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December 5, 2021

Be prepared.  I learned it as a Girl Scout.  In the 1947 Girl Scout Handbook, the motto was explained this way: “A Girl Scout is ready to help out wherever she is needed. Willingness to serve is not enough; you must know how to do the job well, even in an emergency.”  Those are some high standards! I’ve had many teachers and other people along the way remind me: “Fail to plan, and you plan to fail.”  Just getting through a day requires all kinds of preparation – prepare your breakfast, prepare your wardrobe, prepare for whatever appointments you have.  If you’re a student, you prepare for tests, prepare for the discussion of the assigned reading, prepare for the group project.  Prepare, prepare, prepare.

Preparing isn’t bad.  It’s necessary.  But I realized this Advent that the word “prepare” has become a word that makes me flinch.  I understand what that 1947 Girl Scout handbook was saying, but sometimes – especially in emergencies – it’s hard to know what doing the job well looks like.  I have made so many plans in the last two years.  We all have.  And almost every time I planned and prepared, I had to change those plans. Or toss them out altogether and start over.  It was about this time last year that I had to make the difficult decision not to travel to SC to be with family after Christmas.  My preparations had to change.

Into all of my anxiety about being prepared enters John the Baptist. He always shows up, like clockwork, on the second Sunday in Advent. There he is stomping around in the wilderness to announce: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” 

And that’s when it hits me.  I might be doing all kinds of preparing – preparing for Advent, preparing for Christmas, preparing at home, preparing at church.  But am I really preparing the way of the Lord?  Am I preparing the way of the Lord, or am I just preparing for how I think this time is “supposed” to look?

There are a couple of things we can learn from John the Baptist as we prepare for this season.  The first of those is how to say what’s important in the midst of a lot of noise.

John is doing his thing out there in the wilderness while a long list of rulers are making their power and presence known: Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, and Caiaphas.  As my friend Audrey points out, it’s a veritable “A-list of Earthly Powers: an emperor, a governor, three tetrarchs, and two high priests.” These are the rulers of the known world, those who hold the religious, political, and economic power in Jerusalem.

But the word of God doesn’t come to those rulers.  It comes to John, way outside the city limits, looking a little crazy-eyed as he paces back and forth.  It’s John who speaks the truth that the Lord is coming, and we need to get ready.  It’s John who calls the people to repentance, summons them to the promises of the salvation that only God can offer.  John doesn’t let the political noise of his time overwhelm his mission: to tell people about Jesus.

John ignores the political machinations of his time, but he also defies some family expectations.  John the Baptist is from a family of priests.  Both of his parents come from priestly families, in fact.  His mother Elizabeth descends from a line of priests that go all the back to Moses’ brother Aaron.  His father Zechariah is a priest whose role brings him regularly to the Temple.  If we expect John to pursue the family business, and that would have been the expectation, then we would find John in the Temple too, attending to the rituals and responsibilities of being a religious leader in the holy place of Jerusalem where God was believed to dwell.  But that’s not where John is hanging out.  He’s out in the wilderness, far beyond the city limits.

Those verses from the Gospel of Luke that we read together as today’s psalm are the words of John’s father Zechariah. When an angel shows up to tell Zechariah that in spite of his old age and Elizabeth’s old age, they were indeed going to have a son who would “make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” Zechariah had the audacity to ask some questions about how this would be possible.  The angel doesn’t appreciate his questions, and so the angel silences him, making it impossible for Zechariah to speak until John is born.  In today’s modern Zoom parlance, the angel put Zechariah on mute.

Zechariah’s story as a backdrop to John’s story makes me wonder how I might spend more time in silence, listening for God’s will rather than imposing my own.  Preparation might in this season look less like the frenzy I make of it and more like sitting still and attending to God’s voice.

When John is born, Zechariah’s time of forced silence ends.  Then he speaks this beautiful truth: “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who swell in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”  That’s what I need the most – tender compassion in response to my anxiety, light in the midst of death’s shadow, guidance toward the ways of peace.

All of this is to say that John does what no one expects.  He heads out beyond the city limits in defiance of the powers of his day and the expectations of his family, and he calls people to get ready for what Jesus is about to do.

Maybe this year God’s plans ask us to dislodge ourselves from what is most familiar, to set aside the expectations of others and do a bit of wandering. Maybe we need to prepare not to prepare as much on our own terms and ask what God might be preparing in this new season.  Maybe, like Zechariah, we need to spend some time being quiet for a while.  Maybe, like John, we need to close our ears to the political noise.

John tells us: “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.”

All of things that feel out of whack, the mountains of stress that I have constructed all on my very own, the crooked imbalances of the powerful getting more powerful while the vulnerable struggle, the rough ways that just seem to keep appearing – all of that is going to be straightened out, smoothed out, worked out, leveled out.  Maybe not in the time or the way that I would prefer, but God’s going to get it done.

For reasons I can’t quite explain, I read many post-apocalyptic novels during the last two years.  Several of them, though published before 2020, seem eerily prescient. My favorite of this genre is Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.  Although she published the book in 1993, Butler paints a picture of the early 2020’s that sounds all too familiar: violent tensions among economic classes, a pharmaceutical industry fueling epidemics of addiction, and widespread water shortages, among other challenges.

Early in the novel the protagonist Lauren decides she must leave her small community and set out for a new place.  (She, like John the Baptist, is a pastor’s kid.)  She has been preparing for the journey by assembling a small survival pack.  She’s included a hatchet, a couple of light metal pots for cooking, some money, matches, water, a change of clothing, non-perishable food, other necessities.  She also packs seeds so that she can grow food when she arrives someplace safer.

It’s the inclusion of the seeds in Lauren’s go-pack that moves me the most.  In a world that has become chaotic and violent, she has enough hope left to carry those seeds and envision future growth that could nourish others.  She is preparing a way that is rooted in the possible.

What if this year we asked God to prepare us for something so much bigger than we have imagined before?  What if we acted as though we truly believed that all flesh might see the salvation of God?  What seeds of hope might we carry as we commit to those preparations?

Maybe our notion of preparation is too small.  Maybe it’s time to prepare for something more – prepare to receive the Word of God breaking into our lives, so that we, like John, might carry the good news into a world that longs for the rough way to be made smooth.

Prepare the way.  And prepare to be surprised.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

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