Prepare the Way

David Finnegan-Hosey
Kay Spiritual Life Center
December 6, 2015
Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6

Audio available here.

Malachi 3:1-4 • Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me; suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming, says the Lord of heavenly forces. Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can withstand his appearance? He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver. He will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. They will belong to the Lord, presenting a righteous offering. The offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in ancient days and in former years.

Luke 3:1-6 • In the fifteenth year of the rule of the emperor Tiberius—when Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea and Herod was ruler over Galilee, his brother Philip was ruler over Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler over Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas—God’s word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. This is just as it was written in the scroll of the words of Isaiah the prophet, A voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight. Every valley will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be leveled. The crooked will be made straight and the rough places made smooth. All humanity will see God’s salvation.”

I. Intro – Another Hard Week
It has been another hard week.

Yet more news of violence, this time a mass shooting in San Bernardino California…or was it Savannah, Georgia, the same day? The debate, on news channels and on social media, about gun control, mental health, and whether or not to call such bloody acts terrorism, rages on…again. National leaders seem to lack either the will or the savvy to move the conversation forward in a productive manner. And I find myself watching all of this, not knowing quite what to say, and thinking to myself: “Surely. Surely, there is a path forward. Surely, there must be a way.”

In Paris, still reeling form its own recent violence, world leaders gather once again to discuss what can be done about climate change. And though a draft agreement has been reached, grim predictions abound. There is once again worry that we will lack will or the savvy to move this conversation forward in a productive manner. And I find myself listening to the news, not knowing quite what to say, and thinking to myself: “Surely, there is a path forward. Surely, there must be a way.”

In our personal lives, this time of year can be full of as much anxiety as it is of anticipation, as much stress as it is of joy. Whether it’s a seemingly insurmountable workload, or family drama or conflict, or simply a case of the holiday blues, I can see worry and fatigue on many of your faces. Or maybe I’m projecting – maybe it is my own worry and fear that I am seeing. Maybe it is my own anxious wondering of whether, really, there is a path through all of this. Whether, really, there is a way.

And into all of this, all of the mixed emotions of this time of year and this season of our world, John the Baptist comes storming in. I mean, this guy is disruptive. We stopped at verse 6 in today’s gospel reading, but when you get a chance go back and read the rest. You’ll get the full “you’re all snakes” and “the ax is at the root of the tree” treatment. Not exactly “Silent Night.” Last week we talked about seeds growing in quiet and secret, and this week it’s like we’ve done a 180, and there’s valleys being filled and mountains being leveled and voices crying out in the wilderness. And they’re crying out: “There is a path. There is a way. Prepare the way.”

What is this way? Tell, me, please. Because I am weary and I am worn and I need to know what the path is forward through all of this.

II. The Way
We all know the Sunday School answer – Jesus is the way. “The Way, the Truth, and the Life” – that’s how Jesus describes himself in the gospel according to John. Different John, of course. Before the term “Christian” became popular, members of the earliest churches were called, simply, “followers of the Way.” And perhaps it would be easy to look at the problems of the world and the problems of our friends and family and shrug and say, “Well, Jesus is the answer.”

But John the Baptist doesn’t show up in the wilderness yelling: “Prepare an answer for the Lord!” He says, “Prepare the way!” The prophet Malachi – Malachi, by the way, just means “my messenger,” just the words we heard in tonight’s passage – says that he will “clear a path,” not that he will provide a clear answer.

The words we heard today from Luke’s gospel are actually a quote from the prophet Isaiah. Luke quotes them in reference to John the Baptist. Only there’s been a bit of a shift. What we heard tonight was, “A voice crying out in the wilderness: prepare the way for the Lord.” That voice in the wilderness, according to Luke, is John, son of Zechariah, the baptizer. But the original text of Isaiah says something more like – “Prepare a way in the wilderness!” Isaiah was speaking literally. His prophetic vision was of his people, long exiled, returning to their homeland by way of a path that would be wide and flat, easy to traverse. God would lead them along this path, and valleys and mountains would not be obstacles for their promised return.

The “way” that Isaiah was referring to was a literal road; and while Luke’s appropriation of this image to refer to the ministry of John the Baptist is metaphorical, I think there’s something important about the original meaning of the term. A “way,” a “path,” is not a final destination. It is not an answer. It is something that must be walked, step-by-step, moment-by-moment, day-by-day. We follow this way, we walk this path, choice by choice, in our daily life, every day of our lives.

Focused as we are on the season of Advent as a preparation for Christmas, we are likely to assume the Jesus is the end-goal of this path – that the path is being cleared for us to get to Jesus. But the path that is being cleared, as it turns out, is for Jesus to come to us – and, what’s more, it turns out that Jesus is the path. The Way that we must walk is the very same Way that takes the initiative to arrive in our lives.

III. Disruption and Discontinuity
If we listen to the voices of Advent – the voice of John the Baptist, of Malachi, of Mary singing her revolutionary Magnificat – we get the hint that, although this Way is the promised path to peace, its arrival will be disruptive, even disorderly. Whatever it is we’re preparing for in Advent, it’s less of a “decorating for cozy family holiday” sort of preparation and more of a “batten down the hatches, board up the windows, this is about to get real” sort of preparation.

Indeed, the people of John and Jesus’ day longed for a disruption of the way-things-were. Our reading from Luke tonight begins, disappointingly enough, sort of like the opening crawl of Star Wars Episode I. You know which one I mean? When you’re all settled in with your popcorn ready for some awesome mythic space opera action and instead you get a boring summary of trade disagreements? Here we are, ready for some words of encouragement or peace, and Luke gives us a summary of who rules over what parts of ancient Palestine. But this political summary is a reminder to us that Jesus’ ministry begins in a time and place of suffering, violence, military occupation, and unjust political structures. The people who flock to hear John the Baptist in the wilderness are looking for a new thing, a way out, a disruption of this dirty, rotten system that seemed to rule the whole world.

Hear the voice of John, crying out: “Prepare the way! A new thing is coming! A disruption, an interruption, an over-turning of these unfairly stacked tables is on its way!” Prepare! Get ready!

Last year, Robert Kaiser retired as the managing editor of the Washington Post after a 50-year career at the paper. In a final editorial thick with palpable frustration, Kaiser bemoaned the fractured and deadlocked political situation of our country: “I’m sure my age is a factor here,” he wrote. “A man of 70 cannot sustain the excitement and optimism of youth. Still, all my instincts tell me that the dreadful politics of today cannot last indefinitely. “ He went on: “The hardest thing to predict is discontinuity — a break from the patterns of today. But I think America is in for discontinuity. Something is going to happen to change this awful game we are playing.”[i]

The hardest thing to predict is discontinuity, Kaiser wrote. And that’s exactly what our texts for this evening predict: discontinuity. A break from the patterns of today.

IV. Preparing the Way
What then, would it mean, to prepare for this kind of disruption, to walk the path of this kind of holy discontinuity, this promised break from the patterns of today? I pose the question here at American University, in front of a group of people who may very well have better responses than I do. Some of you may go on to be involved in policy debates on Capitol Hill. Some of you may be the future climate scientists or economists or advocates who must make decisions about our global future. Some of you are already practicing for future negotiations at the United Nations. You may be much better placed than I am to model the kind of discontinuity that our world so desperately needs.

But I have a little suspicion that whatever happens with the conversation on Capitol Hill or in Paris or at the UN, that the discontinuity that we need starts with much smaller preparations. That no matter what policy prescriptions might move us forward, they will require a group of people willing to live lives of love and of service and of welcome. That the “little things” of faith are not superficial but rather are necessary practice for the big changes that are coming.

And so, we prepare. We practice. We practice giving, here in our little community, because what the world needs is less greed and more generosity, and we need to be prepared for that. We practice caring for each other, right here on campus, because what the world needs is less selfishness and more empathy, and we need to be prepared for that. We practice communion, here at this altar, because what the world needs is less dividing walls and more common tables, and we need to be prepared for that.

And we practice singing. Right here, in this chapel. Sometimes in stumbling or awkward or slightly embarrassing ways. Because if scripture tells us anything its that when the way-things-are is disrupted by the Way-that-is-coming, there is going to be dancing and singing and feasting the likes of which we have never known. We had better start practicing our songs. We’re gonna need them when the kingdom comes. For when “God rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of God’s righteousness and wonders of God’s love. And wonders of God’s love. And wonders – and wonders – of God’s love.”[ii]


Notes:

[i] Robert G. Kaiser, “How Republicans lost their mind, Democrats lost their soul and Washington lost its appeal,” The Washington Post, 28 February 2014, available online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-republicans-lost-their-mind-democrats-lost-their-soul-and-washington-lost-its-appeal/2014/02/28/2ef5429c-9d89-11e3-9ba6-800d1192d08b_story.html

[ii] Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World,” United Methodist Hymnal, 246.