Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Advent 2 C at Coventry Cathedral

On Monday this week due to an unexpected cancellation of all the trains from Coventry, I found myself driving to Haydon Bridge and back in a day. It wasn’t a bad drive at all, despite dreadful weather, until on the way back I left the A1 in search of affordable petrol, hit an overnight diversion – and found myself traversing the byways of Nottinghamshire for mile after mile.Then, to make it worse,  with my petrol levels now pretty much vapour level only,the diversion signs disappeared – so it was back to googlemaps, who wanted me to return to the Motorway without delay. I did get home eventually, but it was a long day and I did wish the signage had been clearer. I wasn’t sure where I was going, so it was really challenging to get there!

Our gospel this morning is full of routes and bypasses.
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, but where?
Almost every conversation I’m part of at the moment includes the familiar formula
“It’s your busy time, I suppose….” with the inevitable follow-up 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. Are you ready? Ready for Christmas  - ready to engage with the reality of Christ’s arrival in our world as a helpless baby…or with his return as King and Judge?

Are you ready to travel through next year in conscious relationship with God, - or will the feelings of deep devotion so real in the candle-lit darkness of Christmas Eve get lost amid the seas of torn wrapping paper the following day?

Being ready takes time, effort, energy.

There are many distractions and diversions…Together here today, we are at the very least putting ourselves somewhere we can hope to concentrate on the coming reality…but maintaining that focus through the week is so often a challenge. That’s part of why I’d love us all to experience the Retreat in Daily Life that’s being offered in the New Year. Making our relationship with God an explicit priority may look rather scary…or laughably impossible (let me tell you, I’m already anxious about how I’m going to fine 30 whole minutes every day…I mean, that’s HALF AN HOUR!!!)…but actually, if we believe, with Augustine, that “Life is for love and time only that we may find God”, how could I possibly use my time better?

And I do want to be ready…I really truly do.

So, having identified the destination it’s up to me to begin to clear a road in my life, fit for the king who comes to meet us.
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 12 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, and where responsibility for roads shifted from one state to another there was often no connection at all, so that often we’d find ourselves bouncing and jolting over rough ground for several miles, until, for no apparent reason, suddenly there we were back on a metalled road 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 to 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. I suspect they wouldn’t have been keen on finding a half hour a day to focus either.
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
the 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 until by God's grace we can each one of us travel safely home.

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