We all know the fastest way between point A and point B is a straight line.
The Gospel writer Mark knows this too, which is why he said, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” and not, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths a confusing and traumatizing roundabout!
Mark tells us that the best and fastest way for us the world to receive its Lord is via the straightest and most efficient path possible.
This lectionary passage struck me this year in a way never before because this year I have a three year old daughter, as well as a sixteen month old son—and neither of them have any idea or any desire to understand that the fastest way from point A to point B is a straight line.
For Violet the only path she follows is the one that will take her to the place she is interested in being at any particular moment—but her interest changes as quickly as northeast Ohio weather.
And my son A.J.,—with who I am well pleased—will see me from a distance, come running toward me at the fullest speed his little legs can carry him, with arms wide open, a bright slobbery smile on his face, filling his old man’s heart with pride and joy—only to suddenly veer off course to indulge upon a spilled bowl of gold fish crackers.
It seems every day, when all I am trying to do is get out the door, a million things pull me and drag me in every direction except the one I want and need to go.
Maybe you can relate, and if so, then we can admit that we often find ourselves walking, or even running in circles.
We keep eating the same kinds of junk food, and wonder why it’s hard to lose weight.
We continue to move in the same social circles, and are curious about why we don’t meet any new people.
We keep picking on family members in exactly the same way, and then are surprised by a blow-up or fight.
We keep doing our work assignments in a repetitive manner, and then lament that we never advance in our careers.
We worship in the same comfortable manner, and then complain that we don’t feel inspired.
We move in circles instead of paths that are straight, instead of paths that take us someplace meaningful, where we truly want to be.
The time has come for us to break out of our endless loops and do something truly distinctive and extraordinary.
It’s time we stop going in circles, and walk the straight path that leads us to our Savior.
Gospel writer Mark tells us that the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begins with the appearance of John the Baptizer. He is the one who fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah, “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.’”
John does this by appearing in the wilderness and “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
He challenges people to break out of the destructive cycle of sinfulness by changing their minds and walking in a new direction— that’s the core meaning of “repentance.”
John invites people to turn around and to take a new path away from sin and move toward Jesus Christ.
But a problem arises within this call because most people associate the word “repentance” with simply being sorry.
Too often we say we are sorry, but then keep doing the very thing we were just sorry for.
Just being sorry isn’t enough. John isn’t asking people to be sorry.
Rather he is challenging the people to change their lives.
John’s timeless message calls us all to change our lives, to make the paths of our lives straight—straight to Jesus—by repenting—by being more than sorry.
Repentance means we change our ways, we change our crocked paths, we stop running ourselves in circles, getting and going nowhere, we stop being distracted by defeatist thoughts, we stop being seduced by this world’s way of thinking, we stop making excuses, and we start living a new way—a way that leads us, and even others, toward Jesus.
That is repentance. That is changing our lives. That is stopping from going in circles.
The question, of course, is how do we do this?
When we explore other translations of this text, John’s baptism of repentance can be read and translated as: A baptism “to show that they had turned from their sins and turned to God” which comes from the New Living Translation.
The Common English Bible says, a baptism “to show that they were changing their hearts and lives”
And the Message says, “A baptism of life-change.”
The people who flocked to John were hungry for life-change.
They desperately wanted to break out of their self-destructive cycles and move in a new direction, so “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
The people of Judea did this because they knew there were just two choices: Keep moving in circles, or find a straight path.
While the ordinary, pedestrian approach would be to keep going in circles, masses of people decided to take an extraordinary step and go out to John, because he promised to put them in touch with Jesus, the one John said “is more powerful than I,” the one who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The people who did this centuries ago, give us a model of just how we can stop going in circles.
They chose to move away from a place of destructive behavior and sinful ways that were perpetuated by the world around them—and find a better way. A healthier way. A faithful way—straight to Jesus.
They made a better choice. They made a new choice.
And we can too.
It’s easy to say that the answers to the question “how do we stop going in circles?” comes down to making a choice.
We all know that if we want to lose weight it means choosing to exercise more and eat better.
If we want new experiences it means choosing to find them and put ourselves out there.
We all know the choices we have to make if we are going to achieve what we want or get to where we want to be.
It’s not that we don’t know what to do—we are smart people—we know what to do. It’s that we can’t make the choices we want and need to make.
And why can’t we make the choices we want to make?
Well, there are likely a plethora of reasons that we need to consider—but I think that one of the leading reasons why we can’t is because our lives have become too cluttered.
Linda Douty, a retreat leader and spiritual director, stands firm in the motto, “less is more” especially in the life of a Christian.
She believes cluttered schedules, cluttered, offices, cluttered cars, and cluttered closets can lead to cluttered lives and cluttered spirits.
Douty writes, “As we ascend the ladder of success, the pursuit of a more luxurious lifestyle starts to drive all our decisions. This starts eating up our time and money— until what we’re going to buy and where we’re going to go become our primary focus. Before we know it, our lives are dedicated to the maintenance of all our STUFF.”
Have we ever thought that the reason we can’t make the choices we want to make is because we are still too busy, still too committed to tending to the things we don’t want in our lives?
That sounds like a foolish statement, but think about it.
If we want to exercise more, it’s probably going to mean we need to do less of something else—like maybe watching TV.
If we want to eat better to lose weight, it probably means we need to eat less unhealthy food and stop hitting the dollar menu at McDonalds.
If we want to meet new people and have new experiences, it probably means we need to go less to the same old places.
If we are going in circles, not getting anywhere we want to be, we must ask ourselves, what’s holding us back, what’s keeping us in this circle of nowhere, what’s cluttering up my path and keeping me from a better one?
We need to ask ourselves this question, and then—and here’s the really hard part—we need to be completely honest with ourselves.
For when we are completely honest with ourselves we find what we truly need to repent from.
And it’s when we truly repent that we stop going in circles, and start making our paths straight.
Jesus’ advent into our lives invites us away from this cluttered way of life.
But letting him in truly, comes at a cost.
We all know what Jesus said to the rich man: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)
Jesus was inviting the man into a life of hope, peace, joy and love—but most of all, Jesus was inviting him to cluttered free, straight path life of simplicity.
But the man wouldn’t take it. He couldn’t take it.
And because he wouldn’t and couldn’t, he continued on his path of going in circles and went away from Jesus feeling anything but hope, peace, joy and love.
The man had a cluttered life and a cluttered spirit.
The same can and will happen to us, if we don’t repent, if we don’t turn toward God, if we don’t make a life-change and break the pattern of going in circles that we so often get stuck in.
Fortunately, the straight path is available to us, when we prepare for, and anticipate, the one who comes to us and for us at Christmas.
The advent of Jesus is a call for us to repent—to change our ways of life because Jesus coming to the world means a new way of life is being offered.
No more do we have to be conformed to the ways of this world.
No more do we have to stay stuck in a life of cluttered uselessness.
No more are we hopeless to ever be who we want to be.
Now, because of the one who comes in the name of the Lord, we are able to take a straight path, the quickest and best path possible, to the life we were created for. Amen.