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It was South Africa’s Nelson Mandela who said, “One cannot be prepared for something while secretly believing it will not happen.”
I’m going to say that again: “One cannot be prepared for something while secretly believing it will. not. happen.”
Thousands of years before Mandela imagined, and prepared for, the end of apartheid, Hebrew prophets were speaking about getting ready:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,” Isaiah commanded a people who’d all but given up on God, a people who’d wandered in the darkness so long they’d all but forgotten what light felt like.
And then, hundreds of years later, after the exiles had returned home, the temple had been rebuilt, and, still, an oppressed people longed for justice and liberation, John the Baptist—that wild man who lived on locusts and honey, a son for whom his own father had not been prepared, an almost-desperate seeker who believed deliverance was finally knocking at the door—said to anyone who would listen:
“Prepare the way for the Lord. Clear the path. Change your hearts and your lives. Own up to your wrongdoing. Take responsibility for the messes you’ve made. Humble yourselves. Give up your sinful ways and come home to God. The kingdom of heaven is near. Open your hearts! The promised one is almost here! Get ready!”
And here we are in Advent, two thousand years later: a people still walking in darkness, a people still suffering the consequences of our own actions, a people still longing for Love, still hungry for community, still working hard to make things better, wanting so much to believe that another world is possible, and feeling so afraid that it’s not.
Prepare the way of the Lord, the prophets tell us. Jesus is coming. Love is standing at the door. New life awaits.
And remember, the prophets add: You won’t be ready for what you can’t imagine; you won’t be prepared for what you really don’t believe in. Make way for the Love you’re afraid to trust.
So, here we are in Advent, wanting to believe, trying to trust, waiting and watching for Love, and wondering how to prepare the way, wondering just what is the way to Love.
I am no expert, but it seems to me that preparing the way of Jesus, clearing the way for Love With Us to come more fully to us, again, is a little different from many things we get ready for.
Think of getting ready for a train trip, for example, or an airline flight: The train or plane will come whether or not we are ready, whether or not we make it to the station on time, whether or not we have our ticket and boarding pass and personal identification in hand. The train has left the station, whether or not we are ready for it.
But Christ’s coming is different. There is no set schedule for the arrival of Love With Us. There is no set track on which it will arrive. And for us, there is no proscribed place to be, no boarding time, no standard procedure for getting on board. The Jesus train is still at the station; the Love train has somewhere to go and a job to do; Love wants nothing more than to be with us. But the Conductor is looking for a signal. The Spirit is waiting for an invitation. The Jesus Movement Love Train needs us to clear the tracks and prepare the way.
So how do we prepare the way of the Lord? What is the way to Love With Us?
I can’t help but wonder if the stories of Mary and Joseph might be instructive here—not for a literal account of how Jesus of Nazareth came into the world, but for inspiration and guidance in how we might prepare the way for Love With Us to come to us again and again and again.
Consider with me the story of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would bear a son who would save the world:
“Greetings, favored one!” he says. “The Lord, the God who is Love, is with you."
And then, sensing Mary’s confusion and fear, the angel speaks again, saying, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”
Do not be afraid.
Gabriel went on to lay out a most improbable sequence of events, a divine plan that, not to put too fine a point on it, required Mary’s consent. A plan that required Mary to prepare the way, a Love that needed Mary to make room in her heart as well as her womb. A Love for whom nothing would be impossible.
Mary had, of course, every reason to be afraid. Mary had a thousand reasons to say no. Instead, she responded, “Okay. Here I am, God’s servant. Let it be as you have said.”
Some time after this, the story goes, Mary’s betrothed, a carpenter named Joseph, learned that, while they had not yet been together, she was pregnant. By social custom and Jewish law, Joseph had every right to disgrace Mary publicly. In the hopes of salvaging his own reputation, he had every reason to break their engagement in the most dramatic way. But, being a good and possibly heartbroken man, he resolved not to make a scene about it.
And then, in a dream, an angel of the Lord appeared to him.
“Joseph, beloved son of David,” the angel said, “don’t be afraid. God is in this. This child will save his people.”
Do not be afraid.
And so it was that Joseph did not abandon Mary, but took her as his wife. And together they brought into the world a son, and they named him Jesus.
Together, these two ordinary people prepared the way for Love.
From what I can tell from the stories of Mary and Joseph, the way to Love does not require understanding or status or above-average ability. It does not require perfection or even that we have gotten our act together. It does not require blind faith, strong belief, perfect behavior, or right thinking.
What it takes to prepare the way for a life-changing, world-turning Love is both simpler and more rare than all that:
It seems to require an openness, a longing, perhaps, a sense or even a hope that this is not all there is. It requires humility, including the awareness that we are in need of God’s love, forgiveness, and grace. To make way for Love seems to take a fair amount of vulnerability, of being willing to expose oneself to whatever will happen, or not—to disappointment, to being misunderstood, to being considered a fool, to failure. And vulnerability, of course, requires no small amount of courage. Thus the angels’ admonition to be not afraid. And because the angels assured them that God was in what was happening, Mary and Joseph were able to give themselves over to it, to trust God’s promise, and to surrender and open themselves to it.
The story suggests that the way to Love is made by willing and open hearts, by humility, by repentance, vulnerability, courage, trust, surrender, and, of course, God’s grace.
So how do we make way for Love With Us as we begin the second week of Advent? How do we, individually and together, prepare for Love’s coming? What would that look like?
It’s likely to look a little different for each of us, but here are some possibilities:
It might involve doing something as ridiculous as the equivalent of wearing sunglasses in the dark and putting on sunscreen when it’s raining— because we just know the Light is coming and we trust it will shine on us when it does.
It might be as direct as choosing to be grateful when things are hard, and deciding to take action even when we are afraid.
It might mean having the courage to grieve, and the vulnerability to let our friends know we are sad, even when the season demands that we be cheerful.
It could mean doing something audacious, like working for peace in a violent, power-hungry, and warring world.
It could be as simple, and as scary, as saying yes to an invitation to get involved in God’s work in the world. Saying, here I am, let Love live in me.
It’s like preparing for an end to sanctuary and Lucio’s return to his family when there is no end to sanctuary in sight.
It’s like choosing to trust Spirit’s leading when we have no idea where we’re going or how we will get there.
It’s choosing love over fear, reconciliation over bitterness. It’s choosing to have those difficult conversations. It’s entertaining the possibility that we may actually be wrong and, when we are, confessing and changing our ways.
Making the way for Love might require exposing ourselves to ridicule and misunderstanding or worse. It surely requires being true to God’s call on our lives and who God has made us to be.
Preparing the way may involve changing how we’ve always done something so that something different can happen.
It means just showing up, again and again, in hope and faith and prayer, putting ourselves in the path of the Light even when there is darkness all around.
Preparing the way for Love With Us is like the hope that brings a child into the world, even though the world is a hot mess, even though the child is sure to experience heartbreak and pain, even though the world’s future is unclear.
Preparing the way for Love, making the way clear, is like sending one’s true and best heart into the world, putting one’s best self out there, knowing full well that the world may hate it, that the world will hurt it, that it could be a very bumpy ride.
The way to Love requires living in trust and hope. It is about living as if God’s promises are true, as if—as Valarie Kaur says, the present darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb. It is trusting that something new and important and life- and world-changing is being born even now.
Will we be ready when it comes? Can we choose to trust that it is coming, that Love is here with us even now?
People, get ready. There’s a train a-coming. You don’t need no ticket, you just get on board. All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming. You don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.
So people get ready, there’s a Jesus Love train a-coming. Just open your heart, ’cause it’s already here.