Today we begin the second week of Advent – a time of preparation as we celebrate the birth of Jesus and anticipation of His Second Coming. The message of John the Baptizer, who prepared Judea for the first coming of Jesus, tells us how to prepare for the coming of Jesus in this Holy Season. In the Gospel reading we just heard:
‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” (Matthew 3:3)
We are instructed by the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Malachi, and in all the Gospels to ‘prepare the way of the Lord’.
But, what is ‘the way of the lord’?
And how do we best prepare for Him?
The ‘way of the Lord’ is the way of God, . . . the way of Jesus, the ways and precepts taught us by Jesus in His work And His life. Proverbs 10:29 tell us that ‘the way of the Lord’ is a refuge for those who are following the teachings of Jesus, as well as a place of safety for those are marginalized, rejected by society or lost.
In the season of Advent, the start of the church year, we reset our clocks to the beginning: the birth of Jesus. We relearn what it is like to be Jews, waiting for the Messiah. We do this together, as a church, because we are not capable of doing it fully or well alone. And we need the body of the church in this journey, to help us realign our thinking and actions to be more Christ-like, if only for the Christmas season. We need to come together so that we help each other remember the birth of the ‘Prince of Peace’ and all that birth means, to help us clearly follow His teaching and to spread then to all the world, especially in this time of uncertainty and discord.
And it has to start with each of us – you cannot change the minds and hearts of others until you change your own mind and heart. As Thomas Merton said in New Seeds of Contemplation:
Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.
“Hate” seems a rather strong word here, unless we apply to ourselves the old chestnut, “Love the sinner. Hate the sin.” That’s never as easy as it sounds. To conform oneself more fully to Christ, there is much to be unlearned, disowned. To approach Isaiah’s vision of a peaceable kingdom, each of us must change.
The coarse and ugly national bickering that is in the news so much today, is causing dissention and alienation; I see and hear it in the faces and voices of those who ask me, as a cleric, what they are to do. I’ve heard many expressions of fear, disillusionment, and anger. Some people fear that the world as they know it is disappearing before their very eyes and they don’t know what to do about it or if America will ever be the country they love and the world admires. They are angry at those they see as the cause; it is reprehensible to have a young woman threatened on a COTA bus because she wore a hijab. It is disheartening when crowds yell to ‘deport them’ to groups of people who they think are taking their jobs – even though they would not do those jobs. And most of us thought we had moved past African Americans being called the “N” word and told to go back to Africa or picking cotton.
We have to admit that that system truly is rigged — both economically and politically. There is great disparity between the majority of the nation and the upper economic levels; more Americans live near or below the poverty line and a strong middle class is disappearing. Parents realize, that for the first time in American history their children may not do better than they did. Everyone is angry! This economic anger has been encouraged to become racial anger, anger at anyone not like one’s self, and is being promoted by some sections of society.
The distrust now between people of color and white people — including Christians of color and white Christians — is greater than it has been since the civil right movement and legislation of the 1960s. A majority of white voters on every level of class, gender, and even religion, have now been given permission to say and do whatever negative or vengeful things they like, having no repercussions.
The dream of America has gone from ‘justice for all’ to admiration for money, sex, and power – which many discontented people are attracted to (after all, who wouldn’t follow a leader promising to make you rich and great). There is overt discrimination against those ‘who are not like us’; talks of registries and deportations make everyone feel uneasy, whether they are a member of the ‘chosen’ group or not. And some rightfully worry that we, as the most powerful nation in the world, are losing our place and showing the rest of the world an ugly side, rather than being a symbol of freedom and democracy. Surely, we see our society beginning to mirror the Roman culture of power, greed and division into which Jesus was born.
What do those of us who claim to follow Christ do in this time and place of radical change and nagging uncertainty? We must remember that Isaiah told us of the coming of one who will deliver true justice and uncommon peace.
So, what can we do to ‘prepare the way of the lord’ right now?
In this environment, how do we begin the process of preparing for the birth of Jesus, heeding the admonition of Matthew 3:3.
Prepare a way for the Holy One. Clear a path of God to come by.
Prepare the way! Let us start with our own hearts and minds. Let us remove the injustices and inequities that block God’s pathway. Lift up those sunk by despair. Find your own prejudice, fears and angers and face up to them. Then act in small, steady ways yourself. Knock down the haughty hills of pride and prejudice. Prepare the way for God, who comes bringing justice and liberation through the Messiah. Above all, give love and forgiveness and joy to all you meet from family to friends to the stranger.
A theologian summed up our preparations in this way:
The prophet cries to prepare a way for the Promised One, and we panic.
We write shopping lists, and head to the store for the treasures we must surely present.
We survey with dread the mess of a heart we must clean up for the holy visitor.
But after all the cleansing the house is still just our little place.
The Gift is not to be found in any market.
We fear our unpreparedness, our failure to adequately repent, still rushing, still dusting this and hiding that.
In the din the Spirit speaks softly; we are not asked to clean the house for the weekend to impress the Unexpected Guest.
We are asked to prepare a room and set a place at the table for the rest of our lives for the Beloved, the child who already dwells within.
That’s the good news: Jesus’ way must come again through you and me. Each day can be a glorious day of Jesus’ coming if we live it in our hearts and lives. Prepare your heart, prepare your world, prepare the way of the Lord. Prepare, for Jesus is coming.
How will we prepare for the way of the lord? How can we poor faltering mortals prepare the way of the lord? Because the Holy Spirit will help you. You need only ask.
I leave you with these beautiful thoughts from Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Go ye, and prepare the way of the Lord.
Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 4 December 2016