What are you preparing for?
That might, especially at this stage of December, or, for those of use who are ordinands or teachers, seem like a painfully intrusive question! But if it is, it’s nonetheless one that is positively forced on us by the liturgy and readings of the day.
On Friday evening I went in to Leeds. Those of you who know Leeds on a Friday night – or who remember the Kaiser Chiefs “I predict a Riot” – will be aware that that can lead to you having all kinds of interesting experiences, but in fact I went home early enough that it was all quite tame. The only thing I saw, amidst the Christmas shoppers and the people in Santa hats who looked like they’d lost the office party, that really registered as unexpected was the street preacher demanding that we repent. She seemed more than a little out of place, a strange voice out of sync with the pre-occupations of everyone else in the city (in which I have to admit I include myself, since I was trying to work out what to buy my aunt for Christmas!)
Those who went out in response to the call of John went out in response to a strange voice. They were listening to a voice in the wilderness, a voice from the margins – an odd and unexpected voice. It’s hard to recapture that strangeness, I think, when we know the Gospels as well as we should do. For, although it is good to know the text of Scripture well, familiarity can smooth it over, so that we no longer hear it – unless we ask God for the grace to hear it anew.
John went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
Trying to hear this text anew this Advent, I’m suddenly struck by the way the prophesy of Isaiah doesn’t quite seem to fit with what John proclaims. What, one might ask do Isaiah’s words have to do with John’s proclamation of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins? It is true that John is “a voice crying in the wilderness” – but Isaiah’s words are, after all, words which seem most obviously to point to the return of the exiles from Jerusalem. That is why the valleys are filled and the hills made low, and why the rough ways are made smooth. It is to speed them on their way home.
But repentance, if it means more than just feeling guilty – which it must do, if it is to be repentance, does not feel like travelling along a smooth highway.
That, though, is precisely the point. Isaiah calls, not “Prepare the way of the people”, but “prepare the way of the LORD.” They can travel home only if the Lord leads them. And so Isaiah calls on them to make preparation for this.
This, then, is where Luke’s reasoning in understanding this as pointing towards John’s call of repentance becomes plain. John calls the people to prepare for Christ’s coming, to prepare for him to lead them home into God’s kingdom -but they taking that road means repentance, means removing the obstacles in their own heart and, as far as in them lies, removing the obstacles in their society which hinder others from following.
And so, as we hear these words this Advent, we are called on to seek out those obstacles in our own hearts. To straighten out the twists and turns in which we hide from ourselves, from God, and from our neighbour. To remove, with God’s help, the mountains of selfishness and greed, the valleys of despair.
And of course that “with God’s help” is crucial. It is “the way of the Lord,” which we are called to take, not our own way. We cannot do it by ourselves, or in our own strength – if we do not realise that fundamentally, the work is God’s, then all we will do is raise the mountains of pride higher, or dig the valley of despair deeper.
What’s more, remembering this helps us to keep in mind the double, or even triple, focus of Advent. It is not solely about commemorating the past. Nor is it even about preparing for the birth of Christ in our own hearts – though that is crucial, for as Eckhart said, what good does Christ’s birth do me if I do not give birth to him in my own heart? But it is, above all, about looking to the second coming of Our Lord as judge.
It is easy to look at the world and despair – to look at its war and its division, its racism, its consumerism, and, perhaps especially if our self-examination has shown us those things in our own hearts also, to despair. It is easy to look at the climate crisis, the lack of action from politicians and companies, and our own knowledge that the way we live worsens that crisis, and, what is more, that there is no easy way to just stop perpetuating the harm, even if we can mitigate it a little through our actions, and to despair.
But despair is a sin, and when Christ speaks to us of our sins, he does so not to promote despair, but repentance. What’s more, he gives us the promise that he will put things right. We are not, in fact, called to save the world – which is a good thing, because we cannot do so. What we are called to do is to co-operate with Christ as he saves it – and that is a thought which ought to give us hope, and free us from the paralysing terror of our own incapacity. We “prepare the way”, but we do not lead it – and we rely on Christ, the one who truly opens the way to the Father, which is the way of the Cross, but also the way to the Kingdom.
And so, when we hear John the Baptist’s voice calling us to “repent” and prepare the way of the Lord, then we are also hearing Our Lord’s voice, calling us to join him, who is the way, the truth, and the life. May we, this Advent, follow that way ever more closely.