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Preparing the Way

December 11, 2017

“Preparing the Way” Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8 © 12.10.17 Advent 2B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There’s a new Wal-Mart grocery store and gas station set to open in Starkville in January. It’s on the Highway 12 bypass, just off 82, perfect for tailgaters to stop and get their provisions as they head to the stadium, then fill up on the way out of town as they travel back home. It will also be nice for people who live in nearby apartments or anybody on that side of town, who before had to shop at stores some distance away.

I go by the site every Wednesday and Sunday as I drive here. I’ve watched the progress of the development for months, as armies of workers swarmed over it seven days a week. I don’t remember anything much about what the plot of land looked like before, though I think it was forested. I do recall mounds of dirt and giant machines, as the uneven ground was leveled and prepared for building. What was high was brought low, and the low lifted up.

But we need not go any farther than our yards to find an example of ground altered and improved by human hands for a new purpose. Maybe we need to fill in a dip near a fence, where the ground has been washed away by runoff. Or we’re trying to develop a flowerbed, so we till the soil, put in compost, remove roots, break up clumps, and so on. We have trees and shrubs cut down, because they’re fragile and likely to break in a windstorm or they’re poorly placed and encroaching on our home. Then something else or nothing is planted where they used to be. The work is hard, time-consuming, and even expensive if we hire it out, but the success of our project at least in part depends on it.

It’s to such leveling of our lives, to similar preparation of our hearts, that Advent turns our attention. Both Second Isaiah and John the Baptizer invite us to consider how our lives need to be altered to welcome the Messiah.

The reordering of our lives is typically called “repentance.” But this morning, let’s label it “lifescape architecture.” You may be familiar with landscape architecture. I first heard the term from Katie, a young woman I dated briefly in college who was majoring in the field. According to the American Society of Landscape Architects, these professionals “analyze, plan, design, manage, and nurture the built and natural environments. Landscape architects have a significant impact on communities and quality of life. They design parks, campuses, streetscapes, trails, plazas, and other projects that help define a community” ( The natural scenery of a place is changed for a desired purpose or effect.

“Lifescape” is, as far as I know, a coined word, suggested by the original meaning of the suffix “-scape,” which is “condition, quality or state of.” To do lifescape architecture is to change the condition of our lives, the quality of them, for the purpose of preparing for the coming of our Lord. It’s to look critically and imaginatively at our gifts and skills—natural and acquired—and see how they can serve the mission of our Lord, which is to publish glad tidings. It’s to make every effort to have an impact on the life of our community, our nation, our world in many ways and places, so our life together is defined by harmony and hope.

If we’ve been faithful all along, our task may be only on the scale of the backyard veggie patch. We tweak our schedules or improve some habits. We take up a spiritual discipline for Advent. We think a bit better of ourselves and our potential, needing just a small bag of top soil to fill in the holes in our self-esteem, we might say. We have enough awareness of our faults to realize when we’re on our high horse, when we have exalted ourselves and our opinions and need to come down. By doing so, we may well avoid brokenness and hurting others in our relationships in the future, rather like cutting down fragile trees keeps them from causing damage when a strong wind blows. At other times, well, we’ve been used to thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think for so long that it would take the explosives of a sickness, a crisis or a tragedy to bring us back to Earth; the earthmover of a spouse’s or friend’s strong rebuke or shunning to change us; the water of baptism and the Spirit’s wind to wear down the hard rock of our hearts. Or we have been brought so low by circumstance or the belittling of others or our own self-hating talk that mound upon mound of good feeling brought on by success, therapy and/or medication would barely make a dent in the ditch we’ve dug.

But not only do John and Second Isaiah call for the low places to be filled in and the mountains to be leveled. They talk about making a straight path, a ribbon of highway as we would say, for the Lord. In Alabama, one of my good friends was Father Phil, a Catholic priest. He was good-natured, charming, and witty. He drew people in and made them feel comfortable and loved. All these years later, 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, he told me, 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, just like anybody else, 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. There was no straight path to anywhere. This was in the ‘80s, during the political correctness craze, so then we might have called Fr. Phil “differently organized.” His floor was a wilderness of free association.

The Messiah should not have to traverse a tortuous, convoluted route like that in Phil’s study if he’s to come to us. The texts for the morning, and this season as a whole, might lead us to wonder whether 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. Complaining about problems instead of making an effort to do something about them. 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!

All of us have gotten rid of things we don’t need anymore, whether by giving them to a charity or selling them in a yard sale or simply throwing them away or recycling them. But have we let go of whatever may be keeping us in despair 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 behaving 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. As someone once said, repentance is a change of perception. It’s the recognition that the kingdom of God is at hand. It’s not so much lamenting sins as it is having faith in the future, perceiving life and ourselves in a fresh way. It’s about vision, being clear about the lay of the land, the lifescape, ahead of us.

I’m not a visual person, so I’ve never been able to read maps very well, and especially not topographical maps. They look to me like a series of concentric wavy lines and strange symbols. But someone trained can tell what’s what and where it is. Advent repentance, preparing the way of the Lord, is about acquiring such a skill for living. We’re able to tell what’s rough and coarse that needs to be honed smooth. We know the valleys of despair we inhabit that could be filled with joy. We see the mountains of prideful arrogance that need to be brought low. We’re honest about how we need to be straightened out.

When our Lord arrives, it’s good news he brings, the promise that those problems that loomed high as the highest mountain on Earth can be brought low, that our valleys of despair can be filled in, that what was crooked and twisted in our lives can be straightened out, the obstacles to his coming removed. The landscape, the lifescape, is made new, not just rearranged. Really, truly new. And that’s the promise to humanity and to all creation, because “all flesh will see the salvation of God.” Those who are lowly will be lifted up, and those who are haughty and prideful will be brought down. God and all humanity will walk together on a level plain of justice and peace.

Our privilege and calling is to witness this season and every day to the action of God who has come to us in Jesus Christ. We are as much prophets of the Lord as John or Second Isaiah, preparing the way. The best gift we can give people this Christmas is to share the word of repentance and hope in a world where bad behavior and injustice have become the norm and every day seems to be worse than the one before. We share the gospel as truly good news, that there is One who has come and is coming whose Word accomplishes his purpose, whose sovereign will cannot be defeated.

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. Chaos and disorder reign. 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, joyous chorus lifts the audience to a new place.

What better way to occupy ourselves this season than with clearing away the clutter, making straight the paths, 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 prophets and saints through the ages who go bidding one and all: prepare ye the way of the Lord!

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