Advent is the Season to Turn
The Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, delivered a famous sermon on December 7, 1856 entitled "Turn or Burn." Turning is a fitting theme for Advent but I prefer the Peter Seeger song "Turn, Turn, Turn." The lyrics "To every season there is a purpose/ There is a season/ And a time to every purpose, under heaven," come right from the King James Version of Ecclesiastes 3. Seeger added the refrain "Turn, Turn, Turn." Advent is a season of repentance. A Greek synonym for "repentance" that Luke likes to use is "turn." But rather than hear Spurgeon pounding his pulpit and threatening "Turn or Burn," hear the Byrds, the Seekers, the Limeliters, or even Dolly Parton singing, "Turn, turn, turn."
Advent is the season to turn. Your life is like a plane in a dive, a car on a collision course. You're heading for an encounter with the holy God; it might be better to say the holy God is heading to you. That's what John preaches. He uses two imperatives, two commands, to show that you have no choice in the matter.
John doesn't just say, "Prepare the way for the Lord." He commands, "You must prepare the way for the Lord." You can't choose not you. In fact, to do nothing is still to prepare, though inadequately. One way or another you're going to meet the coming Lord. One way or another you're going to stand before Him.
What shall you do to prepare? John is specific about this too. He says, "You must make straight paths for Him." John is quoting from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah is using imagery from his time and place. When a king came for a visit, a crier from the king would be sent in front of him. The city being visited would prepare the road leading into their city. John is the crier; Jesus is the king, and the demand is that in a dessert place a straight road must be made. Since we know that John is preaching in the deserted wilderness around the Jordan river, and we know how mountainous and foreboding it is, even the idea of making a straight path anywhere would have been impossible. John's hearers would look at the cliffs and mountains and what they could do and conclude they couldn't make straight paths.
Is that your conclusion? Though Seeger said it so sweetly, so invitingly, do you rightly conclude that this Advent you can't turn, turn, turn? Advent demands that you do the impossible. Turn away from your sins. Turn away from your opinions, your feelings, your wants, your needs. You must be absolutely different from what you are for Christmas to come to you. You prepare the way for the Lord, you make straight paths for Him, by turning not just from your sins but from yourself.
The Christmas specials got this much right. Neither Scrooge, the Grinch, Charlie Brown, nor the other reindeer can have Christmas with their miserly, small, misguided, or mean hearts. But understand this: if they don't turn all they will miss is a holiday of good cheer called Christmas. If you don't turn, you miss Christ. If you don't turn your plane crashes; your car collides; you hit judgment.
The secular Christmas calls for turning and celebrates people being able to do it; that's their idea of redemption. The Christ calls turn, turn, turn, but just because Advent is the time to turn doesn't mean you can do it. In fact the opposite is true, so don't stop with Advent's call to turn, turn, turn; hear Advent's promise to turn you.
John uses 2 imperatives to show you that you must be different, far different, than you are right now to meet your king. These 2 commands, however, give way to 3 promises. Using 3 future indicatives, John indicates what will happen, and the things indicated are over-the-top miracles. John says valleys will be filled in; mountains will be made low, and crooked roads will become straight. If we didn't live in an era of earthmovers, bulldozers, and dynamite, we would see these for the miracles they really are. John is preaching to people who have only shovels, picks, and rakes but promises them filled in valleys, lowered mountains, and straightened roads.
But as I said, these physical pictures of heavy construction probably convey little of the miraculous to you. So how about you picture John promising the valley of death, that you can't cross, being filled in? How about that mountain of pride in your heart being humbled? How about crooked sinners like us bent hopelessly in on ourselves being straightened? Yes, yes, turn, turn, turn: the valley of death turned into a field of life; the mountain of pride turned into a prairie of humility; crooked sinners turned straight.
What is the cause of such momentous changes, such turnarounds, such turnabouts, such turns for the good? That is stated in the words which are also a promise, "All mankind shall see the salvation of God." And where do they see this? I'm skipping ahead a little, but Luke 2 tells you where as does our Communion liturgy. Simeon sweeps Baby Jesus into his arms and praises God because, "Mine eyes have seen Thy salvation."
Are you familiar with the legend of Paul Bunyan, the gigantic lumberjack who roamed the U.S. with his equally huge blue ox named Babe? Paul dug the Grand Canyon when he dragged his axe behind him. He created Mount Hood by piling rocks on top of his campfire to put it out. He formed the Great Lakes to create a watering hole large enough for Babe to drink from. I grew up on these sorts of stories, and I'm here to tell you that in the case of Jesus they are all true.
Jesus did the absolutely, eternally impossible thing of bringing salvation to all mankind. Though but an ordinary sized Baby, the mountain of Laws man was required to keep perfectly were put on the shoulders of this Baby. But even this wasn't enough to save sinners as bad as you. He had to pay for your sins too. To do that, Jesus had to cross the valley of Death, and He had to do this without turning away, without doubting, without giving up on His heavenly Father. You know how it went. In the depths of the valley of Death when all of the Father's wrath and hell's pains raged against your sins, the Father turned away from the Son. So total was this rejection, so complete the judgment against your sins that even the Son was forced to utter "Why?" But, unlike us, Jesus didn't give way to despair, or unbelief; He didn't accuse God of being "unfair." No, once Jesus had crossed the valley of our death in faith He commended Himself into the hands of His Father.
Turn, turn, turn this Advent season. Turn to what God does to save sinners who cannot save themselves; turn to what God does to redeem sinners who cannot redeem themselves; turn to what God does to change sinners who cannot change themselves. Being turned is the only way to be prepared for Christ or Christmas.
In the Collect we turn to the Lord to stir up our hearts. We pray, "Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son." When you pray for something to change in you, you are admitting that you cannot change it yourself and that God can. Now doesn't that feel good? Isn't it a relief to know that you don't have to find a way to stir up your own heart? You don't have to stir yourself into the Christmas Spirit; no indeed, the Christmas Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, stirs you. He quenches by the waters of Baptism the fiery darts of the Devil that shoot guilt into your heart. The Spirit sends the sins that kept you chained to serving them away from you by forgiving them. The Spirit uses the Body and Blood of Jesus in Communion to stir up in your heart true faith which sees things not as they appear to be but as Jesus says they are.
Turn, turn, turn to what God does to save sinners. Although we don't use the Introit on First Sundays look at it anyway. It's from Psalm 80. Psalm 80 says, Restore us O God; make Your face shine upon us, that we may be saved." We call on God to restore us to salvation thereby admitting we need to be restored and can't do it ourselves. What indicates that we need to be restored is that like Scrooge we're misers; like the Grinch our hearts really are too small, and we think everyone but us should be banished to the island of misfit toys.
When life around us looks hopeless, bankrupt, irredeemable, we often mistakenly think we are being pious. The truth is we are not seeing the salvation of our God; we are not seeing Christ; we are seeing only sin and sinners. We need to be restored, turned toward, the salvation of our God. God must make His face to shine upon us once more. This is what we ask for in Psalm 80 and the Lord does in the Divine Service. Turn to the words of Absolution; see God sending your sins away with a big smile on His face for Jesus' sake. Turn to Holy Communion too; see God as happy with you as He is with His own dear Son.
And finally, though we didn't use the Gradual today either; it's that familiar call from Zechariah, "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!" Actually it's more than a call; this too is a command. We started out with 2 imperative verbs commanding us prepare and make straight paths yet not empowering us to do either. Then we went to 3 verbs indicating that our seeing the salvation of God fills in the valleys, levels the mountains, and makes straight the roads. Now we end with the imperative "rejoice greatly!"
We must rejoice greatly because we've been turned from our sins to the salvation Jesus brings; we've been turned free from our bondage to the Devil; we've been turned away from constantly looking at ourselves to our Savior. Yes, Advent is the season to turn, but our turning is based on the fact that God in Christ has not only turned, turned, turned toward us but He has turned us. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday of Advent (20091206); Luke 3: 1-6