Based on the Scripture readings:
2011 December 4
Prepare the Way
In 1983, I was John the Baptist in a production of Godspell, and I sang that as I came on stage. Godspell is grounded in the Gospel of Matthew.
We read the Gospel of Mark today, and this is how John comes on stage here: "Repent," he says: repent. "Repent your sins." And for a costume he wears camel's hair, and for effect he eats locusts and wild honey, and not because he is macrobiotic: because he is wild. Wild enough to shout this, too: "After me is coming an even better preacher. Mighty. Worthy. And suffused with God's Spirit. So, prepare ye the way of the Lord."
Most preachers don't spend a lot of time with John the Baptist. It is hard to base those job-protective sermons on a text that says, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come, the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and you are a tree." I don't preach that a lot.
John goes on: "you trees can be cut down and thrown into the fire anytime." He may be right, but John is another in a series of characters from the Bible who could not keep a call at almost any parish in America nor possibly even membership in a congregation. Yet John says something that is passionate, provocative, and promising as he calls us to prepare.
Now unless you have been away from all public places for the last thirty days, you have noticed that Christmas preparations did not begin the day after Thanksgiving this year but the day after Halloween. And it is always easy and generally appropriate to decry this decadence from our anti-commercial and pro-faithful position. It's a type of preparation that we poo poo. But I wonder if there is not a meeting place between the call of our faith and the habits of our time which helps in this season?
Because all the elements of this season have an interest in preparation. They share an impulse, if you will, for something more.
Yet to me the biggest reason not to go directly from the costumes of Halloween to the cradle, creche, and characters of Christmas is that it closes down the space for what John the Baptist wants. The reason to delay the decorations is not because we don't love them or that they are are not wonderful but because there is something more to our story, more to this journey of faith as the prophetic one reveals.
There is, first, an empty space, an open space, in our history and in our heart, which should not be too rapidly filled. This space tenderly exposes our condition as well as the essence of what draws us to need, value, seek, and cherish the Christ in the cradle. Only open space can expose authentic desire. So in faith, in the wake of John the Baptist, we start our preparation with reverent, empty openness for our own good. Which is hard. Hard to clear the clutter and set down the 4G communicator and just let openness be openness for a time. Yet that's one ingredient of preparation.
But also there is a well-defined space with architectural and engineering suggestions that call to the structures of the heart and the world. Also, in preparation, there are some specifics in the scriptures about how to prepare.
Let me tell you what I mean.
Before this season is over, many of us will hear Handel's Messiah either over the radio or somewhere in person. Some of us will sing in it. And as we do, we'll encounter last week's opening hymn about comfort, comfort for the people as well as this week's opening scripture from Isaiah 40. I won't sing this bit, but it's where Isaiah says that every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill made low, and the crooked straight. You know that? There is no more touching poetry anywhere in scripture, nor many lines better known, at least to a certain generation. And we should open ourselves to that poetry for its grace and inspiration, but it is also not a bad idea to know about what was going on for Isaiah as he wrote those words.
First off, without going too far down this alley, there was more than one author of the book of Isaiah. And here in chapter 40, the second author kicks in with his opening bits set somewhere in the sixth century before the common era, which is relevant because it's just when Israel, exiled to Babylon, is getting free and going home to Jerusalem. Israel is in another Exodus. And Isaiah's poetry is not only the stuff of vision, praise, and celebration but more. It is also an engineering idea, based on experience and need. In order to get from Babylon to Jerusalem, people were going to need decent roads through tough terrain. And they knew this because they remembered how it took 40 years to make a fourteen day trip from Pharaoh to freedom and what a tough place was the wilderness -- even Handel mentions the wilderness -- and they had a new plan this time which was going to be much more direct. They did not want to get stuck striking rocks for water nor stop for idols on God's way home. They wanted straight travels -- indeed, God wanted this for them. And Second Isaiah literally describes this engineering.
Now I fear that I've just sullied this scripture for someone here in this room. Someone here wants it to be pure poetry and rejects the idea that it is a strategic plan or travel map. Sorry about that. But you know this already: almost all of our scripture almost always is both. And it is better being both. Jesus' prayer for daily bread is symbolically moving, but it's also particularly meaningful for a powerless, hungry people. Jesus' blessing for the merciful is not only sweet, but it suggests a way of life that brings to fruition its own practiced action. Isaiah talks about much more than engineering plans, but also he talks about nothing less.
So the question emerges, how can our preparations in Advent include both: both poetry and practicality? What might that mean? How can we have both empty space and fullness of mission?
Well, we could start by enjoying the poetry all around us. Go home and reread Isaiah 40. And then, because you can and because you'll be happy that you did, go home and memorize Isaiah 9 -- "for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given," that bit. And once you've memorized it, pray it. Bring this poetry into your prayer. And open space to ask, what does it mean for the object of our prayers to be a child? What does it mean that we are given -- given a son, who will have the government upon his shoulder? Is it like being the parent of a president? Or does it inspire a new visions for tending God in our surroundings? Does it bless and touch our inner child? Go home and explore this poetry and prayer for Advent.
But also ask, how can our preparations for the way of the Lord be practical? Are there some rough places that we could make more straight? Some high hills to modify? How about accessibility in our buildings? How about further promoting warm places to sleep for the homeless this winter? How about finding a way for anyone who is having difficulty getting home to God when the roads are twisty and terrible; how about including as part of our six year vision a recognition that the journey from Babylon to home is not so easy, and we might need to adjust our egress when it is awkward. Because we are called to practical things this Advent.
When we listen to some of his words, it is easy to conclude that John the Baptist is just another crazy, leaderless protestor from Occupy Nazareth. He says things we don't apprehend and behaves in ways that do offend. But his call to prepare challenges us to reexamine the sacred and the profane around us. It calls us to poetry and practice. For we really, really want to prepare this time of year. And that's best when we know what to prepare for, who to prepare for, and what is the purpose of our preparation in open space and practical action.
You could argue that all of culture all around us is engaging this Baptist's call every year. It's the way for Christians, too.
For then, as Handel says, the glory of the lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. Actually that's not Handel: it's Isaiah... unless, like me, you believe that it's the word of the Lord.
Copyright © 2011 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.