Prepare ye the way of the Lord

Sermon Advent 2C
Marie Alford-Harkey
Trinity Episcopal Church, Hartford
December 9, 2012

In the summer of 2009, my church in Boston sent my friend Chris and me to Kenya. We stayed at St. Philip’s, the Anglican seminary in Maseno. We weren’t there to DO anything in particular. We visited the nearby hospital, we met the women who ran orphan feeding programs in churches nearby, we talked to doctors, professors, seminary students, and anyone else who wanted to chat.

There was one opportunity for a more active role. Chris was invited to preach at All Saints Church, Esabula, not far, at least in Kenyan terms, from the seminary. I was invited to come along. We were both eager to visit the church and experience Kenyan Anglican worship.

We assumed that perhaps someone from the seminary would drive us to the church, as we had been driven to some of the other places we had visited. But on the appointed Sunday, Rev. Joash Owila, the priest at All Saints, came to St. Philip’s to escort Chris and me on foot to the church. I soon came to understand why.

We set out, crossing the main road (with which I was somewhat familiar) and proceeded for thirty minutes to walk a route that twisted and turned, with no discernible path or landmarks. The way was filled with dips, rocks, roots, ditches, and countless other hazards. No car could have made that trip, not even the seemingly indestructible ones that had gotten us around other places in Maseno. I spent the entire walk looking at the path before me, trying to avoid twisting my ankle.

We arrived safely at the church, where we were treated as visiting dignitaries – adorned with garland, invited to join the procession, seated in the chancel, and given our own personal interpreters for the service. Chris delivered a brilliant sermon.

When we left, once again Rev. Owila accompanied us, guiding us the entire way back to St. Philip’s with the threat of rain hanging over us. Of course, there was really no question of Chris and I trying to make our way back without escort. We simply could not have done it, and I’m sure it never occurred to Rev. Owila NOT to come with us. When we arrived at St. Philip’s, the first big drops of rain were starting to fall. I asked Rev. Owila if he would stay at the seminary to wait out the storm. He dismissed my concern, saying, “It’s just a drizzle,” and set off for home.

You can imagine why I always think of this event when I hear these beautiful passages about filling the valleys, making the rough places smooth, making the crooked road straight. After that particular walk along that particular route in Kenya, I understood the desire for a straight, smooth, easy path much better than I had before

Baruch, a scribe to the prophet Jeremiah, uses those images to comfort God’s people in their exile. He’s describing how God will make a path in the desert to bring them home. John the Baptist uses the same images to call us to prepare the way of the Lord. And he calls us to repent, which means to turn around and go another way.

During advent we often hear the call to prepare God’s way and repent as a call to slow down and spend more time in prayer and confession. And sometimes, we are made to understand that proper preparation and repentance would include resisting the holiday preparations that are going on around us. I often feel like I’m supposed to inhabit a different, more spiritual world than the one we live in.

There is no doubt that we need to make space in our lives for God to come among us. There is no doubt that we need to make a path for God in our lives and spend time in prayer and even confession. But I don’t think it’s an all or nothing proposition.

Here’s my confession. I enjoy the busyness of  the holiday season as much as the spiritual preparation of Advent. Ellen Painter Dollar, who many of you know, just re-posted a blog that she wrote last year about this very subject. She called it “Busy Hands, Quiet Heart.” When I read it, I felt that I had been liberated. I felt like she had somehow given me permission to be human.

Because I don’t spend the time of Advent in some spiritual world, removed from the hustle and bustle of holiday preparation in our culture. I am a part of this world. Like many of you, I spend time choosing or making gifts, putting up decorations, and attending to the needs of my friends and family.

And like many of my friends and colleagues in Christian churches, I’ve spent some Advents preparing retreats for others, or planning liturgies and preparing worship spaces that reflect the season. Right now, I’m spending lots of time with the choir preparing the pieces that we will sing on Christmas Eve.

These preparations aren’t always easy. I spend lots of time agonizing as I try to choose just the perfect gift for April. And don’t get me started on how difficult it is for me to learn the music for choir. But I love these tasks.  I do them with love and intention. I wouldn’t want to give them up for some separate spiritual world of full-time contemplation and quiet.

And as long as I’m confessing, I’ll tell you, not only do I love the preparation, I love Christmas itself, just as it is in this world – the big celebration at the end of all the preparation. I love the pageantry and beauty of the Christmas Eve service here at church and the culmination of all the preparation that we’ve done in choir. I love opening gifts with April and seeing the delight in her eyes that says that my intention to please her has been realized. This is how Jesus arrives for me. And it is good.

One of my favorite Thomas Merton quotes is about the holiness of everything, which is what I believe the Incarnation – the coming of God among us – all about. In an essay called, All That Is, Is Holy, Merton says, “We do not detach ourselves from things (or, I would add, “the world”) in order to attach ourselves to God, but rather we become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God.”

What is true about Advent is that we are waiting for God to arrive in human form, into OUR world. Not some special, Advent-only spiritual world. This world. The one with the shopping and the trees and the kids and the choir and the Christmas lights and even Santa Claus.

When Chris and I made that long journey to All Saints Church somewhere in Maseno, Kenya, we arrived to a wonderful celebration and an event that was more than we could have hoped. And then we went right back along the road we had traveled.

That road wasn’t made smooth. It wasn’t straightened out or paved over. But we did have Rev. Owila with us, who was familiar with the road. He lead us back, keeping us safe, guiding our way. We experienced all the twists and turns of that road, all of its ups and downs, and its red-colored dust stayed on our shoes long after we returned home.

Perhaps the way we make the road smooth for the coming of Jesus isn’t by inhabiting some other, more spiritual world where the roads are perfect and no one is busy. Perhaps we do it by helping with God’s work of making the path easier for others. Perhaps we prepare for the arrival of God among us by paying attention to where God already is in our world. We can repent by turning toward God. And that does not mean that we have to turn away from the world. Because all that is, is holy.

The season of Advent provides us with an occasion to pause and reconsider the intention of our lives. We can’t clear out the world. We can’t change it, or our lives, into some kind of smoothed-over perfectly spiritual place. But we can pay attention to our guides along the crooked, bumpy, hazardous road.

One thought on “Prepare ye the way of the Lord

  1. Oh Marie, I thank God for you. I love your sermons. They have a way of getting to my core feelings and make sense of the world for me. Love to you and yours.

    “Perhaps we prepare for the arrival of God among us by paying attention to where God already is in our world. We can repent by turning toward God. And that does not mean that we have to turn away from the world. Because all that is, is holy.”

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