This week I made a discovery. It’s one that I probably should have made several years ago, but then again, I can be kind of slow at seeing the obvious. Each week our readings for Advent take on different themes which can be reduced to single words. The first theme or word is “watch,” we are told to keep watch because we do not know when the master will come. The second word is “comfort.” Last week Isaiah called us to take comfort for we have paid double for our sins. This week’s word or theme is “prepare.” Last week Isaiah called us to prepare the way of the Lord. This week, John the Baptizer quotes Isaiah as he tells the people to “prepare/or make straight the way of the Lord!”
What does it mean to prepare the way for the Lord, or for God?
As one who grew up in the context of scouting, I was taught, or better yet, it was ingrained into me to always, “be prepared.” For what? I never knew, but that was the point, as scouts we were to be prepared for anything. When we went camping, we needed to know what equipment to bring so we would be prepared for any eventuality while on the trail.
But somehow, I don’t think John or Isaiah were calling their people to go on a long camping trip. So, I guess, we have to think more deeply on this one. Perhaps even enter our religious imaginations.
As I began to ponder what it means to prepare the way, I thought back a to the story of the bridesmaids from a few weeks ago. You know, the group of young women who waited outside the banquet hall for the bridegroom. The young women who sat waiting for so long that their lamp oil began to run out. How those who did not come prepared with extra oil found themselves locked out of the wedding banquet. Part of what I gleaned from this passage is that we need to first be prepared to wait, to be ready to endure the long haul, to literally have our supply line of oil and provisions well thought out, because waiting is hard work.
So what is it that we need to sustain the long wait for the second coming? Or, what is it we need to keep our lamps lit and ready to receive the bridegroom when he finally arrives? For me, this means an abiding relationship with God. After all, how can I know what or who to look for if I don’t already know the person? What this tells me is part of preparing the way for God is to make God part of our daily lives through prayer and study.
On Thursday, several of us watched Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves discuss living a spirit-filled life. As she discussed the basics of spirituality she ultimately concluded that living a spirit-filled life was fairly simple, we merely needed to learn to be mindfully present of God by being mindfully present in the moment. Spending time in the quiet while being mindful of God helps us come to know God. And if God is the source life, it is our connection/our relationship with God that will sustain us through our wait for God.
Preparing the way however, takes more than just prayer and getting to know God. Preparing the way is also about opening ourselves up to God and to greater possibility. In last week’s and this morning’s gospel readings, we hear John the Baptizer calling those around him to prepare the way for God through repentance and baptism by water.
Repentance is a word we often use as part of our Christian language but rarely define. If I were to ask you what it means to repent, most would tell me it means to apologize to God, and you would be half correct. Repentance is more than just saying we are sorry. Repentance is a willingness to accept where our lives have gone awry and to turn our backs on the evil that has caused us to fall into sin or a difficult relationship with God and others. To be repentant literally means to be willing to turn our lives around. In essence, John’s call to prepare through repentance is a call to be willing make changes in our lives, to allow God to lead us outside of our comfort zone, to think beyond that which we think we know or understand.
Last week we heard Isaiah call the captive Israelites to prepare the way of the Lord by making straight a highway for our God. In that reading Isaiah has declared the march towards freedom has begun. This week’s Old Testament reading comes from the third part of Isaiah, when the captivity has come to an end and the children of Israel have begun their return from all over the known world. But what do they find? Not what they hoped for! Certainly not what they were prepared for. As they looked down on Jerusalem from above, all they could see were the ruins of their once great city.
Yes, the time had come for Israel to be restored, but not the way they had hoped. There was no going back to what was, a New Jerusalem was to rise from the ruins. A New and different Jerusalem was to rise from the ruins. A New Jerusalem built on the foundation of Justice.
As I think back over the trials and travails of Israel, I am not sure the people ever found exactly what they expected. In the book of Exodus, the Israelites are freed from Egyptian bondage only to endure the hardships of the wilderness for forty years. When Israel enters the promised land, its already occupied and they must follow God’s plan in order to take possession of the land.
When the Israelites return from exile they now find they must build a new and different Jerusalem. Now that they have repented for their sins against God, now freed from captivity they must learn to live a new life that is right with God and this they must build this new life from the ground up.
And then there are those who come and listen to John. Oh yes, they had a very clear idea of what their messiah would be. He would be a liberator, the new Davidic King.He would free Israel from Roman rule and restore Jerusalem to the city of God it was meant to be. How disappointed they were when Jesus was none of those things. Instead of seeking earthly power, he sought divine love for everyone. Instead of seeking a palace and a throne, he chose the cross instead. Instead of seeking a kingdom on earth, he offered the Kingdom of God. For years the Israelites prepared for the Messiah, the savior to come. Unfortunately, they were ill prepared for the one who came.
So I must ask are we prepared for that which we wait, the Reign of God? Are we prepared and excited for the New Jerusalem, the city of God, founded on divine justice and righteousness? Are we prepared to repent, to turn our lives around and to seek that place where all who are willing to wash in the river of life are invited into the New Jerusalem where the Lamb of God is the center of the city and all who gather, gather as one voice to worship and praise the Lamb? Is this the time and the place we are watching for, waiting for, preparing for? If it is, then we are prepared, to make straight a highway for our God by lifting up every valley and by making every mountain low.