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Prepare the Way: A Sermon for Advent 2: Matthew 3:1-12, Romans 15:4-13, Isaiah 11:1-10

Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

Today we gather with John the Baptist’s words ringing in our ears: “Prepare the way of the Lord!”

Does anyone know how many days are left until Christmas? Maybe some of the kids among us? There are 16 days and 14 hours until Christmas. Not too long at all. Because of this countdown, the word “Prepare” starts my heart racing and my head pounding. There’s too much left on my list to do before Christmas! Thinking of preparations fills me with anxiety and a sinking feeling that this year, like so many before it, will be another one in which I’m up past midnight finishing presents, and even so, many things will be left undone.

So when I hear John the Baptist echoing Isaiah’s call through the centuries all the way to us here today, I feel more than a little overwhelmed. More preparations? This time for Jesus? What does that even look like?

John calls the people before him to prepare for the Lord by repenting and being baptized. For them, this is a call to a new way of life, signified by the washing and drowning in the water. That leaves me wondering- what more does God want us to do? What in my life needs to be remade? And it leaves me exhausted—what power do I have to make my heart – my life- perfect enough to be anything like a straight path for the Lord to enter?

At this point of frustration and even despair, I find myself thinking that maybe I’m doing this Advent thing all wrong. So often we talk about Advent as a season of preparation. And we know it is that- preparation for Christmas, preparation for welcoming baby Jesus to the manger. But it’s important not to be confused about the worth of our preparations. It’s not my preparation- or your preparation- that makes Jesus come to us or not. Just like we don’t go through Lent and Holy Week wondering whether or not Jesus will really be risen on Easter Sunday, we don’t go through Advent wondering whether or not Jesus will choose to be born a human baby. Jesus has already come- entering that stable, entering First Century Palestine, entering our day and our lives.

John the Baptist quotes Isaiah as it was written in Greek, but in the original Hebrew the word order might be a little different. So Isaiah   reads: The voice of one crying out, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” Maybe that doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but if I think of my life, I think it’s often closer to the wilderness, with ups and downs, false starts, broken hopes, and best intentions never coming to fruition, than it is to a perfectly straight and groomed road, sparkling with welcome and good works for God. Our lives might be more or less wild, rather than perfectly constructed, but Isaiah says that it’s in that wilderness, in us broken people that God will make a way to be present.

Advent is not so much a time of preparing for Baby Jesus to come but of celebrating that Jesus has come and is transforming us so that we might be part of the way- the path- the people of God.

As an example of what this straight way, this coming of Jesus into our world, looks like, we need to turn to our reading from Romans 15. There we see a reflection on how Jesus is making a way in the midst of the newly emerging Christian communities. Most of the New Testament is really about how Christians relate to each other. It’s all about the struggle of making one community in Christ out of diverse people- rich and poor, women and men, employed and unemployed, married and unmarried, sick, disabled, healthy, full or hungry. One other division, the primarily expressed division is between two ethnic groups: Jews and Gentiles (Gentiles are everyone who isn’t Jewish).

Verses 5-7 are key here. Paul writes, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ as welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

The way of the Lord that Jesus is preparing in our midst is the community Jesus forms- it is all of us, with no one left out and everyone welcomed in.

Professor Valerie Nicolet-Anderson writes an insightful reflection on what this means for us:

 

Unity according to Christ also means that differences are not erased. Members do not have to conform to one particular pattern of behavior, but they do have to realize that the essential and defining character of their identity is now Christ.

 

Our churches too are called to this hospitality. This hospitality is not a lukewarm sort of welcome that would translate in letting anyone come in as long as they adapt to what is considered the “strong” position in the church (Romans 15:1), conform to the customs of the established church, or follow the agenda established by the ones in charge inside the community.

Rather, the welcome Paul has in mind threatens the ones who offer it. It pushes them to the threshold of the community and forces them to accept those who come as they are, without seeking to first transform them so that they adapt to the dominant practice. The criterion is the ethos of Christ, and this criterion is one that does not seek to change those who come to Christ.

Professor Nicolet Anderson’s words hit right at what we typically envision as helping people into the church. I look at the way we teach children to be, how we teach newcomers to be in church. I think of how often the refrain “This is how we do it” can be heard coming from well-meaning church folk. And I think of how hard it can be to welcome new ideas and ways of doing things.

When we struggle with inclusion in our own congregation, we join a struggle that has been part of the church since the beginning. It’s a struggle that Jesus helps us with— a straight path that Jesus is leveling out of the mixed desires we carry into this community.

Jesus comes as the one promised to the Jews, but for the benefit of the Gentiles as well. He comes for all people- to form among all of us collectively a way for God to work in this world. Maybe John the Baptist’s words for us would be – prepare to be prepared! And prepare to be surprised- the work of God through Jesus doesn’t always match our expectations or perceived needs.

The big thing to remember this Advent is that the best preparation you can do is to set aside all expectations other than that God is coming into your life and is going to shake things up! Your vision and your expectations aren’t likely to match God’s. But God’s is so much better.

As we prepare for Christmas in our homes, we often carry a vision of what it will be like, or what it should be like: smiling family and friends, all getting along; a table spread with delicious food; perfect presents; and decorations that look like your house belongs in Martha Stewart or Country Living or any number of blogs you’ve found through Pinterest.

It’s this expectation that causes so much stress over the holidays. We think we know what will make us happy. So we set unrealistic expectations on ourselves – and even try to control our guests and family members- to achieve this vision of Christmas perfection.

God invites you to let go of the expectation that it’s up to you to create the best Christmas or even the best Christian community. Let go of the stress that comes from trying to control the outcome of your work and the way other people will be. Live in the joy and freedom that Jesus is building in our midst. The way Jesus is leveling among us is a path that rejoices in God’s presence.

 

 

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