No Direct Flight to Bethlehem

It’s the second Sunday of Advent. The time is drawing nigh. Houses are being decorated. Christmas cards are being addressed. Menus are being planned. Cantatas and children’s pageants are being rehearsed. Budgets are starting to strain, and nerves are beginning to frazzle.

We swore last year that we wouldn’t do it again. We would not spend our weekends and evenings elbowing through crowds or driving around in the rain searching for a parking spot or running up a credit card bill that will take most of next year to pay. But somehow, we seem to have been sucked into the frenzy of it all once again. Christmas is coming, and we must be ready! With the right gifts and the stunning tree and the perfect parties and the expected menus.

And then..bam! He shows up. That loud-mouthed John the Baptist. In the midst of chestnuts roasting on an open fire and thought of a silent night when all is calm and all is bright, we have to come face to face with wild and wooly John the Baptist. The ultimate model of simple living. Emerging from his home in the wilderness with nothing to offer guests but some honey and locust appetizers.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
    every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
    the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”[a]
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.

John 3:1-7 (Note: if your church follows the Revised Common Lectionary, you’ll be hearing the version of this story from Mark today.)

This is not what we want to deal with right now. We’re in Christmas mode. Parties, cookies, Advent wreaths, nativity scenes with the precious Baby Jesus.  We are on our way to Bethlehem. Not the river Jordan. And instead of a precious scene of mother and child, we come face to face with the wooly-haired, wild-eyed, locust-eating, hair-shirt wearing John the Baptist. No Heavenly Hosts. No Glorias. No Alleluias.  Just the grating voice of a man we wouldn’t dream of having over for dinner calling on us to Prepare the Way of the Lord. Repent! He calls. Repent!

We think, “This is a mistake. We’re headed toward Bethlehem for Christmas. There was no scheduled stop at a dinky little river to listen to a crazy man.”

The voice of John clashes with the hum of Christmas carols and interrupts the to-do list running through our heads. He disturbs our dreams of a Norman Rockwell-ian holiday. He intrudes upon our idea of the ideal Christmas. But, as disturbing and disruptive as John the Baptist is, we need to see him on our way to Bethlehem. On our way to come face to face with the word made flesh. On our way to the night love came down.

Because seeing John reminds us of our need to repent—a word which literally means to turn around.  To turn around and head in a new direction. And the words of Isaiah thrown back at us by John give us a clue as to where to start. Perhaps there are empty spaces in our lives that need to be filled, crooked places that need to be straightened, rough spots that need to be smoothed, and prideful areas that could use some leveling out.

To prepare the way of the Lord is to acknowledge our own need for the powerful love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ. To trot out those empty spaces and puffed up places, to reveal the rough spots and the stress knots and lay them at the manger before a God who loved us enough to become one of us.

There is no direct flight to Bethlehem. To get there, we must stop at the river Jordan and heed the words of John the Baptist. Before we arrive at that sacred scene, we must take the time to prepare our hearts and our minds and our lives to receive this mysterious, wondrous gift of love.

Rev. Anne Russ is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), currently based in New York City. Doubting Believer is an online, inclusive and progressive Christian community. Follow us on Facebook and get emails to keep up with all that is happening.

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