“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:  ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” ~Mark 1.2-3

It’s hard to imagine John the Baptist showing up in a Hallmark Christmas film. As we were reminded in this week’s readings, he’s an animal skin wearing, bug-eating, dude who undoubtedly has mussed hair, is sunburned, and smells like—well, wilderness. This is very different than the happy-go-lucky, completely pulled together, cute but noticeably pale folks who end up dazzling our screen on the season’s premiere holiday channel. John the Baptist reminds us that preparing the way of the Lord and becoming pure and spotless is not the same as the sterilized vision of perfection that our culture often highlights as success.

John the Baptist (or baptizing one—since he was technically denominationally unaffiliated) is squarely in the prophetic tradition of Israel. He looks, lives, and acts in a way that isn’t quite in step with the rest of society but is crucial for the salvation of the world. Like the other prophets, he calls us back to God’s truth when we have exchanged it for lesser gods. He reminds us that salvation through the Messiah is near. And he warns us to prepare our hearts and turn to God–not from fear of hell but out of love for the One who created us and sustains us. Like other prophets, he goes to a people who have fallen astray, have sought God but not found him, and have worshipped lesser gods—especially the god of “respectability.”  That’s why he and the other prophets often look and do such weird things—they’re a living critique to the excesses of our day.

John came at a difficult time in Israel’s history when they were under Roman occupation. The government was corrupt and the priestly class often colluded with the government and Rome to maintain a place of high honor, even when it compromised their faith. At the same time, a group of righteous folks called the Pharisees arose to keep the ways of Israel and to establish the rabbinic, or teacherly, tradition. Unfortunately, this group had some individuals who were so strict in their readings of the Hebrew texts that they created overly harsh rules and consequences for the very people they were trying to help see God!

This is the milieu that John stepped into as he helped prepare the way for Jesus. His voice was the one of truth that sprang up from the earth and called for righteousness to come down from heaven (Psalm 85.11). He called everyone to repentance and offered hope that the Messiah would come soon. And so we remember him in Advent as we again prepare our hearts and pray for Jesus, the Messiah, to come again soon.

Advent is a season of joyful and hopeful waiting. We wait for Jesus to come again at Christmas and at the end of days. And while we wait, we repent. We repent of our personal sins but also of our sins as a people.

In this individualistic society of ours, we often don’t think of communal repentance. But as any fan of Mean Girls would remind us, it is so much easier to sin against our neighbor when we’ve got a clique. And the only way to truly heal is to repent together. And so this week we listen to Peter’s words to the people of God he calls “beloved” and remember that while we are waiting we’re called to “strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Peter 3:14-15a). It’s a call that we can only fulfill together.

While we sometimes might wish that Jesus would come immediately, it’s because he is patiently waiting for us to become the Beloved Community that he does not come back swiftly. His rigtheousness looks down from heaven and hopes eternally that we will recognize that the blemish-free life that God wants for us looks less like a Hallmark Christmas movie and more like a John the Baptist welcoming community. He hopes that we will establish a community that can see God working through smelly prophets, unmarried pregnant women, poor refugee babies, and other “societally questionable” people.

So how do we begin to become this Beloved Community?

We begin by repenting of all the ways we have traded the Hallmark-ed life for the Jesus sealed life. We reflect on all the ways we’ve used our attempts to achieve “Christian purity” and success-driven lives without blemish as an excuse to separate ourselves from God’s beloved. We seek the help of the people that we’ve alienated, or been alienated by, and repent of the daily actions that keep us divided. Together, we listen to the voice of God–the one that comes from above and the one he develops in each of us– and work together for the peace that God dreams for the world.

Wonder where we get our weekly readings? The Episcopal Church, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Lutherans, United Church of Christ, and various Evangelical traditions, including American Baptists and some independent churches follow the Revised Common Lectionary. While some traditions make slight adjustments to the readings, the goal for the lectionary was to unite Christians in every denomination to worship through the same passages together. While theological differences, structural differences, and sin keep us divided, the lectionary readings are one way that we’re symbolically and practically united together in our faith.