Nine years ago, I was on a prolonged business trip in Southern California and on one particular day was driving near Death Valley National Park. Because I had a little time to kill, I decided to take a bit of a detour so I could check it out. If you have been there in the summer, which this was, then you understand why they call it Death Valley. It gets hot. Really hot. Mind scorchingly hot.
As I passed through, I came across a place there called the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. It’s a popular location used in many movies with scenes in the desert as it’s miles upon miles of huge sand dunes and it’s gorgeous. As I arrived, I noticed people getting out of their cars and walking out onto the dunes, so I did too. Note that I was wearing exactly the wrong kind of clothes for this sort of thing, the wrong kind of shoes, I had no supplies and… most importantly… no water. I could go on and on and tell you about how I got lost while I was out there, became severely dehydrated and had a pretty rough time of it.
Five years ago, I went there with my son to do some hiking and photographing. This time, we researched the park beforehand, understood the best times to head out, learned how to way find on dunes, which is tricky but essential, had exactly the right kind of clothes and shoes on… and had plenty of supplies, including lots of water. We had an incredible time and loved being there.
This is the difference between being prepared and being unprepared. The first time, I was not at all ready for Death Valley. The second time, I was. The first time, not only did I have a difficult time of it, but I was actually in great peril. The second time, there was no danger at all. The moral of the story? It’s better to be ready.
Advent is about being prepared and today’s Gospel reading, actually all three of them, are about the very idea that it’s better to be ready. The beginning of the Gospel from Saint Mark is about John the Baptist, who was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah that God was going to send a messenger to “prepare the way” for the coming of the Messiah.
Prepare the way. This was John’s job.
So, it’s worth paying attention to the manner in which he did that job. He called for repentance. For acknowledging one’s sins. This was how the messenger chosen by God chose to get people ready.
I expect that many of you, like me, would prefer your Gospel to be comforting, consoling, to give hope and to inspire. But the beginning of Mark’s Gospel does something else instead. It challenges. It provokes. And there’s something maybe even jarring about it. Just like John himself. Imagine how he looked, how he sounded, what he said. The messenger chosen by God to prepare the world for his son pointed his finger into people’s chests and challenged them. He said to them: You have to go inside. You have to take inventory. You have to take a good look in the mirror and be honest with yourself.
I once heard an incredibly simple definition of sin that has always stuck with me. It was this: sin is anything that separates us from God. Simple. Sin is anything that separates us from God. A few weeks ago, we heard a Gospel reading about the question Jesus received regarding the most important commandment. He said there are two: Love God. And love others.
These are the spiritual polar opposites. Sin is when we are self oriented. When we are self-ish. When we put ourselves first. When are are inward facing. And salvation, according to Jesus, happens when we put God and others first. When we are self-less. When we face outward.
I believe that when we are motivated solely by the things that please us… then we orient ourselves toward our own needs. When we look outward, loving God and others, then we become more aware of the world around us and the needs of others.
This is helpful for the coming of a savior that did not come in a flash of light and upon a winged chariot from the sky to conquer and restore a worldly kingdom. No, this savior came in the form of a helpless infant, born in the middle of the night to itinerant parents and in a stable full of animals.
Jesus comes quietly. Subtly. And if you are not paying attention, you are going to miss it. If you are not listening intently through a silence we must work to find, against the cacophony of a culture that increasingly shouts at us and pulls us into diversion and distraction, then it will surely pass us by without our even knowing about it. Just as the Holy Family slipped out of Bethlehem and toward the salvation of humanity without notice.
I believe that this is why John provoked those he met and told them to repent of their sins. To stop looking inward and to start looking outward. I believe that this was the kind of messenger God chose because he wanted to awaken the world to the fact that his some was coming – not in a bang, but rather in a whisper.
So too with us. If we are focused on ourselves, looking incessantly inward, then we are just not going to be ready. Instead, we will wander around in the desert, just as I did the first time I went to Death Valley, and trust me, that’s not good. That’s when we lose our way.
The messenger of God calls us to reorient ourselves from inward to outward, from self to others. This is how we prepare. If we don’t, we are going to miss the coming of his son.
Because Jesus comes quietly.