Second Weekend of Advent (RCL/A): “Prepare the Way!”: Filling in Potholes and Opening Doors
December 3-4, 2016
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
What’s the worst road you’ve ever driven on? For me it’s a toss-up between the narrow, narrow country lanes of Ireland, barely wide enough for 1 car, but allowing 2 way traffic, and the mountainous, hairpin turn roads in Honduras, devoid of guardrails but dotted with many, many crosses and roadside shrines marking the spot where unfortunate motorists have plunged over the edge to their deaths. We may complain about streets pockmarked with potholes left behind by a tough winter, but that’s nothing compared to the road conditions in other countries.
In today’s Gospel John the Baptist shows up in the wilderness, urging the people, “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.” (Matt. 3:2, The Message) He attracts a lot of attention, because of his appearance and because of his message. It was so odd for someone to dress like him, in a hairy garment made of camel skin, that his attire was like a costume. Most people wore long robes, like Jesus does in all the pictures. It was odd for someone to live on bugs and honey. Most people ate bread and hummus and vegetables and even meat, when they could. John was definitely an outrider. To many of his fellow Jews, though, the weird get-up identified him as “Elijah,” prophesied to return in order to announce the arrival of the Messiah.
St. Matthew describes John the Baptist as:
“…the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’” (Matt. 3:3)
This is where road conditions come in. Paved roads were very unusual in the ancient world. Basically only kings could build roads. Josephus, the Jewish historian, wrote about how King Solomon, almost a thousand years before Jesus was born, ordered a causeway built of black basalt, so that pilgrims would have an easier time of it, traveling into Jerusalem, so that the goods he ordered from other countries could reach him quicker, and so that everyone would know how rich and powerful he was. It was called the King’s Highway. All of it was not always maintained, but you can be sure that when the King himself was going to travel on it, necessary repairs were made!
John the Baptist knew that the Messiah, the coming King, was en route. Like a good advance man, John’s job was to announce the Messiah’s imminent arrival and to be sure the way was clear and the people prepared:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
“Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”
“Change your life.” That was a tall order then. It’s a tall order now. “Change what about my life?” you might ask. Change whatever isn’t in sync with God’s will, whatever doesn’t cooperate with God’s best plan, whatever doesn’t reflect God’s divine design for your life.
If you have no idea whether there’s anything to change, line your life up against the 10 Commandments. You know the “Thou shalt’s.” You shall:
· Love, trust, honor, serve, worship God alone
· Keep the Lord’s name holy
· Honor the Sabbath
· Honor your mother and father and others in authority
You know the “Thou shalt not’s.” You shall not:
· Kill (with either your actions or your words).
You shall not:
· Commit adultery or betray a friend or loved one in any way
Another way to approach what we need to let go of in order to lay hold of what God has in store for us:
· Are we loving God above everyone and everything else?
· Are we loving our neighbors as ourselves?
You may be thinking, “Of course, I could do better.” True of all of us. And because we could, we should. Not tomorrow, but today. Remember last week’s message? “When I get a ‘round tuit’” isn’t a response that’s going to fly with God. The Gospel, John the Baptist, the Advent season all say: no time left to procrastinate.
Our repenting, our changing of our lives, our reorientation from self onto God and neighbor is how we prepare the way of the Lord. An Advent devotion I read talked about eliminating obstacles and filling potholes to make the Lord’s path smooth. The obstacles are everything I’ve done that I shouldn’t have. The potholes are everything I should have done that I didn’t. I ask forgiveness of God. I ask the Holy Spirit to help me make amends for the past and do better going forward.
John the Baptist says we should “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” (Matt. 3:8) The passage from the Romans gives us some idea of what that might look like:
· Have hope (Romans 15:4)
· Live in harmony with one another (verse 5)
· With one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (verse 6)
· Welcome one another… just as Christ has welcomed us…. (verse 7)
We don’t repent just for ourselves. We change our lives for the sake of the world. It’s been said that John the Baptist and Elijah “…both were sent to prepare the way of the Lord… How can it be done? …By changing the conditions that make difficult the entrance of Christ.”1 On Thursday and Friday I picked up two business cards of two organizations that are making it easier for Christ to enter people’s lives, a good reminder that God says: “For heaven’s sake, be of some earthly good!”
1) I bumped into Luann Wood, a friend I haven’t seen in years, but who recognized me and shared she was meeting with the Board of Dream Factory of the Jersey Shore, Inc. Luanne is the screening coordinator of this totally volunteer group that is busy “Making Dreams Come True for Critically and Chronically Ill Children.” I thanked her for delivering joy to those children and families, but also for possibly renewing their hope in humankind and their belief in God. I think the illness of children, in particular, tries people’s faith…. And the kindness of people can foster people’s faith….
2) At the Saints & Sinners Christmas party there was a pile of new business cards for the Furniture Bank, now officially “an outreach ministry of Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church.” It boasts a color cartoon of the open back-end of a loaded truck listing to one side under its burden of beds, dressers, chairs, etc. The front has contact info for the coordinators and the back says, “We are all volunteers! Please ‘PAY IT FORWARD.’” The same day I found a letter in the mail announcing that our NJ Synod’s Fund for Mission has awarded the Furniture Bank $15,000 to purchase more beds for Sandy survivors, disabled veterans, impoverished families, and whoever else is in need.
A trip to Disney for a chronically ill child and her family, beds for the children of a couple displaced by Sandy or waylaid by other misfortune can engender hope in the hopeless. “Welcome one another” includes traditional hospitality in the sanctuary and at the coffee hour table, but so much more as well. “Welcome one another… just as Christ has welcomed [us]….”
We don’t repent just for ourselves. The Holy Spirit changes our lives, reorients us from self to God and neighbor, for the sake of the world. We are called to “prepare the way of the Lord… How can it be done? …By changing the conditions that make difficult the entrance of Christ.” Open whatever doors are within your reach, so that He may enter unimpeded. While you’re at it, fill in the potholes of good deeds left undone and clear the road of sinful obstacles we’ve placed there.
In closing, here’s The Message paraphrase of the final verse of the lesson from Romans. It’s an Advent wish and prayer for each of us!
Oh! May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope! (Romans 15:13)
1Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 7(NY: Abingdon, 1951), p. 263.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham