Advent II

As I was preparing for this service, it felt difficult to remember that we are still at the beginning of Advent when Christmas seems already just around the corner, in just a little more than two weeks from now! Yet today, we have just lit the second candle, and we are asked not to rush and to take our time with the Scriptures. We are indeed at the beginning: The beginning of our liturgical year, as we start a new cycle, leaving Mark’s Gospel for Luke’s, we’re also at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel (We’re in Chapter 3, but it is believed by most scholars that this is where Luke started his redaction and that he added the nativity later). And so we find ourselves at the beginning of everything, at the root, in the desert with John, who, as he announces the coming of Christ, reminds us of our baptism, the beginning of our Christian journeys.

This past week, I was reading a book interestingly called “The unhappy secrets of Christian life” (I picked it because I was intrigued by the title) and the author, Philip Yancey, tells about his years in college and how he struggled with the Christian faith in different ways and one of the stories that he tells really struck me. One day, he invited one of his non believer friends to a reunion with other Christians, hoping to convince him to join his church. The meeting was actually a discussion about what the Christian faith had best to offer, and everyone shared their points of view. Some of the Christians said that, because of our belief in the resurrection of the dead, only our faith can offer real hope (the response I usually give!), some others talked about happiness, peace, social justice and so on…But Philip Yancey’s friend did not say anything and so, at the end of the meeting, Yancey asked him what he thought. That’s when his friend told him that he was very surprised to hear all those people talking about their faith as if it gave them something that made them superiors to others. He said: “I thought that what makes you a Christian is that you acknowledge that you are a sinner!”

I thought that what makes you a Christian is that you acknowledge that you are a sinner!”. Not hope, not happiness, not peace, not social justice. The only difference between us and non-Christians is that we admit that we are sinners, not better than anyone else. And that’s it. And it sounds very true to me. The Christian journey starts with a baptism of repentance, an acknowledgment before men and women and before God, that we are all sinners. And that’s exactly where we are today, right there, at the beginning, in the desert with John the Baptist.

So what does it mean, to acknowledge that we are sinners?

Well, I think for most of us, most of the time, we think about sin as a breaking of the rules. From our childhood, we are taught we need to obey our parents, our teachers, to conform to a certain way of behaving in society, to follow the highway code…And there is certainly some breaking of the rules involved when we sin. Yet I think that more deeply, for John the Baptist, the awareness of our sinfulness is something that starts way before, in the desert, where very likely there are few rules one needs to obey since there is no human society. I was actually in the desert recently, I went to see the Grand Canyon for the first time last weekend, and as we were driving in the desert, I could sense growing inside of me a feeling of awe and fear at the same time. I think the desert is a place that is very humbling because it makes us realize how small and dependent we are, how much we need to rely on God to create for us what we need for our lives and how much we depend on others to provide for us what we need for our lives. John the Baptist proclaims that: “Valley are filled and mountains are made low” because the desert brings all of us to level surface, to our basic needs, to our reality as human beings, human bodies in need of water, food and shelter – and bathroom stops…Indeed, nobody is better than any one else! But the thing is, there is so much we take for granted all the time. We forget we are nothing without God, without the generosity of nature and our relationships with one others. We keep forgetting our neediness. When I was a teenager, I thought that, by inviting God into my life, I would make so much progress that at some point I’ll be okay and do all things right! But as you can guess, as I added years to my life, I realized I would never be “fixed” if by that I meant I could do without God’s forgiveness. This is the paradox of religious life: At some point we believe that we can be so religious, and therefore so perfect, that we don’t need anyone, not even God! This is typically what the Pharisees were doing. But if we don’t want to be a Pharisee, we have constantly to go back to the wilderness to realize how incomplete we are without God and without one another.

And so during Advent we are invited to remember. To remember that we need God, and to get ready to receive God in our lives. Now how does it look like?

Well, I don’t know how it is for you but I think that, for most of us, when we prepare to receive a special guest, we spend a lot of time cleaning and cooking. And sometimes it’s nice to make an effort, but sometimes it’s exhausting. It happened to me several times to spend so much energy on the cooking and the cleaning that when my guests finally showed up, the only thing I wanted to do was to go to bed! This is ridiculous because when I am invited by friends I never think: “I hope it’s clean at their place” or “I hope they have prepared this complicated French recipe”. All I wish is that they will be happy to see me, that we will have enough to eat and drink even if it’s not very sophisticated, and all I wish is that we can share stories and have a good time. Well, I think that one thing that the Gospel teaches us is that it is with us as it is with God. Jesus did not come on earth and God does not visit us expecting everything will be clean and we have prepared something very sophisticated. What the Gospel teaches us is that God came among us to eat, drink, and share stories, to be with us and to be one of us, to be in fellowship. The preparation we are asked to do in Advent is not a spring (or a winter) cleaning, remembering all our sins and cultivating a guilty conscience. Our preparation in Advent is the preparation of a joyful heart, like when you start getting excited because you are going to be visited by someone you love. This is true for Advent, but of course it is mostly an image for how we are supposed to live our lives: Like there is something good to be expected, like there is somebody very special to meet with along the way, and to be reunited with in the end.

It’s interesting, if you think about it, that John does not so much ask people to find the way, or to find their way. This is often the thing we wish for though: that we may find our way. But for John, it’s about making a way, making a path, in the desert, where often there is no road at all! It’s a good image for our lives. We can’t wish to know exactly what is good, right, what the perfect life is, but we can all do something, keep going because there is this hope that somebody will meet us on the road and that it will give sense to everything. All of us, we experience things that don’t make sense at all and this is the reality of evil. It should not be, and so there is no good reason for it. Yet, in spite of evil, our lives still have meaning because this is by living our lives, making our ways, that we meet with God. Maybe you have experienced that when meeting your spouse or when you had your children: you experienced you could finally love your life because every step on the way led you to be with those special people.

Well, once again, I think it is the same with God. We look back at what happened to us, and all can or will make sense because our lives are the ways that lead us to God: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways will be made smooth”. We find in the Scriptures this wonderful promise that our lives are worth it, no matter how twisted or how painful they are, because as Isaiah said a long time ago: “All flesh shall see the salvation of our God”. How much different our perspective on our whole lives would be if this truth really could really sink in: “All flesh will see the salvation of our God”.

Because in the end, of course, the thing is: it is more about God finding us than we finding God. I think that what Luke tells us is mostly that, if the word of God came to John the Baptist in the wilderness, God can find us anywhere. No matter the way we take, there is always a way for God, even when there is no way at all. Maybe today we feel in our hearts that we have been too hurt to believe in God, or maybe we think that we have hurt too many people to interest God. But the Gospel and our service of healing remind us that there is no obstacle for God: valley and mountain are both alike, we are all on our way and we can trust that God’s grace will meet us wherever we are. And this is what accepting our sinfulness and receiving forgiveness could look like. After all, it is only the beginning of our journeys. Amen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *