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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
I noticed my wife Janna a night or so ago sending out birthday cards to a few friends and relatives. I am no longer responsible for buying the cards in our family. Janna has taken over that responsibility long ago, but I can sign them. There was one particular birthday card that caught my fancy. It was a picture of girl with a backpack standing on a road diverging in two directions. One road sign above her points to, “Your life ahead,” and the other sign says, “Options no longer available.” Inside, you read, “Happy Birthday- I hope it’s a good day anyway.” It was funny, perhaps because it was so true. There are occasions and times in life where there seem to be no choices, and no options available.
Of course, there are many reasons that you may feel that way. Perhaps, you’re not feeling encouraged. You wish that there would be someone who would recognize your work. An anonymous note thanking you for your efforts on the fundraising committee; a word of encouragement spoken to you by a teacher on the way out of class about the time you’ve spent working with your child. Or perhaps, you’re feeling stressed and stretched. You’re sandwiched between the exhausting job of tending to your own children while also dealing with parents who are suffering health problems or slipped into a form of Alzheimer’s- or may be living hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Or perhaps, you’re still carrying the burdens of the past. Misjudgments and mistakes continue to haunt you. You would like to begin the journey again. Unfortunately, for you, life is nothing more than a time of transitions, of unknown beginnings, bitter losses and ambivalent farewells.
It seems, 2000 years, men and women felt just as powerless, with the few options and choices available to them. That is how St. Luke begins our gospel reading. “In the fifteen year of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate as governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee.” It was a hierarchical world reflecting the political and social reality of the day. The Emperor, King and Governor were the ancient world’s political elite, but they were not only ones who controlled the lives of everyday people. The evangelist goes on to add the “spiritual” or “religious” leaders, Annas and Caiaphas to his forces as well. Surprisingly, however, it was not among the elite that God chosen to make his presence known. Instead, we read that God appeared in the margins of life, in the wilderness, and there he sent his spirit to a man named John the baptizer.
In a world divided by politics and religion alike, so much like our own, the word of God that came to John was a call to repentance, to return to the Lord. And so John went out into the region around the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He spoke of choices and new possibilities. That was in sharp contrast to the authorities of the world who continued to post signs, “Options no longer available to you.” John’s call, my friends, to repentance was intended as good news. You see, preparing the way of the Lord, is not simply about decorating for Christmas and creating the right atmosphere for the holidays. Preparing the way is about making a choice. How will you choose to live your life? Defined by the decisions and judgments of your past, or by the power to begin again by God’s grace. The challenge, of course, is that choice may mean change.
The great American author John Steinbeck wrote, “It is the nature of man as he grows older … to protest against change, particularly change for the better.” There are those who stubbornly claim that, “you can’t teach old dogs new tricks.” In my previous parish, I regularly visited an elderly homebound member of the church. She greeted me cordially and was friendly, but when I would read to her from the Bible, she would take her hearing aid out of her ears. I once asked her why, to which she responded, “Oh Pastor, at my age, I’ve heard enough.”
Perhaps we’re all a bit the same. We all believe that we have heard and know enough. Choice and change is hard. It is often a matter of pride versus perspective. In order to feel confident, you need to ask the question will the change be good for you in the long run? Now why is that so important? Because, true change takes time including the time necessary for returning to that starting point. In the wilderness moments of life, God is giving you a possibility to try and choose again. Along the way, you may discover that God wasn’t punishing you so much as allowing the natural consequences to unfold before you. You may learn as well that anger, envy and resentment must be redirected or they will suffocate the life out of you and poison the world that surrounds you. Yes, when you choose to admit and recognize when you are wrong and to build bridges instead of walls, God can do amazing things. He can even place you back on a path that you could have never imagined where new options are possible.
So where do you begin? Preparing the way and making a choice always starts with little steps. It may be as simple as recognizing the initial point of departure. You see, you can’t physically move to another place until you first return to that place where your direction was determined. Wouldn’t we all like to forget the bad decisions and mistakes of the past two years? I am reminded of the young first-grader who thought he could change the Christmas story by changing one line in the gospel. The Sunday School had been preparing for the Christmas pageant for months. The songs had been memorized. And when Joseph came to the inn and asked if there was room, the little first-grade boy playing the innkeeper replied, “You’re lucky. We just had a cancellation.” My friends, Jesus offers that possibility, but only if you return to the place where that decision was made. That is what repentance means, and then when you do return Jesus can rewrite your tragic story. He can rebuild your broken and toppled life; he can restore a tried and strained relationship. Yes, he can renew a worn and torn existence, and offer new options again- if you choose to change. After all, you cannot change someone else- change must begin with you.
John Wesley captured this hope of a life where options are still available in his familiar Advent hymn, Come, thou long-expected Jesus. He wrote, “Come, thou long-expected Jesus, Born to set thy people free; From our fears and sins release us; Let us find our rest in thee.” Mind you, the good news of the long-expected Jesus may not be an important message, if everything in your life is just already. But it is a powerful message of hope and wonder for those who have been burdened by fear and sin and are longing to follow a new path where options are available.
My friends, you may not believe that you have much choice in the life before you, but you do. Repent, rejoice and be glad, the Long-Expected Jesus has come. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.