Prepare the Way
This second Sunday of Advent has a clear theme: preparation.
The preparation theme runs through our readings. In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Malachi announces the messenger of God who will come to prepare the way before the Lord. In our Gospel reading, Luke applies Malachi’s prediction to John the Baptizer, the one who in fact prepares the way for Christ by preaching a baptism of repentance.
But it’s our opening prayer that sets the stage. We first thanked God for sending the prophets, Malachi and John among others, to prepare the way for our salvation. Then we asked God to help us hear the prophetic message of preparation so that we will be ready to “greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.”
What does that mean? What does, or what should, our preparation to greet Christ look like? What can we do to get ready for Christ’s coming?
I think about my own way of preparing to greet guests who come to my home. That didn’t take a lot of imagination since my good friend Elliot came to visit us this weekend. (As poor Elliot knows from bitter experience, one of the dubious distinctions of visiting me is showing up in my sermons!)
I mean this as a complement to Elliot. I didn’t do anything at all to prepare for his coming. As it happened, our house was clean and even decorated. But that was a lucky coincidence. If Elliot had come the week before, while my children were with us, our house would have been considerably more chaotic, and I still probably wouldn’t have done anything.
That’s because Elliot and I have been friends since I was seventeen, when we lived together for a year. Elliot has seen me at my worst in all kinds of ways, so it’s not like I can fool him with a tidy house at this point. That train left the station long ago.
Can my very casual “preparation” help us to think about the Advent season and our work of preparation to greet our Lord? I actually think it can.
It’s not like we are not preparing to welcome Christ into our world and into our lives for the first time. On the contrary, Christ is with us always, through thick and thin. Christ lives within each of us. Christ is with us every time we gather in his name. Christ is powerfully with us in the sacrament of his body and blood, which we celebrate every week. We keep some of the consecrated elements from our services of Holy Communion in our tabernacle pretty much all the time. That’s why we keep a lighted candle above the tabernacle—as a reminder that Christ is here, right now.
As we enter more deeply into the Advent season, we are preparing to greet our Lord, who comes as an old friend, who knows us better than we can know ourselves. A few weeks of intense preparation aren’t going to fool Christ any more than cleaning my house will fool Elliot.
Mostly this is good news. Christ comes to us as one who knows and loves us as we are, not as we might wish we were or pretend we were.
That means we don’t have to do anything to get ready for Christ. At Christmas, we will greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ. We emphasize the work of preparation in the Advent season, but the real preparation for meeting Christ is how we live our lives all the time, not just in these four weeks.
But that’s too easy. There is more to say about the Advent work of preparation just as there are other ways to prepare for important visitors than my casual approach.
I think, for example, about my wife.
Friends of Carrie’s visited us not long ago. These women founded the program Carrie teaches in at Smith. They hired Carrie, and they mentored her while she got established.
They also live well. Their home was always spotless. Their gardens were fabulous. They dress well. They enjoy fine wine and good food, and they enjoy sharing that food and wine with friends.
A few years ago, these women retired to California, but they came for a visit in the fall. When Carrie told me they were coming, my heart sank. I knew they would be great guests, and they were. But I also knew that the process of getting ready to host them would be…challenging.
Carrie wanted everything to be just right. Unsurprisingly, Carrie did 98% of the work of preparation. Also unsurprisingly, I complained bitterly about my 2%.
But by the time they arrived, we were ready. Our house and yard looked great. Carrie couldn’t do anything about my appearance, but otherwise we were looking good.
Now, Carrie has not known these two women for as long as I have known Elliot. But she has known them for fourteen years. They had been in our house many times before they moved. They knew how we live, for better or worse.
Still, Carrie took the work of preparation for their visit VERY seriously. For Carrie, that work of preparation was a way of showing them her respect and love.
And that, too, can help us to think about our Advent preparation for Christmas.
We don’t have to do anything to impress Jesus. We can’t do anything to impress Jesus. Come Christmas morning, I am going to be pretty much the same person I am right now, the person Christ already knows through and through.
But we can show Christ proper respect and love by taking some time to do what we can to get ready for Christ’s coming, to prepare ourselves as best we can, to clean house, spiritually speaking.
Spiritual house-cleaning is what Advent preparation is all about.
So, what does that spiritual house-cleaning look like?
You can see the external signs of preparation all around us. Here at Saint David’s, we have begun decorating the Church. The wise men are on their way. The office volunteers have been photocopying extra service bulletins. The expanded choir is practicing carols. The children are rehearsing for the Christmas pageant. The altar guild is ready to spring into a new level of action. We are upping our outreach game.
Probably something analogous is happening at your homes. At my house, we already have a tree. We have begun decorating, and we’re thinking about gift purchases.
But in Advent we are encouraged to do some internal preparation as well. That internal preparation can take lots of forms, but a good bet is to spend a little extra time in prayer. We have lots of devotional aids that can help.
And, heeding John’s call, John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, we should spend some of our prayer time in self-reflection.
Ask yourself, how is your relationship with Christ right now? Are there ways that you hold Christ at a distance? Are there changes that you need to make to draw closer? Almost certainly there are. I know there are for me. If so, ask for God’s forgiveness and help.
The invitation of this season is to be more intentional about what we should be doing all the time: growing in the knowledge and love of God, becoming a bit better at loving God and each other.
My prayer for us in this Advent season is that we will heed the message of the prophets, that we will take seriously their message of preparation, and that we can truly greet with joy the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
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Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan