Archive for December, 2018

Christmas from the Chronicles

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2018 by timtrue

John 1:1-18

1.

The Gospel of John is different: John does not begin by telling the story of the human person Jesus.

Recall, the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke begin with stories of the birth of Jesus—in vivid, nitty-gritty, even messy detail. A son is to be born of a virgin, an unmarried maiden. How scandalous!

Luke expands the story to relate that this maiden, Mary, visits her older cousin Elizabeth in some backwater part of the Empire—just two women, laughing and singing—marveling, really—that God should show them such favor at opening their wombs.

The Gospel of Mark is a little different. It begins not with Jesus’ birth but with his adult ministry: John the Baptist sets the stage and all at once Jesus is defeating the devil, proclaiming repentance, and healing the broken.

And so, no matter what else is going on in the wide world, these three Evangelists remind us that God is in the nitty-gritty details of our lives.

But the Gospel of John is different: John does not begin with the human person of Jesus; John begins, instead, with divine Jesus: the logos, the Word.

And in using this phrase—in the beginning—John connects us not to the other three Gospels but to the very beginning of the Bible, to the creation of all things.

Today, then, we’re not going to focus on little Jesus, meek and mild; baby Jesus, Christmas child. Instead, we will marvel with John on this first Sunday after Christmas—marvel at the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

And we will marvel together not just through the Gospel of John; but to help us I’m enlisting another, modern evangelist who also marveled at the Word made flesh: C. S. Lewis; and, more particularly, through his beloved children’s book series, The Chronicles of Narnia.

2.

So, to start us off, most of you know that I’m a fan of The Chronicles of Narnia. I’ve read it aloud to my kids—all seven books in the series—so many times I’ve lost count.

The first book in the series is called The Magician’s Nephew.

In it, two children fantastically end up in a faraway world, Narnia, on the very day of its birth. What they witness—C. S. Lewis’s explanation of “in the beginning”—is creation through song.

At first all is darkness and silence. Then the children become aware of an almost inaudible music all around them. It’s nothing like any music we’ve ever heard on earth; but there’s no other way to describe it. It’s music.

Almost immediately stars begin to appear in the sky. As more and more celestial bodies appear, the music increases in volume and intensity; and the children realize that the music and the appearance of the stars are connected: the music reaches a sustained note for a time just before a star appears; then it changes pitch, sustains, and another star appears.

Loud and strong now, the children realize that this isn’t just any old music, but song: these are words they are hearing, sung words; in some language—some beautiful language—they don’t know.

And all at once, as if in response to the loud and strong song, a moon appears in the sky; followed by a still louder and stronger song and the sudden appearance of the sun.

Dazzled by such a bright, young sun, the children look away; and in the distance see a figure approaching. As their eyes adjust, they realize with fear that the approaching figure is a lion (whose name, they will soon learn, is Aslan). But they do not retreat, for their fear is overcome by wonder: the lion is singing too; and its voice is loudest of all!

At the creation of Narnia, Aslan sings all things into existence: Aslan, an allegorical Jesus Christ.

In the beginning was the Word. And God said—or, maybe, and God sangLet there be light. And there was.

This is how C. S. Lewis imagined it.

But why not? John’s Gospel is highly poetic. Why not build on John’s image of poetry by imagining all things being sung into existence?

The Word was with God. And the Word was God. And the Word—spoken, written, sung, does it matter?—the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth.

3.

Next, a prominent theme we find in today’s passage—indeed, throughout the Gospel of John—is light:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. . . . The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

This is another creation connection. For what was the first thing God spoke in the creation account? The earth was formless and void; and darkness covered everything. And God said, “Let there be light.”

And—would you know it?—a stark contrast between darkness and light shows up in the seventh and final book of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle.

Here the reader witnesses the final day of Narnia, as it is snuffed out forever.

All creation is summoned to Aslan. And by all I mean all: sun, moon, stars, people, animals, plants, even mythical beasts who have long lain dormant awaiting this final day. All creation came into being by the Word of God; now all creation must answer to its Creator.

And at last, after days or weeks or maybe somehow only a few minutes, all of creation has passed by Aslan and looked into his face; all creation has gone on either to Aslan’s left or his right. And the reader gets one last glimpse through a doorway of the old Narnia.

But the reader sees nothing, only blackness. For through the doorway there is only absolute darkness—no more sun, no more moon, no more stars, no more life of any sort whatsoever—can you imagine?

And with absolute darkness comes absolute zero. The world of Narnia that once thrived is now dead. There is no source of heat, no source of light, no source of life.

At creation, light did away with darkness. It provided heat. It provided life.

At Christmas a new light shines forth. Christmas brings new life to this old creation, shining far brighter than all the Christmas lights in the world ever could!

4.

One more: another theme we find in John’s prologue, and thus another connection between creation and Christmas, is life. Marvel of all marvels, the Word of God, the light that enlightens the world, the source of new life, has actually become flesh and dwells among us! Amazing!

But where? Where does the logos of God dwell among us today? Where do we expect to encounter Jesus today? Isn’t it right here, in the church?

But in The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan shows up in every book. And it’s not always as people expect—it’s not even always in the flesh. He shows up on the page of a book; a person sees him briefly out of the corner of her eye; or he’s there in someone’s dream; or, in one book, he appears as a lamb.

He’s not a tame lion, you know. In other words, we cannot predict when and where he’ll show up next.

But that’s just John’s point—and C. S. Lewis’s! Jesus might show up where we expect him to, right here in church. Then again, he might not. Haven’t you ever felt that way, that you went through all the Sunday motions but still he never came?

But then there are those days—ah, marvelous!—when and where we’re not looking for him at all; yet there he is, right in our midst—in a conversation with a stranger, at the dinner table laughing with friends, or at a wedding when the host has just desperately run out of wine for the guests.

Sometimes Jesus doesn’t show up when and where we expect him to; and sometimes we don’t expect him to show up at all but he does anyway!

We can’t put a box around Jesus. He’s not a tame lion.

 

Well, that’s it; that’s all I have for you today. No practical take-home lesson—no quick-and-easy three steps to eternal happiness or whatever. Instead, today we simply marvel together.

The very logos of God did show up at that first Christmas, so long ago; in a way that no one expected—in a backwater part of the Roman Empire. And he continues to dwell with us today in ways we can’t even begin to realize.

The Word is flesh and dwells among us. We have crossed the great threshold. The old is passing away; the new is here!

Advertisements

That Funny, Backwards Clock

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on December 23, 2018 by timtrue

71FokACWzPL._SL1500_

Luke 1:39-55

1.

My parents have a clock on their fireplace mantle.

It’s an old clock, one my dad always remembers being a part of his life, from earliest childhood. And so, of course, it holds a certain amount of sentimental value. But more importantly, it still works. Accurately!

And it looks cool—vintage!—made of wood and glass and brass with Roman numerals.

Anyway, during my teenage years, a time when the mischief I got into occasionally took on the appearance of rebellion, I discovered something about this clock.

It’s an electric clock; but the electricity is used only to keep it going. To get it started in the first place, you have to crank a metal wheel on the back—a metal wheel which gets the second hand moving and the gears whirring.

So, my discovery was that you could turn this wheel either way. That is, you could set the clock going in the normal, clockwise direction; and you could just as easily set the clock to run in the wrong direction. Counterclockwise!

Innocently enough, at first, I decided to run the clock the wrong way, you know, to see if it would run for twenty-four hours that way, and then to see if I could learn to tell time backwards, and so on.

And, wouldn’t you know, here, during this experimental phase, I did figure it out!

If I set the clock so that it would tell the right time at 12 o’clock, then it would also tell the correct time at 6 o’clock; and everything else would be a mirror image: 3 o’clock would actually mean 9 o’clock, and 9 o’clock 3; 10 o’clock would be 2 o’clock and vice-versa; and so on.

So I mastered telling time backwards; and then I mostly forgot about it.

Until one day, some weeks later, when my stepmom walked into the family room: out of the corner of my eye I saw her stop and stare at something.

Which caught my attention. So I looked at her inquisitively; and she asked, “What’s wrong with the clock?”

Oh yeah, I thought; which meant I was caught by surprise; which also meant I couldn’t help but smirk a little.

“Timothy,” she demanded, “what have you done?”

The jig was up. So I explained; and demonstrated.

She, however, did not share my enthusiasm for this novel, secret knowledge. “Set the clock the right way,” she told me.

So I did.

But every now and then—a few weeks would pass—I’d set it running backwards, just to push her buttons a little—to see how long it would be until she noticed again.

In fact, I was reminded of these teenage shenanigans during my recent Thanksgiving visit to my parents when I saw the same old clock, still on the mantle, still running and telling accurate time.

Smiling to myself, and when no one was looking, I walked over to the clock, quietly, and set it once again to run backwards. So far she hasn’t said anything. I’ll give you an update after the New Year, after my next visit.

2.

Now, shifting focus some, today’s passage confronts us with a remarkable pre-birth event regarding the king of kings and lord of lords! Think of it as a baby shower for the Messiah.

An important day!

And so, shouldn’t there be all kinds of regalia and fanfare? Shouldn’t we expect something even more full of pomp and circumstance than, say, a Roman triumph? Shouldn’t there be a procession of all the Jewish people through Jerusalem, weaving their way along the streets, singing loudly, waving banners, and offering sacrifices every fifty feet until they reach the Temple? Shouldn’t Joseph, the earthly father of the long-expected Messiah, be lavishly dressed in a purple robe and paraded on a magisterial steed?

But no!

Instead, today’s story is about two women. And, if that isn’t enough to grab the attention of Luke’s patriarchal culture, two marginalized women.

Pregnant Mary is young and single. Oh, scandal!

Elizabeth is old, barren—or so everyone thought—and the wife of a recently ostracized priest.

And the setting takes place in the “back woods” of the Jewish world, in an out-of-the-way place.

So, imagine the scene.

Young Mary comes to her older cousin. Why would she risk such a journey in that time and place?

Well, she is young; and pregnant out of wedlock. Perhaps the shame she faces at home is greater than the risks of the journey. Perhaps Elizabeth can offer Mary consolation.

But what Elizabeth doesn’t know is that Mary has had a vision. Mary is okay with her youth and scandalous status. Perhaps it is Elizabeth, a woman going through the extra hardships and burdens faced by older mothers-to-be, who needs consoling.

Whatever the case, when Elizabeth opens her front door and greets Mary, it’s not fanfare or regalia we hear about—no choir of heavenly angels bursting forth from between the clouds in celestial morning song.

Rather, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb makes a sudden, leaping movement. In utero, John kicks. And his mother Elizabeth sees this as a divine sign and blessing from God.

How many of you parents can relate? Do you have a special baby-kick story you remember, a time when the new life growing in the womb made himself or herself known at just the right time?

Imagine the laughter that must have been shared between Mary and Elizabeth at this moment, when the baby John leaped for joy.

And then—again, it’s not a choir of heavenly angels here, but—young Mary, the pregnant, unwed, marginalized mother-to-be breaks out in song.

And, oh, what a song! We call it the Magnificat.

Something’s different here, special, unique. Something about Mary’s baby, whose birth we’ve all been anticipating, is markedly dissimilar.

He’s the king of kings and lord of lords, we all know. But instead of regalia and fanfare, today we find an intimate, personal, warm, human, and somewhat scandalous, story.

It feels so backwards.

Like a clock running counter-clockwise.

3.

You know, I always thought the clock wasn’t that difficult to read once you bothered to understand the principle behind it.

It tells the right time twice a day, after all. 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock! And the rest, just mirror images!

Not that hard!

But it is uncomfortable.

When every other clock you see, everywhere you look—in the house, the car, on your wrist, in the doctor’s waiting room—runs clockwise or is digital, it brings a kind of discomfort when you glance at the clock on the mantle and see it running the wrong way.

You first see it and—maybe it’s been a while—you furrow your brow until you remember that, yes, this is that funny, backwards clock. And then you have to take a moment to remember how it works, that it tells the right time at 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock; before, finally, you see that now it’s in fact 10:45.

4.

So, here’s the thing: in the beginning, our world was created to run counter-clockwise; and yet, everywhere we look today it is turning in a clockwise direction.

While Adam and Eve were eating the fruit God warned them about, when no one else was looking, the crafty serpent quietly slithered over to the mantle and changed the clock’s direction.

Later, when Adam and Eve noticed, they figured, well then, this is the way it’s going to be; guess we’ll just have to learn to tell time this way.

And so they did.

And they taught their children to do so.

And their children taught their children to do so.

And so on and so on until whole civilizations thought this is the normal way, the right way to do things.

Clockwise.

And they went to war against one another.

And the winners captured the losers; and enslaved or killed them.

Might was right; that’s what the clock on the mantle said.

And thus:

  • Empire dominated republic
  • Colonizer dominated native
  • Strong dominated weak
  • Rich dominated poor
  • Believer dominated infidel
  • Man dominated woman
  • Parent dominated child
  • Consumer dominated resources . . .

Some time ago, Jesus came along and reset the clock on the mantle, to run counter-clockwise once more, the way it was meant to run in the beginning.

This time a few of us did notice.

It’s uncomfortable to look at, yes. We furrow our brows; we are forced to see things in a new way.

But we’ve just got to learn how to read that funny, backwards clock.

Repenting Corporately

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2018 by timtrue

Luke 3:7-18

1.

Last week we discussed Luke 3:1-6. This week the passage is Luke 3:7-18. Last week was part 1, this week is part 2; and in both passages the message is the same: we are called to repent.

Repentance, as I said last week, is less a U-turn than a re-orientation, like a compass we use again and again, in conjunction with the other tools God has given us, to align and re-align ourselves along life’s way.

That’s what we see happening in today’s passage, isn’t it? The crowds are fleeing from the apocalyptic wrath that is to come—like a brood of vipers, John says, an interesting picture in its own right.

And when these people reach John in the wilderness and hear his message of repentance, they ask, “What then should we do?”

It’s as if they’re saying, John, we’re already using the tools at our disposal: the Torah, our spiritual guides, each other. And yet you say there’s more to it; that more is necessary if we are to bear fruit worthy of repentance. Tell us, then, what more is needed? What should we do?

Three times they ask it, in fact. From three different groups! It was their constant question.

It should be our constant question too.

For to repent is continually to re-orient ourselves.

Anyway, all that was discussed last week. So, what more we can learn about repentance today?

Time to put on our theological thinking caps!

2.

Here’s what I think happens when we present-day Christians in the United States hear this message of repentance. We go inward; we ask questions like, “Where have I sinned? Where do I need re-alignment? What do I need to ask forgiveness for?”

These are all good questions; we definitely should be asking these sorts of questions of ourselves on a regular basis. But this is only a small part of the overall message of repentance: the part of individual repentance.

In today’s Gospel, however, groups of people come to John and ask, “What should we do?”

Interesting! Corporate groups—crowds, tax-collectors, and soldiers; i. e., people representing societal bodies—come to John and ask him what repentance looks like.

And John’s answers are telling.

He does not say, “You, Maximus, stop being so arrogant. Search your heart; and where the Holy Spirit brings to mind personal sins—pride, selfishness, hubris—ask God to forgive you. Repent ye of your sins, and from now on use your physical strength for the common good.”

No! Instead, John answers the soldiers as a group, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation; be content with your wages.”

John addresses a group with a group concern; a criticism about soldiers that was largely true in general—though not necessarily true of individuals.

It’s the same thing Christ calls us to do, by the way, every time we renew our baptismal vows together. What should we, as followers of Christ today in the United States, do? We should renounce evil and resolve again to follow Christ; and we should do this together, as one body.

Repentance is corporate!

3.

What, then, does corporate repentance look like? This is my main concern in today’s “part 2” sermon.

So, two things happen at the same time during the act of repentance. We see these two things whenever we witness a baptism. The celebrant asks the baptizand two sets of questions (three questions each).

The first set is all about renouncing, or turning away from, something:

  • Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
  • Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
  • Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

So, for one thing, we turn away from something.

And, for another thing, we turns towards something. That’s what the second set of questions is all about:

  • Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
  • Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
  • Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?

We repent publicly in baptism; and in our repentance we simultaneously turn away from evil and towards good.

But isn’t baptism an individual act? How is baptism related to corporate repentance?

I’m glad you asked. For we see this same expression of repentance whenever we renew our baptismal vows together, as a corporate body.

The very first question the celebrant asks the congregation is, “Do you”—as in all of you—“reaffirm your renunciation of evil and renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?”

In the act of corporate repentance it is the church body, not individuals, that turns away from evil and turns towards good.

Thus, to ask what corporate repentance looks like is to ask how we do these things as a church body. How can St. Thomas turn from evil towards good? Where does St. Thomas need to re-orient itself?

4.

Jesus would soon come with a winnowing fork, John declared, to gather wheat and to burn chaff.

When he did come, we know from the Gospels that Jesus opposed the religious and political establishments of his day, establishments that held the masses under their power.

These are the kinds of powers the writer of Ephesians means when he says, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness” (6:12).

These are the kinds of powers, too, we address in our baptismal vows with the question, “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”

When Jesus ushered in the kingdom of God, he introduced a realm that is very different from the realm of the world. The world’s powers operate by domination; but Jesus operates by love, which shows itself in true equality.

Think this through with me. The religious and political systems in Jesus’ day dominated the lay people and the public, the “crowds”—a term used over and over in the Gospels. Jesus continually opposed these powers because they oppressed the crowds so in need of liberation.

Systems of domination do this: they create social hierarchies; they always seek to place one person above another.

The Roman system placed slaves below freemen; freemen below equites; equites below senators; and so on up the hierarchical pyramid until reaching the emperor at the very top.

And the Jewish religious system gave Samaritans and Gentiles a lower position on the hierarchy than Jews; the common laypeople lower than the scribes; and the scribes lower than the priests, all the way up to the high priest.

This is what Luke is getting at in the beginning of chapter 3, when he mentions all those tricky names:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

When John the Baptist began preaching his message of repentance out in the wilderness, obviously, there were established social hierarchies.

And yet now it’s the crowds, the tax-collectors, and the soldiers who come to John for repentance; and they come seemingly heedless of these established social hierarchies.

Equality! That’s Jesus’ new realm. That’s what John meant when he declared that Jesus would come with a winnowing fork to gather the harvest and burn the chaff.

Every valley shall be filled; every mountaintop leveled; every crooked path made straight.

The apostle Paul says it this way at the end of Galatians 3:

In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:26-29).

Racial inequality, religious inequality, socioeconomic inequality—Jesus came to eradicate these powers, to transform the systems of domination at work in our world into systems of love!

Wherever there is social hierarchy—wherever one person establishes himself above another; whenever anyone thinks herself somehow better than someone else—male above female, white above black, rich above poor, straight above gay, priest above layperson—eradicated!

Jesus confronted systems of domination wherever he saw them; his goal is to transform them. He calls us to do the same today, even if the powers crucify us!

These are the evils we renounce in our corporate repentance; and from them we turn to true equality for all in accordance with Jesus’ way of love.

5.

So that’s what corporate repentance looks like! And that’s the mission Jesus has left to his church.

As a church body, trying to live out Jesus’ call—trying to follow his example—when we look out at the people, places, and events happening all around us—all those tricky names—where do we see something, anything, contrary to Jesus’ message of love?

I don’t know about you, but when I look around for only a short time I see systems of domination and their powers at work seemingly everywhere: gun violence, refugees turned away at borders, children separated from their parents, unreasonable jail sentences, a widening gap between rich and poor, racism, hatred, bigotry—

Systems of domination are alive and well in our world today—“in rulers, in authorities, in the cosmic powers in this present darkness.”

When we renounce their powers and turn towards Jesus’ way of love together, corporately, as a church, then our voice is strong—much stronger than a mere collection of individuals could ever be.

This is our corporate calling: to re-orient ourselves continually; then, even if threatened with crucifixion, to be a stalwart community of resistance against the systems of domination at work in this present darkness; and finally to transform them into systems of love.

As we await Christ’s return, let us repent together!

Orienteering Advent

Posted in hiking, Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2018 by timtrue

John Muir Wilderness

Luke 3:1-6

1.

Dad volunteered to lead a 50-miler.

The “50-miler” was a special accomplishment in Boy Scouts: a multi-day backpacking trip of at least fifty miles.

My older brother, Andy, was a Boy Scout; I was still in Cub Scouts, Webelos to be precise, still a year too young, technically, to be a Boy Scout.

No matter: I would go on the backpacking trip too—and so would my mom.

It turned out to be six of us total: the four members of my family, another adult leader, and a fourteen year-old scout named Chris.

Andy and Chris earned their 50-miler patch when it was all said and done. For the rest of us, it was merely an adventurous vacation.

Anyway, my dad had never led a backpacking trip this long before. So, ahead of time, he did what any good doctor of civil engineering would do: he overplanned.

From the menu to the location to equipment and supplies to first aid and rescue, everything had a Plan A and a Plan B and a Plan C. So extensive was his planning, in fact, that by the time we set out on our actual 50-miler, he had several alternative 50-milers lined up—that he may or may not ever get to in future years.

Now, as the eager little brother, excited as I was to be included, I got in my dad’s way a lot as he spent those evening hours in his overly abundant preparations. So, smart man that he is, he gave me something to do.

“Tim,” he said, “you see this map?”

Spread across the dining room table was the strangest piece of paper I’d ever seen—a map, apparently. There were no place names on it—unless terms like “Road’s End” and “Pinchot Pass” count; and there were no highways or state lines or color-coded regions. Rather, the whole thing consisted of dizzying lines seeming to run this way and that in random directions, but always one next to another, never crossing one another. If I looked at them long enough, they played tricks on my eyes.

“It’s topographic,” my dad explained, “elevation lines. And, look, here I’ve penciled in the trail we’re going to follow.”

And now I could see it: a faint dashed line—a trail—that had been traced over with a pencil.

Dad went on: “Every so often, you’ll see a number next to the trail, like this one—10.8. These numbers are mile indicators. Your job is to add up all the mile indicators on the trail.”

So I set to work, helping my dad plan our epic adventure. Awesome!

Maybe half an hour later I said, “Um, Dad, aren’t we planning a ‘50-miler’? Yeah, so, those numbers you asked me to add up come out to about 121.”

“No kidding!” Dad said.

He then double-checked my work and confirmed: yes, this plan was well over the distance needed, not to mention the week allotted. It wasn’t going to work, Dad concluded dejectedly. We’d have to figure out something else.

“But I really had my heart set on that part of the Sierras,” he muttered.

The next night, after dinner, Dad announced to me, “Tim, I’ve figured something out. Let me show you.”

He led me to the same map, still spread out on the dining room table, and pointed to a body of water called Marion Lake.

“Look at what I’ve done.” he said.

And now I saw a fresh pencil line running perpendicular, at first, to the designated trail; then around the shore of Marion Lake and twisting up and over and through the John Muir Wilderness and finally to a body of water labeled Horseshoe Lake.

“We’ll improvise,” he announced; “we’ll hike overland for a day, making up our own trail as we go! I think it’s only about 7 miles over Red Pass and White Pass to Horseshoe Lake. Once there, we can follow the Upper Meadow Trail back to Road’s End. Should cut off about fifty miles.”

I don’t know, I wanted to say, sounds risky. Who knows what we might run into by not following the designated trail? Lions? Tigers? Bears? Minion monkeys? Worse still, what if we get lost?

My gut told me I didn’t want to trust my dad’s leadership here. But, on the other hand, he was a doctor of civil engineering. He’d gone to school for this kind of stuff! Lots of school! Not to mention, he was my father!

I decided to hold my tongue. For the time being anyway!

Now fast forward a couple of months. The day finally arrived. We’d driven the family van to Road’s End—the end of California State Highway 180—parked, secured our wilderness permits, and were on our way, our 50-miler; or, rather, our 70-miler.

The first few days were relatively routine. We followed the Woods Creek Trail until we joined the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest, then up and over Pinchot Pass, breathtaking and still snowy at nearly 13,000’.

On Day 4 we left the John Muir Trail and headed up and over Cartridge Pass to Marion Lake.

So far so good!

But I was worried about tomorrow.

Back in the spring, when we were planning this adventure, I’d decided to hold my tongue. But there, on that fifth morning, as my dad shuffled his topographic map and a compass, I couldn’t hold back anymore. The risk just felt too great to me.

“Are you sure we’ll make it?” I asked. “I mean, we could always turn around, go back the way we came.”

“Tim,” he reassured, “trust me. We’ll be fine.”

“But, Dad, what if we get lost?”

And I continued with my anxious protests throughout the day:

  • “This looks precarious, Dad. Are you sure it’s the right way?”
  • “Dad, what if we’re misreading the map?”
  • “This looks like Granite Pass to me, Dad, not Red Pass.”
  • “Dad, is that a flying monkey?”

But my dad is a patient man—thank goodness!

And—just like he’d said—we found Horseshoe Lake, cut off fifty miles, and made it home in one piece, safe and sound, with many an adventurous story to tell.

2.

Advent is a time of preparation.

We look in hope at what we know, our topographic map: Jesus came to be with us, the Incarnation, God as a baby; and he dwelled among us, teaching, healing, and loving.

That’s part of Advent: what we know already (our topographic map).

But we also look in hope at what is to come, our epic adventure together in the great Sierras in the Sky, with Jesus as our guide.

Except here’s the thing: that epic adventure is not somewhere far off, in another time and place. That epic adventure is now! This life! The kingdom of God breaking in upon us, wave after wave, day after day!

And this part of our epic adventure is largely unknown. We don’t know how, exactly, wave after wave, day after day, life will play out. There is no designated trail.

So we look to our church leaders, our guides to help us along the way. These are people who know what they’re doing; or at least they know what they’re doing more than the rest of us do. They’ve been to school for this, after all. Lots of school!

But—oh!—it’s so hard to trust them! What if we encounter lions, tigers, bears, or mutant minion monkeys along the way? Worse still, what if we end up altogether lost?

And so we try to hold our tongues. But sometimes we just can’t help ourselves.

The good news today is that we have something else: we have our topographic map, and we have our spiritual guides; but also, as today’s Gospel reminds us, we have a compass, John the Baptist.

And the direction to which this compass needle continually points is repentance.

3.

So then, Advent is about preparation; and John the Baptist points us to repentance. What, then, does repentance have to do with preparation?

A popular teaching likens repentance to a U-turn. Have you heard this? A person who has repented from sin is said to have turned away from sin completely: she was headed in one direction but then made a complete U-turn and now is heading in an entirely different direction.

But don’t you think this picture of a U-turn is a bit simplistic? I mean, what if we’re already headed in the mostly right direction? A complete U-turn would then send us in a mostly wrong direction.

So, I’m thinking repentance is less like a U-turn than it is like that overland day between Marion and Horseshoe Lakes.

We have our topographic map: the Bible; the Incarnation; the first advent of Christ.

And we have our guides to help us along our way, orienteering our way through life, trying to follow the map but confronted moment by moment by a reality that only vaguely resembles the map.

These things send us in the mostly right direction.

But even the mostly right direction can still get us lost; something more is needed.

So here’s what my dad did on that day—despite all my mumbling, complaining, and criticizing, here’s what he did: he aligned everything up with the compass.

At the start of the day, at the shore of Marion Lake, he got out the compass; and, in conjunction with the topographic map, he gained his bearings: he found Marion Peak, Red Peak, and Red Pass in between; and picked out our path.

Half a mile or so later, he did it again—oriented himself and sighted out our path; and again at another half a mile; and so on, and so on, until, at last, we stood safe and sound on the shore of Horseshoe Lake, our planned and prepared for destination.

That’s repentance!

Using our spiritual topographic map and with the help of a spiritual guide, we see where Jesus wants us to go. But daily life disorients us. There are a lot of distractions along the way, after all! Even though we might be headed in a mostly right direction, we still can get lost; and so we complain and criticize and grumble.

But when we stop, look at the map, gain our bearings, and align it all again with our compass, we’re able to continue along our way; and, in the end, we find ourselves safe and sound to the shore of our planned and prepared for destination.

Our compass is repentance; rather than a U-turn, it aligns us again and again with the true path.

Repent, John tells us on this Second Sunday of Advent.

Today is a good day to stop, gain our bearings, and re-orient ourselves.