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Preparing the Way

December 5, 2011

“Preparing the Way” Mark 1:1-8 Advent 2B © 12/4/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Like a good many boys back in the day, I built plastic model airplanes. But then I outgrew that hobby. Or so I thought. One day, I believe it was in the early 1990s, I was shopping in a craft store with Susan and her friend Pat. The business had a model section, so I went to check it out while Susan and Pat looked at other things. I was smitten once again. I bought two kits: a P-51D Mustang and a Bf-109. I sloppily and hurriedly built the P-51 in the next few days, completely botching the bare metal finish the plane carried late in WWII.

Maybe it was because I was 40 and just wanted to recover my lost youth or maybe because I didn’t have a creative outlet I was satisfied with, but I started buying models, and more models, and more and more. Closets full, under the guest bed, and stacked up under my work table. And, of course, there were paints and tools and how-to books and profiles of various aircraft. And then I became interested in armor and military figures. I even bought one car model. I was particularly pleased when I was able to purchase some rare kits. I loved it when the UPS truck turned into my driveway or the mail brought a new catalog or two or three. I fancied myself a collector. Goodness knows, I didn’t have the talent, the patience or the time to build those 100s of kits, and even if I did, where would I display them?

So when it came time for us to go goodbye to Alabama and go to Kentucky to a new pastorate, all those boxes and boxes of model kits were part of the 12,000 pounds the movers loaded in their van. And all those planes and trucks and tools ended up stacked to the ceiling in our garage at our new house.

I finally sold all but a few of the kits, for mere pennies on the dollar. In the meantime, my mind, my heart, my relationship with my wife, had been cluttered with useless items. Tops on my agenda was how I could get more money to buy more model kits and find more room to store them. I still don’t know how many thousands of dollars I didn’t have I wasted on those things that were really of no value. At the time, I didn’t care.

During that same ministry in Alabama, I had a good friend named Phil O’Kennedy. Phil was Irish, and a Catholic priest. He was good-natured, charming, and witty. He drew people in and made them feel comfortable and loved. I still envy his skill at telling a story.

But Fr. Phil was as disorganized as they come. Perhaps that was simply his personality. Or maybe it was his way of rebelling against the regimented life he had known in seminary, when the time for every activity was signaled by the ringing of bells. He was always late, even for Mass. His sermons were written by hand on a single legal sheet, with arrows and mark-outs and sidebar notes everywhere. And his office floor was an obstacle course. Phil had filing cabinets, boxes, and a credenza, but he seldom used them. He had stuff spread all over the place, so that any visitor had to find or make a path through all the papers, books, and folders on the carpet. He drove his religious educator, a nun called Sr. Deborah, crazy. She was about as Type A as anyone could imagine. At the time, during the political correctness craze, we might have called Fr. Phil “differently organized.” His floor was a wilderness of free association.

The gospel text might lead us to wonder whether we clutter our hearts the way I cluttered my house with boxes of airplanes. If we set up obstacles to the coming of Christ the way Phil challenged any visitor to make it to a chair in front of his desk. Maybe it’s guilt or regret or despair. Anger or prejudice or resentment. Investment in all the things we think we own but end up owning and controlling us. Pain and hurt we don’t want healed, because they have become our closest friends. The unfulfilled dreams that we gave up pursuing because something always got in the way and brought us back to reality. The sin that clings so tightly and fills every available space in our souls. So much that blocks the coming of the Savior at every turn, that shuts him out because there’s so much crowded into the space that he should occupy. So tragic that we let things get to such a state, when what we need most is to make his paths straight through the wilderness so it may blossom.

Some of you may have played a game called “Take Off What You Don’t Need.” It was a staple at youth events and retreats when I was growing up. In it, you get some unsuspecting person to put a blanket over himself or herself, and then you tell them “Take off what you don’t need.” Out comes a sock or a cap, a watch or a shoe. Then when the sucker is told that’s not what everyone is looking for, there might be a shirt or jeans. It’s hilarious, to the twisted teen mind, to watch as the poor soul tries to figure out what it is he or she doesn’t need, becoming more nervous all the time. Of course, what’s not needed is the blanket. Most people finally figure that out. And those that don’t? Well, you give them their clothing back before they emerge. But once the secret is out, everyone can pull the stunt on the next newcomer.

All of us have gotten rid of things we don’t need anymore, whether by giving them to Palmer Home or selling them in a yard sale or simply throwing them away or recycling them. But have we thrown off what we really don’t need, whatever the shroud around us may be that’s keeping us in darkness and fear? Have we gotten serious about opening up more than a tiny corner of our lives to Jesus? Advent reminds us that before we can go to Bethlehem with shepherds and singing angels, we have to make the trek to the Jordan. Before our hearts are warmed by sweet baby Jesus in a manger, our ears are blasted by a weird guy in camel hide who eats bugs and never lowers his voice below a shout.

John the Baptizer, as Mark calls him, is a hinge figure in the Bible. He’s neither old nor new. He has a wonderful modesty about his place, a complete grasp on his role in history. I imagine such humility could not have been easy to maintain. Who of us would not start believing ourselves something more than we were if the crowds kept flocking to hear us and wondered out loud if we were some kind of Savior, the one with the answers to all their problems? We would no doubt be making demands and getting book deals and promoting our TV show and generally acting badly.

But not John. Somehow he keeps his wits and his cool. He knows that as great as everybody thinks he is, there is One still greater to come. His job is to get things ready. He’s a kind of advance scout or guard for the kingdom of God. In musical terms, he’s the opening act, the warm-up for the main attraction. He wants the hopeful, longing crowds to know “You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!” God has something better in mind, a future that could barely be imagined, that eye had not seen or ear heard or had even entered into the human heart.

This herald in the wilderness brings a word that’s good news in any day, for any generation. He tells us that change is possible. We don’t have to be this way. He’s like the animal in a “Far Side” cartoon I remember. He stands up on his hind legs in the middle of the pasture and cries out to the flock: “We don’t have to be just sheep!”

We don’t have to be people full of guilt and hurt and rage and pain. We don’t have to let sin rule our lives. Repentance, turning around, being different, is a real option. It’s the gift of God. It sweeps a clear path for the Savior, opens wide our hearts to receive him.

Sometimes it seems the future is pretty much closed, planned out, beyond our control, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, amen. But John tells us, Advent tells us, that thanks be to God, we’re wrong. Forgiveness, a new mind, a fresh start, an open heart—these are the gifts of this season, more valuable than anything we can buy on Black Friday, Cyber Monday or anytime. The promise and hope proclaimed by John still are ours today. God still baptizes with the Spirit. And he comes to each of us day by day, present in power and love, offering himself in Christ, God with us. Advent happens every day—December and May, January and June.

At the beginning of the stage version of the musical “Godspell,” as I recall, a crowd of people has gathered. Voice is layered upon voice, and the audience can’t tell what’s being said by anyone. Suddenly, a single tenor, John the Baptist, sings out: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” He keeps repeating the line, and it clears a path through the vocal clutter, cuts through the mix of opinions and gossip and promises and trivia. All eventually join in, and the rousing chorus lifts the audience to a new place.

What better way to occupy ourselves this season than with clearing away the clutter and opening our hearts to the newness God offers in Christ? And when we have heard and been changed, we can add our voices to John’s and to all the saints through the ages who go bidding one and all: prepare ye the way of the Lord.

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