The summer after I was in the second grade, my family took our first vacation to Florida. There were too many Thompsons to fit into one car, so my older brother and I traveled with my grandparents, Boo and Pop, in Pop’s late seventies-model Ford Crown Victoria. That car was so mammothly long, that once pointed in the direction of Florida, we were already halfway from Arkansas to Pensacola!
Traveling with Boo and Pop meant leaving a day early, so we could stop at every alligator farm, Stuckey’s, and other roadside Americana tourist trap along the way. Mostly, Pop would drive while my grandmother Boo sat in the backseat between Robert and me, singing songs, playing Mad Libs, and helping us spy license plates from all the fifty states as we passed other cars on the highway. (If you’ll recall, that’s how we endured travel in the days before iPods and satellite radio.) Immediately after lunch, though, Pop needed his nap. We either had to pullover at a rest stop, or else Boo had to drive.
On the second day, at nap time, Boo drove. She was five feet tall and weighed a hundred pounds. Though I don’t remember seeing them, I feel sure she must’ve tied blocks to the soles of her shoes to reach the pedals and sat on a phone book in order to see over the dash. In the passenger seat, Pop dozed off, and the four of us continued down the highway.
Twenty minutes or so later, as I played with my Star Wars action figures in the backseat, I heard Boo cry out to Pop, “Carl! Help me. I don’t know what to do.”
We were on a four-lane highway, and when I looked up I saw a massive wide-load truck right alongside the Crown Vic. It carried a double-wide trailer, and the space between it and the side of our car couldn’t have been more than six inches. Boo’s knuckles were white with fear as she clutched the steering wheel. Pop awakened, and glanced at the wide-load. Following the turn of his head, Boo started to look to her right as well. Pop intuitively realized that she would, and he turned immediately back toward her.
“Look straight ahead,” he said sternly. “Keep your eyes on the road; look at where you want to be and where you want to go.”
The tension in the car was palpable for a few more seconds, until the shoulder widened and the truck could slide further to the right. With breathing room, Boo tapped the gas, and we made it past the wide-load.
We’ve moved back into the season of Advent. It’s a new church year. We’re at the beginning of the journey. And at the beginning—the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel—we find not Jesus, but John the Baptist. John meets us at the outset. He is the one who gives us the crucial advice before we begin down the long road with Jesus. And what does John say? In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.
In our common retelling of this story, John the Baptist is Jesus’ crazy cousin, something like a more serious version of Clark Griswold’s Cousin Eddie in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. John lives apart from society. He eats bugs, has wild eyes, and says strange things. We love John, but we prefer that he sleep outside on the driveway, away from the rest of the family. It’s better for everyone that way.
Who John really is and what he is all about are lost on us, because we don’t understand the world in which John lives. It’s not our world. If we miss that important fact, we’ll never understand John.
This being the beginning of the church year, consider what many of us will do in a few weeks, at the beginning of the calendar year. We’ll make resolutions to be better, to do better, to get from here to there. We’ll resolve with the best intentions, but within a few weeks—or days—we’ll have given up and given in to whatever vice we’d hoped to shed. In most instances, we’ll have a nervous laugh and think to ourselves, “Well, maybe next year.”
Why is the laugh nervous? Because those little, failed resolutions we make each New Year are really emblematic of something bigger and deeper that we experience in our lives. There is an anchor, a drag, a force that pulls us to the left, the right, and down whenever we attempt to transform ourselves. Failing to lose five pounds or be a more considerate driver we may dismiss with a chuckle, but giving in one more time to addiction, or allowing toxic anger to damage relationships with those closest to us, or betraying the trust of those who depend upon our work—these are failures that deflate us and can sap our hope. They smother us with a heavy molasses-like malaise.
This is true of our corporate and national lives as well. These past few weeks we’ve all experienced events across this country that remind us of the gap between who we are and what we want to be as a people. We have seen—in Ferguson, in New York, on social media— just how fragile, nationally, our relationships are, just how embittered our citizens can be toward one another, just how much pain and mistrust exists, just how easily we veer onto a crooked path.
We want things to be better. We want to be better. But is seems that we cannot. We want to be forgiven and set free from the burdens we all carry, but the truly-felt sense of such forgiveness and freedom seems distant and out of reach. We want to cry out, “Help me! I don’t know what to do.”
That takes us back to the world of John the Baptist. There, forgiveness and freedom really were understood to be distant and out of reach. Forgiveness required the temple in Jerusalem. It required the exchange of a sacrificial animal. It required the brokered mediation of the high priest. One can imagine a desperation felt by common folks like you and me, when release from the anchors that seek to drown us was so contingent and almost out of reach.
And that’s where crazy John enters the scene. Forgiveness and freedom, John claims, aren’t contingent on some faraway temple. We don’t have to muster the coin to purchase the sacrificial animal. God isn’t distant and doesn’t hide from us behind a green curtain. God, John says, will meet us where we are, even looking a mess as John does, not fitting in with civilized company; even in whatever wilderness in which we find ourselves, no matter how dense, or ugly, or frightening, or lonely. How do we prepare for that meeting?
There are two words in this Gospel passage from which we, as Episcopalians, shy away: sin and repentance. They’re uncomfortable, maybe even off-putting, words. They sound to the ear like the kind of things other churches might talk about. But what do they mean?
Sin means, literally, to miss the mark, to aim in the wrong direction, to head down a crooked path that leads to danger and injury. And repentance means to refocus one’s attention on another way, to reorient and change direction.
On that trip to Florida thirty-six years ago, with our car endangered by the looming presence of an oversized truck that seemed to appear from nowhere, my grandfather knew that my grandmother’s hands on the steering wheel would instinctively follow her eyes. For my grandmother to have turned her gaze toward the truck encroaching on her lane would have courted disaster. With a glance, her hands would have shifted, and she’d have veered into something she did not want, to the destruction of us all. We, too, can easily veer into destructive behavior, into dismissal of one another, and selfish pride, and betrayal, and toxic anger.
The means of repentance are this simple: As my grandfather said to my grandmother, “Keep your eyes on the road; look at where you want to be and where you want to go.”
And where we want to go, whose path we want to follow, into whom we want to live, is the One whose coming we anticipate this very season. He is the one foretold by John, the one to whom John points, Jesus the Christ.
This does not mean putting blinders on to either our personal or our societal struggles. The path itself does not go around the wilderness; it cuts through it. But in the wilderness, when we put Jesus Christ before us, directly in our line of sight—Jesus who is the embodiment of all God’s hope for us—the crooked road straightens, the looming dangers recede, and we begin to see our way to the other side. How do we do it? We take on the discipline to begin each morning by giving thanks to the God who creates us; we punctuate each day with intentional moments of prayer, being still so that God may speak to us; we strive for justice and fairness by recognizing Jesus in the faces of all those we meet, no matter their color, creed, political party, or economic circumstance.
It is amazing how the path before us straightens when we follow this advice: Keep your eyes on the road; look at where you want to be and where you want to go.
You see, repentance is practical, not esoteric. Priests call it spiritual discipline; psychologists might call it a form of behavioral modification. Either way, as John declares, it reorients the mind, the body, the soul as a prelude to the coming of the One who will find us—all of us—in our wilderness. It readies us for that meeting, so that we meet Jesus as grace and not indictment, as the Lord who affirms our repentance with forgiveness and freedom in immediate embrace.
It is Advent, friends. In your individual life and in our broken world, light is coming into the darkness. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.