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The Journey to Bethlehem by Way of the Desert

December 4, 2010

We’re in the 2nd week of Advent. This season is quickly passing us by. For those of us in the church, we can assume that we’re all at least packed and ready to go to Bethlehem for our annual visit. Maybe some of us have even begun the journey. It’s a familiar visit. It’s one that promises “silent nights” and manger scenes with snow-laced barns and halos over the holy family’s heads. Yes, it’s a wonder how quickly this visit comes every year. We find ourselves scurrying around to get ourselves together for the journey. It seems to come sooner and sooner with each passing year.

On this second leg of our trip to Bethlehem we’re called to make a pit stop in the desert. There we have to meet a strange preacher with an even stranger message. We might think, “Oh no, not another preacher!” Maybe we can just stay on the bus and not do this part of the journey? We’re so tired of hearing preachers. So many have showed us that preaching is prime ground for manipulation and wealth accumulation. We joke about how poor preachers are but the truth is, everyone knows we get tax breaks for being preachers. It’s really not all that bad to be a preacher and make a living in the grand scheme of things. So forgive us if we’re not too enthused about stopping to hear another preacher with another tired message.

John, we’re told, is a preacher who’s a little different than many we’ve probably encountered before. He wears animals skins for clothing. He eats honey and locusts. He doesn’t shave and preaches like one who doesn’t care if he offends the whole world. At least we can go hear this strange preacher, maybe just once, if for nothing else than to see the spectacle.

And what exactly does John have to say to us as we make our way to Bethlehem? “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” Well, what if I’m in the church? What if I’ve made this journey before? Doesn’t that mean we’ve covered that item? I knew this would be a waste of time. Yet another preacher with yet another tired message. Really?

My wife is currently participating in a small group study called Advent Conspiracy. She’s taught many of the mind-blowing lessons of that study of how much money we, as a society, spend at Christmas and for all the wrong reasons. Maybe John’s message of repentance has nothing to do with “the sweet by and by” as we in the church have painted it. Maybe it actually has something to do with right now. Maybe this is a more relevant message than we give it credit for?

I have a good friend who preached a sermon last Ash Wednesday and used an illustration that’s just stuck with me. He talked about how he learned to do roofing on a college ministry mission trip. The interesting thing about roofing, he noted, was that quality roofing means you sometimes have to peal the shingles off to the roof’s original state. This way you’re not just patching the job by placing another shingle awkwardly on top of others. Instead, you’re fixing the problem by taking the roof back to its original life and the rebuilding it.

I think that might be what John means in his message of repentance. It’s a hard message to hear on our way to Bethlehem. But it’s even harder when we’re weighed down with the baggage of unfulfilled fantasies of happiness from presents and materials. Maybe John is telling us to live our lives by simpler means. Maybe we really should just focus on living lives of love and generosity for others. After all, at the end of the day, our stuff and ambitions are only smokescreens of a life of want and desire-lives that do not really exist. No, we’re both harshly and lovingly reminded in Advent that all we really have is God.

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