“‘A voice of one crying out in the desert:“Prepare the way of the Lord...”’” (Luke 3:4)(+)You may remember that a couple of years ago our sister parish of St. Valentine’s joined the petition in Northampton to prevent the adult video store from opening up on King Street.I’m heading to church there yesterday and I’m stuck at the red light right in front of that store.Their front window-displays are full of posters hijacking the terminology of our celebration of Jesus’ birthday.There’s peace, joy, hope and love plastered all over the place, but instead of a baby in a manger their attention-getter is a babe in a skimpy Santa outfit.I don’t know what kind of impression you’re supposed to take away from their display, but my first impression of peace, joy, hope and love isn’t going to help them sell anything.There’s a disconnect between my impression and theirs.
Another driving-by story:We’re at the Hampshire Mall a couple of weeks ago.Just so happened that so were Lynnette and Maryanna.As we’re driving by we notice that Lynnette’s car won’t start.We pull into the spot adjacent to hers, pop the hood, take out the jumper cables, confidently attach them to the proper terminals, and in no time flat Lynnette’s car is purring like a kitten.During all of this Maryanna started up a conversation with a woman who was parked the next spot over.That woman may well have left with the impression that I’m pretty handy around cars after watching that display.Heck, I didn’t blow up either vehicle.But I think by now you know that her first impression isn’t the real impression.
With this in mind, today’s Gospel gives us our first Advent impression of John the Baptist.Each and every Advent he’s described as:“‘A voice of one crying out in the wilderness:“Prepare the way of the Lord …”’”But what does that imply exactly?According to tradition, Jesus leaves His familiar region of Galilee somewhere around the mature age of 30 so that he can travel south to meet-up with this John the Baptist, and in but a couple of additional sentences we then read in the Bible that Jesus is transformed and is getting ready to begin His public ministry.So our first impression would be that John inspires Jesus.But the story may be a bit more complicated than this.If Jesus was about 30, what was He doing before heading out to see John?Mark’s Gospel calls Jesus a carpenter, and it makes perfect sense that Jesus was leading a completely normal life practicing this profession up in Nazareth.It also makes perfect sense to imagine that Jesus was left unfulfilled by this life.He knew there was something more, but as of yet, He didn’t know what that something was.Finally with the firebrand preaching of John and his repudiation of the religious establishment of his day, Jesus finds a kindred spirit.We can be pretty sure that Jesus joins the community around John because Jesus accepts baptism by John, which is a mark of initiation.
The Gospel records for us the tone of John’s message:“You brood of vipers!Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is coming?”John’s message was unapologetic:God was angry and His patience was coming to end.John and the community around him separated from their world because they saw the judgment approaching and they relished the thought of the destruction of all those others who would not repent.But this isn’t the end of John’s influence upon Jesus because according to the Gospels – Jesus leaves! Rather than wait in the desert for God’s judgment upon those who would not repent, Jesus chooses to re-enter the world that was so despised by John and tries to change it.Jesus the carpenter of Nazareth was searching for something more when He turned away from His old life and ventured out to John the Baptist.Oh, He found it.John did prepare the way for Jesus.But not the way we may imagine from our first impression of the story.Jesus comes to reject John’s method and message, and to turn 180° away from it.And the ones who would become Jesus’ followers are the ones for whom this changed message resonates.This is how John prepares the way for Jesus as surprising as it may seem, and as different as our first impression may have been.
As I said at the start of this sermon, first impressions are not necessarily the real impression we’re supposed to get and hold on to.John does prepare the way of the Lord, but it’s by getting Jesus to realize that He was no more fulfilled out by the Jordan listening to John preach of an angry and vengeful God, than when He was up in Nazareth working as a carpenter.In the record of this twisting and turning path that finally leads to the Jesus we know in the Gospels, there is evidence that God works in strange, wondrous and absolutely unexpected ways.We also need to give God the time and the opportunities to let Him help us find our way and our purpose.This is what Advent is all about. Maybe this is more closely attuned to what Advent’s message of repentance means than just the repetition of John’s preaching about commandments and judgments.Maybe repentance means opening up ourselves more honestly and willingly to God’s surprises, to letting God change us?
What if Jesus had convinced Himself that being a carpenter or an imitator of John was good enough?What if Jesus hadn’t continued to search for what God wanted of Him?What if He settled?Maybe repentance isn’t always about remembering what we’ve already done.Maybe repentance is also about our willingness to listen for God in our lives and to search for where He wants us to be.Maybe it’s about trusting and loving God enough to let Him surprise us.Maybe this is the voice that prepares the way of the Lord for us this Advent season.Maybe it’s about being around God long enough to let us move beyond first impressions and to discover what God really has to say to us.May we be open to the surprises and the changes that Advent speaks of as we prepare for the greatest surprise of them all when God comes to us as a child at Christmas.For this we pray in Jesus’ name.Amen. (+)