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Sermon: Rough Road

December 6, 2009

Luke 3:1-6

As a child, I had trouble adapting to car travel.  It seemed as if I got car sick by the time we left the driveway.  In fact, just to hear my mother say, “Eric, put your shoes on.  We’re going to the store,” would make me sick.  My parents tried everything, of course.  “Close your eyes.”  “Look at the scenery.”  “Try to sleep.”  “Sit up straight and stay awake.”  Before one trip, a helpful neighbor suggested we try some miracle drug called Dramamine.  I don’t think that was even totally successful.

That’s what I felt on an ordinary road, moving in a straight line.  So you can imagine what I thought about twisting mountain roads.  For long years, I wondered why the engineers couldn’t have simply built roads straight up the side of the mountain without being concerned about every contour.  Or why car manufacturers couldn’t design an automobile that wouldn’t overheat on a 30-percent grade.  I figured that the engineers and automotive industry had conspired to make me a queasy, miserable child in the back seat.

I have grown out of most of my travel sickness, but I still remember all the reasons why a straight road is better than a twisty, curvy, up-and-down road.  It might be fun for a while on a road with curves, especially if you have one of those hot little cars on commercials, but after a while, even that would get to you.  Give me flat and straight any time.

John the Baptist was my kind of engineer.  John’s voice was that one crying out in the wilderness:

Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,

and every mountain and hill shall be made low

and the crooked shall be made straight,

and the rough ways made smooth.

That’s what I’m talking about.  You’d imagine that for a great king, that’s the way to go.  If you want the king to come your way, spruce things up and make the road nice and easy for him.  Otherwise, he might just go somewhere else where the highway is broad and open.

That’s John’s job, to make sure the road is prepared for the coming of the Christ.  He’s got one main tool.  It’s not a grader or a roller, one of those machines with the giant solid wheel.  John uses the soft waters of baptism as his tool.  He proclaims a baptism of repentance and forgiveness.  Repentance and forgiveness.  Those are the primary moods for Advent.

Nearly every year, somebody comes to me in the middle of December and asks me why we’re not singing more Christmas carols.  My response is usually something like, “We’ll sing more Christmas music when we get to Christmas.”  Christmas is not here yet.  The road is still too rough.

Wal*Mart wants you to celebrate Christmas now.  Target and Toys ‘R’ Us want you to celebrate Christmas.  They’ve wanted you to celebrate since about Halloween.  But the Christian calendar says, “Wait.  Not yet.  Slow down.  There is still some work to do.”  This is Advent, which means “coming,” not “here.”  In the Christian year, Christmas is actually the season after the 25th of December.

It is true that I bow to cultural pressure, and we will sing more and more Christmas music the closer we get to the 25th, but we would be missing out if we didn’t consider what needs to be done to make the road straight, to prepare our lives for the coming of the king.  And John says that our main job is repentance.

If we are to continue the road analogy, repentance is the equivalent of making a U-turn.  It means to turn around and travel in the opposite direction, to change behavior.  The other great season of repentance in the Church is Lent, the 40 days prior to Easter.  Self-examination and prayer are important emphases during these seasons, because without considering our lives in conversation with God, how can we know what changes in behavior we need to make?

Jeanette was a woman who had one big change to make in her life, and that’s why she loved the Christmas season.  Things got so busy around the holidays, there were so many cookies to bake, so many parties to attend, all the extra housecleaning, the kids’ pageants, events at church, shopping, so many things to do, that she could easily avoid thinking about that one big change she knew, deep down, that she had to make in her life.

It was a big one.  You know how there are some times in our lives, that one change that will make a tremendous different to our health and happiness, to our becoming the people we know we can be.  But it’s hard to decide to make that change because we’re afraid that it will cost too much, that we’ll have to get rid of a crutch that has served us so well over the years or simply because we’re afraid of change.  You know that when you finally make that move, things will be better and you’ll be glad you took that step.  But it’s hard to do it.

Well, that’s what it was like for Jeanette.  It was always right there under the surface, and it bugged her, but during the Christmas season, she could push it deeper because everything was so hectic.  And then, one morning, she read her devotion in The Upper Room magazine—that cursed Upper Room!—and it was about John the Baptist and his call to repentance.  The devotion said, “Slow down.  Christmas isn’t here yet.  It’s time to go into the wilderness with John.  It is time to experience the chilling waters of baptism for repentance and forgiveness.  Make the road straight for the Christ, make it straight—and direct—into your heart.”

And that Advent season, Jeanette did precisely that.  She put down her Christmas cards and the cookbooks, and she met John in the wilderness.  She felt like it almost destroyed her.  She had to think about who she was and who Jesus knew she could be, and there was a gulf there because of that one change she could not make.  And so Jeanette made the change, and it was hard, and it almost did destroy her, but it also saved her life.

I know there are more than a few of you who are already rushing headlong through the Christmas season as defined by our culture.  I have already felt it myself, and we’re not even a week into December.  But maybe it is time to step away and join John in the wilderness, if just for a day.  He’ll give you a pick and a shovel and a water break, and you can join him in making that road nice and straight.  Fill in the potholes.  Smooth out the curves.  Make it a nice and easy road.

Because a king is coming, and you want him to have a straight road into your heart.

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