When the season of Advent starts we often read the beginning of Mark’s Gospel early on, in which Mark famously writes of John the Baptist as the one who comes to prepare the way of the Lord. The story of John the Baptist is told throughout the Gospels, but only Mark’s version puts John right at the front of the book.
Mark does not pull the passage about John out of thin air. The writings about God’s messenger come from the prophets of the Old Testament. Specifically, from Isaiah and Malachi.
So when we read the words about John the Baptist in Mark, know that some of the ideas, and even phrases, flow from our second lessons today from Malachi and Isaiah. As we begin our Advent journey, let’s hear what these two prophets had to say about preparing for the Lord. Reading now from God’s holy word.
Let us pray. Lord God, on this first Sunday of Advent, open our hearts to your Spirit, that we might prepare for your gracious and glorious arrival to us. Amen.
Have any of you seen the Brady Bunch show episode where Bobby, I think, puts dish soap in the dishwasher by mistake and runs the dishwasher and all the suds go everywhere all over the kitchen? Well, I never saw that episode. Someone told me about it, but I missed that one.
So last Christmas we were at my in laws in California for a lovely visit. On New Year’s Eve my in-laws went out to a party and I decided to clean the kitchen, to help prepare the house for New Year’s Day. I covered the food, cleared the counters, and put the dinner’s plates in the dishwasher. However, the dish liquid they had there was the same brand and look as the dishwasher liquid we have here, so I used it to fill the dishwasher up with disk soap, turned it on and Bridget and I put the kids to bed.
That worked fine for about a half an hour until my wife went to get a snack in her childhood kitchen and found the soap suds covering the floor. Not good.
My in laws were out at a party and I had a brief window to get this cleaned up. That involved a good deal of effort with rags and paper towels and elbow grease covered with soup suds. I was kind of a mess afterwards. Pretty soapy and pretty stressed. But hey, at least the kitchen floor was clean.
All my effort of preparing the kitchen turned into a project of repairing both the kitchen and my psyche. Fortunately my in-laws could not have been nicer about it. Sometimes all the preparing things around us don’t work out as we would like, and one is best off preparing oneself for what comes next.
This morning the season of Advent begins. We begin a sermon series that lifts up situations that don’t always go our way, where in the end all we can do in the end is smile and keep moving forward.
This Sunday we focus on the preparation that often goes with Advent. For the Sunday after Thanksgiving is often a transitional Sunday. Between the preparing and feasting for last Thursday and the preparing and shopping for Christmas.
If you listened closely to our passage from Mark’s Gospel, Mark twice uses the word “prepare” at the beginning of his Gospel. Matthew and Luke use it several times too, but only Mark puts it twice right together. First, Mark tells us that God’s messenger will prepare our way. Secondly, that a voice cries to us saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” make his paths straight to us. It’s a subtle but important distinction.
These two prophetic passages come from the Hebrew Bible, from Malachi and Isaiah, and refer to two different kinds of preparation.
As a result, Mark uses two different Greek words which both translate as prepare in English.
While Mark refers only to Isaiah’s prophecy, the first kind of preparation Mark includes is inspired by Malachi, about the messenger who will come before us to prepare the way. That is the work of John the Baptist.
The word for prepare here means to make an object ready for use. The idea from Malachi was that prepare meant to make household items ready for use. Kind of like washing them with soap.
Malachi uses the metaphors a refiner’s fire and a fuller’s soap. I call this “wash on hot.” The image of purification as preparation though has two images in the text. God coming as a refiner’s fire. Prophets had often used the image of refining metal used for God’s judgement to call people to change and be better than they were. Or God working like a fuller’s soap. The work of the fuller is one who treats and beats the cloth in order to clean and soften and whiten the clothes. The refiner make something hot and in some ways more difficult to be near. The fuller would string up and beat the cloth until it was softer, whiter and more palatable to be touched.
Much like John the Baptist, many messengers of faith have gone before us in our church and in the greater church. Women and men who have walked the path of trying to understand the meaning of a complicated life in a fractured world.
As we begin this four week period of Advent, we look to back to understand the Christmas miracle that God loves us so much as to enter our world as a vulnerable child. We look forward to God’s promise of the return of Christ to make all things new.
Our task is to listen to those messengers of faith, to find both judgement – ways in which our lives must change to make room for the grace of God.
For the God of the Advent is also one of comfort. The comfort of the soft, vesper light that shines from God’s love this season.
That is why Mark lifts up Isaiah’s prophetic words of God’s caring. Isaiah writes during the great exile from Jerusalem, when the Israelites are in need of comfort, sad from being separated from what they love. Our opening hymn comes from this event, Comfort You My People, as does O Come O Come Emmanuel.
The word for prepare here means to get ready for some big event. Like the return of exiled people to their homeland. Or Christ’s coming. How when people are valued the glory of the Lord is shown when Christ comes at Christmas.
Our risk is that we try too hard to prepare everything around us and we fail to prepare ourselves.
The role of messengers is to prepare the way for us. John the Baptist prepares the way for the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas.
For Isaiah a voice cries in the wilderness calling on us to put aside whatever we need to to allow God to come to us.
We hear that we are to make straight the path of the Lord and might believe it’s up to us to make it there. However, our task is to open and prepare our hearts so God can come to us.
The Biblical history of this word “prepare,” from Jeremiah to Hebrews to Peter to our lessons today, is that we can’t really prepare the path around us to God, that is why the Gospels affirm in Advent readings that we don’t know the time and place of Christ’s return.
Malachi even criticizes the priests, the descendants of Levi, who thought their offerings were pleasing to God, but the prophet says they needed the purification and refining as much as anyone.
So all we can really do is prepare ourselves. The goal of faithful people is to be the receptacles of God’s compassion, love and grace. To stay focused, walk the straight path as best we can and allow God to come to us
This is the work of the season of advent. Don’t just prepare everything around you that you neglect yourself.
That can be a particular challenge this time of year.
The story is told that one Thanksgiving weekend a man was arrested. At the courthouse the judge asked the accused man, “What are you charged with?”
“Doing my Christmas shopping too early,” the prisoner replied. “That’s no crime’,” said the judge. “Just how early were you doing this shopping?” “A few hours before the shop opened,” answered the man.
Doesn’t it seem that the Christmas planning gets started earlier and earlier each year? The catalogues began arriving weeks ago. Christmas music began playing around the clock on the radio, on multiple stations now in mid-November. The commercials for holiday gifts and sales increasingly dominate our televisions. We have barely pushed back from the Thanksgiving table when we are thrown forwards into Christmas preparations. Motivated to make our lists and check them twice, three, four times. To make sure we have our lists together of gifts we want and those we want to give. To make certain we have our Christmas cards ready. To plan our schedules. We focus on getting the baby sitters lined up and invitations in order for holiday parties. And we should. This is a great, fun, exciting time of year.
To quote the Grinch’s grand epiphany though, “Perhaps the meaning of Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Perhaps Christmas at last means a lot bit more.”
We must be careful that we don’t shop and wrap and bake and plan ourselves to the point of exhaustion.
How often have we jumped on the Christmas sleigh at Thanksgiving and find that we have ridden it through December and if you are like me, before we know it we find ourselves working through those responsibilities and the season is over and we find ourselves in our in laws kitchen getting ready for the New Year.
Don’t spend all your time just preparing everything around you for Christmas so that you fail to prepare yourself for the miracle of God’s gift of love for you.
Instead perhaps focus on simplicity. The Quaker Theologian Richard Foster said that, “Simplicity is both an inner and outer discipline.” It is about inner prayer and reflection, that are hallmarks of this season, but to have space for that inner work we need to handle the pressures of the season.
Or economy. Kent Nerburn writes, “…most possessions are really butterflies that turn into caterpillars.” That may be true sometimes, but we at Bradley Hills have angels. We have the angel gift tree and alternative giving as antidotes.
Or unity. At this time of great global division, the Thanksgiving holiday is one chance to celebrate those things which unite us. And give thanks to God for the blessings God has given us.
As we see the hungry in our streets, read of exiled people trying to escape oppression throughout our world and are anxious about safety and concerned about peace, we lift our prayers for peace, our time helping feed the hungry on Thanksgiving, our interest in helping those fleeing for safety and our pride that in a world of too much intolerance, this weekend we were open to helping both our Jewish partners and also a Muslim congregation as they looked for worship space.
Several of these were situations that one cannot foresee, where one just has to be open to the unexpected opportunities to make a difference.
Or mystery. As the quote on the front of bulletin suggests, suspend some of our expectation and our plans at some level and appreciate the mystery of the season.
Twenty years ago I worked at Procter and Gamble, the big soap company. When I was there someone published a book P&G is called soap opera. I worked marketing cough cold product, and I can remember my first project was on Vicks cough drops sticks. We had focused grouped, and market researched and planned our product to a T. We had the packaging and all the outside stuff on the product just right. The problem was our planning wasn’t enough. The market was bad and we didn’t sell enough of them. However, because of the active ingredient the FDA said we could only keep them on the shelves until the end of the year. What was on the inside of the product trumped what was on the outside. So my Advent project that year became getting rid of cough drop sticks. I had a number of what I thought were creative ideas (like focusing on church narthexes where so many cough drops are kept). The one I liked the best, was I attached paper clips to hundreds of them can we gave them away as Christmas ornaments. So still today when we decorate the tree I love putting up my Vicks menthol cough drop stick ornaments. But that Advent lesson, like many Christmas lessons I have learned the hard way, is that sometimes planning isn’t enough. Sometimes one has to ultimately stop trying to prepare everything around us, and start focusing on what is on the inside.
Like a good pumpkin pie, what’s on the inside is what matters anyway. So stop and let the mystery of this season wash over you.
We cannot make all the uneven ground level. We can make ourselves crazy trying though. We can also prepare our hearts for Christmas by opening our calendar, our schedules or hearts and our lives to the activities, vespers, worship, music, candlelight, spiritual disciples, mystery which Advent offers.
One is coming who will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. One is coming who can refine us, purify us, comfort us. One is coming who loves you and me unconditionally. One is coming who is worth looking out for.
So let every heart, prepare him room. And then watch heaven and nature sing. Heaven and nature sing. Heaven and heaven and nature sing. May it be so. Amen.