Preparing the Way

Preparing the Way

Second Sunday of Advent

Readings: Malachi 3. 1-4; Benedictus (Luke 1. 68-79); Philippians 1. 3-11; Luke 3. 1-6 (view all)

Well I wonder how far you’ve managed to get so far with your Christmas preparations? Are your decorations up yet? Is your tree sorted? Have you bought all the presents you need? Have you sent out your Christmas cards?

I would say we’re in the process in the Henley household. We’re working our way through our present list, and last weekend we went out to get our Christmas tree. We were determined to get one which was smaller than last year, but still managed to come back with one which was taller again. I had to trim a bit off the top to fit the star on at the top under the ceiling!

Preparation is one of the key Advent themes found in this morning’s readings. As we listen and read, time and time again we hear the call to ‘prepare the way’ for the Lord’s coming.

So what does it mean to prepare for the coming of Christ, in our lives and in our world today? 

At this time of year, John the Baptist often pops up in our readings, and in place of a Psalm today we have the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah, John’s Father, in which he sings that his child ‘shall be called the prophet of the Most High… [who] will go before the Lord to prepare his way.’ 

In our gospel reading, Luke attributes the Old Testament words of Isaiah to the, now adult, John: He is ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “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; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”‘ 

The image that Luke, and Isaiah, provide us with is one of preparing a path, perhaps as we might imagine a large motorway being built today. The peaks and troughs are to be evened out, corners to be softened and straightened, in order to create a clear route. 

It’s important, though, to note who in the image is doing the travelling — this isn’t a road for us to travel, unlike the people of Israel journeying through the wilderness towards the promised land. This is a road for God to travel to us, in order to reveal God’s salvation. 

It’s often easy to imagine the spiritual life as a journey of us travelling towards God, but the reality of Advent is that God comes to us. 

During Advent, we remember when God came to us in the incarnation of Jesus, we wait in hopeful anticipation of his coming again on the last day, but we also examine our lives now — inviting Jesus to come into our lives afresh in the present, to dwell in our hearts and minds, by his Spirit. 

This is easier said than done, because Jesus is not a comfortable or convenient guest to welcome — he isn’t content with staying in the cupboard under the stairs, or leaving things in our lives the way they are. Instead, he works his way around the house, and around our lives, clearing out unhelpful clutter, and moving the furniture, re-ordering our lives around his priorities. 

Just as Malachi tells us that on the last day, God will refine and purify our hearts, inviting Jesus into our lives today means inviting him to do the work of refining us into the best that we can be, purifying us into containers worthy of his presence. 

This means growing in our love of God and our compassion for others, and developing the spiritual discipline of discernment — learning to determine what is right in a world of complex issues, and to discover God’s will by putting aside our own wants and desires. 

For Paul, writing in our epistle, this is not achieved by desperately striving to be better, or by beating ourselves up, but by centring our lives on God’s love and grace. By allowing Christ to continue his work of sanctification within us, bringing it to completion in the fullness of his Kingdom. 

I wonder: As we await the dawning of God’s kingdom in the darkness, will we allow ourselves to be set alight, to shine with God’s love and mercy in the present? Will we allow Jesus to re-order our priorities to bring them into line with his, even challenging our strongly held views and opinions? 

How can we, as Christ’s Church, prepare the way in this community, among our friends and neighbours, for Jesus to enter and make his home among us? 

The late John A.T. Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, wrote this about the coming again of Jesus: 

‘Shall we know him [Jesus] when he comes? Shall we recognise his knock? That depends very largely on whether we have already got to know him and made him welcome in our lives. Shall we be able to see the moral issue in tomorrow’s headlines, shall we be able next time to see the person behind the skin? And if we do so, can we face it, can we face him? That depends on whether we are used to looking for Christ, on whether we expect him to be there and count on him coming in. And all these choices build up, and make us by the way we choose the sort of people we shall be when finally we have to face him…’

Just as John came to prepare the way for Jesus’ birth, may we prepare the way for Christ to dwell in our hearts today. And, giving ourselves over to his grace, may we grow day-by-day in faith, in holiness and in love.

Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming that,
when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him
with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen.