means to “change one’s mind or outlook.” John isn’t asking to hear your long list of sins, we all have them, John isn’t probing you to feel a sense of guilt or shame. John is asking, no John is inviting you to repent, to turn your life in a new direction, to change your mind about the things that have held you back.
When I was serving as a YAV nearly a decade ago in Kenya there was a woman named Jane, maybe you’ve heard some of my stories about this wonderful woman. She was the receptionist at the organization where I worked, a loving and caring woman who took me in as her own. One day while Jane and I were talking the way we often did when things were slow.
She was telling me about her faith and her trust in God. She turned to me honestly, and rather quite bluntly and asked me a question I still wrestle with today. She said, “Why do you trust God?”
Taken aback, I asked her to clarify her question a little more. Jane said, “you have everything in your country (the USA). You have what you need, everything you need or want is provided by someone or something. How do you trust in God when you know all the things that are being provided for you?”
She posed a valid question, like I said, one I still wrestle with today. How do I trust God, or rather why do I bother trusting God, when I have so many things provided for me whether or not I trust in God.
To put this all in a bit more context, at the time that Jane asked me this question we were just sitting with another woman in our office, Beatrice. Beatrice was raising money for her grandbaby who was on the way. She was reaching out to friends and people in her church for small donations for when the baby comes. She didn’t know where these things would come from but she was trusting that God would provide these things through the work of her community.
But in my life and in my world, I know where those things are coming from. I know where most things are coming from.
So why do I trust God, Why do I need God?
Jane’s question is a good one and not far off from what John is calling us to do when he calls us to repent. John calls us to turn away, to change our minds about things. John invites us into repentance so that we can reach out with both our hands and welcome the birth of the one who has come to give us new life.
John’s invitation, John’s gift of repentance, asks us to admit that we need a savior, to admit that we are broken and in need, to admit that we can’t do this alone, to admit that we don’t have it all figured out, to admit that we can’t get it right on our own.
Let me close by sharing a story. A preacher friend of mine from my preaching group who serves at First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta told me this story a few years ago. Its not about her but about her friend and the birth of her friends baby. Her friend had been laboring for a long, long time, and when it came time to birth the baby she pushed and pushed and pushed and the baby just wasn’t being born. The doctors checked and looked and wondered what was going on. They finally realized that the baby was grabbing on to his mother from the inside. He had come so desperately to love the home she had created for him in her womb. All the baby had to do was let go.
Eventually the baby let go, letting go of the comfortable life his mother had created for him, and coming in to a whole new life. A life where he found he could be wrapped in the arms of his loving parents, a life where he found that he could be kissed, and sung to, and loved. A whole new world awaited him when he just let go.
A whole new world awaits you, all you have to do is let go, change your mind, repent. A whole new life awaits you.