Prepare a way for the Lord - make his paths straight. (Matthew 3:3)
An important figure, every Advent, is this strange person, John the Baptist. He comes before us looking like, and clearly intending to operator like one of the prophets of the Old Testament. He adopts an unusual life style - living in the desert and feeding off locusts and wild honey - and in stark terms he warns people of the dangers, the signs of the times.
Prophets weren't those who predicted the future, so much - that is a misunderstanding.
The prophets, rather, pointed to the signs of the times, and emphasised the old wisdom: "Actions have consequences". So if you don't want these unwelcome consequences, then change your actions. Repent, in other words. Repent - and my prophecies might not come true.
If you want to understand how the prophets operate, and how they convey their message, you could do worse to make a comparison with Nelson Mandela, the towering world figure of the second half of the 20th Century, who died just a few days ago. He called people to consider the rightness of their actions. He spoke out again injustice. He challenged the status quo even to accepting his own loss of liberty.
There are difference to be sure - but the outspoken, charismatic, love him or hate him figure that Mandela was and became, is not so far from the prophets, not different, in key respects to Mandela, and Martin Luther King, and Ghandi, and others like them.
But prophets are not only critics - and here we can see another connection with Mandela too. Sometimes the prophets did more than speak negatively, than criticising and condemning. They provided a vision, a dream, and a hope. They pointed out that change need not lead to a situation in which everyone loses but one in which everyone can gain. They pointed out that in spite of their bad or unwise actions, God still loves his people and will rescue them even from their foolishness and disobedience.
And this is what John does. Yes he warns. But he also provides a hope. And he calls the people to be ready. Ready to welcome the new King, the Messiah, the Lord, the Christ. He presents a hope of salvation, but also a challenge to be ready to greet that hope.
Make a straight path. - He calls the people to prepare their hearts, prepare their homes, and prepare their lives to welcome the One who comes.
Advent is a time when we are all commanded, like those people, to hear the words of John the Baptist, and act upon them. Like him, we are called to prepare a way for the Lord. But it will be straight path. A true path. A joyful path.
We have so much to do at this time of year. There are the presents, the visits and welcoming of family, the decorating oAnd we should also prepare our hearts. Repent and make our confessions. Spend some time in prayer, reflection and reading. Ensure that the Christmas message of hospitality and generosity comes truly from the heart and not grudgingly from our duty.
And by the example of our joyfulness and love, invite others to see the joy of Christian living and the truth of our faith.
To come before Christ not out of habit, or custom or duty, but truly out of Love.