Advent is full of contradictions. The Church tells us to slow down, be quiet, contemplate, light a candle, take a bath, whatever and on and on. I sometimes have a hard time taking that teaching of the Church seriously when, right after telling us all that, we’re given John the Baptist for two out the four Gospel readings in Advent.
Slow down, you brood of vipers! Be quiet, don’t worry too much about the wrath to come. Contemplate the ax and the winnowing fork, but only after you light a candle and ease into the bath.
John the Baptist himself was full of contradictions. He was, as tradition tells us, a highly educated man from a good family who spent his time in desert caves eating locusts, wearing his camel hair coat. Now, I have a camel hair coat; it’s soft and warm and not really camel’s hair – it’s wool – but it’s the color of camel’s hair. John had no such thing: his camel coat was more likely the tanned skin and untreated hair of some dead camel he found, much like the scratchy coats still worn by the desert Bedouin today. John knew that God was up to something, and so was full of hope, but because he knew God was up to something, he was full of dread. Maybe that’s not so much a contradiction as a wise and relatable reaction to God being up to something.
And the people in this story, there’s contradictions there, too, it seems.
As Fr. Bret Hays wrote, “Why did anyone come to see John, let alone the powerful Pharisees and Sadducees, members of elite urban movements, people who enjoyed everything the world had to offer? Maybe because they wanted to sleep at night. They realized that their identity, their category, wasn’t enough, though the world said it was. They realized they needed to change something real. Despite what the world told them, they could feel the discomfort of a strain that threatened to tear them apart, the growing divergence between what they wanted and God’s will for them. They felt the ax at their roots. They felt the need to change.
“John points us in the right direction, as he always does. We think of repentance as a change of heart, but “the Greek word translated ‘repent,’ metanoeite, means change one’s mind in a radical way; the corresponding words in Hebrew and Aramaic mean to turn, to reverse completely one’s life direction.” A change of direction inevitably brings a change of outcome. John doesn’t say, feel better about yourselves, and certainly not, “take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” He doesn’t try to boost their self-esteem. No, he says, “bear fruit.” “Bear good fruit.” That’s good for them and good for the world. And not just as a strategy to avoid the ax and the fire. Doing good will make us feel better than anything else can. Grace and peace go together. And the labors of our fruits will, by God’s grace, give us the peace which the world cannot give, and let our weary souls find the rest they seek.”
And so perhaps Advent and John the Baptist are not so contradictory. Advent seems to be calling us to slow down, be quiet, contemplate, light a candle, and take a bath, but to just be able to do any of that, we must first visit the Baptist in the desert, to hear his voice crying in the wilderness, to hear what he is trying to tell us. Because what he trying to tell us is that the coming of Jesus to be among us is, on top of the best cause of celebration ever, is something we must prepare for. With prayer and fasting and repentance and good works, we must prepare for Jesus. Because in sending Jesus to be among us, God was and is up to something. John the Baptist had his feelings about that; how do you feel?
 Fr. Bret Hays, Sermon from Advent 2, 2016