"Prepare the way of the Lord". The season of Advent is a time of expectancy, a time of hope for things to come, as well as a time to remember that two thousand years ago God was preparing for the greatest gift he has given us since the gift of life itself. As we open the windows on our Advent calendars we are no doubt excited by the idea of presents to be received, or the joy of presents to be given to those we love, as we celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ. Advent is a time of waiting, knowing something good will happen, a time of preparation, to make sure that things are ready to make the day as special as it should be. This Sunday is the second Sunday of Advent, although looking round the shops we might be forgiven for thinking we are sometime in the third month of Advent.
But as we open those windows, with their seasonal pictures or perhaps something sweet and edible, we don't just wait for the birthday celebration. We should also use this time to think especially of the time when we believe Jesus will come again to claim his kingdom on earth. This will be a time when we will all live in peace and good will, when we can be safe and happy in each other's company, knowing God's will and living joyfully in his presence. Isaiah had a vision of life in that time. He tells us of God's Holy Mountain, where the knowledge and fear of God have miraculous effects. He tells us: ' the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.' Isaiah's images of the vulnerable, the exploited being safe among those who have naturally been their hunters and oppressors serves as a useful message to us. If we are serious about preparing for God's kingdom on earth we must do something to rid ourselves of those inequalities and barriers in our society that have seemed to us to be as natural and taken for granted as the fact that a lion likes lambs, that is the flavour of them! Situations like the gap between rich and poor, ever widening, and the struggle of a few to hold power over many, often through violent means, disputes over land and possessions, the rat race, the abuse of fellow human beings for no greater reason than the colour of their skin, their beliefs or cultural differences; these problems we take for granted as the way of the world. Mankind itself is full of lions, lambs, leopards and kids. It has its share of viper's holes over which to play, the prejudice, exploitation and discrimination we see daily in the news and, if we are honest, closer to home. For many, Christmas is a time for tension within families, which, like society, have their prejudices and disagreements, their imperfections and undercurrents.
But for all this wickedness, hatred and turmoil that we witness in the world around us we can use this time to remember that God loves us. He loves us so much that he sent his only son, Isaiah calls him the shoot of Jesse, the little child that will lead these animals in peace, so that if we allow him to lead us we can have something of his kingdom here on earth as we look forward to his return as our King. So during Advent we give ourselves a time of preparation, a time to take stock of our own lives and review our own role in bringing that kingdom closer to home.
In the gospel reading we heard of John the Baptist, as he called out "Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near". Here was the voice in the wilderness Isaiah told us about, calling "Make his paths straight. Prepare the way of the Lord". And the message of John to the people listening by the banks of the river Jordan was "Repent". Look inside yourselves and clear out all those things, which are spoiling your relationship with God. He didn't call on them to go out and fight global oppression, go and stamp out prejudice and discrimination in the world around you. He called on them and he calls on us to examine ourselves, our own faults, our sins and failures, those things that have led to missed opportunities and spoilt relationships, those things that have coloured the way we look at others and that have tainted their perception of us and consequently of the God we believe lives within us.
I wonder if John was thinking of the words of Isaiah when he confronted the Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them a 'brood of vipers'. Even the viper's hole had a place on God's Holy Mountain. Listening to John speaking of the Kingdom of Heaven these people believed that being descended from Abraham meant that they already had a direct path there. It didn't really matter what was inside, they were the chosen people of God.
John could see what they were thinking. "Don't presume to say ' We have Abraham for our ancestor!'" By this he was saying 'Don't think that just because you belong to the chosen people that stops you having to look inside, from searching yourself in preparation for the coming of the kingdom.' Through the coming of Christ, all people were included as children of Abraham. Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians "It is those who rely on faith that are the children of Abraham." (Gal 3.7) so for the Pharisees and Sadducees to consider themselves exclusive meant they were deluding themselves.
As a church we must ourselves take care not to fall into the trap they made for themselves. Assuming themselves to be the chosen people they became very good at showing the outward observances of their religion, the regular public exhibitions of worship, the ritual sacrifices, all those things that gave the outside world a view of their cultural identity and traditions. Whilst we ourselves are so caught up in arguments over forms of worship, high or low church, protestant or catholic, bells and smells or happy clappy, perhaps we are also directing our attention away from examining our own spirituality, our own compassion for Godís creation, our own inner relationship with God, and our personal response to His presence in our hearts and daily lives. It is easier for us to concentrate on keeping up appearances making sure that things look right from the outside. The Pharisees and Sadducees, along with us, could do well to recall Isaiah's words when he tells us; "He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear." And perhaps that is just as well for some of us! No, the path to the kingdom of God lies within us and can be made straight by the 'knowledge of the Lordí that brought peace to Isaiah's Holy Mountain, and can bring peace to our own lives. That is a knowledge and reverence for what God means to us on a personal level, from his revelation of himself to each one of us.
So as we prepare ourselves for the Advent of Christmas, trying to make sure that we make it the joyful occasion that it should be, when we remember the birth of our Saviour, and try to return God's generosity to us by being generous to others we should also remember the reason for the arrival of that little child. If our hearts are the pathway through to God we recognise that that pathway, that road to God is often full of blockages. Just as the roads we travel on daily are often littered with traffic cones, road works, fallen trees and large holes, so our own pathway to God needs constant attention and repair. Sometimes we don't have the inner resources to patch up the cracks or clear away the obstacles, although a road in frequent use is often better maintained, the more a road is used the easier it is to keep it free of obstacles. So where will we get the tarmac, the materials we need to service, repair and maintain our inner road to God? In preparing the way of the Lord, as John invites us to do, we are given some useful advice in Paul's letter to the Romans. I read from the Jerusalem translation. "Everything that was written, long ago, in the scriptures was meant to teach us something about hope, from the examples scripture gives of how people who did not give up were helped by God. And may he who helps us when we refuse to give up, help you all to be tolerant with each other, following the example of Christ Jesus so that united in mind and voice you may give Glory to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."
If we can all work hard, through prayer, through reflection on God's word and through openness to God's revelation of himself to us, clearing our road to God then surely the Glory of God can flow out of us this Christmas, into our families and into the wider community spreading a little of the Kingdom of God that we are joyfully waiting for.