Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lordshall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord Godcomes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He 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.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
We are in the second week of the Advent season, which is supposed to be the season of expectation that the church observes in the weeks before our celebration of Jesus’s birth, but it seems that most everybody is already into full-on Christmas. I was reading a blog post the this week from a United Methodist pastor who was in a coffee shop just the other day!, eavesdropping on a spirited conversation among eight people who, to a person, were already sick of Christmas. They said things like:
“I am so glad my kids are finally grown so I don’t have to watch those insipid kiddy shows like Rudolph and Charlie Brown!”
“I hate the crowds, all the garish decorations — and the music. I will vomit if I hear Bing Crosby or Nat King Cole one more time.”
“It must be hell to be Muslim or Jewish in the United States in December.”
“December! I saw Christmas decorations up at Halloween!”
Now, this is all interesting to me for two reasons, besides the fact that I happen to like Charlie Brown, thank you very much. As a professional religious person, I’m particularly concerned this time of year about the kinds of things that keep people from experiencing a proper Christmas, and we’re going to spend some time this morning talking about that problem, because it is a real problem. If Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus two thousand years ago in a manger, just as it is about Jesus being born once again in your heart, we’ve missed the forest for the Christmas trees, and in the interest of preparing the way for Jesus’s birth by spending lots of money and being run ragged as we dash between Christmas parties, we’ve all been made miserable.
I mean, this is the time of year that the church ends up being its crankiest. I don’t ever seen church members as stressed out as I do this time of year, and it’s almost a tragedy, really, because this is supposed to be a time to pause, to celebrate, to remember. And we get so busy, so swept up in recreating memories from yesteryear that have been painted so much rosier over the passage of time that it is literally impossible to meet our own expectations, never mind the fact that many of us are also busy attempting to create memories for our children and grandchildren that they won’t be able to recreate down the road, either. And so we all end up disappointed. We get so stuck wondering what is wrong with us that we can’t seem to get to a place where we actually experience Christmas.
But there’s another reason that the conversation about seeing Christmas decorations at Halloween or whatever is interesting to me, and it is that—as you may have heard me say before—I am not immune from the impulse of stretching Christmas as far as it will stretch. In fact, the joke around my house growing up was that it wasn’t Christmas at the Rushings if you weren’t confusing the trick-or-treaters. I love Christmas. I love getting ready for Christmas. I love Christmas decorations and Christmas cookies and Christmas presents and Christmas cookies and Christmas china and Christmas cookies. I hope you will come to the parsonage this Saturday for our Christmas open house, because we’ve decorated the place to the hilt, and there is at least a slight possibility that there will be some Christmas cookies left for you. The preparation is part of the fun. I want to affirm that. I love getting ready for Christmas.
The problem comes when the preparation becomes so much that what you end up doesn’t look like Christmas at all. It doesn’t look like the birth of Christ so much as it looks like the spirit of Christmas threw up all over your living room. At some point, the preparations blind you to what Christmas is, and that’s not to say that the preparations are bad. It’s just to say that if we are not careful, they can distract us from the truth of Christmas, which is that God so loved us that Christ was born in a stable, outside, among animals, laid in a trough to keep warm, that he understood what it meant to be poor and marginalized, that whosoever believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life.
“Prepare the way of the Lord,” says the prophet Isaiah. “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
This is what we are preparing for: not the Ghost of Christmas past, but the coming of God into a broken world. The birth of a savior: someone to save us from our rampant sin and our inability to purely love.
I realize that this puts more pressure on the hanging of the garland, the stringing of lights, and that more pressure is the last thing we need in the season. And yet, while the garland is nice, while the tree and the presents and the cookies are nice, they are not what Isaiah is talking about. They are not what John the Baptist is talking about when he says that he has come to be the voice crying out in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” John the Baptist wasn’t talking about spending your life savings at Walmart when he proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. You might even say that God came to save us from the kinds of things we get obsessed with in this season. Repentance, forgiveness, are about letting things go, the waters of baptism are about washing away, about letting things go, removing obstacles to love, not buying more things, but clearing a path.
I mean, I don’t know if you have ever had the chance to actually, literally clear a path, as in cut brush and make a path, but it’s not easy work. Maybe you remember that the second President Bush used to get flack for going out to blaze trails and clear brush when he needed to clear his mind, but never from me—it’s good, mind-clearing work! There is something about clearing a path that helps to clear your mind: something about cutting through the brush and plants and trees to make a path. And maybe this sounds weird to you, but when I am having a rough day in the office, I usually look out the window and daydream about clearing brush.
I think it is significant that John the Baptist didn’t talk about buying anything to get ready for Jesus. He didn’t talk about decorating or anything like that. He talked about clearing the way, cutting a path, literally removing things that stood between humanity and the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Here we are spending and spending and spending, going into debt in order to somehow honor the birth of Jesus, and in this season as we participate in the Advent Conspiracy, as we attempt to spend less, what we are told to do in scripture is to clear, to remove, to pluck. (…)
All of this reminds me of one of my favorite early church fathers, who we know as the Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. That’s not on the test, so don’t worry about writing his name down, but we call him the Pseudo-Dionysius because back in the late fifth century when he was doing his writing, he used the pen name of Dionysius the Areopagite, a character in the book of Acts who was converted by the apostle Paul five hundred years prior. So he’s not actually the Dionysius. He’s the Pseudo-Dionysius. Sort of like a cover band.
And the Pseudo-Dionysius talks about the ways in which we know God, and I don’t want to get too philosophical here, but I think maybe this might be helpful. Specifically, he talks about the via negativa, the negative way we know God, and here is what he means.
Every time we talk about who God is, we use human language, and this is good, because it just so happens this is the only language we have. And so we talk about how God is loving, and just, and merciful, and powerful, and all the rest. These are good things. But at some point, our language not being strong enough to contain God’s attributes, we actually distract ourselves from the nature of God’s being.
So think of it this way. Picture a clock with God at the top, at 12, and as we go along, hour by hour, we add another word describing God. So we talk about God as Father, and that gets us to 1 o clock, and we talk about God as omnipotent, and that gets us to 2, and God as gracious to get us to 3, and so on until we get to six o clock, and suddenly even though God is at the top, we’ve actually ended up at the bottom, at 6, which is as far away from 12 as you can possibly get.
You see, in the interest of putting language to the nature of God, we’ve actually in some sense gotten further away from who God is, because even though we can say God is good, God’s goodness is much larger than our finite human understanding of that term. We may talk about God as Father, but there are ways in which God acts as mother, as well. So these are good things, but because our language, what we say, doesn’t do justice to the wideness of God’s mercy and power and grace, we’re in some ways actually getting further away from God the more we say.
This is where the Pseudo-Dionysius and the via negativa, the negative way, come in. What he says, in essence, is that as you continue to go around the clock, you pluck up words and remove them, because they don’t do justice to who God is. Just like we tack words onto God in order to describe God, so to ought we remove the words sometimes and acknowledge that they are insufficient.
And so as you go along the clock face, to seven, and eight, and nine, you pluck words. You say, all right, perhaps God is Father in some ways, but that limits God’s power in others so I’m going to pull up that word. Perhaps God is omnipotent, but God doesn’t intervene all the time, so I’m going to pull up that word. It doesn’t mean God isn’t those things; it just means that the way in which God is those things is larger than the words we use to talk about them. And as you get to ten and eleven you keep pulling words until you have once again reached the top of the clock face, and, there being no words left, you simply sit in silent awe of the God who, in the final analysis is beyond description.
I don’t know if any of this makes sense, and even if it does, if it resonates. Maybe I’m just drawn to this sort of theology because I come across situations so often in ministry that are just absolutely beyond words. I mean, what do you say about the death of a child that will speak meaning into that moment? There is nothing to do but be silent, to wallow in the horrible reverence of such a tragedy. It helps me understand the poet who said that the only proper response to the death of a child is to roll over and play dead. And yet tragedy isn’t the only reason for this kind of silence. I mean, what do you say in response to such a generous gift like the church has received this week? There is nothing to say that will do justice to that kind of generosity. Only grateful silence.
I don’t know if any of this resonates with you. Maybe I’m just drawn to it because as a preacher, as a professional religious person, it feels like I’m completely out of words as I consider the ongoing racial issues we’ve seen boil over in recent days. I talked about this pretty extensively in last Sunday’s sermon, but when I watch a black man choked to death on camera for selling loose cigarettes, choked to death on camera, and then watch the white police officer who killed him not even face trial, I don’t have words. I saw that Matt Miofsky, pastor of the Gathering United Methodist Church in St. Louis and a person familiar to many of you, said on Twitter this week that “As a person who peddles words for a living, I am running out of them.” Perhaps this is the proper response, for sometimes words get in the way. Sometimes we get in the way.
And perhaps this is what John the Baptist was doing when he went into the wilderness to blaze a trail, to cut a path for the in-breaking of Jesus Christ. Perhaps this is what the prophet Isaiah meant when he says to prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight in the desert a highway for our God, to level the ground and make the rough places plain. You cannot do this important work of clearing until you are willing to set down your expectations, to spend less, to stop getting drawn up into the hype machine that is the Official 2014 Christmas Shopping Season. You cannot prepare a way until you are ready to remove some of those things that seem like they are helping you celebrate, but which, in actuality, are flimsy attempts to fill a void in your heart, for that kind of void is only properly filled by God.
Look. I’m about to sit down, but don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that buying presents is bad. We’ve bought too much for our kid this Christmas just like everybody. But I am asking this. At what point are we buying and buying and buying because we are scared of that silence? At what point are we working until there are decorations on the decorations, just so we don’t have to sit in wonder, in awe of the fact that God became human in order to save us from our sin? At what point are we just trying to distract ourselves from our inadequacies, our sin in the first place?
Or, put another way, don’t you think that by spending less this Christmas, you might actually be celebrating a Christmas much more like Jesus would want us to celebrate?