Oh the things we do… haul out the holly for the mantle; string up the lights to the rooftop; put out the cranberry and pine scented candles in every single room; change the centerpiece on the dining room table from the cornucopia to the angel one, and put out the Santa face toilet seat cover and matching hand towels. Climb to the attic and retrieve the tree we use every year- or chop a new one down; carefully place all the family ornaments on the tree; hang the wreath on the door, and put a bow on the mailbox. Plan the big meal; bake, bake, bake! Oh, the parties spreading holiday cheer and all the gifts, and the reindeer antlers for the dog and the car; watch all the classic holiday movies.. am I forgetting anything? The cards! mail the Christmas cards! Sing all your favorite Christmas carols! Whew, no wonder we start getting ready for Christmas right after Labor Day.
There’s so much to do to prepare to celebrate the birth of a Palestinian baby born over 2000 years ago in Nazareth. Of course, there were lots of baby boys born in the Fertile Crescent 2000 years ago. But Jesus was pretty special. Of course, we wouldn’t be celebrating his birthday if it were not for the rest of his life. We are celebrating Jesus’ birth with all the falalala because of what he did with his life, because of how he lived, what he taught, how he died, how his Spirit yet lives, and the religion that emerged claiming to following his way after his death. So, if we do all that, to prepare for his birth, what do we do to prepare for honoring his life? his last week? his death? his sacrifice? his Spirit alive amongst us still? Where are the Easter trees? Why are not Easter lights strung to the roof top? Where are the wreaths and bows? the movies and parties? and Easter apparel for our pets?
During those weeks before Christmas, the church is in a season of preparation. We call it Advent. We await the arrival of Christ like a gestational period of pregnancy. During Advent, we hear the story of Mary and Joseph and the story of John the Baptizer holds forth on one Sunday. John is heard shouting in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Get ready, people, Jesus is coming to town.” According to John’s theology, he’s making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naught and nice. But John the Baptizer isn’t announcing the arrival of Santa Clause or an adorable newborn baby to be found in a manger of sweet hay. John the Baptizer is announcing the arrival of a grown man coming out to the world- coming out of obscurity and onto the pages of history- coming out and into his call to ministry- initiated at his baptism.
John preaches baptism. We Christians sometimes think that we invented baptism- obviously, we did not. John is advocating a Jewish ritual of purification. John calls for repentance. Repentance doesn’t mean saying you are sorry; it means ‘turning around.” It means changing course. John’s mission is notice that people get sidetracked from our purpose; he attempts to turn people back to God. John names repentance and forgiveness; it’s a new start, a ‘do over” from God. He says: “wash up; turn around; start fresh.”
Then he quotes an old Hebrew prophet, Isaiah: “Prepare for God! Straighten the road, fill in the valley, lower the hills, smooth over the rough patches….. Isaiah isn’t talking about a post-winter pothole repair project; he is using great, vivid imagery saying, remove all the barriers that might hinder your turning back to God. Remove the blockages to your journey into union with the holy, the ground of your being, and the life-giving, loving narrative of Jesus.
Prepare the way so the captives can be released, the oppressed can go free, the blind can see. Prepare the way individually. Prepare the way communally; prepare the way nationally and globally. Wash off, turn around, start fresh!
This week we enter into a new church season. Lent starts on Wednesday. It’s the forty days before Easter. It is the other season of preparation in the church. The one that hasn’t been co-opted by our consumer culture, so we don’t hear as much about it- unless someone is trying to sell fish on Friday. Lent is all about preparing; we are heading into an immersion experience of preparation.
Some 25 years or so ago, I was out watering the lawn one day. On the side yard, there was a gate from the front to the back. In that spot, beneath the gate there was about a three foot square where grass didn’t grow. Later, we put some paver stones in, but on this day there was still bare ground and a lawn being watered all around it. On my next trip around the side of the house, I saw my three year old standing barefoot, ankle-deep, staring down fascinated. As she wiggled her toes, she felt and heard and saw black mud ooze and squish between her tiny toes. Grinning proudly, she looked at me and held up two handfuls of the mud of creation she had discovered. She delighted in holding the stuff of the universe in her little fists.
There’s something about the earth, the mud and clay beneath our feet. Before we are taught not to get dirty, we seem to know that we are connected to the stuff of the earth. Earth to Earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, from whence we come to our returning – and what of the span between? A span to grow in union with God, a span to connect with God and others, a span to ponder, to live intentionally, to love lavishly, life is a span of preparation in which we practice being all that we are created to be. For those of us who follow the way of Jesus, these next weeks is a particular season of preparing.
Prepare the Way. What does it look like to remove the barriers that would keep us from seeing God’s grace in our life today and to remove the barriers that keep us from seeing God in others as well? How do we, you and I, prepare a way to know, to see, to experience God, alive in Christ, living with and through us today? How do we prepare to follow the one who suffered and died for what he believed in? How do we prepare to watch an innocent executed? How do we prepare for the glory of an Easter sunrise?
Prepare the way to experience the holy in the season of Lent.
Some will prepare for the divine before you go to sleep at night. When the house is finally asleep and you get some time for yourself, you light a candle, read a scripture, jot in your journal. You sit in the silence and breathe.
Some will prepare by awakening before the distractions of newspapers, school lunches, or to do lists can build hills in your pathway. You cradle your hot tea or coffee mug and slip into your homespun sanctuary. A chair and a lamp, an end table that holds your devotional reading and the list of those to lift up in God’s light as you watch the light fill the sky.
Some will prepare in this season by slipping out of the office at noon. A brisk walk through the nearby park gives you chances to breathe in the wholeness of the arching sky and trace God’s fingerprints in the clouds, trees and returning birds. You fall into your stride and your prayers swirl to your conscious.
Some will prepare to embark on this Lenten journey with a meditative CD guiding your thoughts as you travel to work. Some will read the newspaper and pause to pray for the victims, the violence, and the violated.
Some will serve the homeless; some will give alms to the poor; some will fast; some will engage in confession and communion each week of worship. Some will increase your Bible study. Each will find your own way as God’s Spirit calls to your heart. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Prepare ye the way of your life. May it be so.