Prepare the Way

Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Mark 1:1-8

“Get ready! They’re almost here! We don’t have much time! There’s so much to do! The house is a mess! They can’t see it like this! How are we going to get all this done before they arrive? More time, more time, we need more time!” For anyone who has ever had guests –  family members, friends, or some other special person, who is coming over, you’ve probably uttered these words. You want things to be perfect before their arrival because these people are important to you. Maybe it’s a big surprise party you are planning, or someone you haven’t seen in a very long time. Whatever the circumstances, you can just about wear yourself out in the preparations, especially during this time of year.The preparations could take days, or weeks, or even months, but it doesn’t matter because you want everything to be just perfect. But it is important and so you pull out all the stops – the red carpet treatment.

My daughter Sara has always loved watching the Academy Awards and other celebrity award events like the Oscars and the Golden Globe Awards. Weeks before the events would begin she would mark her calendar to make sure she did not miss the televised award ceremonies. I remember one of her birthday party themes was even the Oscars. She and her friends dressed in their finest attire and pretended they were going to the Oscars. We even found some red fabric to drape across the living room floor to act as the red carpet. It was as though they were actually at the ceremonies. They were going to walk across the red carpet in their finest attire and give some brief interviews like the celebrity personalities in real life. The red carpet was right there in our living room. They were in the spotlight even if just for one night.

In Mark’s gospel today we hear about John the Baptist and it seems like he too is in the spotlight, only he would not win the best dressed award on the red carpet. John was not dressed in an expensive three piece suit and unlike the other people of his time in the ancient near east, John the Baptist was dressed much like the ancient prophet Elijah in strange clothes made of camel hair. His own hair was not slicked back, but rather scruffy and unkempt. He looked like a wild man eating locusts and wild honey. John the Baptist hardly looked like someone you would spend money buying a ticket to see or traveling a great distance to hear. But Mark tells us that” people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him.” Why? Why would they travel all that way to hear this very odd character?

People went out to hear John the Baptist because he spoke as if he was on fire! There was an urgency in his message. It was not the well-rehearsed speech of a modern celebrity receiving an Oscar or Academy Award. John was preaching like someone who had a lot to say and little time to say it. And he didn’t tell people what they wanted to hear – “everything will work out just fine” – but told them the truth. John didn’t beat around the bush. He told it like it was. He told them to look and prepare for the one who would baptize them not only with water, but the Holy Spirit. Like the rare celebrity today receiving an award he was speaking about a cause greater than himself. He was not the one that was in the limelight. John the Baptist was shining the spotlight on someone else. Someone that was so important that John was “not worthy to untie the thong of His sandals.” A celebrity that was giving credit to someone else?It’s rare even today to witness such an event in humility although in 2006 at the Golden Globe Awards, Sir Anthony Hopkins, one of the greatest actors of our time, gave such a speech.

In his acceptance speech, Anthony Hopkins who was in the spotlight, thanked the people who prepared the way for him to be where he was. He thanked the people in charge of taking care of his hair and makeup, the electricians, the people who transported him where he needed to go, and the “wonderful bunch of anonymous people who work harder than anyone – lugging those cables around. I’m just amazed by them.” he said. It was a moving acceptance speech. Anthony Hopkins recognized that his success was built on the backs of all those anonymous people who shined the spotlight not on themselves, but on him. They prepared the way for him to be the award winning actor that he was. I admired his humility and his ability to see that his success was due not just to his own hard work, but the hard work of so many others.

And this is exactly what John the Baptist was proclaiming in Mark’s gospel. He was proclaiming the Good News, the news that Jesus was coming to empower them to be all that they were created to be. Jesus was coming to fulfill the promises God made to the people of Israel foretold through the prophet Isaiah. The people were not abandoned by God, but God was coming in the flesh to save the world. Unlike the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the spotlight in Mark’s gospel is not on the baby Jesus in the manger. Mark’s birth narrative begins with “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark wants us to see right from the beginning that the focus of Jesus’ birth was salvation for all of us. He came for each and every one of us.

John the Baptist believed Jesus to be the Messiah and so there was an urgency in his voice. People needed to hear that they had to prepare for Jesus’ arrival. That meant they had to prepare their hearts. They had rid themselves of whatever it was that was holding them back. John shouted to repent, to turn their lives around. But  not everyone was thrilled to hear the truth. John would eventually be killed by Herod because he pointed out Herod’s sinful ways to him. Not everyone wants to turn around. Not everyone wants to go in a different direction than they are heading. The Good News isn’t always received as Good News if you’re being told to straighten up and turn the spotlight away from yourself and onto someone else. Human nature compels us to think of ourselves first, to take the credit for whatever happens to us, and whatever is given to us. We want to be in control. We want to be in the spotlight.

But the truth is that none of us achieve anything on our own. We were created to be in community with one another and to help one another. Who are the people in your life that have remained in the shadows – behind the scenes – so that you could shine. Was it your mother or father who made sacrifices all their lives so you could have a better life? Was it a sister or brother who was your biggest supporter? Was it a friend who encouraged you, sat with you during those difficult times, and never gave up on you? There have been many such people in my life. This past Friday night, I was ordained as a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I am officially now a pastor! And while it took many years of difficult studies, I did not achieve this on my own. There were many people who supported me along the way – friends and family who made many sacrifices to help me achieve what I believe God has called me to do.And the work of people in the synod, and  you, the congregation who in faith voted to call me as your pastor. The spotlight may have been on me Friday night, but it was possible only because of those countless people behind the scenes helping to prepare the way.

We, as followers of Jesus, are called to prepare the way for the coming of the kingdom of God just as John the Baptist was called to prepare the way. Even Jesus did not turn the spotlight on Himself. Jesus always pointed to the Father, the Creator. Jesus came to reveal to us what God is like. And Jesus pointed to the one who would come after Him. He pointed to the Holy Spirit, our greatest advocate and the one who would lead us to fulfill God’s work on earth.

During this Advent season, a voice cries to us to prepare the way. It calls us to make straight the paths that lead to Christ and there are many crooked paths. There are people suffering from homelessness, depression, poverty, addictions, illness,  violence, and endless oppression. The news bombards us with images and stories of what seems like hopeless situations. But the Good News is that nothing is hopeless. Nothing is impossible with God. We are people who are witnesses to the promises of God that never fail. We are people called to shine the spotlight on the One who has come and will come again. The One who will draw all people to Himself through His outstretched arms on the cross. The One who came as a helpless infant, who preached with courage, who died out of His great love for us, who rose from the dead, and who will come again – Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promise to never leave or forsake us. And He, Christ, is in this very room.

He is present in the Water and the Word in baptism. He is present – mysteriously yet truly- in the bread and the wine we receive today. He is present in the love we show to one another and the countless random acts of kindness that we show to one another. God is present in our midst and we are called to prepare the way, to shine the spotlight on Christ, so that Christ’s light will shine through us in the darkness of this world. Prepare the way. Amen!

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