6 December 2009
Merciful God, give us grace to greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ, our Redeemer. Amen.
“Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Or perhaps this is one of those instances where the King James Version fits a little better than the New Revised Standard Version that we read in The Episcopal Church: the King James would say, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”
Rather than focusing entirely on the way that is to be prepared, the King James Version puts a bit more emphasis on the preparer: Prepare ye the way of the Lord.
If you hear nothing else this Advent, I hope this is what you’ll hear and remember. It’s the central message of Advent. It is our primary task in Advent: for us to prepare the way of the Lord.
Earlier this week, as Rev’d Elizabeth and I were talking about this text, she said something that spurred my thinking. She asked why Jesus needed the way prepared. If Jesus really is Christ – the anointed one of God and God incarnate among us – would our meager efforts at preparing really be necessary? Can it be that this one who would overcome death, stands in need of our help in overcoming the powers of this world?
It seems unlikely.
But even so prophets both old and new call us to prepare the way of the Lord.
If you’ve ever prepared for something really big, you probably already know a piece of the answer. I’ve often heard people speak of their marriages or the birth of a first child as the kind of thing for which one is never really prepared. You read all the books. You set up the nursery, or seek the counsel of your priest. You plan the wedding. You schedule the baptism. You have showers and send announcements to your family and friends. You order your lives into a common home. You make changes that make that home safe for an infant.
But in spite of all of the preparations, are you ever truly prepared for the reality of being a spouse or a parent?
I am, right now, in the last days of my preparations for becoming a priest. This process of preparing has been ongoing literally for years. From the more general preparations of prayer and study, to the planning of endless details about the ordination liturgy and accompanying celebrations. In just a few days my family and friends will begin arriving and months and years of preparations will be set into motion.
But in spite of all of the preparations, can I ever truly be prepared for the reality of being a priest? [note: at this point, Elizabeth could be seen shaking her head to say "no"...]
This is where we find John, “the Baptist”, in the story of that first Advent of Christ.
God had been preparing us for as long as there had been God. From the Garden of Eden, to the enslavement in Egypt, to wandering lost in the desert, to kingdoms, to exile, to temples and their destruction – the arc of history had been long, but it had been bending toward the incarnation. And in these last days the preparations were happening at fever pitch.
But in spite of all of the preparations, could the people of God have ever been truly prepared for the reality of the incarnation?
It’s not an accident that these final preparations were happening in the midst of the wilderness. Just as John cried out the news of the incarnation from the snares of the wilderness, that’s how we always find it. The story of John’s wilderness was of a literal one – full of fear, danger and loneliness – but for the Jewish people it was the wilderness of living in an occupied land under oftentimes-oppressive foreign rule. And any time that we are unaware of the incarnation of God in our lives, we, too, are wandering in wildernesses of our own – equally full of fear, danger, and loneliness.
It’s in the midst of that wilderness that the prophet cries out, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”
It’s in the midst of that wilderness that we are given the impossible task of “preparing” for something that we can’t even fully imagine – the incarnation of God.
I don’t think God really needs us to prepare God’s way. I believe in the unimaginable power of God and I believe that God could make the paths straight without us. But I do think that we need to prepare the way of the Lord – not for God’s benefit, but for our own.
Can we ever really prepare for the really big changes of our lives? For being a parent or a spouse or a priest? Can we ever really prepare for the interceding of God into our wilderness?
But it is in the preparing that we are prepared. The preparations are much less important than is the preparing. That was the message of the prophet in the wilderness of that first Advent and it is still the message of the advents in our wildernesses today.
It has been observed that every “Good Friday” leads to resurrection. In the midst of the “Good Fridays” of our lives – the times of mourning and grief and sorrow – that truth can be hard to see. But in sure and certain hope our faith pushes us toward the pain’s complementary Easter, even when it seems beyond our field of vision.
So, too, every one of life’s wildernesses can be an advent of the incarnation.
We may never be really prepared to “greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ”. It’s hard to remember in the wilderness what that even means. We can become so distracted by our mountains and valleys and crooked paths and rough ways that we forget what “joy” even can be. But even so we are called to prepare. We prepare in the sure and certain hope that our preparing will prepare us – that the rough places will, through the miracle of having encountered God, be made smooth.
Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Amen.