In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
One of my favorite comic strips has always been Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbs, chronicling the adventures of a little boy and his come-to-life stuffed tiger. It hasn’t been in the newspapers for years, and probably anyone born after 1990 has no idea what I’m talking about, but I miss that little miscreant and his sardonic tiger. In one of my favorite strips of Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin is talking to Suzie. Remember Suzy? Calvin’s archnemesis. They were talking about a test they had just taken at school.
Calvin says to her, “What grade did you get?”
Susie says, “I got an A.”
Calvin replies, “Really? Boy, I’d hate to be you. I got to a C.”
Susie asks, “Why on earth would you rather get a C than an A?”
To which Calvin smugly replies, “I find my life is a lot easier the lower I keep everyone’s expectations.”
I think there are people who believe that the message of John the Baptist to prepare the way of the Lord, and even quite frankly, the birth of Jesus himself, that both of these are easier to take if we keep our expectations low. If we keep John at a distance and if we keep Jesus as the cuddly tiny baby lying in a manger, John isn’t so scary, his message isn’t so tough, and the savior he proclaims seems far less intimidating if we only think of Jesus as the Christmas Eve baby, lying amidst the straw in a Bethlehem barn. After all, what could be less threatening than a newborn baby? But what John knows and heralds, and what we should never underestimate, is that this newborn baby grows up. And the man he becomes demands and expects quite a lot from you and me.
In his gospel, Luke tells us that after Jesus was baptized by John in the river Jordan and after his 40 days alone in the wilderness, Jesus returned home to Nazareth and entered the synagogue on the Sabbath. The worshipers there knew that he was a rabbi of some kind and they invited him to read from the scriptures. So Jesus took up the scroll and he enrolled to the book of Isaiah and he read aloud, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The very same passage that we read this morning. After that Jesus put the scroll away and said to everyone present, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
What Luke wants us to know is that the cute, cuddly baby Jesus who adorns our crush sets, grows up to be the savior who proclaims good news to the poor and release to the captives and sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed. He comes to demand justice from individuals and nations alike. He comes to care for the downtrodden, the weak, the outcast. And he expects his followers to do the same.
During his ministry, Jesus was not afraid to physically cast out the money changers from the temple or call the religious elite a hypocritical brood of vipers. He wasn’t afraid to proclaim that the meek and the poor and the merciful and the peacemakers are the people blessed by God and not the rich and the powerful and the well-breed. He ate with tax collectors and the socially outcast and everywhere, he proclaimed that in the kingdom of God, the first will be last and the last will be first. Sometime ago, pre-pandemic, I came across an article in the New York Times that began as follows, “America is doing well, but there are also signs amid the prosperity that people are asking whether this is all there is. Whether driving cars, the size of tanks and parking them in garages the sizes of gymnasiums is truly the national purpose.”
The article goes on to talk about the spiritual malaise felt by so many successful people. The unease and the longing many people have for something more, something deeper. The fulfillment of the old promises of wealth and success and power don’t seem to be as satisfying as many people thought. People crave something new, something different, something that will satisfy their deepest desires. “I’m about to create a new heaven and a new earth,” God proclaims in Isaiah, “Where the Wolf and the lamb shall feed together. The lion shall eat straw like the ox.”
God’s ways are coming, John the Baptist preaches, and God’s ways are new ways, different ways, fulfilling ways. Advent proclaims, that there is something more out there, something more that is coming. That the urging felt in the midst of our everyday lives is real. That the emptiness we feel, even as we accumulate more possessions is no accident.
Will Willimon, the now retired Dean of the Chapel at Duke University once wrote, “Show me a person who is not waiting for something more to come, not yearning, not leaning forward, standing on tiptoe for something better. And I will show you a person who has given up hope for anything better. Someone who has settled down too comfortably in present arrangements. And that’s sad. The future belongs to those who wait, for those who know we are meant for something better. The present darkness is not our final destination.”
You see the real function of Advent is not the preparation for Christmas. If Christmas only means getting together all the things we need to give and receive gifts and getting all the things together that we need to have a celebration. The real function of advent is not the preparation for Christmas, if Christmas only means that we get the warm fuzzies over the cute baby Jesus we place in our crush sets. The real function of Advent is the preparation for the radical entry of God into human history and the creation of something new.
That’s why John the Baptist shows up at this time of year and says to repent, turn around, open up, make God the center of your life instead of self or business or sports or success or power or money or popularity or status. Advent is the time when we are to prepare ourselves for the coming of the man who will lay claim to our lives. The man who will tell us that to love God, we must love our neighbor, even the neighbor we cannot stand. Advent is the time when we prepare for the coming of the man who tells us that our material wealth matters not. In fact, our wealth may actually be a hindrance to the wellbeing of our soul. Advent is the time when we prepare for the coming of the man who will take all of our social structures, all of our beliefs about who was valuable in society and who is not, and who stands them on their head.
Whatever else we can say about Advent, we are not just waiting for the arrival of the baby. Jesus. We are waiting for the arrival of a savior who not only gives up his life to die on the cross, but who tells us that in order to follow him, we too must pick up our crosses.
Before we get too far ahead in our Christmas preparations, let’s be clear about exactly what kind of a savior we welcome on Christmas morning. Certainly he is all about love and forgiveness and hope and the everlasting presence of the God of peace. Certainly his life and his death save us from the darker parts of ourselves that would surely destroy us if we were left to our own devices. But at the same time, this savior who comes, demands that we do more than just appreciate what he did and listen to what he said. He demands that we repent of our selfish and self-centered lives so that we can act as he did and live as he did. He doesn’t seek our admiration. Rather, he seeks our devotion and our obedience.
In the gift of his son, God offers us something more than the world has to offer. God offers us a life that can be deep and wonderful and fulfilling, where we can be created a new. Are we ready for this new creation to take place in our lives? Are we ready to let go of the old and embrace the new reality set in motion with the birth of Jesus? Christ is coming. Christmas is almost here. Open up to the living God. Make straight a pathway in your heart. Amen.