Buckle your seat belts and come with me for a short, imaginary ride down the Christmas Highway! It may seem a bit early but surely not for the retailers. On radio and television and print ads and store displays, the merchants of America have been steering us in this direction for some weeks now. It is a civic duty, or so it would appear, for all good citizens to be on this great highway to the holiday!
Traffic is already building up on the Christmas Highway. The line of packed cars and heavily laden trucks stretches into the night. The red taillights of millions of vehicles illumine the sky, one long continuous roar of engines in pursuit of happiness and joy. How good it feels to us to be in the company of a great throng. So often as Christians, we have felt a tad bit out of step with the world, but not now for we are on the great highway to Christmas. The whole world is headed in our direction. As we drive, we raise our voices to sing with all the rest, "Joy to the world!"
But look! Way up ahead on the highway! What is that? At the crest of the next hill is a huge blinking arrow--an arrow pointing off to the right. We slow a bit and ease over into the right lane. Now there are other signs. We squint in the darkness to read, "Detour, One Mile." An aching dread rises in our stomachs as our foot instinctively backs off the accelerator. Out of the darkness another sign appears, "Advent Detour, One-half Mile."
"How predictable!" groans a passenger in the back of the car. "It's just like the church at this time of year. We try to get in the Christmas spirit, to get into the spirit of the season, go with the flow, then we show up at church and they trot out this John-the-Baptist fellow with all of his fire and brimstone."
"Jesus is for Christmas," says the preacher, "but Advent belongs to John the Baptist." And you can't serve locust and wild honey at a Christmas party.
Well, it might happen at church but it shouldn't happen out here on the highway to Christmas. Here, with the car all packed and ready, with a schedule to keep, with friends and family to meet.
But there it is. Dead ahead. Another sign. "All Christians, Exit Next Right." Already in the right lane slowing down we look about. Most of the traffic does not appear to have seen the lights, the blinking arrows, much less these detour signs. Only a few are pealing off with us. The left lanes are speeding, thundering on. But not us! After all, we are Christians. We like to think of ourselves as obedient Christians, even practicing Christians. So we are on the exit ramp now threading our way down off the Christmas Highway and into the mysterious darkness. We follow a short line of other cars. As the exit ramp stretches on to rough pavement, there is this sign: "Welcome to the Advent Highway. Now Under Construction." Oh, did we ever blow it! The whole world is headed to Christmas on the Christmas Highway?a straight road clearly marked, well-lit, smooth surface, and plenty of rest stops. But, oh, no! We had to see the signs. We had to take the exit and now here we are out in the middle of the desert, for all we know, on something called the Advent Highway.
Now another sign--this one quite bright: "For Construction Updates, Tune Your Car Radio All the Way to the Left." Exasperated, we follow the instructions. We tune the radio as we drive. There is much static but then a clear voice. "This is a highway across the wilderness being prepared for the Lord. Watch for heavy equipment as all of the valleys are being raised up. Listen for blasting as all the mountains are being leveled. Watch for bumps yet to be evened out. Beware rough ground just now being made smooth."
How incredible! Like a bunch of fools we take a detour, leave the smooth Christmas Highway for a road still under construction and now this announcement. An announcement that sounds like it has come straight from the Bible, from the Book of Isaiah. The voice continues, "Drive safely for the glory of the Lord will be revealed on this highway." Preposterous! It looks to me like we just left the highway that would take us to the glory of the Lord?the Christmas Highway?where the whole world is enroute together. The radio crackles and then hisses; another voice breaks in. This one is not a smooth announcer's voice. This voice is loud and abrasive. "My name is John. I say to you: Turn away from whatever separates you from God, whatever prevents you from experiencing the presence of the Holy. Be baptized into the covenant of God. Accept the story of God's people as your story. Receive and believe the mercy of God. Change routes. Detour! And know that your distance from God has been removed."
Quickly, one of us reaches over to change the station. We may have taken the wrong exit, but we don't have to listen to any radio preachers. Not now! We're on our way to Christmas. We'll just find some Christmas music and look for some way to get back to the main highway. Imagine! Listening to a country-bum preacher. The whole world is dressed for a concert. Every symphony orchestra in the world is playing Handel's Messiah and here we are out in the middle of nowhere listening to somebody who sounds like John the Baptist.
But all is not lost. Look! There's another sign on the highway. What does it say? Read carefully. "Return Route to the Christmas Highway. Right Lane. Next Exit, One Mile."
Ahhh, at last! A way back to the main highway to rejoin the crowd. Right lane it is back to the Christmas Highway. But then another sign: "Christians, Stay Left for the Advent Highway. Road Under Construction, Next 40 Miles." We slow down. Here is another decision to make. Express lane to Christmas. Left lane through to Advent. Which will it be? Right to the familiar. Left to the uncertain. And only one mile to decide. Deep within us brain and heart collide. Logic and common sense to the right. A mysterious leading of the Spirit to the left. The soul must decide. Weigh the evidence and decide quickly.
And what is the evidence?
Exhibit 1: Christmas as we have always known it. The great festival of popular religion in America. The religion of the masses, the media, the economy, even the government. The aim of this popular religion is mass consumption. Its goal is well adjusted, conforming citizens in a rigid society. Its biggest proponents are people in power and possession--those who prosper so long as everything, all values, all customs, all standards, stay the same. So these powerful forces are more than happy to lead the procession to Christmas, to light the dark winter nights with colorful lights, to fill the air with music, to promise joy and peace in return for our extravagant expenditures.
Exhibit 2: A voice within speaks so that we hear what we already know. This customary journey to Christmas always has a disappointing ending. In the Christmas manger scene of popular religion, complete with make-believe shepherds, wise men with fake beards and fragile angels, there is only a plastic baby Jesus. At the end of all of the hustle and bustle, at the end of the Christmas Highway, this Jesus brings only a few, brief moments of quiet and peace, and then the routine roar resumes. By midday life has returned to normal. All of the effort, all of the spending and getting, seems to have resulted in nothing more than a big pile of paper trash. It is a perennial disappointment.
Back on the Advent Highway, our mile is up. The exit is here. Habit says turn right. Take the exit that leads back to the familiar. Get back onto the Christmas Highway. But the Spirit, this mysterious leading, pulls us off to the left, to the dark, quiet and unfamiliar. Let us stay for a while longer on the Advent Highway. The eerie silence is broken by the crackle of the radio. It's that country preacher again?John the Baptist. We listen. "I am just the introductory voice. A fill-in, folks. After me comes another, one mightier than I by far. One whose shoes I could never fill, much less untie. Stay on the Advent Highway, the one mightier than I will come to you." With this very promise of the prophet, of Holy Scripture, we are empowered to drive on, to stay on the Advent Highway. Here on this road we are not obligated to follow the old signs, the old patterns of living. Instead, we are invited to roll down the windows and receive the fresh breeze of divine grace. Here we will be invited to celebrate our own new beginning. Here, in obedience to God, is hope for renewal. Here is a chance to begin again.
What is more? Driving to the Christ celebration on this rough, unfinished, unmapped highway, we will have new hope for that special night of nights that Christ was born. Hope that for once we shall truly experience the presence of God among us. Not a simple, manageable hope for the romantic, lyrical birth of a baby in a manger, but the extraordinary hope for God's decisive entry into the world.
To Jesus Christ who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood and made us to be a kingdom, priests of his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever. Amen.
Let us pray.
Faithful God, your promises stand unshaken through all generations. Renew in us hope that we may be awake and alert, watching for the glorious return of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Judge, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and forever. Amen.