This is perhaps an unusual way to start a sermon, but I have a quote for you from whom I think we would all agree was the greatest hockey player of all time, Wayne Gretzky. He said, “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be”. Before I delve into this quote and what it means for us here on this second week of Advent, let us take a short trip down memory lane and recall just how great ‘The Great One’ was. Wayne Gretzky still holds or shares 61 NHL records. These records include: most points, most points including playoffs, most goals 894, (Gordie Howe is second with 801), most assists, most 40 or more goal seasons, most 50 goal seasons, most 60 goal seasons, most three or more goals in a single game, and on and on. Without a single doubt he was the most dominant player in hokey history and arguably one of the very best in the history of all team sports.
Hockey is as we all know a very fast game, but I would also describe it as a game of flow and counter flow. One team has possession of the puck and starts in their own end and passes the puck forward and starts a flow. The other team can of course interrupt that forward flow with a counter flow of their own, and so the game moves and flows and does so swiftly. If you also consider the shape of the puck, surely one of the most unusual shapes in terms of sport instruments of play, you also add another interesting dynamic to the flow of hockey. Yes, the puck is designed to slide flat along the ice, but if it becomes at all airborne or goes on its side, as it constantly does, where and how the thing will bounce becomes a mystery that would baffle most quantum physicists.
I say all this because if you ponder the quote from Mr. Gretzky, knowing where the puck will be as apposed to where it is now is quite an astounding feat of athleticism as well as intellect. There is no doubt that the Great One had innate talent and natural skills in hockey. But it was also widely known that when he was a player he would always be the first one to show up to a practice or a pre-game skate and spend hours on the ice by himself preparing for the next match. Talent helps a great deal, but like most things in life practice, hard work and real experience get you to the next level and keep you growing. Please hang onto this thought, as I will come back to it at the end.
It is Advent two and in the context of our western culture the Christmas season is truly underway. People are buying and decorating their Christmas trees, going to seasonal office parties, sending out their Christmas cards and shopping for the perfect gift for friends and loved ones. Christmas lights are staring to come out on houses and in our streets and many of us are fixing up and cleaning our homes to welcome guests for the many feasts to come. However, amid all this buzz and activity each year at this same time in the church lectionary comes John the Baptist with the message that we need to be mindful of a very different kind of preparation. Very simply John tells us to get ready for Jesus. Put up the tree? Yes. Send the cards? Yes. Prepare fro guests and festivities? Yes. But John also reminds us that Advent is a time to prepare to welcome Jesus into our lives and this requires reflecting upon oneself and thoughtfully considering the state of our community and our world.
Out in the wilderness, a place of scarcity and danger, John the Baptist calls those would believe in God to prepare for God. John says repent and prepare. It is well worth noting that the Greek word used for repent is metanoia and in English literally means to change one’s mind, to readjust oneself, to turn around. John therefore calls us to reexamine our being, our principles and our priorities. John himself will fully expand upon what he means later in his ministry, but he is introduced here with the words of Isaiah. To prepare for the way of God we are to, “Make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth”. Let’s be realistic here - that is a rather tall order from John. Even if we are to believe, as I do, John is speaking metaphorically, to make all the rough places in our world and in ourselves smooth, and to lift every valley up and make every mountain low in our lives and in our society is a very difficult proclamation to achieve. It is one thing to prepare our home for Christmas guests, it is quite another to reinvent ourselves from top to bottom.
However, it is very important here that we consider this messenger from God before we throw our arms up in the air and believe his call to us to be too much for us to achieve. The word of God comes to John who is an ordinary and common man from an ordinary and common family. The word of God is not given to someone in high politics or in the religious elite or to wealthy landowners. In a land full of prophets John was an unknown quantity of very humble origin. Let us also consider where John first took his message, where first took his ministry of baptism. His preaching was not in Jerusalem or Rome or any other great centre of commerce or power or perceived religious significance. His message was delivered in the wilderness, a mystifying and scary place, where only the very poor and marginalized would call home. It was to this man and in these circumstances that God would announce the coming of Jesus. God was making the ordinary extraordinary, making the desolate bountiful, making low things into high things, and making the impossible true.
Therefore when we think upon John and where he came from and where he was preaching, we realize truly that with God that anything is possible, that the unimaginable can become reality. When John the Baptist calls us to reinvent ourselves we are not entering this journey alone and without a guide. God is always with us and will always show us the way. God does not ask of us the impossible, God invites us into Her world where with His help our imagination is awakened to realms of possibility that energize, excite and astound us. With the help of God making all the rough places in our world and in ourselves smooth, and lifting every valley up and making every mountain low in our lives and in our society becomes a call that makes us fully who we are and, what we were meant to achieve.
This past week saw the sixtieth anniversary of Rosa Parks getting on a Bus in Montgomery Alabama and peacefully and defiantly sitting in a white person’s seat. At the time who on earth would have thought that one civil act of protest would lead to a peaceful movement of revolutionary change and transformation that is still working its way through our society. Who at that time could have imagined that the lowly would be brought up and the high and mighty be brought to see the light of justice and love. When John shouts out in the wilderness for us to prepare for the coming of Jesus in Advent it is a deep, sincere and urgent call for us to prepare our lives and our world for what might seem impossible.
And so, perhaps surprisingly, I come back to the quote from Wayne Gretzky. “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be”. As we prepare in Advent for the coming of Jesus, God recognizes we live in the here and now, but is challenging us to expand our vision and imagine what can be, what will be in the future. God is calling us to see in our mind’s eye a future of peace, the peace that we celebrate this Sunday. God asks us to prepare for a peace that is so much more than the absence of war and violence. God asks us to prepare for a peace that means equality amongst all people, a peace that means justice for all the oppressed, a peace that means enough clean water and food for all humanity, a peace that means our own fears and anxieties can be put into the hands of God and smoothed over.
John stands in the wilderness and calls all of us to change our minds, to readjust ourselves, and to turn around. Advent it would seem is not so much about waiting as it is about preparing. We prepare ourselves for the birth of Jesus and that means opening our hearts and minds to the possibility that with God anything is possible. Peace on earth should not be an abstract concept but a future reality we pray for, work for and eventually achieve. We light the candle of peace and that flame is the signal fire to a miracle that will work through us with the help of God. Let us prepare ourselves to be the instruments of peace God intends us to be. Amen.
The Rev. Patrick Blaney