Advent, Sermons

Making a Way

(A sermon for Advent 2B    December 7, 2008    Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8)

On a trip to Vermont last year, I marveled at the roadways, encircling the hills instead of flattening them. I loved the views of villages to the right and left, of mountains in their glory farther in the distance. There are some things worth preserving, and here the need to move cars around did not take priority over the natural shape of the world. And yet we know that is not the most efficient method of road design, nor the quickest means of conveyance.

Isaiah says:
A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. (Isaiah 40:3-4, NRSV)

It might sound a bit disturbing, even terrifying. Isaiah imagines a world in which the familiar landscape disappears entirely. We may have trouble understanding why Isaiah thought this flat world would be desirable, if we consider it too literally, if we forget that earth-moving equipment and blasting would have been beyond his imagining. He spoke not of practical realities but of supernatural possibilities. He wrote of a world in which the obstacles to God have been eliminated.

I wonder if that world would have any place in it for people, because I find that we are more likely than not to make it hard for God to reach us.

Someone asked me recently how I set priorities in my busy life, crowded with people and dogs, home and church, reading and knitting and writing and thinking and preaching and praying. I begin by imagining where I want to be, and then I begin to plot and plan. I take the long view, and decide what needs to happen in the short term to get where I want to be in the end. Folks setting up for the fair the other day, heard me say, “I’ve finished the bulletin for December 28th!” I imagine I sounded rather hilariously excited about it!

You see, I know I’ll be gone that week, and planning the service now means I’ll have the appropriate ducks in the appropriate row for the lay leaders that Sunday.  If I want to leave town on the 26th, I need to know things will be complete and in order long before that day, in order to serve my larger goal. That’s how I make it possible. That’s my way of making a way.

Making a way begins with a vision.

Sometimes it’s as simple as a clean kitchen. For me the first step toward fulfilling the vision is always the dishes. On the morning after a holiday or a party, I enjoy washing the glasses that cannot go into the dishwasher, making them sparkle, observing them as they dry on a towel beside the sink. I re-live the moments of conviviality around the table. I take my time with the task. I make space for it.
But on the average day, doing dishes means loading the dishwasher the way *I* like it to be loaded, and not much more. (Blades down, handles up!)

Our vision might be about work, or children, or the garden, or physical fitness. Each vision contains possible outcomes: getting a promotion, or teaching the sixteen-year-old to drive, or getting the bulbs in before the ground freezes or running a marathon. On the way to those destinations there are smaller steps to be taken: finishing a report on time, signing the boy up for Driver’s Ed, ordering from a gardening catalog or buying the right pair of running shoes.  As different as they are, all these priorities have a similarity. They require making good, making plans, making space, making ready. They require making a way for whatever is to come next.

Ten years ago I took my boys into Portland Stage Company to audition
for “A Christmas Carol,” and the director said, “Why don’t you try out,
too?” They needed adults, and if I had two children in the play,
wouldn’t that be easy?

Well, no, it wouldn’t, not for a recently divorced mother with a younger child at home. The show had 36 performances between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. But the idea grabbed me, and I
began to work toward making it possible. I drove to rehearsals and
performances, picking up half a dozen of the young actors in my
minivan, and in exchange some of their parents babysat Lucy. We made it
work. I made a way.

I remember standing backstage, before the show, leaning against the
cold brick wall of the theatre in the dark as the fog machine began to
create the atmosphere of Victorian London. By that time I knew my part:
my few lines, my many entrances and exits, my songs. All the music of
the show, in fact, moved through me, still comes to me at Christmas,
like the ghost of something past.

“At this festive season of the year,” says one of the charity gentlemen
to Scrooge, as they prepare to ask him for a donation, a donation he
refuses to give at the beginning of the story. At this festive season
of the year, what will move us to make a way for the Spirit?

In Mark we read:
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4, NRSV)

John arrived to make a way for Jesus. He cried from the wilderness, telling the people to prepare the way of the Lord. Although he lived in his native land, anyone who heard him understood how foreign it felt after the invasion and occupation by the Romans.  He called people to join him, away from their everyday responsibilities, away from their regular place of worship, away from what felt normal. He called them to repent, a word that means turning away from the usual and turning toward God.  John came to make a way for Jesus and to make a way for us to recognize him as Christ, the one coming after, the one more powerful.

He came to tell us to make room for God, with us.

Isaiah writes of making a way in the wilderness, a word of encouragement to the people of Israel living as captives in Babylon. Somehow, in the midst of an entirely different culture, they had managed to maintain their traditions, to keep their eyes on God. Isaiah wrote for people living in a social and spiritual wilderness, not an actual desert, for people who believed the spiritual center of their world existed in Jerusalem. To be in Babylon meant not just exile from home but exile from connection with God.

Both John and Isaiah want us to make a way in the midst of REAL LIFE, in a world that may feel alien to our beliefs, to make a place for God in the middle of the muddle of everyday living. They asked the Hebrew people to make way in the grip of the Romans, to make way in the face of the Babylonians. And they ask us to make way for God in a world where people take their own way in acts of calculated violence in Mumbai and unspeakable heedlessness at Wal-Mart. I want to be an alien in that world, a world where we kill deliberately and needlessly, where we kill carelessly and thoughtlessly.

We need to make a way for the God of Peace to be among us.

What will move us to make a way for God?

When will we respond, relent, return, repent?

The people who came out from the towns to see John preaching by the Jordan made way for him, made the time to listen, made the effort to travel, and many of them walked into the water to be baptized.

Advent takes us to the edge of the water, to the edge of the hoped-for new, the world of God’s will being done for which we pray faithfully every week. Advent takes us to the edge of hope and peace. Advent takes us to the edge of God-with-us.

“Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.” (Isaiah 40:5, NRSV)

But it won’t just happen TO us. And this festive season of the year can sometimes make it harder to hear God. I wondered if Christmas in a sour economy might cause us to slow down, as a society, to think differently about what matters most. At our house we’ve spoken of keeping it simple this year, because we say we know what really matters, and in my sane mind I do. But I am also a mildly crazy mother who enjoys making Christmas, and I’m wrestling with my intentions and my desires, seriously at risk of falling on an inner battlefield strewn with handmade knit goods and Christmas stocking stuffers and homemade gingerbread cookies.

Yesterday I went over to the Community Center on my way home from the fair, to see a man about some t-shirts. A church member showed me his flyer, and you can see the symbol on this cap I bought, a peace sign pointing to 11 o’clock rather than 12, with an arrow indicating a turn to peace and wholeness, and the words, “Make it Right.”

“Make it Right.”

Making it right, making a way for God’s peace takes courage, the courage to say “no” to what the rest of the world assumes will never change.

And it takes time to change, time to reframe our expectations, just as it takes time to make a way. Human beings can be more solidly stubborn than the ledge that requires blasting to build a straight highway. Even if unhappy, we may prefer to be comfortably uncomfortable than to embrace God’s change. Even if dissatisfied, we do the same things, year in and year out, and expect a different result.

We may hesitate to take a risk and walk to the edge of the water, though a loving hand beckons to us, promising forgiveness and new life. Can we envision ourselves at the river’s edge, ready to take the next step? What will we need to do first to get there and take the hand that waits? It will be a hand as “everyday” as ours, as worn by work and care: a mother’s hand, a hermit’s hand, a road-builder’s hand, a dishwasher’s hand. Will we make our way to it?

“Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”

I would love to know your thoughts.

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