Advent2, Year C
Luke 3:1-6
December 6, 2015

SIGNS OF ENDING ALL AROUND US

Signs of ending all around us; darkness, death and winter days
shroud our lives in fear and sadness, dumbing mouths that long to praise.
Come, O Christ, and dwell among us! Hear our cries, come set us free.
Give us hope and faith and gladness. Show us what there yet can be.

Dean W. Nelson, lyrics for hymn

We haven’t started decorating at our house yet, but I’ve taken the first critical step of beginning to think about it. And as I began to think – which like all unaccustomed forms of exercise, was exhausting – I found myself thinking of the interesting mixture of remembrance, practicality, and continuity which every year seems to accompany the unpacking of our Christmas ornaments. Like many of you, we’ve accumulated a pile of ornaments over the years. There are in our boxes representatives of the choices, good and bad, we’ve made each year as we picked out an ornament or two to add to our collection. There are some that were gifts from friends or relatives. There are a few survivors of kindergarten Christmas projects and some from the early days when we had to be creative to fill the giant tree I used to insist on with no budget to speak of. And there are a few brought over from my childhood. Angels, Santas, reindeer, balls, bells, glittery things that catch the eye and reflect the lights; all mingled together in the boxes. We rarely talk about it, but as I unpack them I frequently think briefly of the story of each. And I try to balance off sentimentality with practicality: that elf from my childhood looks like he has the mange – time to toss him out. But somehow he goes back into the box; too ragged for the tree, but still not ready for the trash can.

A Christmas tree has something about it, I think, which I can’t quite define. It’s not “the magic of the season”, all those Hallmark moments. No – I think the tree and the ornaments represent a proclamation of hope. Of hope for continuity, for blessedness, for peace, for light in the darkness. One of my favorite moments of the season is when, after the ordeal of setting up the tree is blessedly over, I sit in the darkened room and enjoy its light. All the accumulation of the years lies on it, joined together in beauty and harmony. It’s the dream we have for our lives: beauty, light, harmony – the years all brought together – all the seasons of our lives joining together to mean something. The tree silently carries my desire for unity and redemption, for healing the ravages of time.

Can it be that from our endings, new beginnings you create?
Life from death and from our failings, realms of wholeness generate?
Take our fears, then, Lord, and turn them into hopes for life anew.
Fading light and dying season sing their Glorias to you.

The desires reflected by the Christmas tree are universal, even if my tiresome analysis of tinsel and ball is not. We long for stability, for meaning, for relief from the flight of time and the wounds left by life. I want somehow to connect my childhood memories of the 1950’s and my teenage memories of the 1960’s with my life now, not just remembering, but recovering – recovering the people I’ve loved, the friends I’ve lost, the person I was. Nostalgia is an expression of our failing fight against the ravages of time. My Christmas nostalgia is, admittedly in a very minor key, an echo of the dreams of the prophets of Israel, those who saw in a flash what God was up to. Those who sit in darkness have seen a great light. But, o how far off that light shines. The history of Israel is a history of endurance with the help of God as we wait and wait and wait. Wait for the slow-coming fullness of time.

Seen from that angle, John the Baptist is something very different. Not the last of the great prophets, but something new. Not one who foresees, but one who announces. It’s time – it’s time. Start the road crews working in the desert because God is on his way. Better burn up all that blocks you, all that makes you stumble, because he’s here at last. So the writer of the Gospel of Luke anchors our story, not in the vast rotations of the cosmos, but in the politics of a particular place and time. You can lay your finger on it – here, right here in the year when Tiberius and Herod and Philip, when Lysanias and Annas and Caiaphus, rats every one, all conjoined like some malign conjunction of the planets – there, right there, was where God started changing things. It’s no longer out in the future – it’s here , right exactly here.

Speak, O God, your Word among us. Barren lives your presence fill.
Life from death, and from our rendings, terrors calm, forebodings still.
Let your promised realm of justice blossom now throughout the earth;
Your dominion bring now near us; we await the saving birth.

So into our season of Advent comes the Baptist’s cry: get ready. Prepare the way of the Lord. You want healing – get ready. You want salvation – Get ready. You want the real magic of Christmas – get ready. Because God’s coming, coming in great power. It’s time to get ready to receive him. How? By clearing a path – by removing from your life those things that block the entry of God – every valley of despair, every mountain of resentment and grudge, every hill of pride and distraction, every crooked way of hatred and greed, every rough way of self-assertion. With God’s help, level it all. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God. And I will find the union, the healing, the peace, all the things I long for. I will see and touch and taste them. And I will find them, not in a box of old ornaments, not in a perfectly proper Victorian Christmas, but in a quieter, deeper, holier place. I will find them in a child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.

The voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord.