The following reflection is my submission for the pastor's column in the upcoming edition of our local news rag, The Citizen. I always struggle with this task, which rotates to me every six weeks or so. In part, I don't know the audience very well (a preacher relies heavily on his/her "audience" to know what to say). I also never find this genre of reflection too helpful, myself. I like to exegete Scripture, but that's difficult to do in the Citizen's forum.
One of the most familiar messages of Advent—the four Sundays leading up to Christmas—is that strident voice of John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!” Quoting from the ancient prophet Isaiah in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah, this rugged figure issues a call that is part invitation, part warning: “Every valley shall be filled and every mountain will be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth!” Some of the gospel writers describe John as an eccentric man, dressed in camel fur and eating wild locusts. Often I picture him with a hardhat and an orange construction vest, motioning drivers past a big dig.
In fact, the cry of John the Baptist echoes in my head every time I go shopping at the new Mt. Nebo Pointe in Ohio Township. Over the past three years, I watched developers with amazement as their bulldozers made that mountain low (and perhaps fill a valley or two) in order to place buildings on top of it. What was once an ordinary, forested and uninhabited hill is now a wide shopping complex with parking spaces to spare. At the top, the large Target logo beckons shoppers to come and spend to their hearts’ content. I confess the red-and-white bullseye has lured me more than once, but as I wind my way up that long road to the summit, I can’t help but think about the monumental effort it must have taken to prepare. Making room for just about any new construction in western Pennsylvania requires a good deal of mountain-carving.
The destruction of a nice piece of forested real estate notwithstanding, that transformed hill at Mt. Nebo Pointe, with its relatively straight roads to the summit, serves as a visual suggestion of the type of repentance and reflection that John expects of us as we wait for the Lord to arrive. In a season that usually focuses on being ready in terms of decorating, shopping and baking, John the Baptist reminds us that, in fact, all of that could get accomplished and we still might not be prepared for the Lord to transform our lives. Preparation for Jesus involves some internal mountain-carving. It entails re-prioritizing, re-adjusting, re-organizing the matters of the soul. John calls it repenting. When the crowd of passers-by ask John what this means, he replies with a practical example, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11). Can’t you see the bulldozers working? Not only are wealth and possession re-distributed a little more evenly, but eyes are opened to take seriously the need for compassion. Oh, but how often we like the mountains to stay the way they are!
The good news is that, as John declares, the Lord will come. His kingdom will bring forgiveness and hope. It will come even to the tax-collectors and the sinners. Heeding the invitation-warning of John, we certainly trust that the Christ still visits us, often under the guise of a stranger in need or in the unexpected invitation to serve and the command to forgive. In light of this, we would do well to change our direction, change our outlook, and level down the habits and attitudes which, not unlike mountains, have obstructed our view of true life in Christ, the reality of that great love. It would be helpful to clear the terrain of our hearts, covered with the underbrush of apathy and conceit, so that his journey to us will be quick and its outcome fruitful.
Yes, we may fault you for being a little eccentric and pushy, Baptizer John, for getting in our way as we try to drive on past to wherever we’re going, but we need to hear your voice again and again: “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!”