One of those weeks when recycling seems by far the best option..so this is a reworking of something I preached in my training parish....Sorry if it seems familiar!
Routes and bypasses….our gospel this morning is full of them.
Here we are on the second Sunday of Advent, with the world outside already dashing headlong towards the culmination of weeks of manic shopping.
We must be heading somewhere, the question is where?
Almost every conversation I’m part of at the moment includes the familiar formula
“It’s your busy time, I suppose….” And the inevitable question
“Well, are you ready then?”
Are you ready?
That’s exactly the question that lies behind this morning’s gospel, though the preparations that John views as necessary have very little to do with a shoppers’ jamboree.
I suspect that sounds harsh,- and I’m absolutely not about to deliver one of those diatribes about the “true meaning of Christmas”. We may struggle not to be distracted, but as we come here this morning we are at the very least putting ourselves in the place where we can hope to concentrate on the coming reality…and by God’s grace, we’ll attend to him along the way too.
Meanwhile, what about those preparations?
Are we ready?
Is there a road cleared in our lives, and in our world, fit for the king to travel along?
Dirt tracks and potholes might be OK for lesser travellers, but for royalty something better is needed, a smooth clear road, going directly to its destination…
Travelling as we generally do on roads which are maintained to a pretty good standard, it’s hard for us to really imagine the image of radical land clearance that lies behind the Old Testament prophecy John the Baptist recalls.
But three years ago in the week before Advent I travelled by coach several hundred miles from Bangalore to Kanyakumari at the southernmost tip of India.
The journey was memorable for many reasons but the road itself was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.
It headed out of the city in a promising way, but we’d only gone a few miles before the trouble began.
You see, it really wasn’t ready.
It still needed a lot of work….parts had been washed away in recent floods, parts had never actually been finished, so that often we’d find ourselves bouncing and jolting over rough ground for several miles, until, for no apparent reason, suddenly there it was again.
It existed in theory, when you looked at a map, but not in any real terms, when you tried to negotiate it.
In fact, it was much like the route of salvation that God had provided in the Hebrew Scriptures. It was there in outline, but nobody was doing particularly well at travelling the length of it. For centuries the prophets had tried to point out its whereabouts, crying
“Here is the way, walk in it”, but people seemed determined to veer off course, to take paths that were easier, smoother, more attractive.
Enter John the Baptist, but only after God has bypassed a whole host of important-sounding people, Tiberias, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Caiaphas, Annas. These, surely, are the movers and shakers, the ones who can actually make a difference to the way people travel.
Nonetheless when it comes to preparing the way, God looks not to Jerusalem or even to Rome but out to the wilderness, to the unprepossessing figure of John,.
So even at the beginning of the Jesus story, our expectations are subverted.
The messenger sent to prepare the way speaks without the authority of State or Temple. He’s not in the centre of things at all…but he’s the one entrusted with the message. It is his voice that awakens us to our condition, as he reminds us of all the debris that needs to be swept out of the road way, the sins that we need to repent.
Prepare the way of the Lord
It seems that our Advent preparations should really have more to do with discarding than with stock-piling. Extraneous baggage must be abandoned, and Malachi assures us that we will be refined…our impurities burned away until we are able to offer an appropriate gift in righteousness.
Righteousness - things as they should to be….a world running according to God’s ultimate plan.
That sounds like a pretty radical levelling of the rough places…
the same process that we are promised in Mary’s Magnificat.
He has put down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble and meek,- just another way of expressing the promise of Isaiah,
Every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill be made low. T
he landscape shall be smoothed out, until there are no barriers to prevent us from seeing the salvation of our God directly, for ourselves…
All that is evil will be brought to righteousness and struggles will be transformed into victories.
Then, and only then, we shall all see the salvation of God.
But there is more.
It’s not the messenger in the wilderness who actually does the work of preparation. He alerts us to its need, but in the event, it is the Lord himself who will roll up his sleeves and set to, to straighten the roads, lower the mountains, fill in the valleys.
God will act in order to make us ready to receive him, God will act to create a level playing field for all of his creation, a world of equal opportunities realised in equal shares for all, a world built on justice and peace.
The King is not going to travel along the royal highway in a chauffeur-driven limousine…rather he is going to seize a shovel and clear the way himself, for he is determined to make it possible for each of us to reach our destination.
The message of Christmas time is above all that God does not choose to remain aloof from his creation, sending others to do his work, waiting, with fingers tapping impatiently, for all to be ready for his coming.He doesn’t ask if we are ready, he has worked decisively to ensure that we are.God chooses to enter directly into our experience of chaos and devastation…
God elects to travel with us along our shockingly imperfect, unfinished road, transforming it as he does so.