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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Advent 12/09/2012

I have to say that John the Baptist is a character who kind of intrigues me.  In church, every year he crashes our pre-Christmas celebration in the middle two weeks of Advent, kind of an unwelcome guest who doesn’t seem to fit in, even for those of us for whom Christmas is still a religious celebration. After these two weeks though, as far as the lectionary goes, we don’t hear much more about him, maybe a couple of references but that’s it. 

What I find interesting though is that all four gospel talk about him as the forerunner of Jesus.  All four gospels don’t have a story of Jesus birth but they all include John the Baptist with Jesus and his ministry somehow being connected to John.  Luke makes the connection even closer than the others, identifying John and Jesus as being related to each other but the fact that he’s the only one who mentions that makes me wonder if it’s not just part of Luke’s storytelling, his way of emphasizing how close they were. 

In any case, whether it’s a blood relationship or not is less important than the fact that Jesus was influenced by John, maybe inspired by him, in fact it seems quite possible that Jesus could have started as a disciple of John and that that discipleship played a role as Jesus came to understand his own mission and ministry.  It’s all speculation, but again, the fact that all the gospels feature John the Baptist as part of the beginning of Jesus’ story would indicate that, among those who knew, John was remembered as being a major influence.

With that it makes sense to consider what John the Baptist’s message was and mostly it’s a message of repentance and preparation.  Next week’s John is pretty bombastic in his approach to his message; that’s when he addresses the crowd as a brood of vipers.  Today, he’s more reserved about it, falling back on some of the poetic imagery of Isaiah to get his message out there.

Preparation and repentance; repentance and preparation.  Preparation we’re quite familiar with at this time of year with all the shopping and decorating and cooking and baking, cards get written and mailed, choruses and choirs rehearse, Sunday Schools practice their program, pastors write sermons and so forth. It’s all preparation for various aspects of the Christmas celebration and that preparation keeps many of us busy at this time of year.  It may however be another kind of preparation that comes closer to what John the Baptist and Isaiah were talking about. 

It makes me think about what frequently happens when I stop to visit someone at their home.  Quite often, shortly after I get there, there’s an apology for what a mess the house is.  Now usually it’s not that messy, not messy enough to bother me anyway; take a look at my desk and you’ll see that I can handle messy.  But I think what they’re really saying is less about messiness and more about the fact that they weren’t able to prepare for my visit.  That’s what we do if we know someone is coming, right?  If Kathy and I know someone is coming to visit, we, mostly Kathy, straighten out a few things.  The pile of magazines and newspapers and mail and other assorted junk that is a fixture on our kitchen table disappears, the dining room table gets cleared off, things that might not have been dusted for awhile get dusted. 

God forbid someone is coming to stay overnight because that means the guest room has to be cleaned up, it has to be prepared.  Doesn’t everyone have a room in the house where everything goes that you want to keep out of sight or you just don’t know where else to put it?  That’s our front room upstairs.  The beds get so covered with stuff that the cat sometimes can’t even find a place to lie down. 

It’s the clutter of life and in many ways I think the preparation John the Baptist was talking about and the preparation that is part of Advent is more like what we do when we tend to the clutter in order to make room for a guest.  That however, is precisely why the season and the themes of Advent are such a difficult sell at this time of year, that’s why there’s probably no other time of the year when the church is more out of step with the wider culture because instead of getting the clutter of our lives in order at this time of year, we tend to add to it with the kinds of things I just mentioned, the things that become our pre-Christmas preparation. 

Clutter is probably the wrong word to use though because with its negative connotations it makes it sound like all of those pre-Christmas preparations are bad and they’re not; in many ways they can add to the joy of the season.  However, when those things mostly become a source of stress so that you just can’t wait for it all to be over, then it is time to think about it and it’s time to think about what John the Baptist was talking about.

As I said, this week he uses the poetry of Isaiah to announce this theme of preparation.  “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill shall be made low, the crooked shall be made straight, the rough ways made smooth.”  It’s poetry; it’s not a how to manual of preparation so in that respect it’s similar to what the Apostle Paul said last week and what he says this week to the Philippians when he talks about their love overflowing with knowledge and insight that will help them determine what is best.  Paul doesn’t tell them what is best and the beauty of Isaiah’s poetry is that it doesn’t tell anyone how to do anything either; it doesn’t tell them how to prepare.  With words he creates an image of preparing a way home and then calls on each of us to imagine what it means in our own time and place.

For John the Baptist and the early church their imagination led them to Jesus.  As prominent a figure as John apparently was, he always seemed to know that it wasn’t about him but that he was pointing toward someone else, and that someone was Jesus.  The early church looked at the words of Isaiah and saw the straight, smooth path leading to Jesus and the salvation he offered.  Preparing for Jesus then has to do with repentance, the other part of John the Baptist’s message, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

We tend to associate repentance more with Lent but some of you remember that the color for Advent used to be purple as it is in Lent and repentance was more of an emphasis; winter Lent it was sometimes called and that still is what it amounts to in some churches especially in Eastern Orthodox churches and to some degree in Catholic churches where the color still is purple.  For us though, the color of Advent changed to blue some years ago and with that hope replaced repentance as the dominant theme but as we confront John the Baptist that call to repentance is still there.  It’s part of Advent preparation and it can be likened to sorting through the clutter of our lives or at least bringing some order to it, making sure that Jesus doesn’t get lost underneath it all.

Repentance is probably most often seen as a rather grim exercise in feeling bad about the ways we don’t measure up to who God would have us be or feeling bad about any bad things we’ve done or thought and then trying to do better.  That can be part of repentance, an important part, but especially during Advent, it’s more about the clutter.  It’s a time to think about how we spend our time, a time to think about what we buy and why, about what’s important and what isn’t especially at this time of year.  We all complain about the excesses of the season and the consumerism and commercialism of Christmas but to one degree or another we all buy into it. 

Advent repentance though is making sure that that’s not all there is.  It’s making sure that Jesus has a place in our life and in our heart, a place where he can dwell and grow, he in us and us in him.  That kind of repentance doesn’t mean getting rid of all the things you do as pre-Christmas preparation although it may mean getting rid of some things, but it’s more about rearranging things, making room for a special guest. 

In a gathering like this, what saddens us is knowing that for many people Christmas is only about the clutter; that’s all there is.  For most of us we have family members for whom that’s the case.  The clutter does produce moments of happiness for all of us, don’t get me wrong; but it’s not the same as the sense of joy and inner peace that real Advent preparation moves us toward.  That preparation makes real the love of God revealed in the birth of Jesus, love that will find a place in all of us, if only we make room.

John the Baptist was another unlikely messenger called to announce God’s love to the broken and frightened wilderness of that world.  That’s still the task, but now it’s ours.   So…prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight and invite others to join you on the path because like John the Baptist, you know where it leads.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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