Prepare the way of the Lord! Prepare!
What on earth does that mean? I feel like we should all be scrambling around making something or cleaning 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!” What? How on earth do you prepare for something when you’re not even sure exactly what it is? Interestingly, in the movie, that out of place poet, facing something he had no idea how to begin, prepared by praying.
There are many things in life for which we may need to prepare. 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.
Girl Scouts are prepared; it is their motto. There is Disaster Preparedness Training, which helps public agencies, private citizens and even churches prepare to help and support people during times of natural disaster. My mother had a preparedness kit in her purse that contained aspirin, Rolaids, a sewing kit, two Band-Aids, chap stick, small tape measure, tiny pocket knife and smelling salts. We might be prepared for a power outage at home with a flashlight by the bed. Hopefully we have extra batteries, too!
There are other kinds of ways to prepare that are less connected with immediate danger. Prepare the pie crust for filling or the cake pans for the batter. Prepare the canvas for paints. Prepare the fabric, yarn, thread or glue for a new creation. Prepare for retirement. Prepare a room for a new baby or a parent coming to live with their child, or preparing a pet bed, food bowl and toys for the new furry family member. Prepare the dining room table with tape and scissors, ribbons and paper, for wrapping Christmas gifts.
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 straight paths.
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 the Lord gets here, there will be 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 it might 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, just to be sure we were right, count them again. Check the weather. Watch the clock-and then maybe double check against another clock 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 more than anything else, preparing is about 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 says that when God comes, he will make all things right, all things just and fair, and this is really good news! But, that does not mean we get to sit back and say that injustice doesn’t really matter right now or it isn’t really our problem 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 God is also at work right now bringing that about and we are some of his greatest and most effective tools!
But why should we 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? 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 the truth is we don’t really know what it will look like or when it will come. No matter how much some people might try to convince us otherwise, there is not a date on the calendar we can point to and know that’s when it will happen.
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 tax collectors and fishermen. Like coming to live with people like you and me and coming to die just like we do, too. 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 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, let’s prepare for him today, too. Now! Prepare Yourself! 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!