Prepare The Way

Prepare the Way

Tom Euston

It seems that no matter what endeavor we attempt, its success is largely dependent on the preparation. One item on my bucket list, which probably won’t happen, is to hike the Appalachian Trail, all 2000+ miles of it. I have hiked small parts of it, but have not taken any overnight hikes on it. I really don’t understand why I want to do this, but there is just something drawing me to it. Maybe at some point I can take some longer hikes on the trail and satisfy my longing for it.

Hiking long distances requires a lot of preparation and even short hikes require some preparation. It would be foolish to go to either Springer Mountain in Georgia or Mount Katahdin in Maine and just start walking without first making preparations. There is a book I have enjoyed reading, which was made into a movie this year. It is Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods.

It is a story about a writer who had lived in London for several years, and then moved to New England. He took walks along the Appalachian Trail and decided he would like to thru-hike the trail in its entirety. He wants to do this to experience an inner peace that has eluded him so far in his life. His wife isn’t as confident as he is that he can do it and suggests he take someone with him.

After several people turn him down, he asks an old friend, Stephen Katz, who agreed to hike with him. Bill starts his preparation.

He goes to the local outfitter and spends much time learning about the different gear he will need and how to use it, and spends a lot of money buying the lightest sleeping bag and tent, along with all the other equipment he will need. He sets his equipment up in his basement to try it out and get familiar with it.

He and Katz head to Georgia to start their hike and soon realize they had not prepared nearly enough. They make it to Tennessee and then skip some of the trail and start again in Virginia. To their credit, they do hike some 800 miles before they quit. Bill comes back to the trail and hikes in Pennsylvania, then they together attempt the 100 mile wilderness in Maine.

They do not meet their goal of thru-hiking the entire trail, but only about 25% of the people who attempt that hike succeed in completing it. But in other ways they are successful. Even though they did not complete their hike as they had envisioned, they learned a lot about hiking, and more importantly, about each other and themselves. I wonder if in our task-oriented society, if we don’t often use the wrong criteria to define success.

In each of our Scripture readings today we hear about the coming of the Lord. In Malachi, a messenger is being sent to prepare the way for the Lord. Malachi is probably not a proper name, but a Hebrew term meaning “my messenger”. The author of the book is unknown and there is no information about the prophet in the book. From the reading we can be confident that the second Temple was built, meaning Malachi was written after Haggai and Zechariah who were concerned with rebuilding the Temple around 520 BC. Scholars believe that Malachi is from the middle of the fifth century BC during the Persian period.

Our reading this morning is a response by the Lord to the question about God’s justice. The people were concerned because they saw unrighteous people prospering. The Lord responded promising to send a messenger to prepare the way for the Lord. And if we continue the reading, verse 5 says:

Then I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

It sounds like a lot of the same problems that were prevalent in those ancient days are still problems today.

In Philippians, Paul is offering a prayer. Paul’s letters were intended to be read to a congregation and this one is no exception. Paul’s letter and prayer are at least partially in response to a large mission gift the Church had given Paul. This letter also serves us as a reminder to always be thankful for what people have done for us.

The early Christians fully expected Jesus to return during their lifetimes, and Paul believed the Church would reach its fulfillment on that day. Paul prayed that when that day came they would be found pure and blameless. He emphasized how the Church was his partner because of their support.

In Luke, we read about John the Baptist, a messenger preparing the way for Jesus. But John isn’t physically preparing the landscape, but is proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John’s message is harsh. He is telling the people, us, to change our lives and prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ. John’s message tells us to turn around, to forsake our ways that lead to divisiveness, that lead to oppression, and that lead to violence.

There has been way too much violence this past year leading to many people dying needlessly. Religious extremists recently attacked innocent people in Paris and in Africa and Beirut. Two people attacked and killed many people at a holiday party in California. There have been more mass shootings this year than there have been days in the year, which means a mass shooting virtually every day this year.

But gun violence is not the only problem we face; we have other problems as well. Many people, especially, African American youth fear the police who are there to protect and to serve them, fearing that any interaction will result in them being killed. Drug addiction is rampant and not just in other places, but right here in our own community, and is destroying individuals and families. As a nation, we are divided about whether to welcome the alien into our country or keep them out because of fear.

Luke’s words are harsh and challenging, but they are also liberating. There is good news in these words. We can turn around. We can change our ways and our value systems and work towards bringing the Kingdom of God to earth. We can and do work towards ending hunger and homelessness in our local community. We can put our fears behind us and reach out to help those in need. We can help those in our community who suffer with addictions, and help them start fresh and lead productive, joyful lives.

At our Presbytery meeting yesterday, we sang a song written by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, co-pastor of Limestone Presbyterian Church. I would like to share that song as a poem.

God, what can we imagine when all around we see

a world that’s lost and fallen, a bruised humanity?

When violence seems a given, and sin is everywhere,

God, what can be our vision-our hope, our answered prayer?

This world is used to tyrants and people who oppress,

And yet you sent your servant in peace and gentleness.

He did not come to conquer, to break or crush the soul;

And so can we imagine a life that’s new and whole?

Can we imagine justice that circles round the earth,

Till those who sit in darkness find healing, light, and birth?

Can we imagine prisoners, allowed to start anew?

Can we who’ve been discouraged now trust again in you?

Could those who’ve faced oppression find love and welcome here?

Could hungry, homeless children be free of want and fear?

Could we your Church find blessing in reaching to the poor?

Can we your Church imagine what we’ve been called here for?

O God of love and justice, may we imagine , too,

How faith put into practice, can change the world for you.

May what your Church imagines when we are at our best,

Restore your good creation till all your world is blessed.

As we continue our Advent journey and prepare for the coming of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, let us prepare the way of the Lord. Let us open our hearts and minds to the calling of God’s Holy Spirit and let us imagine what we can do, with Christ’s help, to make this world a safer, more loving and caring place.

Amen.

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