Preparing with Care

In 29 AD, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth was in the wilderness and the word of God came to him. John being in the wilderness is significant because it means he has gotten away, taken time to be alone, to seek God. The great preacher and teacher Fred Craddock pointed out, “The desert is not…simply a place designation; it recalls Israel’s formation as God’s covenant people and hence implies a return to God.” God made a covenant with Moses and the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness. Now, John is in the wilderness calling God’s people to remember the covenant. And he drew crowds as he began preaching, calling for people to repent and prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.

Luke tells us that John is preaching in the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. Of course, only one person at a time could be high-priest. Annas was high-priest from 7 until 14 AD, but then four of his sons followed him. When John began preaching, his son-in-law Caiaphas was holding the office, but of course, it was Annas who held the power. And the people were tired. They longed for authenticity, for sincerity in religion. They knew that the system was corrupt and longed for God to raise up a Messiah to overturn both the political power of the Roman Empire and the religious power of the Temple. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says, “Behind [Luke’s] list of names and places is a story of oppression and misery that was building up to explosion point….Popular movements of resistance had come and gone, in some cases being brutally put down. Everybody knew they couldn’t go on as they were. Something had to happen. But what?” They longed for someone who believed what he preached, who brought a fresh word from God, who would lead the Jewish people in a revival of faithfulness.

And the word of God came to John. Crowds gathered to hear John preach and to be baptized. This baptism symbolized washing clean of individual sinfulness but also washing of the tarnish that had gathered on their corporate relationship with God, as the Temple had become a religious institution rather than a gathering place for God’s people.

Baptism was not a new practice. When Gentiles converted to Judaism they were baptized to mark their transformation and ritual washings to mark the cleansing from sin and turning to obey God were common in some Jewish communities. John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance, of metanoia, literally “meta” means change and “noos” means mind or thought. Repentance means changing one’s mind or thought.

So, people are streaming out of the city and towns to hear John preach and be baptized because they are ready for change, for their lives to change, for the system to change. And John quotes the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” YES! The long-awaited Messiah is on the way!

Today, when the President travels, there is an advance team that arrives up to 3 months ahead of him. They meet with local authorities and with possible troublemakers to warn them that they are being watched. They bring bomb-sniffing dogs to scour every area the president will be. They set up canopies for places that he will be out of the car, notify hospitals and put the best surgeons on notice, they bring in a back-up Air Force One and equipment like the presidential limo and helicopter, shut down streets, background check employees everywhere he will go, clear 3 floors of the hotel where he will stay, throw out all of the electrical equipment in the rooms where the president will be, disassemble all the picture frames and reassemble them, take over the food service areas, and set up perimeters. Not to mention what happens in a small town when the president comes for a visit. The streets are cleaned, the flags replaced, the planters are filled with blooming plants, …

Likewise, in ancient times, when a ruler was coming to visit a part of their realm, an advance team went ahead to get everything prepared for the king’s arrival. The roads that the ruler would take had to be repaired: the valleys filled in, the mountains and hills cut down, the crooked straightened, and the rough places smoothed.

On one island in the Caribbean that we visited, there were men along the road who were shoveling dirt into potholes for tips, of course the next rain would wash the potholes right back out, and his job was secure. That is what the Temple authorities were doing. They were shoveling dirt into the potholes of people’s lives. In exchange for your wrongdoing, offer a sacrifice go on about your life and return again after a while and offer another one. But, John called for a massive construction project.

William Barclay writes, “…the preparation on which he insisted was a preparation of the heart and of the life. ‘The King is coming,’ he said. ‘Mend, not your roads, but your lives.’ There is laid on every one of us the perennial duty of seeking to make life fit for the King to see.”

Where are the potholes and valleys in our lives, the beaten down and worn out places, that need to be filled? Where are the hills and mountains of pride and self-reliance, the facades of perfection and displays of trophies, that need to be bulldozed? What in us is crooked, serpentine, and dishonest, that needs to be trued up? Where are the rough spots in need of smoothing? This is the work of Advent.

Episcopal priest, Robert Dannals writes, “John the Baptist knows that we need a period of in-between time to consider the condition of our world, the wrongdoing, our regret, the damage caused by the human condition, what we’ve said and done and what we’ve left unsaid and undone.”

As I read this passage in preparing for Advent, the familiar words of Clement Cark Moore danced in my head, “’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse, the stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes…”

What will you do with care as you prepare for Christmas? What are your hopes? Not the kind that wash out with the next rain, but the ones that truly prepare the way for the Lord. Living in the in-between time is not only a time of waiting for God to come, but also a time of preparing for God to come not only to do act our world, but to use us to act in our world.

Our tendency is to settle in with the lights twinkling on the tree, the presents wrapped beneath, with the stockings hung by the chimney with care and the baby lying in the manger scene and to put all the potholes and rough spots, the mountainous problems and crooked ways of our world out of our thoughts. (Get out the settle-down jar) Our tendency is to sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and imagine snow gently wafting to the earth below to blanket a peaceful, sleeping town.

Each of you will receive a bottle like this as you leave this morning. I invite you to watch it settle at least once each day between now and Christmas. John speaks uncomfortable words to us at a time when we seek comfort. As you watch the swirling and settling, what valleys, what low places, what in our world can you fill, what hurts can you help, what needs can you meet? Prepare the way of the Lord. As you watch the swirling and settling, what mountains and hills, what built up places, what in our world can you even out, what pride toppled, what hierarchy leveled? Prepare the way of the Lord. As you watch the swirling and settling, what crooked places will you straighten, what wrongs will you make right, what dishonesty will you set straight? Prepare the way of the Lord. As you watch the swirling and settling, what rough places, rough relationships, will you make smooth? Prepare the way of the Lord. The stockings are hung by the chimney with care, how are you preparing the way for the Lord? For the King is coming!