I am preparing my advent 2 service for Sunday, and am struck by the themes of preparation in the readings, these are not the preparations of gift lists, of planning menus, of decorating, and then as often in my case redecorating the tree. There are no trimmings in our readings, and certainly no carol sheets, candles and window decorations.
I set up my nativity set this morning, posted a photo on Facebook , beginning my often used Christmas myth buster that there is no donkey mentioned in the gospel narratives, nor as a friend added is there any mention of a stable, and while there are plenty of angels around they appear beginning their messages with the phrase do not be afraid, so they certainly aren’t tinsel bedecked and sweet!
This weeks readings are about preparing a way, making smooth paths, clearing boulders, levelling mountains and filling valleys so that a rough way might be made passable. They are also about preparation of hearts and minds of the people who will walk these paths, words like repentance and refining, purifying and cleansing rub shoulders, with the potential for making us shudder. Do I need to repent, do I need refining, do I need cleansing and purifying? The answer to all of those is probably a resounding yes! Yes I do, and of course advent gives me a chance to step into a space where I can look to my soul, but first of course I will need to make space in amongst the lists and activities that can so easily clog December in order to do so.
I reflect too that the readings speak not only to individuals but also to communities:
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. Malachi 3: 2-4
And not only to the elite, it seems that God chooses to work on the margins, or from the margins:
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 Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah… Luke 3: 1-3
So what do these readings say to the church today, and how do these readings inform and help us to share the gospel message? Maybe they offer us real reflection space, to consider our direction of travel honestly and soberly, as the world plunges in and out of the global pandemic many of us are left asking questions regarding lifestyle and former ways of being, the highlighting of the global disparity in vaccine availability has been a real challenge to justice and fairness. We have also been looking to issues of climate change and sustainability, the Black Lives Matter movement highlighting issues of racism, and the Methodist Churches vote on the God In Love Unites Us resolutions have caused us to think about the fullness of human flourishing in regard to sexuality and inclusion. Inclusion may well be the key word here!
To include the excluded we need to create a clear way for vaccines to be offered to all! To include the excluded we need to consider how consumption fuelled by consumerism is accelerating global warming, did you know that one of the most polluted places on the planet is the middle of the English Channel, the cause? Container ships! Check it out if you think that may be untrue!
To include the excluded means to value all life as equal, regardless of gender, colour, sexuality and ability, all should be given space and a place to thrive, to live safely, and not to be wondering where the next meal may be coming from, or whether your home will be under water next year!
John the Baptist called people to repentance and to the cleansing ritual of Baptism, which while symbolic was an outward sign of an inner decision to change, to live differently, thus becoming different. I have been in so many meetings where we have talked about getting back to normal, and fewer meetings where we have pondered what the new normal might be, even fewer are looking to real change, refusing to settle or to look to settle somewhere a little further along the road, but articulate a call to be roadbuilders, and way makers, moving the boulders, dealing with the specks in our eyes that we might see clearly. This is hard work, but a work that we must do individually and together…
I wonder what we might start with today? Do you hear the call in the wilderness?
‘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;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke 3: 4-6