Preparing the Way
A Sermon on Mark 1:1-8
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by by Gabriel Sanchez on Unsplash]
Happy second Sunday of Advent!
I love the timing of Advent as the context in which to share the beautiful ritual of welcoming Anelise to the life of faith. Her precious life reminds us of the position we all share. We all live our lives in this blessed, but transitional space between the promise of all the good that God wills for us, and the final fulfillment of all of God’s promises in the return of Christ.
Advent is the in-between time of the church year. The time when we hold on to hope, and look forward in expectation, because the story has only started, not yet finished. In the same way that Martin & Anyiateh have entrusted Anelise’s life and faith to God, we all are called into the same expectant hope that God will guide us ever further on the journey of faith. So, yes, I love the Advent context for this special day.
But I am not unaware that the texts we heard today are not the most obvious scriptures to read on the event of a child’s dedication to God. It would probably feel more fitting to hear promises of God’s mothering care, or a celebration of the rewards of the life of faith. Instead we get:
A description of a wild non-comformist out in the desert yelling about repentance….
A call to prepare for the coming of the Lord, which will result in the dissolving of the elements and the heavens set ablaze, and then dissolved….
And a prophecy to a captive and suffering people that they have received double punishment for their sin, so now they can have comfort (even though all people are like withering grass).
These are not exactly the texts we would find represented in pastel Precious Moments illustrations in a children’s Bible.
But, on the other hand, it is 2020! And Anelise is a 2020 baby. She has essentially spent her entire life in the context of a global pandemic, with her parents on the front lines as health care workers! So, maybe texts that express hope in the midst of challenge are actually appropriate.
And there is at least one phrase from today’s readings that is aptly suited to such an occasion:
“prepare the way of the Lord.”
That is what happened this morning, when we prayed over Anelise, and made her promises, and affirmed the path of faith that God will guide her on. We all took part in preparing the way of the Lord in her life… We promised to give her the tools she will need to come to know God’s love, grace, and call on her life. We asked God’s blessing on her, and through her. We affirmed both her need and our hope that her need will be met by a loving God.
And in the process, we were reminded of God’s continuous call to prepare the way in our lives as well.
Because that preparation is not a one-time activity. Just as the work of faith is not complete in Anelise today, neither is it complete in any of us. Preparing the way of the Lord is not just something that John the Baptist did in the desert back in the ancient past. Nor is it something that happens only at the beginning of our faith. It is a continuing pattern of life for God’s people. It takes intention to keep our hearts open to God. If we don’t continually answer the call to prepare the way, other things all too easily get in the way.
Our bulletin always begins with some words that set the scene for our worship, and this week’s introduction seem especially helpful: (It tells us) “John calls people to repent, to clear the decks, to completely reorder their lives so that nothing gets in the way of the Lord’s coming.”
In other words, to prepare the way of the Lord means doing the work of repentance. And Repentance isn’t a morality exercise. It’s not taking an account of all our misdeeds and feeling really bad about them. Repentance is about “clearing the way” of our own prejudices and posturing, so that God can lead us where God wants us to go.
When I spoke with Martin and Anyiateh about their hopes for their daughter they both expressed their faith that God created Anelise for a purpose, and so what they want for her, is that she become the person God made her to be. That is the wish of God our Parent for each of us as well, that we would recognize God’s intention in our lives and be willing to be guided by God, even, or maybe especially, when we find ourselves in the wilderness.
And wilderness is exactly what 2020 has felt like, has it not?
A place of both isolation and danger. Where we are bereft of familiar sources of comfort and forced to adjust or scramble in order to survive. Much like the wilderness in which John preached, and the wilderness through which Isaiah knew the people must pass to return from exile, we are enduring an experience of wilderness.
It’s scary. And it’s lonely. And it’s exhausting. And all of that can make this wilderness a dangerous place for our faith: A place that drives us into defensiveness and self-protection; A place that makes us suspicious of anyone different or any challenging ideas; A place that makes us hold tight to whatever we have left, rather than opening up to anything new.
But, if we are willing to let go of our protective instincts, the wilderness can also be a place that is ideally suited for preparing the way of the Lord. It is ideal because it exposes us.
In her research work on resilience in the social and emotional wilderness, Brene Brown has identified one essential key to “braving the wilderness:” trust, trust and the vulnerability that trust requires. Most of us don’t like feeling vulnerable. It makes us anxious and defensive. But it also makes us confront our need, and we have to do that in order to prepare the way of the Lord in our lives.
Think about it. John brings the people into the wilderness, into the place of exposure and vulnerability, and he calls them to confess their sins… because confession is what prepares out hearts for God. Confession that we are weak. Confession that we cannot keep ourselves safe. Confession that we get things wrong.
We 21st Century people are not very good an admitting fault, or confessing ignorance and need. We much prefer to feel righteous, and competent, and strong. But the way of the Lord leads through the wilderness because the isolation and exposure of the wilderness force us to come face to face with our need for God. We have to face that, in this time of uncertainty, and division, and rampant distrust, we cannot completely control the dangers, and we certainly cannot control other people… we have to accept that there is no way to make the wilderness NOT the wilderness.
But we can trust God to make a way through the wilderness. We can trust God with our vulnerability, and when we do, the confession of our helplessness, the very thing we fear, becomes for us a spring of water in the desert… because it calls us to lean into trust.
“Comfort, O Comfort my people” speaks God through the prophet. Not the comfort that the wilderness will disappear, but that a way will be made to cross it. Because we don’t have to navigate the wilderness on our own – whether that be the wilderness of pandemic, or loneliness, or self-doubt, or fear or any kind. We are not alone. We have a guide. In the prophet’s phrase, we have a shepherd “(who) will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” (Isaiah 40:11)
But that still leaves one question… where are we being led? The confession and trust that we are called to in the wilderness is not a call to passivity. We are not called to prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts so that we can just stay stuck where we are. Even in the admission of our weakness, we are called to co-creation, to participation in what God is doing in the world.
And, again, I think the words in our bulletin offer a helpful summary of what that work of co-creation is: “Isaiah calls us all to be heralds with John, to lift up our voices fearlessly and say, “See, your God is coming!” We say it to one another in worship, in order to say it with our lives in a world in need of justice and peace.”
Thanks be to God.
 Sundays and Seasons Year B 2021: Guide to Worship Planning, Augsburg Fortress, 2020, p. 33.  Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, New York: Random House, 2017, p. 37-38.