A Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent
A voice of one calling in the desert, "Prepare the way for the Lord; make straight paths for him." (Mark 1:3, from Isaiah 40:3)
Our theme this morning is housecleaning. 'Tis the season, isn't it? Thanksgiving is a big housecleaning holiday. All those guests coming for dinner, and the house has to look nice for them! Now that Thanksgiving is over, the house cleaners among us can relax a bit . . . but not for long. Christmas is coming! That means more guests, and more housecleaning.
One practical reason to clean the house before Christmas is that there will be a lot of presents under the tree, and those presents have to go somewhere. So it is a good time to clear out some of that old stuff that we are not using anymore. That chipped vase that used to look nice . . . those old puzzles or board games that have too many pieces missing. . . . Perhaps we'll even get rid of an old chair or table that's gotten a bit rickety. We wouldn't want our holiday guests to have any unpleasant surprises. Come to think of it, there is probably not going to be much of a housecleaning vacation after all. . . .
Now, all of this is commonplace enough, but what does it have to do with the first Sunday in Advent? Aren't we in church to think about something besides all the busyness of the holidays? Who wants to think about cleaning house right in the middle of Sunday morning worship?
To begin to answer these questions, here is a literal translation of Swedenborg's translation of our text, as it is found in Isaiah: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Sweep the way of Jehovah; make straight in the desert a highway for our God' " (Isaiah 40:3). Sweep the way of Jehovah! If we wanted to put it in everyday terms, we could say, "Sweep out the house! The Lord is coming!"
However, in the Isaiah passage it is not a house that is being swept, but a highway in the desert. The word for "prepare" or "sweep" literally means to prepare something such as a house or a road by clearing away the clutter and confusion that clog it up. In Biblical times, it was a custom to send crews of people out to clear and level the roads to make them passable when a king was planning to travel that way. This could be referred to as the "royal treatment." It still is customary to clear the way and straighten things out when some important person is going to be coming through our towns and cities. We want to put on our best face for the VIPs. (Now if I could only convince President Clinton to travel down Pearl Street in Middleboro, maybe we could get that rough, patched up section repaved!)
When Isaiah proclaims, "In the desert prepare a way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God," he is urging us to prepare ourselves for someone greater than any VIP who might come through. To put it in terms that are closer to home, he is calling for us to pause amongst our housecleaning and preparations for friends and family, and be sure to prepare for the most important Christmas visitor we will ever have: the Lord Jesus. After all, it is the Lord's coming that we are celebrating at Christmas.
How do we prepare for the Lord's coming? It is plain enough how to clean a house. We've all handled a broom from time to time . . . some of us more than others. . . . But we may not be so sure how to go about cleaning our spiritual house in preparation for a visit from our Lord. We probably don't know what kind of broom to use; and even if we do come up with a spiritual broom, what is the spiritual clutter that we are supposed to be sweeping out of our mental and emotional houses? What is the rubble that we need to clear to make the highway straight in our spiritual desert? And what is a spiritual desert, anyway?
We get some help from John the Baptist in our New Testament reading. After quoting our text from Isaiah, Mark goes on to say, "And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."
Now we are onto something. Historically John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord's coming by preaching a baptism of repentance.
Baptism is washing. We could say that John the Baptist made a profession of giving people baths--something that wasn't as common in his day as it is in ours. Most people didn't have bathtubs in those days, so even if John's charisma and spiritual power didn't draw a particular person to the Jordan, there was something appealing about a nice, fresh dip in the river to get the accumulated grime cleaned off one's body.
Most of us probably aren't as physically dirty when we take a bath as a lot of the people John baptized would have been. But there is a more important way that we all need to be cleaned--swept out--in preparation for the Lord's coming. Our reading from Swedenborg explains it this way:
When John gave people baths, he did more than get them in the water so that the grime could be washed off their bodies. He preached to them that they must repent from their sins--or, in more modern terms, must stop wanting, thinking, and doing things that are wrong and hurtful to others and to ourselves. If we do not prepare ourselves for the Lord in this way, the Lord cannot manifest himself in our lives at all, because our spiritual highway is too clogged with rubble for the Lord to make it through.
The desert that needs to have a roadway cleared through it is our own resistance to the Lord's ways of love and concern for our fellow human beings. When we are more focused on our own comfort and pleasure than with the feelings and the wellbeing of those around us, then we are truly living in a dry desert, cut off from the living streams of human understanding and concern for other people. It is a dry life, because when we think of ourselves first, we cannot have close and loving relationships with others. We leave no room for other people or for the Lord, because we are too full of ourselves.
Returning to the theme of housecleaning, Swedenborg says the same thing in another way in Arcana Coelestia #3142--but with an added dimension: when we do sweep ourselves out, we are filled with good things from the Lord. He writes:
Many of us would rather put our energy into doing good things than focus on not doing bad things. But when it comes to our spirits, not doing bad things is precisely our job. In fact, Swedenborg says that nothing else is asked of us except to "sweep our house" by rejecting evil desires and the false ideas we get from them. Our job is to clear away these obstacles--to clear away our wrong ways of feeling, thinking, and acting. This makes it possible for the Lord to do the Lord's job, which is to fill us with good desires and true ideas that will lead to good and useful actions.
What, specifically, are the evil desires and false ideas that we must sweep away in preparation for the Lord's coming? That's a question I can't answer! Why? Because our specific thoughts and desires are as individual as each one of us.
However, let me make a suggestion. Some of our holiday preparations do not require much mental concentration. There is a lot of unexciting work--like cleaning house and fixing things--that has to be done. How about using some of that mental idle time to do a bit of inner housecleaning? As we are wielding the broom or the hammer, how about poking into some of those dusty corners of our lives, or looking at that broken emotional furniture that we usually prefer not to face? If we do, we will certainly find a few wrong thoughts and desires to clear out of our lives in preparation for the Lord's coming.
Our spiritual housecleaning may be a bit of a grind, too. But one of the nice things about holiday housecleaning is that we can anticipate the pleasure of family and friends gathering together in our houses to celebrate with us. When we do our mental housecleaning, we can anticipate an even greater guest: our Lord Jesus. And he will come with the spiritual gifts of love, joy, and peace with one another that Christmas is all about.
Clean the house! The Lord is coming!