December 25, 2016

A Time for Warning


Text: John 3:3b: “...Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”

We have known since our Sunday school days that Advent is a time of expectation and preparation. We were all taught that this season is one in which we look forward, we anticipate, what God is about to do; and at the same time we prepare for it happening.

That anticipation is really part of our preparation. It is a discipline of orientation. It is a choice to be pointed toward the future, expecting something or someone to meet us from there as we approach it.

That attitude is all by itself something very counter-cultural. It’s something very set against the tide of our times. Because our time seems to be about looking backward, about longing to return to some greatness of the past.

But Christians are Advent people. And Advent people are always pointed toward the future. In the darkest part of the night, we are the ones out on the hillside, facing toward the east and watching, waiting, for the sun to rise.

That is not all there is to Advent, though. Just the anticipation isn’t enough. Yes, it gets us pointed in the right direction. but that’s only part of our preparation.

I wonder what sort of preparations you make at this time of year. I hope you go an advent wreath last Sunday from the children who made them. Or maybe you got an advent calendar that you started opening the doors of this past week.

Maybe you prepare by heading up in to the attic to get out the boxes of Christmas decorations, and to untangle the string of lights again.

Maybe you prepare by planning a party, or by going to one. Or maybe you prepare by finally allowing yourself to listen to Christmas carols for a few weeks, or by breaking out your mom’s recipes for Christmas cookies.

Most of our idea for preparation is of the “getting ready” variety. Getting ready for a celebration. Getting ready for a feast. Getting ready for a high point in our year.

But Advent is about a different sort of preparation. Anticipation is part of it, yes—but it’s not the sort of preparation that sounds like Christmas carols and happy crowds in the mall.

Advent preparation sounds a lot more like tornado sirens and fire engine bells. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie, but Advent sounds a lot more like that moment you’re sitting on the airplane taking off over the East River when you suddenly hear the P.A. system come on and what it says is: “This is the captain: Brace for impact.”

John the Baptist does not appear in the wilderness singing Christmas carols and handing out gingerbread men. He is telling people to brace for impact. He is warning anyone who will listen that the path they are on, the path the whole world is on, is not a safe course.

He is calling people to prepare, to be ready for what is coming, in a very specific way: To get themselves right with God. To take a hard look at the direction in which they are going and ask themselves if it really is going to get them where they are hoping to end up.

John doesn’t assume that the people listening to him know they might be on the wrong path. He doesn’t even assume that they care whether or not they’re right with God. He is on fire with urgency to get them to care, and once they care to get them to change course.

John’s idea of pre-paring—of being ready ahead of time—is a warning. It’s a warning to spend some time seriously and soberly taking stock of our lives, in order to be ready for what is coming—which is nothing short of giving an account of ourselves to the God who is coming, and expecting to meet us.

The straight path we are supposed to be preparing is the path between God and our own hearts, our own homes, our own deepest hopes and fears. It’s the path along which God is coming,  looking for us, approaching closer each day, whether or not we have spent time getting ready.

So yes, let’s get the boxes out of the attic. Let’s put up the tree and hide the presents and listen to the carols and bake the cookies.

But let’s also spend some of our time quieting our busy lives. Let’s spend some time sweeping out the rooms of our hearts, getting them ready to receive the guest who is coming. Amen.