What does it mean to prepare the way of the lord?
A sermon preached by the Rev. Deacon Jason Burns
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 5 December 2021 [Advent 2]:
Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 16 (The Song of Zechariah); Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6.
The words of Isaiah, as heard through Luke’s gospel, hint at a promise, but are more importantly a call to action. ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ This passage is the tag line we use here at St. Philip’s, ‘If you come here you will grow’. If you come here, you will learn how to prepare yourself and recognize that you are the way of the lord.
We are God’s instrument in the world, it is through us that God interacts with humanity; it is through us that God heals the sick; brings food to the poor; comforts the lonely, and God does this work through us whether we acknowledge it or not, but by not acknowledging it we are in fact denying ourselves the richness that a relationship with God has to offer and we are ignoring a fundamental component of our existence, which is that we were created to be both a companion to God and to fulfill a purpose and it is when we discover how to recognize and balance this that we will have made the rough ways smooth.
I want us to envision a quilt, every piece on the quilt has a purpose, but they didn’t always fit together. Before each piece could be included in the quilt it had to be cut down to size, the edges had to be trimmed so that they were straight and not fraying; doing so did not make them the same, as they all continue to have their own uniqueness, but they are all equal in importance to the integrity of the quilt. The thread is what binds them together, without it none of the pieces could fulfill their purpose and the same is true for all of us.
We are the pieces in this metaphor and God is the thread, but for God to bind us together, we must fill the valleys, the rifts that exist between us and at the same time break down the mountains and hills, what we often call the walls we construct around ourselves for protection. Picture it this way, imagine that you have a wall surrounding you. It is a wall that has been built over a long, long time and you built it for your own protection. Perhaps you were hurt by someone and rather than take the chance of being hurt again, you constructed a barrier. We have all done this, but the problem is that these walls don’t protect us, they isolate us and then we think we are protected from harm. The truth, and I know this from personal experience, is that we are in fact strengthening our sense of control and our desire to be in control of everything, instead of preparing the way for God to enter our lives. As we build these walls, our personal relationships become frayed and rifts or valleys begin to develop between ourselves and the people whom we love, we lose the ability to develop new relationships, leaving us with a deeply rooted sense of loneliness and possibly anger and sadness.
Despite the walls and the rifts in our lives, God is there, trying desperately to get us to pay attention to their call to relationship; but we are too angry, too sad, too distracted by our own thoughts and emotions to hear that call. So, what can we do about it and how will we know we are on the right track?
The first thing we need to do is accept the truth that we all have hills and valleys in our lives and that we are the source of most of them. We all have valleys of sadness and anger, and we all have hills of unfettered narcissism. Once we recognize this we will have taken the first step towards humility, which is accepting the truth that we are no worse and no better than any other person in this very moment because we were all created equally and have a distinct purpose. As we take this step our wall will begin to come down and its rubble will fill the rifts that have developed and over time the hills and the valleys in our lives will become smooth, straight paths that God will be able to easily use to pass between us. It is at that point that we will be fulfilling our intended purpose because it is at that point that we will be true vessels of the Holy Spirit.
God has given us all gifts, by which I mean abilities. My gifts are the ability to explain complicated concepts, you might call it teaching; listen with a compassionate and attentive ear; and think through complicated problems. When I utilize these gifts, God can reach other people through me, which is what we mean when we say we are the hands and feet of God. Your gifts are likely different than mine, perhaps you make excellent cookies and love to do so and if that is you, have you ever wondered why? Or have you ever thought about the joy you may bring to a deacon when you give them a fresh batch of your most excellent peanut butter cookies? My point is this, we all have God given gifts and we are good at those things because they are the things that God needs us to be good at, so that we can answer God’s call; but for God to work through us we must both get out of the way and accept the gifts we have been given. Which means we need to level the mountains, fill in the valleys, and prepare the way of the Lord, which means prepare ourselves. Basically, we need to examine ourselves through the lens of scripture and then prayerfully chip away at those walls. When the walls are down, and the valleys are filled; when we are focused on using our gifts to bring love and joy to others it is at that point that we are fulfilling our purpose. You will know when it is happening because you will feel it, you will feel energized, you will feel joy, and you will feel like you have a purpose. That, my friends, is what it means to be in relationship with and experience God. It means to align your mind, your body, and your entire life with God’s plan by utilizing your gifts to help others. For some, those gifts allow them to heal physical and mental illness and for others those gifts allow them to bring joy by baking peanut butter cookies. Our gifts are what they are, it is up to us to use them.