Preparing the way…

A reflection for the Second Sunday of Advent
by Helen Orr (ordinand on placement)

Based on Malachi 3.1-4 and Luke 3.1-6

As I read through both the Old and New Testament passages of Luke and Malachi one thing strikes me. They were both passages about preparation. The first about “sending a messenger to prepare the way” in Malachi and the second about that messenger having come who is asking us to “Prepare the way of the Lord” for others.

So are we prepared?  What are we preparing for?

At this time of year some of us, well a lot of us really, think that preparing for Christmas involves ordering or buying our turkey and ham, buying lots of things we can afford and perhaps some things we cannot for gifts. Looking forward to some relations and friends coming and perhaps not looking forward to some others coming so much!

Preparing for Christmas may also mean rushing from one event to the next, a nativity play here, a carol concert there, a drinks party here, a Christmas party there. So that by actual Christmas itself we are so exhausted that we barely have time to think about the wonder of Christ’s birth as we collapse in a heap after eating and drinking probably a bit more than we should listening to the Queen’s speech.

For some of us, we’ve already had all the mince pies and mulled wine we are ever going to want and in fact our own Christmas dinner will be a third of even forth such meal of the year, once we include the work do, the friends do the school do and so on…

Others of us are perhaps not so busy as we used to be, perhaps the children are grown if we had any, and we are preparing to have the first Christmas alone? Perhaps we are now without a partner for the first year, or a grandparent, a mother or father, or without a son or daughter present, for whatever the reasons we may be dreading Christmas with the thought of not having them there.  The gap between our feelings and the whole idea of Christmas being a time of “peace and goodwill to all” may be making us feel more and more depressed with every passing day as we are preparing to feel worse and worse by the time Christmas actually arrives.

And during this “credit freeze” whilst some of us are spending, or being encouraged to spend, still more of us are perhaps I imagine trying to save this Christmas, rather than get into more debt. Putting on an ‘austerity Christmas’ probably doesn’t seem right, but with fuel and food prices at an all time high we find we are less and less able to spend the same amount as we did last Christmas.   So we are preparing to tighten our belt or worse still to be in yet MORE debt come the New Year.

So what are we preparing for? The people Luke addresses are very specifically dated from the introduction of the chapter to the time of Roman occupation in Jerusalem. They have been longing and waiting for years and years for the Messiah to come, a person to rescue them from their oppressors – this is why Luke quotes Isaiah here, who was also speaking to God’s people in a similar position of oppression and foreign rule so many years before. It’s to remind them that God’s timing and ours are different but His promises endure forever. He is coming, and will come to save them.

So why does Luke’s passage start before the call to “prepare” with  John “proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins” ?

In what way would repentance make “our paths straight” and be a way to prepare?

In the early church Advent used to be a time like Lent of fasting, a time of prayer and repentance before the birth of Christ when God’s light broke into the world. Why? Because the response all through the bible when people encountered God was as feeling of humility and awe. It is the feeling you  might expect when you meet someone who is so full of grace, love, kindness, goodness, joy, peace and hope that by comparison we feel unclean and small, like the sludge in the drive-way next door to the beautiful pure white snow on the grass. It is this feeling of awe that John is getting at.

I ask again, what are we preparing for? Just as it was for the Israelites many years before, we are preparing for God to arrive in the world, bringing His own unique plan of hope for everyone.

So Advent thought of in this way can be a time – even in the “busy-ness” – of preparing our hearts through repentance to be humble before our God. A time of awe thinking about the Saviour entering the world.

So whilst we are preparing our turkeys or other goodies and buying our presents it is good to remind ourselves that this is a time of awe a time of longing and of waiting. A time of cleansing our hearts and making them clean before God’s salvation appears on the earth.

We can keep asking ourselves these questions: Is this really a “season of peace and goodwill”?  A time of repentance from selfish behaviour and self-obsession?  Or, are we more concerned with what we’re going to get? What we need to buy? Who is going to help? And how our table or house are looking?

Am I worried about being alone or spending too little?

Or am I focusing on the Christ child who was born in a small smelly stable in a tiny town with a future involving much suffering as well as much love.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying good things and preparing a lovely feast. It is lovely to make things look beautiful, buy wonderful presents, to be creative in giving and to cook fabulous food. But are we still remembering what this time of Advent is all about? Are we preparing for Christ’s coming, preparing our hearts so we can be His light in the world today?

Whether we are spending Christmas with others or alone, Christ welcomes us to Him and asks us to spread His message of hope, of love and of peace throughout the world.

I am reminded of the words of a favourite carol of mine and of many of us I’m sure, the final verse of in the Bleak Mid-Winter:

‘What can I give him poor as I am? If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man I would bear my part. Yet what I can I give him, give my heart.’

I hope that we can all, with God’s grace, find that still, calm space amidst all the business this Christmas where we can let Christ in and fully give Him our hearts once more.

And that, in one real sense, is all the preparation we need…

May God’s grace, God’s peace and God’s love be our gifts to everyone we meet this Advent and Christmas time.

AMEN

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