Advent 2B Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-15, Mark 1:1-8
Prepare the way of the Lord! Prepare!
What on earth does that mean? I feel like we should all be scrambling around making something but I’m not sure what.
Every time I hear that word “prepare” associated with the church, I think about a scene from a movie called the Thirteenth Warrior. Through a complicated set of circumstances, a young man from an Arabic royal court is traveling with a band of Viking warriors. This young man has never even been close to a weapon, much less a battle because he was a poet who spent his life in royal culture. But the story finds him in the middle of foreign lands with these seasoned warriors and a wild, fierce enemy about to attack. One of the Vikings looks at the young poet and says, “Prepare yourself.” The look on the poet’s face is priceless. How would he even begin to prepare for something like this?
That is how we might feel when the church tells us to “Prepare!” How on earth do you prepare for the coming of God?
While there are many things in life that we may need to prepare for in the way we might prepare for battle, I am not sure this is one of them. We do not need to prepare as though we are doing battle with God. However, the notion of preparing for anything in our faith life through the disciplines of prayer, study, worship and service in the same way a warrior is who he or she is through their martial disciplines is not a bad way to think of it.
Our scriptures today all speak of preparing the way of the Lord. Isaiah cries out to all who will hear, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight his way!” In our second lesson, Peter talks of striving for peace and purity while waiting on the new heavens and new earth. And the Gospel of Matthew quotes the words of Isaiah and tells us that it is John the Baptist who calls on us to prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight.
So, it seems that one of the ways we prepare is to make a straight path. We could think of it as making a straight road, sort of like a runway, so that when he gets here he’ll have a place to land! While that’s not a bad image to think of, there is one problem. Without a runway, the plane can’t land or would maybe even crash! Scripture is pretty clear that ready or not, Jesus is coming and our preparation has nothing to do with the time of his arrival. So how ever we think of preparing, it isn’t something that we must do SO THAT Jesus can come but it is something we do BECAUSE he IS coming.
How do we prepare for someone to arrive, especially someone we are really looking forward to seeing? Maybe we clean the house, plan a big meal, mark the calendar. We count the days till they arrive and then count again just to be sure. Check the weather. Watch the clock-and then maybe check to be sure that clock has the right time. Look out the window to see if their car can be seen in the driveway. Wonder how much longer it will be. Think about how great it is going to be to see them and how long it has been since we saw them last. We might struggle to look down the road, to see if we can catch a glimpse of them just as they come around the corner. Meet them at the door, or maybe even at the car, with open arms. There are real tasks to do to prepare for a guest, but most of this is the excitement and anticipation in our hearts.
Another way might be the way gardeners prepare for the coming seasons. There’s always work to be done in a garden and, ready or not, Spring comes around every year. The more prepared a gardener is, the more prepared the garden is and, therefore, the more they get out of the Spring or Summer growing season or any season for that matter. There’s pruning, plowing, planting, harvesting, clearing, cleaning and resting to be done.
These kinds of preparations for the coming of God can take many forms. It can be plowing and clearing we do in our own hearts, in our faith lives and in our relationships with others by exercising compassion, love and even looking at what God wants in the world and in humans through scripture and worship. Preparing could be exercising faith disciplines as a warrior uses discipline in their lives, or perhaps examining our lives and pruning here and there to prepare it for new growth, cutting back in the areas that are holding us back from being the people we were created and called to be. It could be the ways in which we treat each other as well, preparing the way by exercising compassion and love with strangers, those in need, those outside our usual circles. Isaiah does say that when God comes, he will make all things right, all things just and fair, but that does not mean we get to sit back and say that injustice doesn’t really matter because some day God will make it right. Making straight paths in the wilderness, in the wild and deserted places of the world and our lives, can be about making things right and just to the best of our ability right now. God will make a new heaven and a new earth, but he’s also at work right now bringing that about and we are some of his greatest tools!
But here’s another question. Why prepare the way—prepare our hearts, our lives, the world around us—for the coming of someone when we are not sure how they will get here or even when they will get here? Oh, I know the bible gives many details about the first time Jesus came to us and it gives us complicated clues and hints as to what will happen when he comes again, but I don’t really know what it will look like. Just like a garden waiting for spring, there can be hints and clues and then one day, ready or not, you wake up and the whole place is blooming! I don’t know when God will come but what I do know is that God always comes in ways we never expect. Like coming to that young Jewish girl. Like coming to shepherds and wisemen, prostitutes and virgins, tax collectors and fishermen. Like coming to live with people like you and me and coming to die just like we do. And, most amazing of all, like coming out of the grave to new life and coming again and again to us in bread and wine, in water and word, in the hands and feet, mouths and hearts of this body of Christ.
So, during this Advent season, as we long to hear the story of God coming to us at Christmas and prepare for the Celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, remember to prepare for him today—now. Use whatever image suits you best. Prune and prepare the gardens of our lives in anticipation of Spring. Engage in and practice our spiritual disciplines. Look down the road to see if you can catch a glimpse—feel the excitement and anticipation of his arrival—for he is coming!