Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Prepare the way of the Lord. Open your ears to the words of the prophets. The true light, which enlightens everyone, is coming into the world (John 1:9).
Like a signal fire or improvised landing strip, clearing a path for God was a rescue plan for the ancient Israelites. The way of the Lord would lead them home from generations of bondage and slavery into freedom.
Our Advent prayer to prepare the way, therefore, is not like the house cleaning we do to be ready for holiday guests. Instead, it’s our own plea for rescue. We pray that God would pluck us out of our homes, take us out of this culture, bring an end to the world as it is, to a new home in Christ. We pray for a new way of life in community, in the diverse harmonious beautiful world as it was created to be. Our intercessions implore God to lead us toward life in the world as it should be. We become pilgrims in Advent. Walking freedom’s rescue road fills our hearts with peace and joy, not because of greeting cards or pasted on holiday smiles, but because we are finally on the way to a new life not of our own making.
In the readings of Advent, you can almost hear the earth-moving equipment, the road graders, the bridge builders, the demolition crew, and the road pavers of the Spirit urgently, diligently at work to break a way through to you. Every year, for two December Sundays in a row, scripture stops to introduce us to the strange construction engineer of our spiritual rescue. John the Baptist is the “voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” (John 1:23)
John got the job because apparently, he is the inventor of a new technology in salvation road building. John preached a new message of radical inclusion and offered the new religious rite of baptism to open the way of redemption to a whole raft of previously lowly and excluded people. Before John, no one had ever heard of a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. The simple act of immersion combined with a prayerful plea for God’s mercy made salvation accessible to shepherds, women, tax collectors and all those otherwise excluded from redemption at the temple in Jerusalem, or via the complex rules of daily living advocated by the Pharisees.
Today, John the Baptist toils in the wilderness. John is engineering the salvation road to break through to reach each of us in the secret lonesome broken places of our lives. We must not turn our back on the places within us, the emotions and memories that hurt. In the case of old trauma or abuse, we may need to find a trusted guide to help us get there safely. It is there that God comes.
It’s no accident. For the Hebrew people, the desert wilderness was a place of chaos and disorder as well as repentance and renewal. It was both—and that made it important as a way of speaking about how to renew relationship with God.
Our ancestors in faith knew the wilderness was a dangerous place of hunger, thirst, and privation. Unsettled, windswept, haunted by noxious beasts and demons, echoing with frightful noises, it is the domain of Cain, Ishmael, Esau, and raiders such as the Arabs, Midianites, and Amalekites. Apart from nomads and the lawless, only the mad inhabit the wilderness or outcasts with no other recourse.
On the other hand, the Hebrew people never forgot that God’s proper dwelling place was not the great temple in Jerusalem but the simple tent that had housed the ark of the covenant during the Exodus. The people of Israel spent nearly two generations in the desert fleeing slavery in Egypt before entering the promised land. It was in the wilderness that God gave them the Ten Commandments at Sinai. It was time in the wilderness that taught them to trust in God and brought them to maturity in the faith.
The tradition of the redeeming desert runs throughout scripture. King David was accustomed to the barren places having been a shepherd. It was to the wilderness and lonely places that Jesus went regularly to pray. After his baptism, before beginning his public ministry, Jesus spent 40 days and nights fasting alone in the desert with only the devil for company.
God has opened a royal highway to you through baptism into Christ. You don’t need money or pay a toll on the John the Baptist Expressway. Don’t need to be holy. Don’t need to be anything you aren’t already. God in Christ Jesus is coming straight for the wilderness in our lives.
This wilderness cannot be pointed to on a map. It’s topography and features cannot be photographed—except as it registers on the face and in the eyes. The wilderness of our lives exists within our hearts and minds. It is a poverty of the soul which plagues us, cuts us off from God and each other. We take our first baby steps on salvation road as we move from faith into action, letting our beliefs begin to shape our behavior.
We quickly discover that the wilderness is holy ground and the road to God links to everything and everyone else. Theologian Sallie McFague writes, “In sum, we are not called to love God or the world. Rather, we are called to love God in the world. We love God by loving the world. We love God through and with the world.” This turns out to be a self-emptying, sacrificial kind of love following the way of Jesus. It turns out, redemption road is the way of the cross. (Sallie McFague, Blessed Are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint (Fortress Press: 2013)
What are the signs that we are walking the right road? By grace, the broken places of our lives become like a watered garden, a colorful fragrant meeting place for encounter and connection. As the modern-day prophet, Bryan Stevenson has said, we find meaning and redemption as we become more proximate with people who are suffering. God’s freedom road connects us to all life. I begin to see myself in my neighbor—there but for God’s grace go I.
Last, we know that walking the right road helps us stay hopeful. In the midst of war or the rumor of war, in the midst of the twin global crisis of climate change and massive income inequality, Advent teaches us to stay hopeful knowing the future belongs to God and without hope we can do nothing.
John the Baptist called the people into the desert surrounding the river Jordan so God might lead them out of the wilderness of their souls. Likewise, we are called to make our hearts ready to walk Christ’s way. Even now God is working to punch through. See, the entrance to freedom road stands open before you. We have stood here before. This year, let us walk just a little farther down this road, translating our faith into action, our belief into new behavior, so Christ may again be born in our hearts and enough muck of the world-as-it-is may be washed away to reveal again the seed and genesis of everything that exists, the image and reflection of the loving God.