Monday, December 8, 2014

prepare the way of the Lord

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Advent 2, Year B, 2014

“A voice cries out:
‘"In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (Isaiah 40:3).

Prophets have a storied history. These remarkable people, chosen by God to be messengers to the people of Israel, did not lead lives of ease. Rather, they spoke difficult truths to a hard-headed people. Whenever the Israelites strayed and began to worship other gods, a prophet would inform the people of the error of their ways and implore them to turn back to the One, True God. The people would repent, be forgiven, and all would be well until they strayed yet again, beginning the cycle anew. 

Prophets in the Old Testament were not very popular; no one likes to hear that they’re doing things wrong. Several prophets endured much because of the message they were sent to deliver: when Jonah tried to escape his calling, he was swallowed by a whale; Jeremiah was beaten and threatened by his opponents; and Daniel was tossed into a den of lions because of his enemies. Yet, despite the hardships they faced, they were compelled to deliver their message. As Jeremiah said, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9). 

Into this tradition of courageous people is born a man named John. Isaiah envisions a voice in the wilderness crying out to the people of God to urge them to prepare for the Lord’s coming. The fulfillment of that voice is found in John the Baptist. Upon his birth, his father Zechariah proclaims that John is called by God to be “the prophet of the Most High…[who] will go before the Lord to prepare his ways…to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, [and] to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:76,79). No pressure. 

In today’s Gospel we find John in the wilderness. Now, spending time in the wilderness is an important and common theme within the Bible. The wilderness is where God journeys with the Israelites after their escape from Egypt and decides that they will be God’s chosen people (Exodus). The wilderness is where Jesus goes immediately after his baptism to be tempted and to prepare himself for his ministry (Matthew 4:1). Several times in the Gospels we find Jesus retreating to the wilderness to pray (Luke 5:16). Ultimately, the wilderness is where people go to meet God. 

So what better place for John to begin his ministry than in the wilderness? Like the prophets that have gone before, we find John on the outskirts of the city—on the outskirts of society—and people are coming in droves to hear him speak. Many of them are so inspired by his words that they are baptized by John in the river Jordan. They may have come originally for the spectacle—the guy is wearing camel’s hair and eating bugs for lunch, after all—but what really moves the crowd is his challenge for them to acknowledge their sins and upon being baptized, receiving forgiveness. In this way, they will be prepared for someone even greater than John, someone who will baptize them not just with water, but with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8). In this way, they will prepare for Christ. 

In this busy season of Advent we are preparing ourselves for Christ’s birth. We prepare our homes by buying Christmas trees and hanging up the ornaments, putting up nativities, cleaning the house, and decorating with lights, garlands, and wreaths. We prepare by frantically shopping for gifts, and some of us are even able to get-it-together enough to send out Christmas cards or letters (last year Daniel and I got as far as writing and printing the letter, but didn’t get around to putting them into envelopes and mailing them). We put so much energy into preparing for Christmas, but do we take the time to prepare our hearts and minds and souls for the coming of Christ? This is something I really struggle with! How, in the midst of all of our preparations, can we prepare the way of the Lord? 

We prepare by looking to the prophet who came to do exactly that. John’s 2000 year-old message of repentance and forgiveness remains relevant for us to this day. So, in this Advent season John urges us to acknowledge and repent of our sins, both as individuals and as a society. My friends, we have much to repent. War and conflict still rage on in Syria, South Sudan, Nigeria, Iraq, and Iran. Right now there are people all over the world, including right here in Philadelphia, without food or a place to live. And, as the events of the past few weeks have shown us, racism is alive and well in our country. Regardless of our opinions about the two failed indictments, the aftermath of the decisions has ripped apart the veneer of tranquility and exposed the systemic injustice beneath the surface. We have been living in an Orwellian* society, where we profess that all are equal, but in reality some are more equal than others. As Elijah Anderson, Penn and Yale professor, long-time Philly resident, and speaker at our diocesan clergy conference this past week, explained, our society is still segregated into white spaces and black spaces, and neither group feels comfortable or even completely safe in the other group’s space. We still have a long way to go on this “way of peace” into which John is guiding us (Luke 1:79).

What exactly is meant by peace? "True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice” (MLK, Jr., “Stride Toward Freedom” 1958). Peace is not just a state of calmness and composure, or of feeling good; peace is a way, a path that leads us closer to the kingdom of God. We work for peace because together we are the Body of Christ, and when one of our brothers and sisters suffers, the whole Body of Christ suffers. Therefore peace is not passive; it will not allow us to be neutral in the face of injustice. 

Madeleine L’Engle, author of the “Wrinkle in Time” series, described peace in this way:

Peace is the centre of the atom, the core Of quiet within the storm. 
It is not A cessation, a nothingness; 
more The lightning in reverse is what Reveals the light. 
It is the law that binds The atom’s structure, ordering the dance Of proton and electron, and that finds Within the midst of flame and wind, the glance In the still eye of the vast hurricane.
Peace is not placidity: peace is The power to endure the megatron of pain With joy, 
the silent thunder of release, The ordering of Love. 
Peace is the atom’s start,
The primal image: God within the heart. 

Peace does not happen on its own; it requires action. John Mayer may be “Waiting on the World to Change,” but we cannot afford to do the same. There is so much to be done. 

"In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3). John the Baptist didn’t come to make people comfortable. John came to help people prepare the way of the Lord. The Lord is coming. Are you ready?

Pictures from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in D.C.

"Sonnet, Trinity 18" by Madeleine L'Engle from The Ordering of Love: The New and Collected Poems of Madeleine L'Engle (you can find it here)

Quote by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. found here

You can find the lyrics to the John Mayer song "Waiting on the World to Change" here

For information on Elijah Anderson, visit his website.

*from George Orwell's novel, "Animal Farm": “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” 

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