On Preparing the Way
December 10, 2023
Isaiah 40: 1, 3-5
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
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.Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Mark 1: 1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Today’s sermon is titled On Preparing the Way.
Stories shape us. Stories teach us, and it turns out that stories actually change our brains. In research out of Princeton University, neuroscientists have discovered that when two people are truly communicating and understanding one another, the brain activity in one is mirrored in the other.* Scientists call this brain mirroring “neural coupling” because the same neurons are firing in the same places in both speaker and listener when they fully understand one another. The scientists can actually see it occurring and they can see the neural coupling stop when there is no longer a shared understanding. Shared understanding occurs most frequently when we are sharing stories. When we are actively listening and following the arc of a story, our brains are literally mirroring the brain of the storyteller.
The author of the Gospel of Mark knew all about stories. The writer begins this oldest gospel by clearly stating that it is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Instead of beginning the narrative of Jesus though, the author reaches back into the literature of the past to bring forth the words of the beloved prophet Isaiah from hundreds of years before, words that perfectly seem to foreshadow the coming of one who, by the time this Gospel was written, was already legendary. The author of this Gospel begins his work with the one who came before Jesus. The oldest gospel begins with the story of John the Baptist.
Last week we heard the story of the priest Zachariah who for decades had been praying for a child. When Zechariah was chosen to go behind the curtain, to the inner chamber of the temple, to the most holy of places to offer incense, an angel appeared and told him his wife would conceive and bear a son, a son who would be “filled with the Holy Spirit” and they must call him John. Zechariah could not believe it and for his disbelief his power of speech was taken away until the birth of his son. When asked what Zachariah wished to name his son, he wrote “John” and his speech was instantly restored. Luke chapter 1 reads, “Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For the hand of the Lord was with him…the child grew and became strong in spirit.”
Imagine, if you will, what it would have been like to be one among the community that Zechariah served as priest. Imagine with me that both of us were among those who waited outside the temple as Zechariah offered incense and prayers on our behalf. If Zechariah had been our priest, we would have been deeply concerned and full of wonder when he came out of the temple unable to speak. We would have questioned why we did not see his wife Elizabeth for so long. Was she ill? And then to find she is with child! How could that be? We would have shared this news with all of our family and friends. We might have been there at the baby’s ceremony when Zechariah wrote on the tablet that the baby should be named John and then he was suddenly and inexplicably able to speak again. His stories of the angel Gabriel predicting the miraculous conception of this child would have given us so much to think about and so much to hope for. Certainly we would have shared our thoughts and our hopes with others. Surely these miracles would have been seen as evidence that God is with us and among us. We would certainly be wondering, “What on earth will happen next?” We would be watchful, we would be praying, we would be looking to the future that was suddenly full of possibilities. Without even fully knowing what we were doing, we would have been preparing ourselves and preparing the way for change.
Preparing the way is not easy. John found that out. He lived in the wilderness, he wore the camel hair clothes of the bedouins, he survived on locusts and honey. He preached in the wilderness and he did not preach feel-good messages of hope; he railed against injustice, he insisted that people in every walk of life make the necessary changes to live honorably with concern and care for their neighbors and a commitment to fairness in all dealings. John baptized people in the river Jordan. He did not send them to the Priests in the Temple, as was the expected custom. He heard their confessions, he instructed them in the paths of right living and he baptized them right then and there. In so doing, John offered the people a new beginning and the people flocked to him.
The authorities questioned him, hassled him, and tried to discredit him. More people flocked to hear him. This one man, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, single-handedly decentralized the seat of spiritual power away from the temple in Jerusalem and re-established it in the countryside where there were no temple protocols, no separation of men and women to their assigned areas of the temple, and no limits whatsoever on whom could come to hear. These shifts were essential in setting the stage for Jesus, just a few months younger than his cousin John, to begin his ministry, not in the temple but in the homes of the people and along the footpaths that linked village to village. John was preparing the way for Jesus and it was not easy. Those that sought to hold their positions of power were threatened by John and his growing numbers of followers. John was eventually imprisoned and soon thereafter he was beheaded.
Throughout John’s entire life he was preparing the way for Jesus. It began with his miraculous conception within his mother who was far too advanced in age to be having children; the people knew this to be a miracle. Then John’s father, a respected Priest, visited by angels, denied his power of speech and then regained it once again when his child received this foreign name…such a string of unexplainable events ushered the Hebrew people into a state of awe-inspired wonder that prepared them for more unexplainable events surrounding the coming of another great soul in Jesus of Nazareth.
Preparing the way for something wonderful is not easy. The parents of John would lose him to his ministry in the wilderness and then to the hands of the King’s henchmen. Mary and Joseph, too, would surrender their oldest son in his service to humanity and Jesus, too, would be called to give his life as his mother stood witness to the injustice.
In closing and over the next few weeks, as we move ever closer to the time of Jesus’s birth, I invite you to join me in asking, “Who are those who prepared the way for me?” And perhaps even more important is the question, “How am I preparing the way for others?” Am I preparing myself? In making choices now, am I considering the needs of future generations? Preparing the way for something wonderful is not easy. It requires optimism, hope, and a long-range view that holds the lessons of the past and the possibilities for the future. I pray that we gather courage to welcome the transformative light of Christ to shine more brightly in our lives. In doing so, we bring light to the world and prepare the way for something truly wonderful. So be it. Amen.
God of Love and Light, I thank you for filling so many of our needs. Help us to be grateful for the ways we are fulfilled and strengthen us to attend to the aspects of our lives that need healing and care. Help us in this time, especially, to be mindful of our words and how they can hurt and how they can heal. If there are those we need to forgive, please give us the words we need; if we are desiring forgiveness, empower us to ask and open us to receive. For those who are ailing, Lord, we pray for comfort. For those facing death we pray for peace and assurance. As individuals, teach us to care for ourselves so that we are making choices from a foundation of fullness. As communities, teach us to extend ourselves to those who we tend to avoid. As a nation, teach us that our greatness is most accurately measured by our kindness to the least among us, as Jesus Christ so humbly exemplified. In service to your divine love, I pray. Amen. If ever we are in need of direction, turn our minds to this prayer, that Jesus gave his disciples so long ago…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from the book of Philippians, chapter one.
“This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best.”