Preparing the Highway

Dec 10 2017

PREPARING THE HIGHWAY

There is a story from the Middle Ages about a young woman who was expelled from heaven and told that if she would bring back the gift that is most valued by God, she would be welcomed back. She brought back drops of blood from a dying patriot. She brought back some coins that a destitute widow had given to the poor. She brought back a remnant of the Bible that had been used for years by an eminent preacher. She brought back some dust from the shoes of a missionary laboring in a remote wasteland. She brought back many similar things but was turned back repeatedly.

One day she saw a small boy playing by a fountain. A man rode up on horseback and dismounted to take a drink. The man saw the child and suddenly remembered his boyhood innocence. Then, looking in the fountain and seeing the reflection of his hardened face, he realized what he had done with his life. And tears of repentance welled up in his eyes and began to trickle down his cheeks. The young woman took one of those tears back to heaven and was received with joy and love.

She was received with joy because she finally indicated that love, repentance and forgiveness were the real indicators of what God is looking for in us. They are the behaviors that God calls us to exhibit every day of our lives. They are the behaviors that John wanted the people to exhibit, but never explained to them.

The Gospel reading for this morning talks about John the Baptist and his role in preparing the people for Jesus – preparing in the desert a highway for our God. I would submit to you that John was not very good at his job at all. Why? One, because his looks scared the people - he was clothed in animal skins and ate honey and locusts; two, because he tried to convert the people by telling them how bad they were instead of how Jesus would tell them about God’s love.

People do not like to be coerced into something by having others tell them how bad they are. If they’re having problems, they already know it. It’s like telling someone who is playing tennis and hitting the ball into the net all the time that they should stop hitting the ball into the net. They already know they’re hitting the ball into the net; they need to know how to correct it! All John told them was that they were terrible sinners and to stop doing what they were doing and repent; but he did not tell them how to change, and when Jesus came, very few were prepared for his coming.

If John’s task was to let them know that Jesus was coming, he succeeded. If his real task was to prepare them spiritually for his coming, he failed woefully and was doomed to failure from the start. In order for John to be successful, he needed to be able to lead people to change the entire ways in which they had lived their lives. In order for him to be successful, he needed to be able to change the ways in which people thought, spoke and acted. He needed to change their hearts. And he needed to change those hearts to such an extent that they would be ready to hear a message that was sent by God and delivered by Jesus to the people 

John wanted the people to repent – to change their lives around. He went about it by threatening them that if they did not repent, they would not be ready for Jesus. He wanted them to change their actions and in changing their actions, to change their hearts. John had an impossible task. People will often change outwardly because it is expected of them. However, there is no guarantee that a change of heart will follow, and when given the opportunity, if there is no change of heart, people will revert to their prior behavior unless the change in their hearts is so profound that prior behavior is not an option.

 

Supposedly, people were baptized, and that changed their lives. How many of those do you think were really changed internally by the preaching of John? Or were they caught up in the rhetoric of the moment, baptized and then went on their way? Maybe some of them got it. Maybe some of them changed. But the odds were certainly stacked against John.

The highway in the desert? The real desert was in their hearts, and today, that desert is still in our hearts. We are still faced with preparing a highway for our God in the deserts of our souls. And it is in our hearts that we can make the rough places plain, that we can lift up our valleys of despair and tear down our mountains of pride. It is still in our hearts where we are called to prepare a place of readiness for God.

When Jesus came, his approach was totally different from John’s. His life was an example of how to live as God wanted the people to live. It was all about relationships – relationships with God, and yes, since we are on this earth, relationships with other people. He did not tell the people how bad they were; he modeled how to change their behavior by the ways in which he lived his life, and in so doing, he taught them that God loved them.

Advent challenges us to change. It challenges us to prepare a way for the gift of the Christ Child and all he represents to enter more deeply into our hearts once again. We are being asked to be more loving towards everyone. We are being asked to look at the dark recesses of our souls and let the light of Christ shine into them and change us. We will not choose to change because we are being threatened. We are being asked to change simply because the way of God is the way of love and forgiveness and acceptance of all people.

We are being asked to consider the miracle that Christmas challenges us to accept - the miracle of Emmanuel, God with us. And while we know that this miracle exists for us every day of our lives, for we carry God’s Spirit within us, we are simply being asked at this time of the year to examine just how important Jesus is for us, and to show him by making special efforts to get ready for him.

 

The gifts we are called to give back to God as we welcome Jesus once again more fully into our hearts are simply the tears of repentance, the willingness to change, and the acceptance of the realization that God loves us and expects us to show that love towards the people around us. Amen.