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I think the Owen family has finally gone Louisiana native. Because just over a week ago, we made the best batch of chicken and sausage gumbo we’ve ever attempted.
The gumbo took lots of preparation. In fact, it was really a two day affair. It started out on a Friday. I prepped a whole chicken with a homemade brown sugar rub. I then put it on the Big Green Egg to smoke it with apple wood chips for a couple of hours. After removing the meat, I made a rich chicken stock with the bones.
Then the next day, my wife Julie made a perfect roux. It was just the right color: a nice, dark chocolate. I gathered and cut up the onion, bell pepper, and celery. I seasoned the chicken with a special rub, and then browned the smoked sausage from the Farmer’s Market in a cast iron skillet. And then the ingredients were put together in just the right way at just the right time, simmering away on the stovetop during the afternoon hours to let all those flavors blend together into a culinary masterpiece.
That gumbo took hours of preparation. But the end result was so wonderfully good that it was worth every minute.
Think of how much of our lives revolve around the time-consuming tasks of preparation. We’re always getting ready for something. And that’s particularly true at this time of the year during the stretch of 3-4 weeks after Thanksgiving until Christmas. There are parties to attend and parties to host, and all of the house-cleaning that requires. There are meals to plan, cook, and serve. Students have final papers and exams coming up, and teachers are working hard to finish their lesson plans. Choirs and church musicians are rehearsing for Lessons & Carols and Christmas Eve services. There are decorations to pull out of storage to make our homes festive. We have Christmas trees to set up, decorate, and to try to make cat-proof. Some of us have December birthdays to celebrate. And still others have weddings that will take place shortly after the New Year.
In these and so many other ways, this “holiday season” is a time of preparation. We have to think ahead. We have to make plans. We have to be organized. We have to pay attention. We have to do certain things to be ready lest we miss out on the joys that await us.
This time in the life of the Church called Advent is also about preparation. We are preparing for the coming of Christ. And we hear this theme of preparation sounding in our scripture readings for today.
“Prepare the way of the Lord,” proclaims the prophet Isaiah. Make things ready for the coming of the One who announces that sins are forgiven and those who have been cast away into exile can now return home. Get ready for the coming of the One whose judgment rights all wrongs, whose tender mercy heals the brokenhearted, and whose steadfast love enfolds the lost, guiding them back into the fold.
Get ready, Isaiah says. God is coming. We need to be prepared.
We hear a similar call at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading. Citing the passage from Isaiah we’ve heard this morning, St. Mark opens his Gospel by saying: “Prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3). Get ready because Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Savior of the world, is on the way.
So how do we go about this work of preparing the way of the Lord?
One writer wisely notes that the root meaning of the word “prepare” helps us out here. The word has two parts: pre-pare. “Pre” means “before,” and it speaks to the ways in which we anticipate or expect something that’s coming in the future. Like I was anticipating the taste of last weekend’s gumbo. “Pare” means to trim or to cut. Like using a paring knife to trim the vegetables and cut away the fat from the chicken I threw into the gumbo, the work of preparation involves paring or trimming things out of our lives.
Paring things out of our lives to make room in our hearts and souls for what’s coming: that’s what Advent is really all about. And so the work of preparation is really another way of talking about the spiritual work of repentance.
To prepare for the coming of Christ, we must repent. And repentance is not just something we do in penitential seasons like Advent or Lent. For in our baptisms, we promise to persevere in resisting evil and, whenever we fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord (cf. The Book of Common Prayer, p. 304). Following Jesus as Lord and Savior involves a daily lifestyle of repentance. It’s a 24/7/365 commitment.
Repentance literally means “to turn around.” It’s all about turning away from the wrong path and on to the right one. It’s about choosing a new life, returning our gaze to God, changing the direction of our lives in order to receive the salvation offered to us in Jesus Christ [source].
To do that, we have to face the truth of our lives: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We have to rightly recognize the damage that sin does to ourselves and to our relationships with God and other people. And when we see the truth for what it really is, repentance calls us to pare or cut those things out of our lives that separate us from God.
So to prepare the way of the Lord, to make space in our hearts and souls for the coming of Christ, we need to do the work of self-examination. We need to pinpoint those areas of our lives where we’re stuck in our sins and where we resist growth and change and then open them up to God’s transforming grace and love.
Over 250 years ago, two students at Oxford University started a small group that met on a regular basis for fellowship, support, prayer, and Bible study. And in their private devotions, they used a set of questions for self-examination to hold themselves accountable as disciples of Jesus Christ. Their names were John and Charles Wesley, the founders of the Methodist movement and priests in the Church of England. Here are just a few of the questions of self-examination that John Wesley used each day to do the work of repentance. As you hear them, I invite you to reflect upon your own life.
- Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am?
- Am I honest in all of my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
- Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard?
- Do I give the Bible time to speak to me every day?
- Am I enjoying prayer?
- Do I pray about the money I spend?
- Do I disobey God in anything?
- Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
- Am I defeated in any part of my life?
- Is Christ real to me?
Honestly engaging questions like these can be time-consuming and difficult. And if we’re serious, it can push us out of our comfort zones, challenging us to face realities about ourselves that we might not necessarily want to know or deal with.
But just like we can’t make a good gumbo if we don’t know the ingredients we need or how to rightly prepare them; and just like we can’t host a party if we don’t first clean the house, plan the menu, and set the table; we won’t be ready to receive the coming Christ if we don’t know what’s blocking the doorways of our hearts or do the work the helps make us receptive to him.
So this Advent, may we examine our lives: the things we do, the things we think, and the things we say. May we be honest in acknowledging the ways in which our thoughts and deeds fall short of the mark of God’s holiness. And may we trim back or cut out anything that stands between us and Jesus, knowing that with God’s help, our work of preparation insures that when Jesus comes he will find in us a mansion prepared for himself.