One of the drawbacks of being a Pastor is that my brain never seems to turn off. I am always thinking theologically about something. Even at the movies. The credits will roll and Chris will turn to me and ask my opinion. All too often I bring my God-lenses into it and critique the film. “There was some great baptismal imagery” I’ll say or “I liked how that one scene really spoke about hope and resurrection.” And he usually doesn’t see it just like I don’t usually pay attention to the soundtrack. It was the same for me on vacation. So there I was, lounging on my beach bed (which, by the way, I think more stories should start that way) and I watched the staff of the resort where we were staying prepare for a wedding to take place that evening. Because this was a beach wedding, there were a lot of steps involved. The staff assembled a canopy, laid down some flooring, brought down chairs, covered the chairs, decorated with flowers, and on and on. Around 5:00 that night when my best friend and I decided that we should probably move we got off our beach to see the wedding party gathered. They ooohed- and ahhed of course. But I wondered if any of them had any idea what had gone into preparing the beach for this momentous occasion.
I think we have the tendency to take for granted the people in our lives and in general who prepare. We all do our fair share of preparing, that’s for sure. But there are things that are prepared for us that we may not even think about. And it’s not that we’re trying to be selfish. But, thing get done and we don’t even think about how they get done, who does them, the time and effort that goes into doing it or whatever. We just walk in and take advantage of other things being prepared. A silly example: if you were to use the restroom at church today you may have taken advantage of the fact that there were clean stalls, toilet paper, paper towels, and soap. But did you think about how they got that way? The pews where you are sitting are fairly clean. How did they get that way? The bulletin and all the words magically appear on the screen week after week after week. How does that happen?
At the same time, many of us are the preparers. We are the ones who prepare and other people benefit. If you are the person who does the laundry in your house, you know what I mean. There is no such thing as a laundry fairy. We prepare meals. We prepare the bills for the mail. We prepare the kids for school. And on and on. Sometimes all of this preparing can be tiring. So it’s interesting that our Gospel reading today starts with “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” and then goes on to say “‘Prepare the way of the Lord!’” As if I didn’t have enough going on in my life, I now have to prepare the way of the Lord?! And really…how do I go about that? If only I could, like, learn from someone else.
Ah….enter John the Baptist. John the Baptist is probably one of the most unlikely of characters to teach us how to prepare the way of the Lord. He was a mountain man, of sorts. He had that rugged, unwashed look about him. He ate wild honey and locusts. He wore camel hair…in the desert. People didn’t always know what to think about John the Baptist. But, of all people, the most unlikely of people, John teaches all of us how to prepare the way of the Lord. It says “He proclaimed” now I want to pause right there. He “proclaimed” not, he said, or he cried, or even he suggested; he proclaimed. He announced officially, “‘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.’” Whoa! John had been baptizing the people of Judea. People were confessing their sins to him. John wasn’t a fly-by-night no body. Someone more powerful than him is coming. John continues “‘I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” Whoa!
If I heard J-Bap say this, I would wonder “what does this mean? Who is this man he speaks of? A baptism of the Holy Spirit?!? Sign me up!” John the Baptist is the world’s greatest hype-man. Do you all know what a hype man is? In rap and hip-hop music, a hype-man is a back up rapper or singer that often will interject a word or a phrase that will call attention to the main rapper or singer. The goal is to keep the attention on the main act. What John the Baptist does in his role as a hype man is to prepare the way of the Lord. And the way he does that is by continually pointing to Jesus and the way Jesus is acting and interacting with this world. And one of the things I love about John the Baptist is that he kind of leaves out a lot of the details you and I would normally desire. When is this going to happen? Where is this going to happen? What should I wear? Nope. None of that. All we know is that it is going to happen so we prepare.
We prepare the same way John the Baptist does: by pointing to Christ and what Christ is doing in the world. And the difficult thing can be that Christ is often in the places and with the people that are unpopular, unglamorous, and maybe even controversial. This week, Christ was with the Palestinians crying out for justice as our government declared that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Christ was and continues to be with victim after victim of sexual assault at the hands of those using such actions in the name of power. Christ was with social workers and counselors, and others listening to those trying to now negotiate the tax plan passed by DC earlier this week. Christ isn’t always in the places we might typically expect him to be. But, Christ has never been where we expect him to be. After all, he was brought into this world by a young teenager who gave birth on a dirty barn floor. From the moment of his first breath, we knew Jesus wouldn’t ever be any place typical.
And as much as we want to prepare the way of the Lord, our best attempts will be mired in sin. Our worst attempts will be mired in sin and most likely self serving. All too often we want to prepare the way of the Lord and we’d love it if that way of the Lord passed right by us so that we benefit directly. But, the God we serve is a God of the marginalized. When Jesus returns, it will be to the least of us, and I hate to tell you friends, we’re nowhere near the least of these. Most of us live a very privileged life. But, we point the way anyway. We prepare. And, in addition, we look and listen to others who are preparing the way. And at the end of the day, no matter how much or how little preparing we do, God will come anyway. God comes to us, fully human to love us as only a parent can; and also fully divine, forgiving us as only God can. Yes, it is good for us to prepare the way of the Lord. But no preparing is going to lay adequate ground work for Jesus. Because here’s the thing: no matter how much we prepare, God doesn’t care. I don’t mean that to be flippant. God isn’t waiting for us. Dare we think God is waiting on us to return? How dare we!
Jesus is coming. We prepare the way, we work with others to prepare the way, we point to others who are preparing the way, and we continue to point to Jesus. Always, beloved. We always point to the cross. No amount of preparing can surpass what the cross has already done. Prepare the way of the Lord, knowing fully that no amount of preparing can ever really prepare us to come face to face with our salvation.