Last week we talked about the fact that Advent is a time of waiting. Not waiting like tuning out and doing nothing. Waiting that involves preparing. Getting ready. So, kids, what do and your families do to prepare for Christmas? Do you light Advent candles? Get a Christmas tree, set up a manger scene, make a list of gifts you’re going to give, gifts you want to receive? Do you write Christmas cards? Today, John the Baptist tells us to prepare the way of God. This week, our family did some of the stuff on the Advent calendar. Did you? Yesterday, the assignment was to leave quarters in gumball machines. We weren’t near any gumball machines, so we put a quarter in our mailbox for our mail carrier. We dropped a quarter on the sidewalk and left one at the top of the slide at the playground. We spread a few quarters on the shelves at CVS. It was a little silly. But you know what, it changed how we were thinking and feeling. It made our hearts more open to other people. I like to think this little game helped us prepare the way for God to come and be with us.
Alice and I have been reading the Nevermoor series by Jessica Townsend. When we asked her second grade teacher what could possibly follow Harry Potter, this is what she recommended. Morrigan Crow, daughter of a prominent politician, is said to be “cursed.” Her family believes it. Everyone in the whole country believes it. She is blamed her for all the bad things that happen. Jupiter North, from the free state of Nevermoor (another country altogether) sees something else in Morrigan and rescues her from this lonely existence. He becomes her patron, encouraging her to seek entrance into the “Wundrous Society” which offers true family, belonging, and friendships to last a lifetime, along with a great education. Everyone who belongs to the Wundrous Society (or Wunsoc) has a “knack,” something they are amazingly good at doing. Jupiter’s knack is that he is a witness.
Jupiter demonstrates this ability to Morrigan by describing the teapot in her room. Just by looking at it, he can tell Morrigan what memories the teapot holds—of the factory where it was made and the market where it was sold, of and the first owner’s habit of having daily tea with her sister, whom she loved, and of the people who had handled it just that morning, one of whom was cross about something and another who was singing.
“I’d love to be a witness” Morrigan told Jupiter.
“I’m not sure you would,” said Jupiter, wincing.
“Seeing all those hidden things? All the time? Every time somebody lies, it’s there on their face like a back smudge.”
“People leave pieces of themselves everywhere, Morrigan—all the fights they’ve had, all the hurts they’ve suffered, the love and joy they’ve felt, the good things and the bad things they’ve done.” [Jupiter] rubbed his face tiredly. “I’ve learned to filter it, to only see the things that are important. I can pull apart all the different layers and threads and make sense of the madness. But that took me years, years and years of training.” (The Trials of Morrigan Crow, pp. 456–57)
I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to say that John the Baptist, and all biblical prophets, are like the witnesses of Nevermoor. They have the gift and the challenge of seeing, interpreting, and giving voice to what remains hidden to many other people. This week’s Gospel reading begins by listing the world’s most powerful people—the emperor, the governor, the regional rulers, and the high priests. These people are in control of many things. They literally hold the world captive. And yet they lack the ability to be witnesses. They do not know what is true and real. They cannot give voice to what matters most: the presence of the Creator in creation; the divine gifts of love and justice.
Instead, Luke declares we must find our witnesses elsewhere. “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” John was an unknown nobody. The son of a priest hanging out, not in the temple, but in the wilderness. In those days, the desert wilderness meant hunger and thirst, dangerous animals, and inhospitable weather. According to the Exodus narrative, the wilderness was a place of prolonged testing where people learned to trust God. And the life-threatening conditions of the wilderness were the price to be paid for freedom from slavery. So God’s word comes to us through the voices of those who are off the grid, who lack privilege, who are at-risk, the voices of those who do not participate in the dominant economy, the voices of those who are not in the pulpit, on TV or in congress. The word John proclaims from the wilderness is repentance. Repentance means turning around in a different direction. The word in Greek is metanoia – describing a process of changing our minds and hearts and lives. Though repentance involves humility, and shows our need for forgiveness, its aim is not to leave us feeling sad and guilty. Repentance is the first step toward joy, the joy of a transformed world, a world free from fear and hate, hunger and violence.
Whose voice is speaking God’s word to you today? I have heard the word of God through 10-year-old Eli. He has an intense fear of needles. Eli’s best friend Brendan has a disease that puts him in a high-risk category for COVID. Eli and Brendan barely saw each other during the pandemic. Eli said, “I was like, I can do this so Brendan’s safe.” As Eli got the shot, his mom heard him whispering Brendan’s name over and over again, like a prayer.
In these days of division and fear, this young child speaks God’s word of connection and courage. He moves me to consider how my own well-being is intricately connected to that of others. Whose voice is speaking God’s word to you today? I have heard the word of God through the women of Camp Nenoocaasi (which is Ojibwe for hummingbird). On an abandoned gas station lot in South Minneapolis, the camp offered safe space for unhoused native women—with around-the-clock security, medical support, hot meals, and the ongoing opportunity to receive services from public and non-profit providers. The women were evicted by the property owner a few days before Thanksgiving. For people who have been repeatedly exiled from their land, this forced relocation is especially traumatic. One resident of the camp said: “I would already be dead if this weren’t here. And I am afraid for [the eviction] because my ex is out to kill me.” These women speak God’s fierce word of justice to me. They remind me that this is their land, and that they have the right to be safe and at home here.
Whose voice is speaking God’s word to you today? I have heard the word of God through our sweet old lady cat Mattie. She was 20 years old and suffering in a whole variety of ways. She kept growing tinier and tinier – she only weighed 5 pounds at the end. I loved to pick her up and cradle her like a baby. The vet who came to our house to provide home euthanasia services said cats are good at masking their pain, putting on a brave face for their families. Indeed, she was still greeting us every morning with head rubs and trying to climb into the dishwasher to lick the dirty dishes. So it was difficult to decide whether or not this was the time to help her end her life. When the morning came, I started crying and couldn’t stop. I’ve been thinking about why that was. Looking back over all the years of her life, I can see how Mattie was part of a divine inspiration that has led to repentance. She helped changed my mind and heart. She was among the creatures who have taught me to listen and learn from the more than human world around me.
Describing the witnesses who see and hear what is true and real, and what matters most, the Gospel writer quotes Isaiah 40. “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: prepare the way of God, make God’s paths straight.” Isaiah is preaching to a people who are getting ready to return from exile. Together, the prophet explains, God and the people will work to build the way, the path that will lead them home. The journey will be long and hard, both literally and metaphorically. The process of leveling mountains and raising valleys, straightening what is crooked and smoothing what is rough will create a beautiful, safe road, a road that includes everyone in the journey toward a world in which everyone can flourish. Then all flesh will bear witness. We will see it together: God’s salvation; God’s gift of healing, health, and wholeness.
Friends, who are your witnesses? Whose voice is bringing you God’s word? How are they moving you to repentance, to a changed mind, heart, and life? How are you preparing to welcome the joyous reality of God’s coming?