“And this is my prayer: that your love may increase more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception,
to discern what is of value . . .”
So writes Paul to the Christian community at Philippi. Paul, as you know, felt a great responsibility toward these early believers scattered across the Roman Empire. The community at Philippi was one that he had founded (most likely the first in Europe). And so he would often write to these communities out of love and concern for them, hoping to keep them on the right path, keep them enthused about their faith in Jesus, and even keep them from in-fighting. (People are people after all.)
And in these letters he would usually do several things. He would make a point to give thanks to God for that particular community of faith. He would offer encouraging words. He would sometimes admonish or correct them (when necessary). He would teach the faith to them as best as he could, through inspired words and thoughts and insights. And on top of all of that, he would offer prayers for them.
“And this is my prayer: that your love may increase more and in knowledge … to discern what is of value.”
To discern what is of value . . . . I don’t know about you – but that sounds almost “modern” in a way, as if we might read that very same thing in books being published today. Paul is wise enough to know the importance of those few short words. He knew that “discerning what is of value” is at the heart of discipleship, essential in following Jesus. And so, he makes that a central part of his prayer for his friends at Philippi.
Is that our prayer too?
You may wonder what this has to do with Advent. After all, isn’t this season just about a star and a manger and some angels and a tiny baby? It is about those things, yes, but not only those things. You see, if we truly want this season to make a difference in our lives, if we truly want to not wake up on December 25 exactly the same as we were a week or a month or a year ago – then Paul’s words can really teach us something.
Paul prayed that his friends would know what is of value (or what is of the HIGHEST value) knowing in his heart (and from his own experience) that there really can only be one answer to that question. Paul, an educated man who once had status, came to realize that those things he once found so important, were now less so. One thing, or rather, one PERSON, now took the place of everything else, was now the highest value, the greatest treasure, had become precious to him – the Lord Jesus. Nothing else seemed to matter as much to him anymore. To him Jesus was his everything. Can we say the same?
You see, Advent won’t mean that much if what and whom we are waiting for isn’t a fulfillment of our greatest desire, or our most profound need. Is Jesus really the gift we want above everything else this Christmas? Do we wake up each day thirsting for God, longing to encounter him in each experience and in each person? Is our faith in God and trust in God and hope in God the things we would never give up or never allow to be displaced by something or someone else?
In other words, is Jesus really at the top of our Christmas list?
In a sense, that’s what John the Baptist is saying in today’s Gospel passage from Luke, when he preaches a baptism of repentance, exhorting people to,
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
It’s as if John is telling them, “God is coming. He’s in our midst. How badly do you want to see him? How deeply do you want to experience him? How achingly do you want the power and salvation of God to be poured out on you and within you and for you?” In other words, John wants them to get ready, he wants them to remove the obstacles getting in God’s way: their selfishness, their greed, their disobedience, to sum it up, their sin. He, like Paul, wanted his “followers” to want God above everything else. And countless holy men and women through the centuries have prayed for that same thing.
Is that our prayer too?
In a beautiful, poetic language the prophet Baruch (in today’s First Reading) paints a remarkable picture for us. He tells the people of Jerusalem,
“Take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the
splendor of glory from God forever . . .”
That’s what God wants for us. And so let’s prepare. Let’s get rid of our mourning and misery and sin and let God get to us. And that can only happen if we truly want Jesus more than anything else. And if we can do that, the splendor of God will certainly be born in us once again, transforming us – not just this Christmas, but every day of our lives.
A Short Story
There was a famous preacher who Sunday after Sunday faced a large, attentive congregation. One Sunday as he approached the pulpit the words of our Gospel today were ringing in his ears: ‘Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.’ A thought suddenly struck him: It’s not the Lord’s paths that need to be straightened out but ours.
From the pulpit he looked into the expectant faces of the men and women before him, and wondered what these words might mean for them. What were the things that needed to be straightened out in their lives? He realized that only they could answer that. Nevertheless, there was one area he felt qualified to speak about – their often twisted and tangled relationship.