I was recently chastised for Advent! A well meaning church member was troubled at the lack of Christmas carols during our worship services (so far). I calmly reminded her that the reason was that this was not Christmas season but Advent, a different yet related season of the Christian year. She was not impressed, in fact she then exclaimed: "It's Christmas everywhere else!"
Enter John the baptizer. He comes into a world where there is the perception that all is well, no change is needed, yet those outside the halls of power were "ripe for change" (Mariam J. Kammell in Feasting on the Word). The prophet calls it like is by telling his hearers to repent, to turn around! This is not the message that we are hoping to hear.
It strikes me that this message comes from the wilderness, a place to be feared, a place where nothing good happens. It is this place, not the places of power, that God uses to give us a message of hope. This is also the place that God calls, God's own, to go on a journey, not to stay in exile but to take a chance on going to a home that many have never known.
Advent has become this wilderness for the church. We are fighting it like the Israelites fought going home. The prophet's social critique fits us well today. He is asking us to repent, to turn around from our ways that in the end leave us in exile. W. Paul Jones, methodist elder turned trappist monk, tells it like this: "here [is] a conflict between the Israelites' craving to go back to a place that was not 'home,' versus the courage to escape to a 'Promised Land' where they had never been before. So it is with each of us. We live on the bridge." (from A Season in the Desert: Making Time Holy)
The call to repent is a call to recognize our need to turn around. We were told last week to "stay awake" so that we could recognize the coming of salvation. Now we struggle with what we are told. We have trouble turning around, our so called "home" is comfortable even if it is not the promised land.
Advent forces us to live on this bridge and we are fighting it with all of our being!
If we hear the prophet carefully we know that all stumbling blocks have been removed. The valley's are filled up, the mountains laid low, the crooked paths straightened. All has been made ready. There is no excuse to remain in exile, freedom has been made possible, "all flesh shall see the salvation of God." (Luke 3:6)
Now is the time for us to live into repentance. We need to look towards the wilderness and acknowledge that the work of turning around is difficult but it is our calling. This wilderness is dangerous indeed! Repentance, turning around is dangerous, not comfortable, it shakes the foundations of who we are and of the communities we are a part of. Letting go of the comforts of exile into the wilderness of salvation is a decision one should not take lightly.
After all, our "way of life" will change if we walk to the other side of this bridge. We are comfortable here, strangers, bound, but comfortable, our surroundings have become our reality, yet that reality as we have it is not what God intended. There is a promise of a new day. We are called to prepare by a total reorientation of life! Our whole being turned towards God, the giver of life.
It's Christmas everywhere but we are still preparing. This does not mean we are not looking forward to the celebration. What it means is that we recognize that we cannot jump into the celebration until we are prepared for what Christ's coming really means. It also means that we, like the prophet, stand in the wilderness and proclaim that all is not well, a turning around is needed, the real home awaits!
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