The Really Important Work of Advent

long & winding road

Second Sunday of Advent

Advent can be hard work, if we know what it’s really all about, if we know what we’re supposed to be doing, and I don’t mean putting up Christmas lights, shopping for presents, planning dinner parties, baking cookies, or sending out greeting cards. That to me is just busy work, what we do to keep ourselves occupied while we wait for something really important to happen. If we make a genuine effort to accomplish well what is really important, then we will naturally push all busy work aside. And if there is time, we will get to it eventually. But if we don’t, it’s no big deal, just as long as the really important something gets done right.

It’s like when my brother and his wife were preparing for the birth of their first child. I’m sure we can all agree the birth was the really important event. And all the while as they prepared for that singular moment, I’m sure they kept themselves busy, getting the nursery ready, getting the appropriate furniture, shopping for baby clothes (they knew they were having a girl as soon as the doctor offered the information), mom getting the proper nutrition, dad making sure mom was happy, everyone being really supportive and encouraging. … I remember how my brother’s wife looked in those last few weeks, really tired and in constant need of a break. But when that day of days arrived, I’m sure they weren’t concerned all the other little details still weren’t done. If these still needed getting done after the really big event, I’m sure they got done … eventually.

So what is this really important work of Advent? The first reading from Baruch invites Jerusalem “to set aside her garments of mourning and misery, and to put on the splendor of glory from God forever.” It was the prophet’s invitation for Israel to look past her present trials and sufferings, to the bright promise of deliverance and salvation. We know people around us caught up in their own daily struggles, fearful for the future, with the country headed over the fiscal cliff unless our leaders in Washington agree on a plan. Then there are personal battles – depression, chronic pain, unemployment, addiction, family disagreements, old resentments, cancer … many are carrying heavy burdens, if not their own, surely someone else’s whom they love dearly. And we would very much like to set aside our garments of mourning and misery, but we know it’s not all that easy. They don’t just go away at the snap of a finger. They need to be addressed, but the question is: How?

On this second Sunday of Advent, the gospel introduces to us the familiar figure of John the Baptist, in striking contrast to the rich and famous of his day. We come upon John preaching in the region of the Jordan a message of encouragement, renewal and hope. He is offering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. His listeners are reminded of something the prophet Isaiah said, about a “voice crying out in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” For some reason, people come in droves to listen to him. He speaks a message they want to hear. But he isn’t pleasant to look at: disheveled, ragged, dressed in camel fur, with his unappetizing diet of locusts and wild honey. And he would cry out in that haunting voice to no one in particular, compelling us to pause and listen. And anyone who heard him knew the word he spoke was meant for them particularly. He didn’t give anyone anything they could hold in their hands. He didn’t ask anything for himself. But something was definitely going on out there by the river. And if you cared to find out, you would go see for yourself.

All those references in the gospel story today remind us that John was a person with a specific place in history, at the time of Tiberius Caesar and Pontius Pilate, of Herod, Philip and Lysanias, of Annas and Caiaphas. John spoke to the people in his day a message that God meant for them. So in our day, God speaks a message meant for us. John was that voice crying out in the desert, “Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” That was what he came to do – well really, it was everyone’s task; he just had to remind them – to fill in the valleys, to make low the mountains and hills, to straighten the winding roads, to smooth the rough ways … because God was going to make known his salvation.

We know now just what he meant. John was preparing Israel to welcome in their midst the One who was himself God’s salvation, the One who would save them. In this particular part of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is not an infant lying in a manger. He is a grown man who had yet to begin his public ministry. John didn’t know what Jesus would do exactly, only that Jesus would bring God’s salvation to Israel. It was Jesus who determined he would heal the sick, give sight to the blind, help the lame walk again, feed the hungry, raise the dead, and proclaim good news to the poor. John understood his role to prepare Israel for the wonderful things Jesus would accomplish. And that is also the role of the church in the world today, to be as John the Baptist was to Israel in his day – to prepare us to welcome in our midst God’s salvation.

There is still a lot going on today that makes known the salvation of God: the sick are healed, sight restored to the blind, the lame walk again, the hungry are fed, the dead are raised to new life, and the poor hear the good news proclaimed. More importantly, the church announces a message of encouragement, renewal and hope for all people, especially those who still wear garments of mourning and misery, those who still walk among us hearts heavy with anger, jealousy, lust, selfishness, and pride, those who seek rest from their heavy burden of resentment, bitterness, and sin. Through the church, John the Baptist still proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We are all sinful. We are all in need of forgiveness. And God desires to extend to us his peace, his compassion, his joy. When Jesus came among us, he came to bring healing, wholeness, reconciliation, and new life. This mission he has entrusted to his church, that all people can continue to experience the healing, wholeness, reconciliation and new life he brings.

God desires to accomplish something wonderful in our lives this Advent season – inviting us to set aside our garments of mourning and misery, offering us healing for our illnesses, sight for our blindness, food for our hunger, wholeness for what once was broken, new life for what once was dead. It is essential that we get done right the really important work of Advent, before anything else, right here in this place, right now in our time. The busy work we can attend to later. If we get the important work done early, we will have time. Larry the cable guy says it best, so I won’t say it. There is important work to do!