November 30, 2014 – Prepare the way

Isaiah 40:1-5

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Luke 1:5-25

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

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Advent 1   Nov 30, 2014 Isaiah 40:1-5, Luke 1:5-25, 26-38   Prepare the way

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A voice cries out, “Prepare the way of the Lordmake straight in the desert a highway for the Lord.

The prophet Isaiah hears the voice of God – and proclaims God’s message to Israel. “Every valley shall be lifted up… every mountain and hill be made low… Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together – for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Preparing the way of the Lord is likened unto making a highway. “The uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

Now the angel Gabriel recycles the age-old message – prepare the way of the Lord – centuries later – proclaiming this word of God now, to Zechariah, a devout and righteous elderly priest, who is serving in the inner sanctuary of the Jerusalem temple. The angel tells Zechariah his prayers have been heard. A child (who will grow up to be John the Baptist) will be born to him and his wife. His mission will be “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

But Zechariah isn’t prepared for this message of prepare the way of the Lord… He asks ‘How will I know this is really true? I’m an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ Zechariah has just been introduced as a righteous religious man of good character. But he’s clearly not prepared for what he’s been praying for to actually happen…

Which is a bit like how I often feel, this time of year… I can relate. Zechariah was a priest. He knew the stories of Abraham and Sarah and other biblical characters who were childless into old age, yet had children late in life. He knew the stories well. He just couldn’t quite picture it all happening for him.

I’m a pastor. I know the many bible stories that tell us we should always be prepared to encounter God in amazing ways. We should always expect God’s kingdom to be breaking into our daily routines, unexpectedly. I know the stories… I just can’t always believe it all applies to me, here and now.

So last Wednesday night and Thursday morn and afternoon, as we prepared and cleaned up after our annual Thanksgiving dinner (at the Cataumet church), I kept asking people for help – asking advice and counsel as to how to talk about something as familiar as preparing for the coming of the birth of Jesus… And – ask and you shall receive – and I was blessed to hear and receive many good and helpful suggestions… (and…)

The company was excellent as usual – in and out of the kitchen, volunteers and guests alike. I was blessed to be able to sit and chat before and after the meal with other volunteers, and during the meal, blessed to be able to sit and talk awhile with one of our diners, who, turns out, had a deep question (and some insightful comments) about theology. Another diner joined our discussion… and shared reflections about her spiritual journey… Later, I opened a card sent back by someone who had just received a pair of take out orders… thanking us and asking prayers for her husband in frail health… (and enclosing a generous offering for the ministries of the church…)

I thought about all the more than two dozen volunteers who prepared and decorated our tables, chopped and cooked vegetables, baked pies and turkeys, served the food… Did all the clean-up… And as usual on Thanksgiving, it was all a bit more than I could take in all at once… A rich feast for the soul, as well as for the body…

Only a little later, after we’d finished serving, and were well along with the clean up, did I begin to realize – that the act of preparing a meal for others like this – is, in fact, itself a way of preparing the way of the Lord… A small perhaps but very real part of making this world more prepared for the fullness of Christ’s coming…

A little like our pair of dialogues with the angel today in Luke’s gospel – there’s usually some give-and-take-dialogue involved, in figuring out and confirming our roles. Each year at Thanksgiving I ask “what can I do to help?” and I understand that the answer may change from moment to moment. Like the Christmas story itself, there’s a mix of roles, some so familiar we can almost do them in our sleep – other roles still seeming so mysterious we have to ask the angels – “how can this be?”

On the more familiar end of the spectrum, one of our members has a role I now expect he will always step into. (If he didn’t, somebody else probably would…) And sure enough, right on schedule, here’s Peter, asking, as we did the dishes, ‘So why is that don’t we sing Christmas carols before Christmas?’ ‘We do,’ I said. ‘Not enough,’ he said. And as we dialogued away like this, after awhile it became clear – we could probably do some of this now… And we should probably specifically sing The First Noel… more often maybe, but right now, for sure. So I said ‘let’s sing.’ And half a dozen or more of us started singing, Peter singing along too – (the guy who says he sits upstairs because he can’t sing well enough to sit downstairs– huh!) – singing away, sounding good, right there in the kitchen. And it all sounded pretty darn good, actually, even without any practice. There are some prepare the way of the Lord things we are already prepared to do – without having to ponder or be perplexed…

Then we did a verse of Silent Night, also by request… And again, we were sounding good. We know that song – at least the first verse – pretty well… We can sing it in the dark, even with our candles out…

And I was starting to be almost prepared now, to be preparing the way of the Lord…When I noticed Wilma, at the counter, starting to say good bye, and we asked if she had a favorite Christmas hymn we could sing? And she said ‘Oh I love them all… But well – it might be too hard to sing, but it would be really nice to hear O Holy Night.’

Tom Spence was standing on the counter at this point, up in the air, putting stuff away in the upper cupboards, up off the ground… And some of us were still washing and drying dishes down on the ground floor… And Tom looked almost like an angel in camouflage, and maybe we all did a little bit, as Tom led us in robustly singing – and there we were, unrehearsed, but again singing the Lord’s song like as if were prepared… (Which probably we were…)

And without any warning, here we were – preparing the way…of the Lord…

Which may be just a little bit like how Mary got prepared…

In the sixth month after his talk in the temple with Zechariah the priest, now here comes the same angel Gabriel again – appearing now to a young woman in a small town that had little if any claim to fame…

“Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you,” the angel says. ‘Have I got news for you. You’ve been chosen to be mother of the Son of the Most High… He’ll be called Son of God and of his kingdom there will be no end…’

Mary is puzzled and perplexed to hear this news. (Who wouldn’t be?) She asks almost the same question as Zechariah asked – ‘how can this be?’ But now this is a very different question – coming as it does now, from a young unmarried woman – rather than an elderly married temple priest who’s day job involves believing God does amazing things all the time.

And with just a little gentle encouragement from the angel, Mary gets to “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

She probably didn’t know she was – but she is prepared. Prepared to prepare the way of the Lord…

The gospel even seems to be telling us – she embodies the way of the Lord…

Which, I’m starting to believe… is our job description also.

To be prepared for whatever God’s asking us to be doing – whenever God shows up – anytime, anywhere in our lives…

To be ever-prepared and ever-preparing – the way for our Lord Jesus to be born, and reborn again – in us, among us, around us, everywhere…

Isn’t this indeed – the work of preparing the way of the Lord?

(For which again… )

Thanks be to God. Amen.