The Mantra of the Desert

Second Sunday of Advent, Year C, RCL,

Baruch 5:1-9, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6, Canticle 16

Detail of St. John the Baptist from the Ghent Altarpiece c1427, by Jan van Eyck [Public domain]

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” is what John the Baptist proclaims. From a desert location, far from civilization, there is a voice crying out “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Anyone who has visited a desert knows of the sprawling landscape which is harsh to anything living. Survival of the fittest is the mantra of the desert. Yet even in what may initially seem arid, bleak, and lonely, there is stunning beauty.

Throughout the Bible, the desert is a place where people, especially prophets found God. In such bleak places, we find Hagar who heard God’s voice in the desert. It is where Jacob wrestles with an angle. And it is in the desert where Moses wanders with the Israelites for 40 years speaking to God all along the way. Israel, God’s people, were formed out of the desert and it is only fitting that the announcement of the Messiah comes heralding from the arid, bleak, and lonely world that we call the desert.

In our Gospel, we find that John didn’t suddenly show up in the desert to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. He seems to have grown up in the desert. This bleak reality and the voice of God formed John into the Advent prophet we know.

John’s message of preparation is about Jesus’ coming; not as a baby but as an adult. It is about Jesus coming as the Christ, the Messiah. And ultimately this is why we celebrate Christmas. Christmas is the time when the Messiah was born. It is a joy-filled time because through the Messiah we have our salvation. Yet it is also a time which brings awe, for through the Messiah comes Judgment.

People who are less familiar with Advent often push back on the eschatological imagery, on it being a time of penitence and repentance. They would like the Church to partake in the joy that rest of the world seems to be experiencing right now. Bright displays in the stores, Christmas carols on the radio, and parties with friends. In contrast, the church’s Advent, hymns and readings seem to bring up lament and foreboding. It is true that Advent is not as solemn as Lent, this Advent anticipation also contains great joy.

I wonder if Advent is something similar to a mother who has had a history of difficult pregnancies, a mother who may have lost a baby to the harsh realities of life. When this mother becomes pregnant again, her emotions are complicated. Of course there is the excitement of being pregnant, of having a long awaited child. There is a love that cannot be contained for her forming family. Yet there is often anxiety about the health of the baby or her own health. There are the memories of her last pregnancy that cannot be put away in a box. A life that came with tragedy instead of joy. Presently her life is filled with excitement, wonder, and amazement but this incredible Joy filled heart is tempered by the past sadness, fear, and bleak loneliness.

This is advent. We experience the anticipated joy of a new birth. The joy that come with the birth of a king. The joy that comes with new life and our salvation. But this great joy is tempered with our sorrows and regrets, with our sins that will be judged. With our sadness that comes as we think about our own death, the destruction of the world; even if the destruction is created new again.

Around year 360, Epiphany is the holiday of joyful observance. Epiphany is the day that the three wise men came and offered gifts to Christ. And on Epiphany gifts were given to one another with the wise men in mind. It was some 500 years later that Christmas takes hold and Advent is already attached to it. But Christmas wasn’t anything like we have today. The celebrations ebbed and flowed over the centuries but even as late as 1659 the Massachusetts legislature banned Christmas and made a law to which anyone celebrating Christmas was fined 5 shillings.[1] A good amount of money back then. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that Christmas has become what we think of today. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

John has a profound message for us, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” I don’t have a book or a checklist for you on how to do this, how to prepare the way of the Lord. But I know we are a desert people. I heard it said recently, that the

“desert changes people. There is nowhere to hide and no way to survive on your own. You have to depend on each other and on God; otherwise, you are not going to make it. Desert strips away all that is superfluous, all that is illusion, and all that we know. It is only then that God does the radical work of the formation of the heart and of the eye.”[2]

We as a people cannot prepare the way of the Lord by ourselves. It takes a community to make changes and be changed. Through love and trust in God and one another, the paths are made straight, and the valleys within ourselves shall be filled. Preparing the way of the Lord is a group effort of faith, where we hold one another in our hearts and share God’s grace. This isn’t the intangible holding someone in your heart but the actions that go with it. Actually telling someone that you love them or care for them. Putting your arm around their shoulder, so that they can feel your love for them the same way that God loves you.

When we experience love such as this, the desert of our hearts; the arid, bleak and lonely places of our lives are transformed into beauty. Through love, we experience the beauty of our own self; the stunningly beautiful image in which God made us.



2. The Rev. Sue Eaves: CO2: The Second Sunday of Advent, Year C (2018)

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