The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ ” 4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Is it even possible for the nations of our world to ever live in peace? Is there any hope at all of alleviating hunger and poverty in our world? Do we stand a chance of overcoming our cultural obsession with violence? Will we ever see an end to hate, racism, homophobia, or oppression? Is any of this remotely possible, or is it all just pie-in-the-sky and we are wasting our time longing for these things?
Advent is a season of longing. As we begin this season, we need to take time to acknowledge those deep longings of our souls. Because those deep longings are our spirit connecting to God’s Spirit. These longings are real. Where do God’s priorities for the world resonate within us? What are the possibilities of God’s vision that touch you spiritually?
In the first reading today, the prophet Isaiah believes that the unrighteous behavior of Israel has been in the way of God’s justice. Now that that unrighteousness has been dealt with, God’s long hoped-for vision can now be revealed. There is one coming, Isaiah cries, who will prepare the way for God’s peace to enter in. One who will point out the rough places in the world that will be smoothed, the low places in our culture that will be raised up.
The promise of a coming one who would prepare the way for God’s vision is made in Isaiah, and is kept in the coming of John the Baptist. John’s message is that God’s vision for the world is coming; what we long for in our spirits is in fact on its way.
So John points out the rough places, the low places, the crooked places. He calls people to help smooth, to lift up, to straighten. John makes clear that God’s vision, God’s justice, God’s peace is on the way. “There is one,” he says, “there is one coming through whom God’s vision will be realized.”
All that we’ve hoped for, says John, all the injustices and the wars and the violence and the hatred that our world has endured for so long will finally be resolved. In the coming of the Christ, we will see God’s reign at last. The possibilities we’ve longed for will finally begin.
So let’s prepare the way for God’s possibilities. Let’s smooth, let’s lift up, let’s straighten out.
In other words, John says, let’s repent.
John means something different by that word than we usually do. We hear “repentance,” and we go straight to how bad we each are and that each of us needs to be sorry for our sins. Usually there’s a hint of punishment involved if we don’t: either hell or God’s disfavor or some other bad thing will happen to the one who doesn’t repent of their sins.
That’s not really John’s emphasis. He uses the word “repentance” and “forgiveness of sins,” but his reasoning is significantly different than ours. Whereas we are more concerned with our individual salvation and personal righteousness— getting into heaven when we die, John’s concern is with God’s vision of peace and justice restoring all of creation.
For us, confession of sins usually means each person acknowledging their personal list of disobedient behaviors, trusting that God will forgive those who do confess.
But for John, confession of sins means acknowledging the obstacles in the way of God’s vision of justice for the world.
For us, repentance usually means each one of us feeling sorry for those bad things we’ve done and promising not to do them any more.
But for John, repentance means turning our life, our focus, our energy toward God’s vision of peace for the world.
So when John cries for repentance, he’s calling for us to turn away from hopelessness, that the world will never be better. Turn away from giving up on our longings and turn instead toward the realization that in Christ, God’s vision is actually becoming real. Make those paths straight.
He’s calling us to turn away from passively waiting for peace and turn toward making peace happen. Smooth out those rough places.
He’s calling us to turn away from seeking our own personal righteousness and turn toward God’s justice happening in the world. Lift up those low places.
One of the promises of Advent is that God’s justice is coming. God’s vision for peace and the renewal of creation is actually possible. In Christ we can see it. We can again turn our efforts toward being part of God’s vision for the world because Christ is coming. In him it is real.
Those deepest longings of our souls, those parts of God’s vision that are within us, are now possible. So prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight. God’s vision for us and our whole world is happening. Turn toward that. Christ is coming. In him there will be peace. And life. And wholeness. And justice.
As Isaiah reminds us today, “[the Lord] will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” This is God’s vision for the world. Prepare for that. Turn toward that. Work for that. It’s closer now than ever before.