Written for the annual Installation of Officers & Christmas Observance of Worth Commandery № 19, K∴T∴
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Prepare ye the way of the LORD! This is one of several instructions given to us by John the Baptist. It’s iconic. It’s dramatic. It demands our attention. John says these words while baptizing the faithful in the wildernesses of Judea. This is all described in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 3, Verses 1 through 12. That’s the Gospel reading for tomorrow, the Second Sunday in Advent.
This is a perfect command for this time of year. It’s not quite Christmas; we’re in the middle of Advent. This is a penitential season that calls us to prepare for Christmas. In our scripture reading cycle, we are getting ready for the birth of Jesus. This is a time of new beginnings, with new hope for all. We need to be ready for it! At times, this can feel a lot more literal. We make plans, clean our homes, and buy gifts. We prepare, prepare, and prepare.
Tomorrow is the Second Sunday in Advent, which gives us these scripture readings:
- The Book of Isaiah, Chapter 11, Verses 1 through 10
- Psalm 72, Verses 1 through 7 and 18 through 19
- The Letter to the Romans, Chapter 15, Verses 4 through 13
- And the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 3, Verses 1 through 12.
Our Isaiah reading is a powerful prophecy. It’s one of the most important ones in the Hebrew Bible. It describes the coming of a Messiah, starting at the vivid opening line:
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
As Christians and Knights Templar, we understand this to be Jesus Christ. The reading describes a beautiful, peaceful, and just world. Wolves, lambs, lions, children, snakes, and all sorts of animals live in harmony. The knowledge of God fills the whole world!
The Gospel reading, of course, is the crux of our lesson today:
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them,
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
That’s where our Gospel reading concludes. What do you think of that wake-up call? John pulls no punches and minces no words with his instruction. He calls us to “prepare the way of the Lord.” First, though, he gives us a command in preparation: repent! Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. John sends a clear message. In order to prepare the way, we must repent.
It sounds harsh, in some ways. Confession, sin, repentance. These words can sound a little ugly. Combine them with John’s fiery delivery, and they sound downright imposing. A smelly, half-naked man, yelling in the desert inspires little comfort.
Repentance doesn’t have to be scary. John is quoting from Isaiah, one of the most hopeful books of the Bible. Isaiah gives us beautiful visions of paradise! We need to look at sin and repentance from a different perspective. The way we frame ideas makes a real difference.
Let’s boil things down to their most simple form. Christianity is about having two loving relationships. One is a focused love of, and with, God. The other is a universal love of our neighbor. What is sin, then? Sin, in this context, is failing to participate in those relationships. We need to both love, and give ourselves to love. When we don’t do that, we are in sin. Confession, then, is admitting that we need to love better. Repentance is our new (or renewed) commitment to that love.
John’s call to repentance is radical and transformative. This is the changing of one’s life at its core. It happens as a result of deep penitence or spiritual conversion. It’s the turning around of your whole nature. Repentance — this turning around — is a continual process. Our salvation is secure, true. Preparing for the kingdom, though, is a work in progress.
John warns us that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” What does this mean for us? Jesus makes this clear in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 17, Verses 20 and 21, when he says,
“The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”
This, then, means that the kingdom is here, at our feet, and all around us!
This kingdom, though, promised us peace. Isaiah says so. Jesus says so. If the kingdom is “here,” then where is the peace? Everywhere we look, there is a lack of peace. There are twenty-two separate wars raging across the globe. Our kids aren’t safe in their own schools. Last year, the opioid epidemic killed eighty-one thousand people. We haven’t even started talking about broken homes. What about folks with no home at all? Something is missing in the way of peace.
When Sarah and I first took our son home, I stopped reading the news for a long time. Every time I tried to catch up, I’d have to stop. I would hold Raffi in my arms, awestruck by the beauty of creation. At the same time, I would fear for his future. Late many nights, while soothing his colic, a dark question plagued me. What kind of world is my boy going to grow up in?
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. That’s not a question a father has to ask. There can be peace — but how do we achieve it? The answer to our question is right here, in scripture. Let’s refer to the book of Isaiah, Chapter 32, Verse 17:
The fruit of that righteousness will be peace; its effect will be quietness and confidence forever.
That righteousness is fulfilling those relationships with God and our neighbor. That righteousness grows from our repentance and the resulting healing. It comes from living in, and living towards, God. The peace that we’ve been looking for isn’t something that we just find. It isn’t even something that we can claim or earn. We grow the peace of the kingdom, just like fruit! In the New Eden, we are the gardeners.
This makes sense for Christmastime. The season of Christmas is about rebirth and renewal. It’s a reflection of Easter. The rebirth is right there! Repentance is about letting God work through you so much that you change! You won’t be the same person you were before! This isn’t a one-time deal, either. Every time we make this commitment, we transform. In some cases, it’s a big transformation. In some cases, it’s just enough. But in all cases, it’s a gift from above. It’s a new lease on life: a rebirth.
Jesus came to Earth on Christmas Day to bring us the kingdom. It’s here, with us, at this moment. It’s our job to prepare it for his return. When we say, “us,” and “our,” it means us, right here. The Saints who repent and build the kingdom aren’t just dead people in old paintings. The 1929 hymn, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God,” says it best:
They lived not only in ages past,
there are hundreds of thousands still,
the world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,
for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.
We are the saints of God! We repent, love and give ourselves to love, and seek peace. This is the Great Work that furthers the Kingdom, right here! When we build, we’re not just building for ourselves. We build for everyone that comes after us. When my baby boy smiles at me, I know who I’m building the kingdom for.
When we took our first breaths, the world handed us swords and spears. With his words and his resurrection, Jesus gave us a hammer and an anvil. It’s our job to prepare the way of the Lord. Let’s beat those swords into plowshares, and those spears into pruning hooks.