Cleaning Up

I have a sermon this week! I saved this five different ways to make sure I didn’t lose it, and it worked! (Of course, the week I take all those precautions, nothing went wrong at all.) This is my sermon from the Second Sunday of Advent, December 9th. Every year on the Second Sunday of Advent, we encounter John the Baptist, announcing the coming of the Lord. John was announcing the very first time that adult Jesus arrived on the scene, and called people to a baptism of repentance. This year, I focused on what those preparations look like for us, 2,000 years later. We aren’t expecting Jesus to come in the flesh, but we do watch for and anticipate the ways that God is active in our lives. Enjoy!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

How do you prepare for visitors at your house? Do you clean? Maybe cook a special food, or mix up a welcoming drink? Growing up, I honestly hated when we’d have people over, because my parents would insist that the whole house had to be extra clean. Including my bedroom, which no-one ever even went in. I didn’t understand why my room should be picked up and dusted and vacuumed, when the guests were never even going to get to the second floor of the house.

But my mother would go over everything with a fine-tooth comb. Literally. She would even comb out the fringe on the rug, so that it wasn’t tangled and laid smoothly. Growing up, I thought it was really stupid, when it was all going to be ruined the second the guests came in the door, anyway.

Now, though, I get it. When we’re having people over, apart from a few very close friends, we do our best to make the house look its best. We dust in corners and crevices that don’t normally get attention. We even use the fancy attachments on the vacuum.

But it’s not just a matter of straightening up, it’s fixing things that hadn’t bothered us before. A loose towel rack, a burned-out lightbulb, the creaky door that were deemed not a big deal before, need to be fixed for guests. Suddenly the countertops are too messy, the uneven chair inadequate, the silverware too tarnished. Preparing for guests demands self-examination as much as it involves a “to-do” list. Things that we’d thought were fine no longer seem so in light of guests coming over.

When John the Baptist announces in our reading this morning, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he’s not talking about just doing some surface cleaning. John’s announcement of the coming kingdom of God demands preparation of a different kind. “Make every path straight,” he says, “every valley will be filled, every mountain made low, the rough ways made smooth.”

This is preparation that demands we look, not just at outward appearances, but truly examine ourselves and our world and see what needs to be changed, what needs to be fixed, as God’s kingdom draws closer. It is very similar to Malachi’s message, where he says that God’s coming will be like enduring refiner’s fire, and fullers’ soap. It means being changed.

John’s promise, Malachi’s promise, they are good news. We are going to be reformed, reshaped, made anew in God’s image. But these promises might also make us apprehensive. Actually, they should make us apprehensive, if we truly listen to them. Because, while the end result is good, the cleaning process might not be the most pleasant. Because it means change. It asks us to put the way things are, the way we are, under a microscope and consider what needs to be scrubbed away.

What in your life holds you back from fully being the person God created? What in our world doesn’t fully reflect the ways of God’s kingdom? When I look at my own life, there are things that I would love to have scrubbed away, and maybe it’s the same for you. Selfish thinking, pessimism, being overly critical of myself and others. But there are also things I know should change that are comfortable habits for me: perfectionism, self-righteousness, competitiveness. I’m not so eager to have all the things that hold me back scrubbed off. Because losing some of them means making myself very vulnerable.

It’s the same when we look around at our world. It’s easy to name the things that we know don’t reflect God’s ways: division, hatred, racism, hoarding of goods and resources. But for those things to be gone, it means passing through the refiner’s fire: a beautiful outcome on the other side, but not an easy or comfortable journey.

Because it requires of us change. It means that the landscape won’t look the same when we’re through. Mountains will be made low and valleys will be lifted up. That’s good news if you’re currently stuck in the valley, but for those on the mountains it sounds awfully like bad news.

But God’s kingdom isn’t going to wait for us to feel good about its arrival. And that is good news. God’s promise is sure—we will be reformed in God’s image, and it will be good. No matter how we feel about it now. No matter what we may be afraid of now. When we are refined and purified as God promises, it will be good.

John calls us to self-examination and repentance, because God’s kingdom is approaching. Jesus is approaching, and we are called to prepare the way. But it’s not up to us to make every path straight, and every mountain low. At the risk of overextending the metaphor, God is like the houseguest who comes and starts to clean and straighten up.

Have you ever had a guest like that? The one that straightens up all the magazines on the coffee table or rubs invisible smudges off your glasses? That’s God, but in the best way possible. God doesn’t wait for us to get everything in order, to get everything clean and tidy and fixed.

God bursts through our doors whether we’re ready for guests or not, and God gets to work. Your life isn’t perfect? Neither is mine. But thank goodness God isn’t waiting for that! God draws near to us, even when we’re not ready. Even in our messiest moments and ugliest situations. Because God is the guest who desires nothing so much as to help.

We haven’t solved the problems of this world yet? We haven’t healed hatred, and reconciled with one another? We haven’t made sure that all people have what they need to survive? God’s not going to wait for us to be ready. God is breaking through into this world anyway, in people and places that we might not expect—like a wild man in the wilderness. Through people on the margins. God is filling valleys and leveling mountains one shovel at a time, whether we’re ready or not.

Prepare the way of the Lord. Take a look at what needs to be cleaned. At what rough places need to be made smooth. And get ready for a houseguest who’s ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Because God is drawing near and God is at work to reform and refine us and our world. Thanks be to God. Amen.


One thought on “Cleaning Up

  1. I loved your description of how your mom prepared for visitors! I really took to heart the encouragement to look within and think about what I have to fix about myself–what rough edges need to be smoothed out. And I also appreciated the reassurance that God’s kingdom is already here and that I don’t have to be perfect for God to enter my heart and my life and to be a valued and beloved child of God.


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