Preparing the Way

Advent 2-C. Trinity Cathedral.

 Because the season of Advent is, among other things, a season of preparation for the festival of Jesus’ birth at Christmas, the two middle Sundays focus on John the Baptist whose life and ministry have always been seen as “preparing the way of the Lord.” Luke tells us that John was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah as a “voice crying out in the wilderness: ‘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’.” (3:4-6)

 Luke is taking a little liberty with the text here because what Isaiah actually wrote was not “a voice crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way…” but “A voice cries…: ‘in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.’” (Isaiah 40:3)  In other words, the voice is not in the wilderness…the people are! And they are hoping that God will make a straight path for them to return from Exile and be restored to their land and to Jerusalem!

 That’s consistent with our First Lesson today from Baruch who is usually understood to be Jeremiah’s personal secretary and scribe. This portion of his book is also talking about the return from Exile in Babylon and he too is confident that after having been carried “away by their enemies…God will bring the (people of Jerusalem) back…carried in glory, as on a royal throne.  For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.” (Baruch 5:6-7) So this is really about Israel returning from the “wilderness” of Exile in Babylon.  

 But it’s understandable that Luke would focus on a “voice” crying in the wilderness because he knew that’s where John the Baptist lived, and it was from the wilderness that his voice rang out. We don’t know much abut the early life of John. Our canticle today (itself taken from Luke’s Gospel) is the song his father sang in thanksgiving for his birth. It was a hymn of dedication too as Zechariah sings, “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.” (Luke 1:76)

 Some scholars believe that John (and perhaps even Jesus himself) may have spent some time with the Essenes in the monastery near the Dead Sea. They too used ritual cleansing and baptisms of repentance symbolizing the forgiveness of sins, and it may be that John adapted that custom of baptism from them for his own  use.  But prophets and mystics, holy men and holy women, have often sought out the desert, the wilderness, as places of preparation and of prayer.

 I spent part of my sabbatical some fifteen years ago in the desert, taking two courses at St. George’s College in Jerusalem, one of which was called “the Desert Course.” We spent the better part of a week in three jeeps with a Bedouin guide tracing the ancient pilgrim routes across the Sinai, spending some nights in sleeping bags on the desert floor and other nights in Orthodox monasteries. There is something about the desert!  The silence is profound, especially in the middle of the day when no one or no thing is stirring. And the clarity of the night sky – with no artificial lighting and no pollution – is such that you almost feel you could reach up and touch the moon and the stars!  

 The very fact that you know you could die in a matter of hours without adequate water and shade from the sun makes it very clear how utterly dependent we are on God. I remember once scrambling out of the noonday sun, finding shelter under a huge stone jutting out from the side of a hill, and feeling the temperature drop about 20 degrees just getting out of the sun. It gives a whole new meaning to biblical passages describing God as “the Rock of our salvation!” That desert rock felt like my salvation from the heat!

 So, we’re told that “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness; and he went into all the region about the Jordan preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” (Luke 3:2-3). That means he lived just east of Jerusalem and north of the Dead Sea. And it was from this place of silence, complete dependence on God, and crystal-clear night skies that he heard the voice of his God, calling him into ministry.

 I think John’s ministry was two-fold really. He was an evangelist and he was a prophet. They’re not the same thing, but they are connected. I want to focus on his role as evangelist this week and perhaps his role as prophet next Sunday.

 John the Baptist was an evangelist because he preached Good News. The good news that God is, that God is in charge, and that God was about to do a new thing – that “all flesh (would soon) see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3:6). He also knew that it was not his role to convert people or to save them. That was up to God. His role was to “prepare the way,” to create an environment in which people could encounter God, and be encountered by God, so that God could do the converting!

 I’ve often thought that this is our task too, as evangelists. We’re not called to convert people. We’re called, as the Church, to “prepare the way,” to create environments in which people today can encounter God, and be encountered by God. So that God can do the converting.

 Maybe you don’t think of yourself as an evangelist. But, as Bishop Scarfe suggested here last Monday night, on St. Andrew’s Day, we’d better start taking our responsibilities as evangelists seriously if we don’t want The Episcopal Church, and other Christian communions like us, to disappear in another generation or two. Our researchers tell us that The Episcopal Church, like other mainline denominations, may be in a state of “systemic decline.” A recent report from our office of Congregational Development in New York says,

“It is easy to look at the unadjusted membership trends for The Episcopal Church and say that the sky is falling.  But to do so would be irresponsible and inaccurate. A more sober look at the statistics (membership and attendance) reveals that we have reached a plateau of sorts – from which we can either slide into a new decline or begin growing again.  The problems facing The Episcopal Church are daunting due to the nature of our main constituency. As long as we are a predominantly white denomination with aging, affluent, highly educated members, growth will be increasingly difficult.

 There is hope, however, because The Episcopal Church is attractive to people brought up in other religious traditions and to unchurched seekers, and statistically The Episcopal Church is the healthiest denomination in the mailine. But it will require more than business as usual to expand into other constituencies (such as new immigrants and the unchurched). It will take new churches and a new openness among our existing parishes. It will take having something to offer newcomers that changes lives. Clearly, we need more vibrant healthy churches. But growing as a denomination will require systemic changes, so that the average losses…might turn into…average gains. Even tiny gains across a denomination of 7,300 churches would produce growth of a kind that we have not seen since 1966.”

 Well, I share all that to convince you that we do indeed need to be evangelists like John the Baptist. It begins by inviting people, our families, friends, neighbors, and co-workers, to share the life of Trinity Cathedral!  It’s not our job to convert these people. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit!  Our job, as evangelists and as congregations, is to create environments and opportunities for the Holy Spirit to do that work of drawing our sisters and brothers into a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ!

 John the Baptist “prepared the way” for Jesus. He made his path a little more level, the crooked road a little straighter, and the rough places a little smoother for Jesus. Can we do that? Can we make Jesus’ path into the minds and hearts of our families, friends, and neighbors a little easier by the kind of community we build here? By the vibrancy of our worship, the quality of our caring for one another, and by the kind of lives we live?

 Advent is a good time to think about things like that. St. Paul told the Christians in Philippi that he was confident…”that the one who began a good work among (them would) bring it to completion.” (Philippians 1:6). John the Baptist had that same confidence in God.

 I wonder, do we?

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