Am I right?
You can get exhausted just thinking about it. All the running around to various holiday parties, services, and concerts, and such.
All the baking and caroling and wrapping and spreading Christmas cheer.
All the strategizing about how and when to make your guerrilla incursion into the mall. When will it be emptiest? When will the sales be biggest? When will Shelbyville Road feel less like the seventh circle of hell?
All the head scratching about what to buy Aunt Sophie, who hasn’t actually liked a Christmas present since 1983 when she got that maroon gas powered turtle neck from your cousin, Kevin, who lives most of the year in Des Moines, but who nevertheless seems to be able to manage to spend six really stressful weeks wherever you are when the the holidays roll around.
You know what I’m talking about, right?
It’s not just me, is it?
I’m kidding … mostly. While I do hate driving on Shelbyville Road and fighting the mall hysteria around the holidays, most of the rest of the stuff I look forward to. I really enjoy Christmas time.
But, I mean, let’s be honest: It can be really stressful, can’t it? There always seems to be so much riding on how we navigate the holiday waters—from the ways we seek to greet each other to getting the right gift to ensuring that all the retail coffee cups are appropriately adorned to making everyone’s favorite dish.
And for many people, the holidays prompt the depressing realization that people we love aren’t here with us, or we’re not there with them.
Glad or sad, the holidays represent a significant unsettling of our worlds, don’t they?
But see, technically we’re in Advent season—not Christmas season. So, it should be more bearable, shouldn’t it?
I mean, Advent. It’s just a bunch of waiting, right? What’s so hard about that?
Well, waiting can be stressful. Some of the most stressful places you can go have rooms devoted to waiting.
But Advent, properly understood, is perhaps even more unsettling than Christmas.
What do I mean?
Look at our Gospel for this morning. First of all, you’ve got John the Baptist as the central figure. You remember John the Baptist?
Yeah, that guy. In Advent, of all places.
You’d think we’d try to find a more savory character to concentrate on as we prepare for the Feast of the Nativity. It’d be all right if we stuck to that part about John doing a double-back-layout-in-the-pike-position in Elizabeth’s womb when he hears Mary’s greeting. There’s joy there, the expectation of something so wonderful even fetuses start line-dancing in the amniotic fluid.
An ante-partum John the Baptist is much easier on the Christmas cheer than the one who shows up a few years later, with the leather, and barbed-wire tattoos, and the hair all over the place.
Christmas, many people believe, is about babies and angels and nice barnyard animals. It’s hard to know what to do with John the Baptist in Advent. But here he is in our Gospel for today.
John shows up on the scene, presumably trying to cut a swath for the Messiah who is to follow. He’s the guy who shows up at the party, and everybody suddenly remembers they have an appointment for a root canal … and frankly, they’d rather have an Endodontist scooping out their decayed roots with a melon-baller than have to make small talk over the cheese log with this guy.
Unsettling, to be sure.
Moreover, John’s preaching repentance, telling people they need to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.
And repentance doesn’t play well nowadays. It seems too dour, too pushy … especially right before Christmas—what with all the lights, and tinsel, and pre-packaged goodwill toward humankind.
No, repentance is one of those old words that we rarely see anymore, except on sandwich boards announcing the end of the world—worn out on the street, usually by some guy who looks … let’s just be honest … uncannily like John the Baptist.
What we often hear when we hear “Repent!” is an accusation, a charge that we’re horrible people who, to this point, feel insufficiently bad about the train wrecks our lives have become. And so what we need to do is to say we’re sorry, and try to be better people. Otherwise, God will condemn us to spend the rest of eternity … in a traffic jam outside the mall on Shelbyville Road … I mean, in hell.
And so, what repentance has come to mean is: feel really bad, and say you’re sorry. That’s what we’re after when our politicians and our media stars fall into some sort of scandal, isn’t it? We want them to show remorse, apologize, and then promise not to do it again. That’s the popular conception of repentance.
And while I’m a big fan of sincerity, you don’t need to have been around the block too many times to realize how easily we can be fooled in our search for it. Which is part of the reason I think people get so antsy when it comes to repentance: It sounds overly scoldy and censorious, without requiring much more than that people apologize, then make an effort to appear sorry.
But if somebody’s hitting you with a stick, their sincerity about their remorse makes very little difference, does it? You don’t care much about how they feel about hitting you; your driving consideration in the middle of being assaulted with a piece of tree, is whether or not your assailant is going to stop hitting you. If feeling bad about it makes them stop, fine. But the overall concern is first that they stop what they’re doing, and do something different.
And that’s what repentance really is—changing things up, disrupting the status quo in favor of a new normal.
And that’s why John the Baptist is a central figure in the Advent story. He comes preaching repentance, but not the repentance of disgraced politicians and wayward Hollywood icons—not the say-sorry/look-sorry brand of repentance. No, John’s after the pull-it-up-by-the-roots and tear-it-down-to-the-ground kind of repentance.
Take a look at the reference Luke attaches to John’s brand of repentance, introducing it by saying, “As it is written”:
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.”
You see, that’s unsettling language right there. Knocking over all the mountains, bulldozing the hills in order to back fill all the valleys. Taking the crooked and hammering it until it’s straight. Grading it so all the bumps are removed. That’s a most literal description of the unsettling of the way things are.
Luke’s quoting of Isaiah isn’t meant to help us visualize a flatter, smoother world, or to help us to feel better about the hilly, bumpy world we live in. In this context John the Baptist’s call to repentance isn’t about trying to be more sincere about our remorse. It’s about shaking up the world as it’s currently situated, so that something new can be born.
When Isaiah’s words were first invoked, they were meant as an attempt to buoy the flagging spirits of the exiles, who felt they’d been abandoned by God over in Babylon. In that context, the language about preparing a path, about filling the valleys and making low the mountains and hills was a reference to God’s intention to tear things up to make a way home for God’s people through the desert.
In Luke’s hands these words are also about tearing things up, about unsettling the way things are currently arranged. But this time around, what’s going to be disrupted, what’s going to be toppled aren’t hills and valleys in the wilderness that stand between Israel and home, but the powers and principalities that stand between God’s people and the future God has planned—between the way things are and the reign of God, the way things ought to be.
And there’s the tricky part of all this. When most folks hear repentance, they immediately turn to the personal, to private transgressions.
We tend to repent for things like hurting our spouse or partner, for fudging on our taxes, for saying bad things about a co-worker, for ignoring our parents in their loneliness. And all of these things are certainly a part of what John wants to focus on.
But, at least in Luke’s hands, John the Baptist has his sights set even higher. Look at how Luke introduces this passage about repentance:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitus, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas …
Doesn’t that strike you as an odd way to open a passage focused solely on personal repentance? If Luke’s interested only the in the state of our individual souls, why even mention all the big shots in religion and politics?
But I would like to suggest to you that, while John the Baptist is concerned with personal sin and repentance, he’s also dealing with something much larger: the infrastructure that makes sin native to the system and not just the product of personal choices. Luke names emperors, governors, and high priests. These are the folks who help to shape the ordering of justice in our world, and it appears they’ve been doing a lousy job.
Remember, back in chapter one, the Magnificat? Mary’s song when told she was giving birth. Remember that?
[The Mighty One] has shown strength with his arm, scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; filling the hungry with good things, and sending the rich away empty.
Religion and politics. Unsettling.
The repentance that needs to happen, according to Luke, involves nothing less than the toppling of systems meant to keep the powerless right where they are.
The repentance Advent inspires involves the unsettling of that which we call “normal,” but which from God’s perspective is violent and unjust.
The Jesus who comes to us in Advent expects the mountains of oppression to be made low, and the valleys of depression to be filled—not just in some personal interior space where we harbor envy and bitterness and hatred, but also in the public space where 92 people die everyday from gun violence, where Syrian refugees running for their lives are met with crossed arms and closed hearts, where poor people stay up at night worrying whether the healthcare that’s saving their child’s life will be taken away by a bureaucrat in some leather covered seat of power, where young African American men die at the hands of those in control just because they happen not to have been born white.
The Jesus we’re seeking in Advent demands that the crooked paths be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth—not just in the private places in our souls, but also in the families where we’re formed, in the communities where we share a commonwealth with our neighbors, in the schools meant to educate everyone’s children and not just those who live in the right neighborhoods, in the laws that seek to protect the most vulnerable and help the helpless to finally flourish.
We’re called as Jesus’ followers to unsettle a world that serves strong at the expense of the weak.
The disruption of Advent repentance isn’t just that we should be better human beings, but that we, like John the Baptist, should be helping to prepare the way to a better world, one in which human beings can finally recognize this Jesus we keep talking about when he appears.