STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART

Second Sunday in Advent

TEXTS: Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8

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” (Mark 1:2-3).

That’s Mark, quoting Isaiah. Like all the gospel-writers, he applies that prophecy to John the son of Zechariah.

Yes. John. The son of Zechariah—and of Elizabeth, the “kinswoman” of Mary, the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:36). Quite a figure, John was. Known to us as “the Baptist”, he seems to have spent most of his life in the Judean desert, wearing clothes made of camel’s hair and subsisting on a diet of locusts and wild honey (“dining at the desert deli,” as someone once said).

But the reason we hear about John has nothing to do with his wardrobe or his cuisine. No. We hear about John because—whether by choice or by destiny—he became the one spoken of long ago by the prophet.

He became the one who was “sent ahead” as a messenger or herald or witness—sent to “prepare the way of the Lord” by calling people to repentance and offering a baptism “for the forgiveness of sins.”

That’s right. A messenger or herald or witness. Today, in popular religious parlance, we would likely prefer that last descriptor. John was a witness. And that’s what Christians are called to do, isn’t it? We’re called to bear witness to the good news about Jesus Christ.

Well, there are several ways of doing that—several ways of “bearing witness.” Maybe some of them still demand an affinity for hair shirts and edible insects … But mostly, “bearing witness” is about standing up—and standing out—for Jesus, whenever it counts. Sometimes, that means doing things very publicly. And that is a difficult proposition, for most of us.

Now, I’m not just talking about the kind of difficulty that presents itself when the Lord challenges you, or asks you to do something that’s going to cost you … although I suppose being a disciple of Jesus always costs us something.

However, even the simple act of “speaking up” is uncomfortable for many of us. Even some of the most faithful people—saints who diligently and joyfully “walk the walk” of discipleship find themselves tongue-tied when it comes to “talking the talk.”

That sort of turns a popular image upside-down, doesn’t it? We generally think it’s far easier to “talk the talk” than to “walk the walk.” But talking isn’t always easy, is it?

Here’s another question: how many of you are comfortable praying in public? How many of you find it really hard to pray in public? Or even to pray out loud in a small group? Even in a setting where everybody knows one other quite well, some people are bashful when it comes to putting in their “two cents’ worth” of prayer.

I heard a story once about a godly woman who wanted to teach her grandson to pray. So, one time—when she had opportunity to tuck the little guy in for the night—she made him kneel with her beside his bed. And then, of course, she asked him to pray with her.

But the little boy said, “You go first, gramma.”

So she did. She prayed for her family, her friends, her neighbours, the world situation, the day gone by, the night ahead, the day ahead. She prayed for the Prime Minister, the Queen, the cashier at the supermarket, the President of the United States, and even the Pope. Her prayers went on and on … and on. Then, when at last she finished, she smiled at her grandson and said, “Your turn.”

And the little boy—his eyes closed, his head bowed, and his hands clasped in great sincerity—said, “That goes for me, too, God! Amen.” 

On the second Sunday of Advent, we are invited once again to prepare our hearts and minds for yet another Christmas—yet another coming of the Christ-Child. Rarely have I met anyone who does not, in some way, want to be in on this—on the expectant, hopeful feeling of this season. All around us, in the coming weeks—and certainly whenever Christians gather to worship and pray—people will be given the opportunity to say, “That goes for me, too, God!”

This is the season of preparing, or—as our Gospel lesson puts it—a time of “making the way straight.”

Preparation is familiar to us, isn’t it? We are a society of “preparers.” We spend years in school, and perhaps in college, and even—a few of us—in graduate school, preparing for our future. Once we’ve decided upon a life-partner, we spend months preparing for the wedding. Then we scrimp and save for our vacations, our dream homes, and our children’s educations.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we meet the ultimate preparer—John the Baptist. Scholars think John’s entire ministry lasted only about three months. But for some 30 years, John’s life had been leading up to this short period—this span of 90 days during which he would blaze a trail for the Messiah.

Scripture tells us that the main thing John did was urge people to “repent.” He modeled that in his own life by saying he was not even worthy to untie the sandals of the One who was coming after him (Mark 1:7). John understood that—for God’s work on earth to continue—the Baptizer had to step aside and allow Christ to begin another kind of preparation; the preparation for heaven’s kingdom.

Throughout the Advent season, John is held up to us as a model. Like him, we are called to “make straight the way” for the return of our Lord. But how can we do that? Certainly there are many things we can do, but I think a couple of them are paramount.

The first thing we must do—if we haven’t already—is to utterly and wholeheartedly offer our lives to God in Christ. John the Baptist said that he must decrease so that Christ might increase. We are to do the same thing. We are consciously to offer ourselves to a deepening relationship with Christ. That’s what true discipleship is about. It means embracing a whole new way of living—turning a complete “about face.” That’s what John meant by “repentance.”

The call to repent is nothing less than a challenge to alter the course of our lives, wherever we see that our actions run contrary to the path of Christ. We are called to “make the way straight” in our own lives first, so that we can draw closer to God. This doesn’t always require a 180-degree turn … but sometimes, it does. Some people are in fact called to radically change the entire direction of their lives. What repentance means for all of us, however, is that we are willing to admit our mistakes, place them in God’s hands, accept the consequences of our actions, and leave behind everything that hampers our relationship with the Lord—including our guilt.

So, repentance—the turning from self to God—this is the first step of making the way straight. It is an internal, personal decision. But you remember I said a couple of things are paramount. And the second thing—the second step—is more external. It involves turning from ourselves to those around us; from self to neighbour.

John assumed the role of making straight the way for others—and we are called to do likewise. Jesus tells us that the greatest of all commandments—the greatest of all laws—is the law of love (Mark 12:31). We are called to sincerely care about others. As disciples, we have an obligation to use our skills and resources to make straight the path to God’s Kingdom—to make it straight, and clear, so others may find it.

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3).

“A straight highway for the Lord.” What does that look like? Well, as you might guess, it will look a bit different as each believer works it out. However, I believe that “straightening the path” almost always involves some action of sacrificial love. Through Advent, you can honour the Christ-child by sharing your gifts—and your blessings—with others.

When you offer gifts to another in Jesus’ name … along with them, you give … Him! These gifts, really, are like all the blessings Jesus wants to offer through us. As they find their way into the hands of people who really need them, they blaze a trail straight from the heart of one person—and straight to the heart of another. And Jesus walks upon that trail. Whatever the distance is, he walks it.

There are lots of ways of building that kind of path. Some of you do it by making sandwiches to feed the hungry at homeless shelters. Or by making sure your local Food Bank shelves don’t go empty. Or by devoting an entire afternoon to calling lonely persons who’ve been isolated because of pandemic restrictions (even if making phone calls isn’t your favorite thing to do).

In these—and in countless other ways—you make straight paths for the Lord.

Today, John the Baptist calls us to build highways for one other—all the while, allowing Christ to increase. Through our repentance, our study of the Scriptures, the prayerful use of our gifts—in all of these ways, we can be faithful to the One whose advent John announced.

In all of these ways—whether or not we have a facility with language—we sing along with the angels who heralded Jesus’ birth. In all of these ways, we join with saints of old and faithful people near and far to announce the good news and proclaim the love we share.

It is our way of saying: “That goes for me, too, God!”  Amen.

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