Sermon for Sunday December 9th
I have lived in California now for a little more than 17 years, after having spent all of my life prior to that time either in Montana or Idaho. So, still being a relative newcomer to the Golden State (at least by some people’s standards), I can tell you that I sometimes observe things which may pass by unnoticed by those of you who have been here far longer than I. For instance, for all of you long-time Californians in church this morning, you perhaps have recently noticed the monumental shift that happens about the same time every year in this part of the world. Many other parts of the country get four of them each year, but here we only get two. I am talking about the changing of the seasons (no, not the shift from fall to winter that takes place at precisely 2:23 p.m. on December 21)… but a different changing of the seasons… as we move, especially in anticipation of a mild El Nino winter, from the dry season to the wet season… the only two seasons that anyone can really notice around here anyway.
Well, just as there are really only two seasons in southern California, there are really only two seasons in places like Montana and Idaho as well. One of them is called “winter.” And the other is called “road construction.” And each of them lasts about six months at a time. For instance, at my mom’s house in Montana, where I was for Thanksgiving just a couple of weeks ago now, the temperature has already dipped earlier this week to 10 degrees – below zero… so clearly the seasonal shift has happened there as well.
With the early rains hopefully being a sign of things to come this winter in California… and the cold temperatures having already come to Montana… people in both locales might be excused for thinking that winter is already upon us once again. But if you paid close attention to our gospel lesson this morning, you will know otherwise.
The prophet John the Baptist reminds us that, whether we live in California or Montana, we find ourselves this time of year smack dab in the middle of that other season – the season called road construction. Whether your aesthetic tastes run more toward Stephen Schwartz’s musical “Godspell”, or more toward George Fredrick Handle’s “Messiah”, you probably know John the Baptist’s words by heart:
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
The challenge for many of us, however – at least in terms of our interior lives, and working out our relationship with God – comes in the fact that lots of us would much rather find ourselves in the dead of winter than in the season of road construction. The re-building of roadways here in the Los Angeles area seems to be a never-ending phenomenon. I swear that it feels sometimes like as soon as Cal Trans finishes up one stretch of roadway, they just go back to the beginning and start it all over again. And it’s just as true on our surface streets as well. Just driving on San Marino Avenue north of Roses Road on my regular commute between here and my house up in Altadena feels like an obstacle course as I dodge potholes and new strips of asphalt that makes it seem like I am on some back-woods road in the middle of nowhere. Building roads isn’t cheap… and it isn’t easy… and it doesn’t happen without a good deal of inconvenience in our lives… and often we wonder whether it’s worth all of the hassle.
And the same holds true for us personally as well. If we want to deepen our relationship with God – if we want to level the ground and make straight the paths for our Lord, as John the Baptist invites us to do – it’s going to take time… and it’s going to take a good deal of effort… and it won’t necessarily come cheap or easy.
Perhaps the most striking image of anyone in the New Testament is that of John the Baptist. Many of us have this wonderful image of John, dressed in his animal skins, munching on locusts and wild honey, hair flying all over the place, and calling people to leave the city and join him at the banks of the River Jordan. That passage from the 3rd verse of the 40th chapter of Isaiah, which Luke quotes in this morning’s gospel lesson, seems written just for the Baptist: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” The only problem is that Luke didn’t get that quotation from Isaiah quite right.
Now, one thing that many of you may not know about me is that before I went to seminary to prepare for the ordained ministry, I used to be an elementary school teacher. And one of the most difficult concepts I had to teach my sixth grade students was proper grammar (which, I must admit - especially in an age of texting and tweeting and instant messaging – seems like a lost art nowadays). And one of the most difficult aspects of grammar for many people to comprehend is the proper use of punctuation. Punctuation – those little commas and periods and semicolons – may not seem all that important most of the time. But had Luke been paying just a little more attention in class when he was a kid, he would have read Isaiah the prophet as it was really written – not “a voice cries in the wilderness, (comma) ‘prepare the way of the Lord,’” but instead, “a voice cries, (comma) ‘in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.’” That’s what Isaiah really said (and if you don’t believe me, you can look it up for yourself).
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” Wherever you find yourself in life, if you wish to prepare the way of the Lord, you must go into the wilderness. That’s what the children of Israel did for 40 years as they were led by Moses to venture from Egypt toward the Promised Land. That’s what Jesus did, immediately after his baptism by his cousin, that same Baptist guy named John, as he was driven by the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. And even today, that is what young people in Native American communities still do all across this country, as they complete their vision quest, an essential part of their rite of passage into adulthood.
You know, the people of the Church of Our Saviour have been richly blessed in so many ways. And as strange as this may sound, I think that one other blessing we have here at COS is that lots of us, right this very minute, because of our own personal life circumstances, find ourselves deep, deep in our own personal wilderness already. Maybe you’re worried about your health, or the health of someone in your family. Maybe you’re out of work and desperate for a job. Maybe you grieve the death of someone you love… or the death of a relationship … or the death of a dream. Maybe you’re struggling with depression or loneliness. Maybe this holiday season, with “Joy to the World” being heard at every turn, isn’t all that joyful for you for any of a number of reasons.
Whatever that place of wilderness might be in your own life, for many of us, we don’t need to go out and find it – it has already come looking for us. The challenge of the Christian life is not to run from the wilderness in search of the Promised Land. The gift of the Christian life is that we are called to leave the safety and comfort of the city, and to run in to the wilderness – to name it, to claim it… and there, to prepare the way of the Lord.
The story is told of an Episcopal priest who took her confirmation class to the local synagogue to learn a little about Judaism. While they were there, one of the aspiring confirmands asked the rabbi, “Is it true that you don’t believe that Jesus was the messiah?” “That is true,” replied the rabbi. There was a rather uncomfortable pause in the conversation. Trying to avert a potentially awkward situation, the priest turned to the rabbi and said, “You’re still waiting for the messiah.” The rabbi responded, “No, that’s not quite right.” Well… now the priest was rather perplexed by that response. The rabbi went on, “We are not just waiting for the messiah. We are preparing.”
That is the essence of Advent… that we aren’t simply to spend our time sitting around and waiting for God to act, but that (as John the Baptist proclaims), we are called to act ourselves… to grab the nearest bucket or shovel or mop or broom or chainsaw or hammer, and begin to build… to prepare the way of the Lord.
So then, the question is: “Are you a “prepare-er”, or are you simply a “wait-er”? Are you actively building a road in the wilderness… or are you simply walking down the trail of life with little idea or understanding of where you’re going or why? If the Lord is to come – whether it is in the Bethlehem stable, or whether it is in our hearts, or whether it is at the end of time – if the Lord is to come, it is because we have prepared the way in the wilderness. And when God does come, that is where God is to be found – in the wilderness, in that part of our life where we feel least in control, in that part of our life where we can truly allow God to be God. The call of Advent is a call to action. So leave the security of the city and go. Venture out (or perhaps venture in) to the wilderness, and there prepare to give birth to a miracle. There, prepare to give birth… to God.