Sunday 7 December 2008

Make straight the way!

An address for Advent 2, preached at Templederry & St Mary's Nenagh on 7 Dec 2008

1. Lets listen again to the prophet Isaiah’s beautiful, poetic words in the 1st reading (Isa 40 1:11):

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.

Of course we know a lot about making highways here in North Tipperary – just think of the new Nenagh to Limerick motorway. Isaiah’s words could almost be an anthem for the National Roads Authority! Great cuttings have been blasted through the hills. Giant machines have moved the spoil to make embankments. Bridges have been built over rivers. All to make the road as gentle and smooth as possible. Workers will continue to labour hard and long to complete it by 2010. I must say though, that I am very disturbed to read how many subcontractors have not been paid what is owed them for their work. I think the authorities have a moral obligation to ensure they are paid as soon as possible - before Christmas I hope.

Roads were not so vast in Isaiah’s time, but it would still have been a gigantic community enterprise to make the roads through the rugged Judean hill country to allow farmers to transport their produce on pack-mules to market in Jerusalem, and to allow pilgrims to travel to the temple on Zion. The roads knit together the Jewish people in the cities of Judah to Jerusalem, to their holy mountain of Zion, not just in a material way, but also in metaphor as a worshiping community.

I feel sure that for Isaiah the way of the Lord was not a road for God to travel to his people, but a road for his people to travel to God.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

2. In our 2nd reading, in the very first words of his Gospel (Mark 1:1-8), St Mark recycles this road building metaphor.

John the Baptist is a wild man, wandering about the Judean desert, clothed in camel’s hair, with only a leather bag at his waist, who ate locusts and wild honey, we are told – the very image of an Old Testament prophet! Mark quotes Isaiah to identify him as: The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’

John proclaims ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. And he is very successful to judge by the crowds he gathers. But John is also the self-effacing herald of the coming of another. Claiming no special position for himself, he says: ‘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.’ He means Jesus of course. And John continues ‘I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’

3. Why did the compilers of the Lectionary - the people who selected the readings we use each Sunday - choose this reading for today?

John’s message of repentance and forgiveness for sin might seem at first sight out of place in this joyful Advent season. In Advent we look forward to Christmas and the great gift that God has given us. God comes to us. He comes in the form of a little child. His parents Mary and Joseph name him Jesus. We rejoice with them at the miracle of his birth. With angels and shepherds and kings we adore him. And we believe he grows up to lead us to God through his loving self-sacrifice. So why spoil the joy with dismal repentance for sin? I think the answer lies in the metaphor of road building.

Yes, God makes the first move. Yes, God comes to us as Jesus. But he does not force himself on us. He does not compel us accept his love. He made us with free will, and we are free to refuse him. But we cannot share in his kingdom unless we make a move in response. That essential move is like building a road to travel to God on. Each one of us must ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ and ‘make his paths straight’. And to do so we must accept John’s baptism for ourselves, by admitting our own sins, by repenting, and by seeking God’s forgiveness.

4. So to conclude:

By the readings they have chosen for us, I think the people who compiled the Lectionary have tried to correct any tendency we may have to be over sentimental in our anticipation of Christmas.

Yes of course we should look forward with joy to Christmas. Let us wonder at the miracle of Mary’s tiny helpless baby. Let us enjoy the stories of the shepherds and the three kings. And let us sing our hearts out with the angels in the beautiful carols we all love so much.

But let us also reflect that the love God shows us at Christmas is no use to us, no use at all, unless we choose to act in response, unless we build a good smooth road on which we may travel to God. John the Baptist has shown us the way by proclaiming his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. All we have to do is to work at it!

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