In the liturgical year we have just begun, we are reading Luke’s Gospel. Luke’s is the most complicated of the four. At the beginning of the year, we have to consider where the Gospel begins. As we prepare for Christmas, we see St. Luke’s himself focused on preparing.
Luke 1 begins with a very formal introduction, then tells the story of Jesus’s birth – but preceded in each act by the birth of John the Baptist. Luke 3 ends with a genealogy – a story of ages of preparations, and a clue that the introduction is ending – and then Luke 4 launches into Jesus’s public ministry; but this, too, he precedes with a preliminary: “And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led in the Spirit in the wilderness.” Luke is full of preliminaries and preparations.
Our reading for the Second Sunday of Advent is yet another of these preliminaries; before Luke 3 tells the story of Jesus’s baptism by John, it presents John’s ministry. This week we read the beginning of this story, which has its own prologue: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis . . . during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas . . . .”
Jesus comes into a world prepared for him. Or rather, he prepares the world for himself: “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah.”
And when John finally begins to preach, it is about preparation – in several senses. John preaches a baptism of repentance, a preparation for the coming of Christ. He preaches, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” And that preaching has itself been prepared for him, since “it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah.” So many preparations.
John calls them to prepare the way by repenting of their sins. The words of Isaiah are about making “straight his paths,” preparing a road for Jesus to walk on. Repentance is that road.
But John’s quotation from Isaiah does something strange at the ending. In all the ancient texts (the Greek sometimes differs from the Hebrew, but not here), Isaiah’s proclamation concludes: “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it.” But John changes it to “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
For John, repentance prepares to let God’s glory enter in not because it makes us so holy that God can come – but because we acknowledge our need for a Savior. (In John’s Greek, “Savior” and “salvation” are almost the same word.)
Repent, prepare the way – call out for your Savior.
The first reading, from the prophet Baruch, takes us deeper into this vision of the Savior.
Like Isaiah, Baruch calls for “every lofty mountain” to “be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground.”
But in Baruch’s vision, it is not God who walks on the path, but us – and not we who make the path, but God. The Savior prepares a path for us.
And as in Isaiah’s original ending, Baruch talks about the glory of God: “Jerusalem . . . put on the splendor of glory from God forever; wrapped in the cloak of justice from God, bear on your head the mitre that displays the glory of the eternal name.” The Savior wraps us in his glory.
This is what we prepare for in Advent. This is why we repent and prepare a way: so that Jesus can give us all the glory of God.
Our reading from Philippians again turns us to preparing for the final coming of Jesus: twice our reading speaks of “the day of Christ Jesus.” As the world prepared for his first coming, and for his ministry, as John prepared the way by calling us to prepare the way, so our life in this world is meant to be a preparation to meet Jesus.
That preparation is above all God’s work. The Savior “who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” He prepared the world for himself; he sent his word to John – and he sends his grace to prepare us for his coming. We prepare to receive him by receiving him.
And yet the good work he begins in us is our work. Paul prays (because it is a grace), “that your love may increase ever more and more.” Paul longs “for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus,” and we are called to prepare for Jesus by the same longing and affection and love for one another.
We are called to be “pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” But we become that way by growing in love and “in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value.” We are given the eyes of love.
Finally we will live “for the glory and praise of God” when Christ has entered into us, to prepare us for himself.
As you prepare your house for Christmas, how are you letting Jesus prepare you for his coming?