I’ve been doing lots of preparing lately, and my suspicion is that you have too. I took some time off around Thanksgiving and used some of that time to prepare pies for our family Thanksgiving meal. My preparation included making a shopping list to get everything I needed to make pumpkin, pecan, and apple pies. It included a page-long rundown of instructions for how to make pie crusts from scratch. (There are only four ingredients, but there’s a page worth of detailed instructions to get the crust right!) It took hours of measuring, peeling, mashing, chopping, and baking to get the pies baked. And the preparation was worth it. I had a small slice of each pie on Thanksgiving Day, and I was satisfied with the results.
But now our attention turns to preparing the way for Christmas. Our family tradition has become setting up the tree on Black Friday. Within a couple of hours our home was all decked out for Christmas—lights on the front of the house, stars in the windows, stockings all hung by the chimney with care. By the way, thank you to you all who decked the church’s halls and sanctuary last Sunday. It’s beautiful here. It’s important work in preparation.
But if you’re anything like me at all, the preparation has continued. We’ve made the party plans and gotten all of the gatherings on the schedule. We’ve put the seasonal concerts on the calendar. We’ve ordered our Christmas cards and are preparing to mail them. We’re making our Christmas lists. We’re going out shopping. Small Business Saturday has also become an important day in our house. Some of the family bounced around town looking for presents, while I stayed at home with a gigantic smile on my face watching Michigan go into Columbus to take out those Buckeyes. Go Blue!
As I look at my calendar and my life, there’s not a lot of room left this December. I get up. I work. I exercise when I can. I cook. I drive in the carpool. I go to the parties and concerts. I sleep. That’s about it.
But all of our preparation is missing something significant. Advent is a season of preparation, and it involves a serious, reflective call to repentance.
How do we prepare our lives for the coming of Jesus? We must take a good, honest look at ourselves, so we realize that our lives are out of whack. We’ve majored in the minors and put the important work off for another time. We’ve conformed to the pattern of this world, when we should have welcomed the Spirit to transform us by renewing our minds.
The second Sunday of Advent is when Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, always makes his appearance. And it’s a strange appearance. Into our lives of evergreen trees, trimmed candles, Christmas sweaters, and egg nog, invades this prophet dressed in camel’s hair, who comes with his own potluck contribution of locusts and honey.
Another one of my Christmas favorites is watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and John the Baptist shows up to Christmas like Cousin Eddie and his family in the rundown RV, disrupting everyone’s pleasant lives.
But as much as I hate having my life disrupted, I need it disrupted to get things on track. So, let’s welcome John the Baptist into our midst and hear clearly his call to repentance as we prepare our lives for Jesus’ coming.
In Matthew’s telling, John the Baptist just shows up. Luke pairs the births of John and Jesus, but Matthew is silent about John until our text. In the wilderness is this strange and compelling prophet. His message? “Change your hearts and lives. Here comes the kingdom of heaven.”
Interestingly, that is still the message the church is proclaiming in its very existence, even if the edges of that message seem to be worn down by all the familiarity.
Being a part of the church should be disruptive to our lives. We leave behind the old. We take on the yoke of following Jesus, as imperfect as we are. We are supposed to be the sign of the kingdom of heaven in the world, aren’t we?
Still, it’s a world that is hungry for that message. Matthew reports that people from Jerusalem (the big, important city), from Judea (the entire region), and from all around the Jordan River (even beyond the region) are coming to John, responding to his message. They are coming to be baptized, a sign that they want to change their lives and hearts.
The location of John’s ministry is significant. Over a thousand years earlier Moses led the wandering Israelites to the Jordan, and in passing through it they entered the Promised Land with a call to live in God’s way. But we know the story, and we know human nature. They didn’t live up to that calling, and around six hundred years earlier the Babylonians hauled the people back through the Jordan on their way to exile. And here is John, waist deep in the cool waters of the river, calling the people to pass through those waters again, so that their entire hearts and lives will be filled with the promises of God.
It’s amazing. His is a challenging message, but people from everywhere are responding positively to it. Lives are changing. This lone voice in the wilderness is drawing interest from everywhere.
But, he’s also drawing notice from the people who have built their lives around religion. The Pharisees, who are known for their commitment to purity through the law, show up. The Sadducees, whose status as religious elites is well known, also come. They want to add another religious deed to their belts, so they come to be baptized.
They’re intrigued by John, but John is not intrigued by them.
He’s downright nasty. He calls them snakes. He calls them out on their motivation. He seems opposed to playing their religious game. He views them as insincere.
So, how are we preparing our lives for the coming of Jesus this Advent? Are we coming to Jesus with openness, honesty, and sincerity, like the crowds came to John? Or are we approaching Advent like the Pharisees and Sadducees, looking to tack on a little more religion to our lives because it’s what we should do at this time of year? What is our approach to repentance this Advent?
Here’s my hope: that “we all discover this Advent, not only that we are cherished for who we are, but that we are responsible for what we do. That can be good Advent news, because if God does not care about what [we] do, [we] will begin to suspect that God does not actually care about [us]. If God loves [us] enough to welcome [us] into Christ’s family, then God loves [us] enough to expect something of [us].”
Let’s not do repentance-lite this Advent. Trusting in God’s great mercy and grace, let’s dig in deep to where we have gone astray from God’s way and renew our commitment to being signs of the kingdom of heaven to our community.
But also know this: the church has earned a bad reputation, particularly among young people, because Christians are going through the motions of religion and are not doing the serious soul-searching work of becoming more like Jesus.
Montague Williams has a prophetic word to speak to Christians today. “In my research, I’ve found that many young people who leave the Christian faith are in search of the kind of community they learned about in church. They have become deeply interested in the God found in scripture but have had too many encounters with churches or church leaders that seem to contradict that God. In many ways, they are leaving church to find church.”
That’s a sad truth, but it’s one we can address. It begins with repentance. It begins by sincere and sober reflection on how our lives do not reflect God’s beloved way in the world. This is authentic change.
Advent is a season of preparation. So, let’s get serious about our preparation, getting our lives truly ready to be the kind of people who are ready to welcome Jesus. Right here. Right now. Dear friends, change your hearts and lives. Jesus is coming.