Prepare ye the way of the Lord.
Prepare ye the way of the Lord,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord.
If you have seen the musical “Godspell” you will know this is how the show begins – with the blowing of a ram’s horn, a shofar, by John the Baptist at the back of the theater, and then his procession up to the stage, singing those words. The horn and the song take the audience by surprise, catch them off guard a little bit, much as you may have been surprised by my starting with singing this morning.
But that’s what Advent is like, being surprised by John the Baptist who shows up in the middle of everything as we go about our daily business, and announces that God’s salvation for the people is close at hand, on its way, and we had better get ready.
And in his telling of the Gospel – the Good News – the Godspell – Luke makes it very clear that God’s message doesn’t come to us in a vague “to whom it may concern” kind of way; God doesn’t send an airplane pulling a banner behind it like you see at the beach in the summer: “Happy Hour at Joe’s: Come Meet the Messiah. No Cover Charge.” Instead, Luke pinpoints the time and place that God’s message begins to be told: Fifteen years after Tiberius became the Emperor of Rome and when the Roman governor in Judea was an official named Pontius Pilate; the self-proclaimed ruling Jewish family at the time were the sons of Herod the Great (they each ruled a small section, under Roman sufferance), and the high priests in the Jerusalem Temple were Annas and Caiaphas. Luke makes clear what the power structure of the day was, and who all the players were – legal, political, military and spiritual.
It is in the middle of all this specificity and particularity that God’s messenger appears in the wilderness, far from the centers of power and prestige. John shows up, sounding and acting like an Old Testament prophet: Prepare the way of the Lord. He even quotes Isaiah, the prophet who outlines a wonderful vision of God’s plan and dream for humankind. John shows up and tells us to prepare for the coming of God by being baptized as a sign of God’s forgiveness and our repentance.
Now repentance can be a tricky thing for us twenty-first century people. We tend to think of repentance as feeling sorry for what we have done, getting down on ourselves, beating ourselves up. But that’s not really what God has in mind. Instead, repentance carries with it the overtones of return from exile, restoration to the homeland. Repentance is really about having a new mind and a new will. It’s about turning back to God when we have begun to wander away.
And there is so much all around us that can divert us into wandering - when we get stressed; when we pave our days wall-to-wall, 24/7, with activity and worry, and have no room to think or pray or even breathe; when we are in grief or sadness; when we forget that we are held in the palm of God’s hand and think that we have to do everything alone; when the problems and storms of life start to feel larger and more real than God is. We wander, we forget, we tell ourselves that we can always return to God at some point in the future – we just have too much on our plate at the moment.
But John the Baptist comes to call us to repentance now, to turn around now, to renew our minds and hearts now, to re-orient our lives to God now, to prepare for God now, today, in the midst of all that surrounds us, assaults us. We repent so that we can be free of the power of distractions and anxieties that weigh us down, and keep us from embracing the love and care that God is ready to give us.
God, the Creator of the universe and the Author of life, comes to us in the person of Jesus, in the Child of Bethlehem; and he comes to claim us as his own. We are God’s people, made in his image, bearing his likeness in our souls. And God steps into our world, into human life, in a very direct way in Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
What a wonderful gift, and we want to be ready – we don’t want to miss it because of distraction or inattention or anger or cynicism or fear. So John the Baptist comes with his message of preparation and re-orienting ourselves to God. Be awake and aware of John’s message, however it shows up in your life – with the surprising abruptness of that horn blowing in the back of a darkened theater, or with the whisper of God’s still, small voice as you drift off to sleep at night.
We are God’s people – you and me, each one of us here, and those we will meet when we step outside our doors every morning. We are God’s beloved, precious to him, and he comes to love us and to set us free. That is a gift worth preparing for.
Let us pray.
O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son, Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday of Advent
December 9, 2012