Prepare the Way

Mark 1:1-11
Janurary 10, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” These words are the words we usually hear during Advent along with sermons telling us that we must prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ into our world.

Every December, we preachers trot out the admonition, “Christmas is coming — make your hearts right to prepare a place for the baby Jesus.”

If you actually read the Bible, however, (something we preachers sometimes forget to do!), you will find that these familiar words from Isaiah don’t precede the story of Jesus’ birth in the Bible. In spite of the sermonic declarations of preachers everywhere, the Bible in fact never says a word about preparing for Christmas. Jesus’ birth is simply announced as a done deal. In Matthew, a star appears as a sign to the magi that while their noses were buried in scrolls studying, a king was born! In Luke, the shepherds are minding their own business watching over their flocks at night when angels appear to tell them that a child’s been born in Bethlehem. If they are interested in seeing the baby, the angels add, the shepherds can find him in the stable but whether they go or not, his birth is already an accomplished fact. And in the gospel of Mark which we are reading today, there is no mention whatsoever of the birth of Jesus; his birth is just assumed as much as we assume that any of us sitting here were born.

Clearly for the gospel writers, Jesus is born into our world whether we are ready or not but Jesus’ baptism, on the other hand, is a whole different matter.

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” the gospels say echoing the words of Isaiah. “Something big is about to happen and you must be prepared. Get your hearts in the right place. Straighten out your spiritual house. Prepare the way of the Lord.”

The message here is simple: none of us can stop Jesus from being born into the world, but all of us can stop Jesus from entering our hearts.

In the book, Sailing the Wine Dark Sea, Thomas Cahill writes about ancient Greek, and in one chapter he suggests that in spite of their reputation for being a god-fearing society, the Greeks at times could be rather perfunctory in their devotion. They may have built a surplus of temples and told wonderful stories about the antics of Zeus and Aphrodite and the like, but as in America today, the “religiosity” of the Greeks may have been more of a surface affair. In the play “Oedipus”, Queen Jocasta, trying to help her husband Oedipus, says:

Lords of the realms, it occurred to me,
Just now to visit the temples of the gods,
so I have my branch in hand and incense too.

Oedipus is beside himself…..
I urge him gently, nothing seems to help,
so I turn to you, Apollo, you are nearest.

“….There is something a tad slapdash about Jocasta’s approach to the gods,” Cahill says in his book. “She doesn’t believe in oracles, which she finds ‘hollow’. It has ‘just now’ ‘occurred’ to her to ‘visit the temples of the gods,’ and she chooses the temple of Apollo because it’s ‘nearest’ to her palace. She seems a skeptic in trouble beyond her usual coping mechanisms, the sort of person who in our day might slip into a church when her world is falling apart but would otherwise give scant thought to divinity.”

Jocasta’s slapdash approach to religion is often what passes for Christianity in America. People are Christian in December when they like the nostalgia of singing Christmas carols over eggnog, when the story demands nothing of us except the acceptance that God is at work in our world, but the gospels want to know, “Does your faith take you all the way to the Jordan River? Are you willing not only to gaze on the baby Jesus in wonder but let the man Jesus get into your bones? Are you willing to accept both the gift and the challenge, both the angels singing and the cross looming?” In reality, for all of the talk that we make of preparing ourselves for Christmas, in the end Christmas is about what God does, not what we do. Christmas asks nothing of us — Christ will be born into our world and there is nothing we can do to stop that — but Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus which follows hard upon his birth in our gospels, that is a different matter. Here we are asked to make a choice.

The baptism of Jesus is about choices, both ours and his. No matter how many angels sang at his birth, no matter how many shepherds gawked or kings bowed, no matter what the events may have been surrounding his entry into our world, there still had to come a time when Jesus himself accepted the mission that God had in mind for him. Throughout the centuries, even as the church struggled to articulate the nature of Jesus’ divinity, they never failed to stress that Jesus was fully human as well. To be fully human is to have the freedom to make choices – good choices, bad choices, and choices that affect not only us but the world around us. Jesus, in the fullness of his humanity, had to decide if he was willing to devote his life to the path to which he felt God calling him, and his choice to enter the Jordan River, to be baptized into his vocation, to place his foot squarely on the path that would lead finally to Golgotha, was a choice blessed by God when the heavens tore asunder, a dove descended, and God declared with such glowing pride, “This is my son with whom I am well pleased.”

For centuries, the baptism of Jesus was celebrated in the church as a greater event than Christmas because early Christians understood that none of us has the choice of whether to be born but all of us have the choice of how to live the life we have been given.

Today we give thanks for the devotion Jesus had for his God and the deep compassion Jesus had for the people that led him to choose to be baptized into a life of service and sacrifice for our sake, but our very acknowledgment of the importance of this day in the life of our faith brings us to a crossroads ourselves: if Jesus in his humanity had the courage to make the choice to live his life for the sake of others and in devotion to his God, will we in our humanity also have the courage to make that choice? Will we be willing to not only accept the gift of Christ’s birth into our world but go that step further and commit ourselves to follow the man now grown as he enters the muddy waters of the Jordan and is immersed into a life given for others?

And the gospel writers don’t pull any punches about what this life is like. In trying to describe it, they turn to the fierce words of Malachi who said that God’s coming would be like the refiner’s fire burning out the impurities in our souls or like the strong lye in soap that cleanses with its acidity. I once say a video of a baptism in Russia that captured the commitment of this act. The video shows dozens of people standing on the shore of a frozen lake watching two ministers as they literally chop a path through the ice. When the ice has been broken enough to allow them to enter, the ministers wade into the water and hold out their hands for the baptismal candidates to join them. As one minister mouths the words, “In accordance with the commands of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” the other minister continues to break apart the ice around him so that the candidate will have room to go under, and soon the candidate is plunged full body beneath the icy waters.

Now that’s commitment.

And that is symbolic of the life we choose when we choose Christ…. which is why most people stop at Christmas. To choose to go all the way to the Jordan is to choose to willingly immerse yourself in a life that will strip away all of the protective layers with which we surround our hearts to get to the bare essentials of love and faith. It is to choose to live a life that is more real and deep and meaningful than any other life we might live, but getting there will require passing through a refining fire that burns away the dross. It will require accepting the challenge of serving others even when there is no reward, of sitting with the broken-hearted instead of turning away because their sorrow is too great to bear, of rejecting hatred and vengefulness no matter how angry you might be. In baptism, we are lowered into death but we rise then to new life — we become new people, deeper people, compassionate, hopeful people blessed with the peace of a life well lived.

John Biersdorf said: “….When I think of the persons I know who model for me the depths of the spiritual life, I am struck by their gentleness. Their eyes communicate the residue of solitary battles with angels, the cost of caring for others, the deaths of ambition and ego, and the peace that comes from having very little left to lose in this life. They are gentle because they honestly faced the struggles given to them and have learned the hard way that personal survival is not the point. Their caring is gentle because their self-aggrandizement is no longer at stake. There is nothing in it for them. Their vulnerability has been stretched to clear-eyed sensitivity to others and truly selfless love.”

God has given us the gift of Christ at Christmas — none of us can stop Jesus from being born into the world because Christmas was about what God did for us. Epiphany, however, is in our hands. Jesus calls us to follow him from Bethlehem into the muddy chilly waters of the Jordan and allow our old selves to die so that we may discover the fullness of life lived with him. We cannot stop Jesus from being born into the world but it is up to us in the season of Epiphany and every day of our lives, to decide if we will let him be born into our hearts.

May the peace of the light of the world be upon you… and within you… now and forever.