My sermon from the Second week of Advent. The readings are here.
How do we prepare the way?
How do we prepare the way?
Think about it for a minute. When company is coming, we prepare by cleaning, organizing, cooking. If we’re traveling we check out routes, pack, maybe even make reservations.
For Christmas, we decorate, we make a list, check it twice, figure out who to buy gifts for, buy gifts, wrap gifts, give gifts, maybe also go to church.
When I first started thinking about preparing, becatoday is prepare day in this 2017 journey through Advent, I thought about all that I did to end up here. In this pulpit. My preparation for the Priesthood.
And that’s where I’d like to start today, because where I finished, compared to where I started, is I think a lot closer to what Mark, and Isaiah, and God, meant by prepare, than the type of planning that tends to be associated with preparation today.
How do we prepare for that which cannot be anticipated? That, I think, is the question before us today.
I spent 3 years in law school preparing my mind to be a lawyer. Lawyers think in a particular way. Regardless of what law school you attend, we are all taught to think like lawyers. I was also taught to never ask a question I don’t already know the answer to. Which does make figuring out how to prepare for the unknown difficult.
When I went off to seminary, I expected something similar to law school; I expected to learn how to think theologically. To some extent, that I did.
But nothing, no class, no book, no internship, no amount of time spent in a church, nothing prepared me for what it is actually like to be a priest.
There is no way to be prepared for the things we encounter as priests.
There is no way to explain what it is like to be a priest.
Granted, I’ve been a priest for 6 months. Maybe when I’ve been a priest a bit longer, I’ll have a better vocabulary for explaining, but right now I don’t.
I cannot actually tell you what it is like to encounter every aspect of humanity, from the highest high, to the lowest low, the rich and the poor, joyful and utterly terrified, bewildered, or desperate. And do encounter this nearly every day.
Becoming a priest gave me this piece of fabric draped over my shoulders. Being a Lay Eucharistic Minister taught me how to put on this unnecessarily complicated white alb. Being ordained gave me the white piece of plastic I wear around my neck that announces to the whole world what I do for a living.
None of this is what makes a priest. Underneath all of it, I’m just a human. I don’t have a more direct line to God than anyone else. Underneath all of this stuff, aside from a couple of unique tattoos, I am remarkably similar to everyone here. I’m skin. Blood. Brain. Heart.
Heart. My heart is what was prepared in my journey to be ordained; to become a priest.
It is our hearts that can be prepared for Christ.
It is our hearts that can be prepared for that which cannot be anticipated.
Now, ironically enough, in order to make my point about preparing our hearts, I’m going to use one of the thinking theologically skills I learned in seminary:
When reading ancient words, put into modern language and separating them from the ancient context, something is often lost in translation. The NRSV, the version of the Bible we use in the Episcopal Church, translates verse 4 of the Gospel today as “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
It’s a simple and powerful line. It requires us to know what repentance means. For those of you who were here for the forgiveness sermon, you’ll know that words matter, as does the intent of the words.
What the NRSV is doing here is building on consistency. They use repentance because it’s a theme the NRSV has chosen to show modern readers the common themes throughout the Gospels.
But sometimes, the words aren’t as straightforward as they seem on a page.
Let’s take repent. Today, when we think of repentance, we tend to think of apologizing, maybe even expressing sincere remorse.
But in the Bible, repentance doesn’t require words. To repent in Hebrew is to physically turn, or return. In Greek, what is translated as repent here means to change one’s mind or heart. All of what a person is changes when true repentance happens.
This line, I think, is better said as theologian David Bentey Hart translates, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism for the heart’s transformation, for forgiveness of sins.”
Proclaiming a baptism for the heart’s transformation.
Baptism, is not uniquely Christian. It was actually a common practice in the ancient world. But it was used as ritual cleansing, instead of the rite of initiation that it has become today.
John the Baptist, wearing camel hair and a leather belt, hair and beard growing wherever, hands sticky from the honey he eats, looking like every Dad’s worst nightmare for who their daughter might bring home.
John the Baptist is ritually cleansing hearts to prepare them for the transformation that will happen in and through Jesus Christ.
John is helping to prepare the way, by preparing hearts for the transformation that is about to proclaimed and made real by Christ.
John prepares our hearts for transformation, so that the Holy Spirit can come into us and do the work of transformation. Our hearts will be changed, and we will return to God.
God can only fill the spaces that we make available to God. In those spaces, God will do incredible, transformative work within us. But only if we make the space.
And that is the work we should be doing during Advent.
We should take long honest looks at our lives and at our hearts. And see the places where we are firmly in control, and have pushed out God.
What are the things that come before God?
What can we do to make space for God within those things?
Where is God on our list of priorities?
There is no way for us to prepare for Christ in the way that we prepare for most other things in life. Nothing that we can buy will help. There is no John the Baptist preparing the way by preforming Baptisms in the Jordan River.
There is no shortcut and no easy way. The work is difficult, the path is rocky and filled with obstacles. It is up to us to make straight the paths into our hearts, so that the Spirit can fill us, and God can bring about true transformation in our hearts.
My path to transformation began as a mental exercise. I wanted to understand. What I found as I read Scripture, and learned more about the ancient world, was that my heart was changing as my mind was growing and being challenged.
Do the work. I cannot stress enough, how rewarding and amazing it is.
Read your Bibles. Talk to your families about faith. See if any of your friends go to church. Read some Richard Rohr, or Marcus Borg for introductions to the ancient world and a closer look at our faith. Realize and embrace that this Christian thing is more than just Sunday mornings.
Prepare your hearts. Prepare your hearts by changing your minds. You don’t have to change your beliefs, but every time you grow or embrace something, you change.
Prepare your hearts by changing your minds.
It is how we make straight the path through the wilderness.
It is how we prepare the way.
It is how we become the way.