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Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way;

the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

What does it take to be prepared for Christmas? Presents purchased? Food cooked? Sheets changed for visitors? Traveling arranged? LIstening to Christmas music? Generally speaking I’m not all that prepared for Christmas when it actually arrives so this is a somewhat honest question.

This year we, the Holmes family, added some new things in our family that have helped us prepare for Christmas: we have A string of outdoor christmas lights. I’ve been buying the food we need for Christmas dinner earlier and storing it in our pantry so that I’m not doing too many last minute trips to the store. We are going to go look at the lights on Lake Lanier with some friends next weekend. And of course, we’ll be caroling tomorrow night.

As I am sure many of you are doing, we’re preparing our houses, hearts, and minds for Christmas.

Humans need to prepare for important things. And Christmas isn’t the only thing we know we need to prepare for in our lives. We have lots of babies in this church and one on the way. Lord knows this collective group has spent countless hours preparing for parenthood. Reading the books. Taking the birthing and nursing classes. Buying the best products. But first reading all of the Amazon reviews to identify the best products. Talking with our friends who have recently become parents. And, of course, searching the internet for wisdom on parenting (worst life decision, just don’t do it).

When something important is going to happen in our lives, when a change is coming, we prepare for it! School, work, relationships, retirement, moving. We are creatures who need a little or a lot of preparation for the big parts of life.

God, it should not surprise us, also finds that we need some preparation for the task of being human. In the Old Testament we see that God gives Noah some time to prepare for the flood. God helps Moses prepare Pharaoh to let the Israelites out of slavery. God prepares Israel for the Promised Land by giving them 40 years in the wilderness. Some preparation is better than others, I’ll grant you that. God calls King David to prepare the people to worship God through dancing (I will never prepare you in this way).

Humans need time, and understanding, and resources to prepare for what life or God throws our way. We need to know the stories or sing the songs or have the conversations or read the books that prepare us to understand and recognize the good work of God in our lives. We need God to prepare us.

And so today for our scripture we read about how God sends John the Baptist to help prepare a people for the arrival of Jesus.

John the Baptist with his crazy camel hair clothes and his crazy locust diet and his unconventional abode in the wilderness. Perhaps his oddness in appearance is some sort of preparation itself. It causes us, and his own community, to pay attention and notice that something unusual is happening.

I rarely share anecdotes of my last job, but I feel close to John the Baptist in this way. At my previous church, a large older residential Buckhead congregation, people dress up for church. And I’m talking full suits for men and often dress suits or something similar for women. My whole job there was to prepare the church community for welcoming young adults. One of the ways I did this was by wearing on Sundays what an average young adult would probably be wearing on a Sunday morning, even to church: jeans. For some of these people I basically could have been wearing camel’s skin and it wouldn’t have made a difference. But I was preparing them so that when God’s younger folks came in wearing something made of cotton, they would be ready and willing to embrace them.

God uses even our clothes to prepare the way.

But in all seriousness, John the Baptist is sent to prepare the people for Jesus. But how? For this, John the Baptist revisits what people in the Old Testament, the religious leaders before him, have done to prepare people for God’s arrival in their lives.

You’ll notice in your bulletin that the Gospel of Mark and the message of John the Baptist actually starts with a quotation--and that is from the book of Isaiah, the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament. And how is Isaiah, and thus John the Baptist, preparing the people for God?

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way;

the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight,’”

John the Baptist prepares the people for God’s arrival by shouting at everyone to prepare the paths of the Lord. John ironically prepares the people by assigning the people the task of preparations, the task of preparing the paths by which the Lord is to arrive, preparing the roads, avenues, paths and places where the Lord will arrive in people’s lives. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

So how can John the Baptist prepare us for God? By reminding us that WE are to prepare (and I might add repair) God’s paths into the world. John is telling everyone who is listening, then and now, that God is coming and we are the ones who should make those paths and avenues of God’s arrival ready.

I honestly don’t know exactly what this means, making God’s paths straight, but I can imagine what it means when I think about running or walking this neighborhood. Some of the roads are not straight and you can get very lost. Don’t ever mistake Palatine for Ormewood Terrace because you would lose and gain different streets. And I’m not sure why Berne or Ormewood both jigsaw right before Moreland. Or for you runners, how about Glenwood by Moreland and its beautifully treacherous sidewalks made of disheveled octagon stonework? If you want to fall, run on those sidewalks. Or we could spend lots of time bemoaning those tree roots.

I can imagine this as an analogy for what making straighter paths for God’s arrival might mean--don’t make the ways we know and experience God so complicated that people make wrong turns everywhere or get lost easily. Don’t litter the ground of your life or other people’s lives with awkward stones of hatred or guilt or shame or pride. Whatever this might mean, it seems clear that Isaiah is commanding ancient Israel, and those of us gathered here today, to remove any barriers, obstacles, systems, or even prejudices that block people from God. We are called to look up and pay attention to the ways in which God is trying to break through, to walk into our world and to make those ways smoother, straighter, and I might add, kinder.

Part of the preparation for God’s arrival into our world is on us. We can make that path twisted or straight. Hilly or smooth. Prepare for Christmas, prepare for God’s arrival, by preparing the roads that Christ needs to travel into our lives.

One way that we can prepare the path for the Lord, a way that is particular to John the Baptist’s message and is particular to the passage we read today, is through the good work of repentance. Now, I find the word repentance has a bad reputation, especially with folks who grew up in certain denominations or faith traditions. Let’s see if we can do some recovery work with y’all.

Repentance, or “to repent” in the Greek, metanoia, literally means “to turn around” or “to change your mind.” John is asking people to take what they know, how they’ve acted, what they assume to be true, and to change their minds or turn around 180 degrees.

This is what John is asking those he baptizes to do and it is what we are asked to do: change your mind! Change your mind and remember that you belong to God, not to the world. Change your mind and realize you’re not perfect, you’re human. If you want to prepare the paths where God is going to enter the world, repent--turn around if you’re headed in the wrong direction. Repent--open yourself to change in both your mind and your heart. Repent.

I love the Rumi quotation that says Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself. Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.

Now we believe there is a bit more of grace and God involved in truly changing ourselves, but this quotation reminds us that it is a good and worthy thing to be open to change and the righting of wrongs--if you want to make God’s pathways into this world straighter, begin with repentance--begin, as John begins with his people, with a good long, look at yourself and the willingness to change some of the ways that perhaps you’re cluttering up the Lord’s path of arrival to you and to others.

This isn’t the only way to prepare the paths of God’s arrival, but it seems to be a pretty darn important one for John’s community, probably for the community for whom Mark is writing this Gospel, and as we navigate what seem to be boulders in the path of God’s arrival this year, it could possibly be a good first step of preparation for us as well.

And there are other ways to prepare the paths for God’s arrival. Maybe it is listening to the stories and songs of Advent and Christmas, remembering the ways God arrived as a baby so long ago. Maybe we prepare the paths of the Lord’s arrival through sharing and generosity and lavish gifts for those who need them, like the Wise Men of the East. Maybe we prepare the paths of God’s arrival into our lives by adding a few more chairs to our tables for unexpected guests. I don’t know what path of the Lord intersects with your own, but this is the time to tidy it up, clear it out, and make it ready for Immanuel, God with us.


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